NEW YORK — William F. Buckley Jr. — the conservative pundit, TV host, author, staunch defender of erudition and the English language and unabashed bon vivant and society figure — died Wednesday morning, sitting at his desk in his Stamford, Conn., home. He was 82 years old.
The founder of the National Review had been ill and had emphysema. Family and friends said his passing could not have happened at a more fitting place. “He was one of the hardest working men of our time,” said Christopher Hitchens, who is a close friend of Buckley’s son, Christopher. “He was always rushing from one thing to the next; every minute was booked.”
Hitchens remembered asking the elder Buckley to meet for a drink a few times, following television appearances, but it was never meant to be, as “he wasn’t someone to just shoot the breeze with.” Hitchens also talked about his appreciation for Buckley’s long-running PBS program “Firing Line.” “He really gave people time to develop an argument,” he said. “These days, you often leave a show feeling like you forgot to say something; if you left ‘Firing Line’ feeling that way, it was your fault.”
Hitchens is writing a piece about Buckley for The Weekly Standard. Separately, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review, is writing a biography.
Buckley’s last piece was published on Feb. 2, titled “Fowlerspeak-Goodspeak.” He used the debate between Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama as an occasion to write about “Fowler’s Modern English Usage.” His assistant, Linda Bridges, said Buckley unfortunately had to dictate his work to another writer, since he broke his hand. This spring, Buckley will have a book published about Barry Goldwater, called “Flying High.” And he had been working on a book about Ronald Reagan; however, Bridges said she is not sure what will happen with it.
Buckley is survived by his son and grandchildren Conor and Caitlin, as well as his sisters, Priscilla, Patricia and Carol, and brothers Reid and James. His wife, the well-known socialite Patricia Taylor Buckley, died last April at age 80.
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Together the couple were a centerpiece of New York society through the Seventies, Eighties, Nineties and into the Noughts, both entertained and entertaining. She was known for her eccentricities; he for tolerating them. He loved music and was a keen sailor with two yachts.
The couple married in 1950 and a year later his first book, “God and Man at Yale,” was published. Throughout the next five decades and beyond, even until his death, Buckley would write continuously, publishing everything from thoughtful nonfiction works to mysteries. He ran for mayor of New York and engaged in public feuds, including one with Gore Vidal in which they exchanged insults, with Vidal calling Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley calling Vidal a “queer.”
With his magazine, books and columns, Buckley was one of the nation’s intellectuals and his nasal speaking style — in which he would raise his eyebrows, cock back his head, purse his lips and contort his entire body — could appear a cross between a man having a seizure and an aesthete sniffing something disgusting.
“He was such a great wordsmith…,” recalled Aileen Mehle, also known as the society columnist Suzy. “And as far as oratory is concerned, he was such a distinctive speaker that he was imitated. He was mimicked on many television programs because of his distinctive style: his facial mannerisms, his body language, his choice of words, his raised eyebrows. He was one of the most mimicked people in the world I think because of that.”
Longtime friend Reinaldo Herrera remembered Buckley as having a sensational sense of humor that was always very “easily deflated by his wife, Pat.” “I think Mr. Buckley was one of the great Americans and, in these trying political times of America, he will sorely be missed,” Herrera said. “We need more men of erudition who speak in a quiet voice and tell the truth as they see it. What can I say? I’ve been an admirer of his work all of these years. It doesn’t mean I’ve agreed with everything he’s said. But this great Republican, you must remember his best friend was a great Democrat, Kenneth Galbraith; so he was a man like America used to have, politicians. Let’s hope they haven’t all gone with him.”
Carolina Herrera added, “This great man will be missed by all of us who knew him and loved him. He will also be missed by the thousands who knew him through his brilliant writing and television programs.”
The blogs on the National Review’s Web site (and almost every other site that has a political bent) were filled with memories and best wishes for Buckley’s family. Joe Klein, a political columnist for Time, on Wednesday wrote that Buckley was an honest man, an actual conservative who, in the end, was “quietly appalled by George W. Bush’s radicalism in Iraq and when it came to his federal budget.”
That didn’t seem to bother President Bush, who posted his own words on the National Review’s site. “Bill Buckley was one of the great founders of the modern conservative movement,” the President wrote. “He brought conservative thought into the political mainstream, and helped lay the intellectual foundation for America’s victory in the Cold War and for the conservative movement that continues to this day. He will be remembered for his principled thought and beautiful writing — as well as his personal warmth, wit and generous spirit. His legacy lives on in the ideas he championed and in the magazine he founded.”
Over at theatlantic.com, Andrew Sullivan said he could not pretend to have been much influenced by Buckley. Still, he talked about how Buckley legitimized the concept of a conservative intellectual, helping deepen and broaden conservative thought. “But Buckley knew that all that conservatism needs to survive is the freedom to think and a willingness to rethink and an eagerness to debate. These virtues he exemplified. May we all try to recapture them in his vast, choppy wake.”
Hitchens said that, toward the end, Buckley lost some of his inspiration. Mehle added that recently she visited him at home, and he seemed really upset. “It was the first time Bill had ever been like that.”
Funeral arrangements were still being determined Wednesday.
— With contributions from Amanda FitzSimons and Vanessa Lawrence