The idea that William F. Buckley represents a civilized conservatism lost to uncouth savages will no doubt become received wisdom in the same way that, upon his death, Ronald Reagan's success was universally ascribed by the media to an avuncular geniality wholly alien to the vengeful knuckledraggers of the Bush era. But Bill was lethal with opponents on the opposite team and on his own side, dispatching a liberal Republican like his own Senator, Lowell Weicker, to the trash can of history and purging conservatism of its crackpots so thoroughly that conspiracy theories, principally a hallmark of the right in the Fifties, were by the Sixties the more or less sole province of the left, where they've remained ever since.
In his speech at the National Review 50th-anniversary gala, he did me the great honor of reading out a passage of mine from the birthday issue that happened to have tickled his fancy. I am a considerably less elegant writer and listening to Bill reading my rough-and-tumble prose in his languid vowels was a bit like hearing Maria Callas sing "Yes, We Have No Bananas." But the column he gave me in his magazine is called "Happy Warrior," and we have at least that in common: He was a very happy warrior, a great twinkling beamer full of merriment who relished taking on the conventional opinions of a complacent establishment against all the odds. Forty-nine years ago, he wrote, "We must bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable." It is an unending struggle because, while the facts of life are conservative (as his friend Margaret Thatcher put it), liberalism is eternally seductive. But, as they will tell you in the capitals of post-Communist Eastern Europe, the world is better off because William F. Buckley Jr. stood athwart history and changed its course.