Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of the Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. He is author of God and Ronald Reagan: A Spiritual Life (2004) and The Crusader: Ronald Reagan and the Fall of Communism (2007).
I discovered William F. Buckley, Jr. in the late 1980s as an undergraduate at the University of Pittsburgh, where I was a pre-med student preparing for a career in organ transplantation. I was bitten by the political bug. It was a consequence of the times: the Reagan years, the end of the Cold War, tumultuous changes in the world. I soon found myself blowing off my Genetics exam to feed a growing obsession with politics, reading every newspaper I could get my hands on, and digging through microfiche to satiate a newfound infatuation with the Cold War.
I was also discovering I was a conservative. And it was that growing ideological realization that prompted me one day to ask my father where I could go to find a conservative magazine. Did such a publication exist? He responded without hesitation: "Buckley's magazine." I replied, "Buckley's magazine? What's that?" My dad answered: National Review.
I hopped in the car and headed to Walden Books at Clearview Mall in Butler, Pennsylvania. I found it -- National Review. I couldn't put it down. There was nothing else like it -- nothing. The quality of the writing, the material, the insights, the intellect, the logic, the common-sense thinking combined with erudition, the overall smartness. I read it cover to cover, including the articles I didn't understand. I allowed the thing to teach me. "Malcolm Muggeridge, who's he?" I read and learned. I was enthralled.
That magazine led me in the direction of an entirely different field of study, to where I ended up a professor teaching and writing about those very issues and ideas.
Yet, Buckley impacted me more than that, even though I never met the man. I recall one day almost 10 years ago when I was meeting with Lee Edwards, another leader of the conservative movement, who was at Grove City College to do research for a history of the college. I told Lee about the book I wanted to write on Reagan and the end of the Cold War, and how I needed some funding to be able to go to the Reagan Library to do research. Lee suggested I put together a brief proposal, noting his endorsement, and send it to a small, under-the-radar foundation begun by Buckley to support projects like these by young conservative academics. I did just that, and received a check shortly thereafter. It ultimately led to two books on Reagan, God and Ronald Reagan and The Crusader. When I sent Buckley a copy of the manuscript for the first book, he responded with a short note, dated May 22, 2002, offering a nugget of advice on where to publish the work before closing, "I'm glad the little foundation was helpful in getting this done."
He was helpful in a yet deeper way. Though I do not want to overstate this, I can honestly say that Buckley, and more specifically, his magazine, had a profound effect on me spiritually. When I began reading National Review I was an agnostic, having abandoned the faith of my upbringing. Like many young folks at major secular universities, especially in the hard sciences, I had forsaken the God of Scripture for the idols of evolution, secularism, nihilism, and all the wasteful, destructive idiocy that saturates the tragic insanity of modern academia. I had come to National Review through an interest in politics, but soon discerned that these brilliant writers, whom I respected so much, just happened to be Christians who seamlessly integrated their religion into their politics -- faith with reason, Christianity with conservatism. They fit beautifully. This set me on a path to the Christian faith. I will not proclaim that William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review "saved my soul," but they no doubt led me in the right direction.
Lastly, on a slightly bitter note, I'm offended -- but not surprised -- by the conservative outlets who have barely acknowledged Buckley's death. They are sadly symptomatic of a culture that lives strictly in the here and now, where only something new is deemed newsworthy, and only then for a few minutes. Do these conservatives not know that they stand not only Buckley's shoulders but in his shadow? He was their forerunner, the voice in the wilderness long before their existence was considered tolerable let alone possible. He never made the mistake of being defined by the moment, which is why he was the quintessential conservative.
William F. Buckley, Jr. and the movement he founded transcended a single news cycle and even a single generation. He stood astride America yelling "stop" for over 50 years. Now, let us pause to honor him with his due respect. *
"All that the law can do is to shape things so that no injustice shall be done by one to the other, and that each man shall be given the first chance to show the stuff that is in him." --Theodore Roosevelt