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Jour­nalist William F. Buckley was always on the front lines of the con­ser­v­ative movement. | Flickr

“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.