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Conservative Review Buckley Made It Okay

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                   February 29, 2008

Bill Buckley Made It Okay To Be a Conservative
By Robert Knight

William F. Buckley connected the dots for me back when I 
was a liberal college student trying to make sense of 

Punch drunk from the Vietnam War and the excesses of the 
drug-addled Sixties and Seventies, America had thrown 
itself on the couch and seemed to be having a nervous 
breakdown. Like a patient doctor, Bill Buckley gently and 
relentlessly helped talk the  nation back to sanity with 
his many TV appearances and prolific writing. 

He played a key role in paving the way for the election 
of Ronald Reagan in 1980, which was startling evidence 
of America’s return to health.

Like many, I owe him a personal debt for his instrumental 
role in what the Left would call “raising my consciousness.”  
I was a conservative as a kid, but fell under the sway of 
liberal profs and the New Age culture.  But Buckley was
a key force in pulling me back to reality. 

At times, he seemed to be the only sane voice on television, 
especially on his Firing Line program on PBS, and he had 
no problem being identified as a “conservative.”  

He was so boldly unapologetic about the labeling that I 
began to identify as a conservative, too. I cheered as 
he skewered his opponents with good humor and ginormous 
vocabulary (yes, it’s an official word, now). 

When a conservative neighbor learned that I was open to
views other than the liberal mush on TV and on college 
campuses, he gave me a huge stack of National Reviews. 
It was a light clicking on in a dark room. “Yes!” “Yes!” 
I’d say to no one in particular while reading Buckley’s 

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I met the great man at a gathering of conservatives and 
libertarians in Orange County, California in the late 
1980s.  I had just been demoted and disciplined at the 
Los Angeles Times for writing a piece for National Review 
about California Chief Justice Rose Bird and why she and 
two liberal justices were going to be defeated in the next 
election (which they were).  Bird was a close friend of 
my editor, who was somewhat  to the left of  Trotsky.  I 
doubt she would even have used National Review to paper a 
birdcage, and she told me as much.  None of Buckley’s many 
books were on her bookshelves amid the Nation and Mother 
Jones magazines.    

Anyway, I shook Mr. Buckley’s hand and told him that he 
had cost me a job. He was genuinely horrified, and I ex-
plained the situation. He kept shaking his head and saying 
“No!” and “Terrible!” as his handlers swept him off to his 
next encounter. It was one of the few times I recall 
seeing him at a loss for words.

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The next time I saw him it was as part of his team on a 
Firing Line segment that we taped at Bard College in 
upstate New York. The topic was: “Resolved: The ACLU Is 
Full of Baloney.”  Defending the ACLU were Ira Glasser, 
Nadine Strossen, Barry Lynn and Bard College President 
Leon Botstein, who responded to two leftwing demonstrators 
by withdrawing from the rest of the debate to show how a 
liberal gentleman responds to disruptors (he lets them 

Mr. Buckley’s team, which argued for the affirmative, 
consisted of Catholic League President Bill Donohue, 
University of Texas professor Lino Graglia, and me. 
Longtime Buckley sparring partner Michael Kinsley moder-
ated, and did a good job other than granting the protest-
ers time to read their ridiculous list of demands. Buckley 
looked on in great amusement as Kinsley dealt with the two 
young ladies, who kept standing up and chanting, “Students 
of color have no voice!” 

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In his opening salvo, Mr. Buckley spoke for all of us when 
he summarized the problem with the ACLU:

“With its $35 million budget, its 60 full-time attorneys, 
600 yearly lawsuits, its 2,000 legal volunteers, it is 
everywhere. The school that said that boys couldn’t come 
in wearing sagging trousers that revealed their underwear 
faced a lawsuit from the ACLU….Babies can’t be tested for 
HIV, the Los Angeles high school that denied to a 14-year-
old girl the right to decorate her clothes with condom 
packages ran into the ACLU. Boy Scouts aren’t allowed to 
bar homosexual scoutmasters, high schools don’t have the 
right to test athletes for illegal drug use, we must repeal 
the ban against women in military combat. It reels the 
mind.…The ostensible aims of the ACLU are admirable. It is 
a national pity that it has now become, to use Sunday-
suited language, a bunch of baloney. Now, my friend Ira 
Glasser will don his alchemical gloves and do his best.
Here is ireful Ira. Watch out for him. Thank you.”

Matter of fact. No malice. On the money. Grounded in 
example. With warmth and devastating logic. Even at liberal 
Bard College, Bill Buckley probably made some converts.

He’ll be missed more than he could have known.  

Questions? Comments? email: mailto:buckley@gophercentral.com   
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