“Before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind.” This bold, but not unwarranted, claim was made by libertarian-conservative commentator George Will when discussing Buckley’s contribution to President Ronald Reagan’s victorious campaign in 1980.
With the newest addition of James Madison to Hillsdale’s collection of campus statues, it is time to ask whose likeness will be the next to grace our grounds. William F. Buckley Jr. should be Hillsdale’s next bronze emblem of conservatism.
Dubbed “the most influential journalist and intellectual of our era” by Reagan, Buckley was always on the front lines fighting for the unity and advancement of the conservative movement.
Buckley was the founder and editor of National Review, which became the rallying point for the fractured conservative movement in the middle of the 20th century. He was also the founder and star of the television program “Firing Line,” which was dedicated to an honest discussion of current politics. While unafraid to engage in a heated debate, Buckley’s forte lay in facilitating civil conversation rather than simply attacking opposing views. The program was so popular that it remains the longest-running talk show with a single host in TV history.
His dry humor, whether directed at others or himself, never failed to elicit a wry chuckle. When running for mayor of New York, Buckley was asked what he would do first if he won. His immediate response was “Demand a recount!”
Buckley summed up his personal philosophy in his book “Up From Liberalism,” saying, “I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth.”
Buckley’s various platforms for intellectual exchange were designed to facilitate ideas and encourage discussion, not divide people further into separate camps. He wanted to promote an educated conservatism, not a blind following.
As we well know through our course of study here, liberty cannot be preserved by those who are ignorant of its meaning, its heritage, and its supporting institutions.
Hillsdale’s connection with Buckley goes beyond this shared philosophy. In fact, Buckley served on the board that chose our current president, Larry Arnn, in 2000. Prior to that, Buckley had been a frequent visitor at the college, hosting debates and facilitating conservative ideas.
Moreover, toward the end of his life he contributed all his writings and works to Hillsdale’s online archives saying, “Well, thanks to Hillsdale College, it is all here, a lifetime’s work.” There, any avid reader and curious conservative can peruse Buckley’s history of thoughts and ideas, but it is thanks to Buckley that those thoughts are memorialized in print at all.
Yet even these records, tucked away in digital files, are hardly a proper recognition of Buckley’s legacy.
When Ted Koppel from “Nightline” asked Buckley if he would like to sum up his 33-year television career in the final minute of the show, Buckley simply replied, “No.” To even try and incapsulate Buckley’s legacy in a single minute — or a single medium — does him a great disservice.
Buckley was no background figure, hiding behind a printing press or letting others speak for him. Nor should his memory be allowed to fade into mere stagnant pixelation. He should be remembered as he lived and proclaimed in the mission statement of National Review: a bold man, standing “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”
If figures like George Washington and James Madison were chosen as statuary models for their hand in erecting the American Republic on a platform of liberty, and Abraham Lincoln and Ronald Reagan earned their places in bronze through their defense of those principles, is it not equally fitting for Hillsdale to bestow that honor upon the man who sought to unite the conservative movement on those same grounds?
Buckley has earned his place among us in perpetuity, an embodiment of the very spirit of freedom.
Sandra Kirby is pursuing a master’s degree in the Van Andel Graduate School of Statesmanship.