William F. Buckley: the founder

Buckley savored the final months of college—the last meals at Davenport and the Normandy cafe, the last Sundays and Thursdays at Bones, the last ideological skirmishes in the News, where he appeared as a kind of emeritus agitator. Communists were not a dangerous presence at Yale, he conceded in a letter. Liberals "pose a far graver threat."

As graduation neared, he applied to Yale's law school and its graduate department of government for the MA program. He might be Yale's most insistent student critic, but no one could accuse him of disloyalty. And Yale was loyal in turn. Buckley was accepted to both schools. (His scores on the Law School Admissions Test and Graduate Record Exam were unexceptional: LSAT, 567; GRE, 580 verbal, 490 quantitative, 590 government. Many years later, when the battle over racial preferences in college admissions raged, Buckley would not be among those conservatives who placed their faith in standardized testing.)

Buckley said no to government, yes to law, but was enthusiastic for neither. He had another idea altogether, brewing since the Alumni Day dispute: to write a book about Yale and contemporary liberal education.

In September, Buckley and his bride, Patricia Austin Taylor (whom he had married in July in Vancouver) rented a house in Hamden, near Yale, where Buckley had a one-year appointment teaching introductory Spanish for $120 a week. Routine work of the kind he'd been doing for four years, it left him free in the afternoons and evenings to work on his first book. The idea, simple enough, was to expand the argument he'd been making in various forums since his junior year but had been kept from making on Alumni Day: Yale had abdicated its historic purpose of transmitting Christian values and discarded the principles of economic "individualism."

By mid-January he'd completed enough of the manuscript to show it to Willmoore Kendall, who covered the pages in green ink, honing its assertions, polishing its sentences, and deftly shaping what would become the book's most celebrated formulation. "I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level."

But the strength of the book, the author's instinct for controversy, came wholly from himself. On its face his subject seemed fatally narrow. Who outside the rarefied world of pedagogy really cared what opinions Yale professors held or what textbooks they assigned? Yet Buckley translated this dry stuff into an exciting polemic, a kind of breathless news report whose true topic was a revolution that had occurred at the Olympian reaches of American society. Buckley's critique of Yale showed how the political program of the last generation, the New Deal and its aftermath, had been enshrined as intellectual and cultural dogma. "Sonorous pretensions notwithstanding, Yale (and my guess is most other colleges and universities) does subscribe to an orthodoxy," Buckley wrote. "There are limits within which its faculty members must keep their opinions if they wish to be 'tolerated.'" The brilliantly ironic subtitle, "The Superstitions of 'Academic Freedom,'" implied a further irony: at the midpoint of the twentieth century, "conservatives, as the minority, are the new radicals."

And Buckley's prose resonated with the energy of new protest. When he inveighed against "the power of the machine and techniques that are so readily available to the academic 'liberals' for immediate use against anyone meddlesome enough to find fault with existing policy," he prefigured the next decade's campus radicals, who would likewise deplore the "machine" of large universities and their power to crush dissent. Buckley wrote with the full-throated passion of the agitator. The elevated vocabulary fused with a slashing, debater's style that seemed borrowed from Red-hunting inquisitions: the naming of names, the quick, mocking characterizations, the trotting out of ideological resumes—all of it was perfectly attuned to the accusatory mood of the moment.

There were defects. Like so many first books this one was, to some extent, an anthology of its author's juvenilia. Buckley recycled his first Kennedy editorial in full and, finding a forum at last, stuck the Alumni Day speech in an appendix. Kendall and his other advance reader, Brent Bozell, urged Buckley to drop the most radical part of the book, its short last chapter, which proposed that alumni assert their sovereignty over hiring and curriculum, a novel solution to Yale's program of liberal indoctrination.

But Buckley was adamant about keeping the pages in. It was integral to the larger drama of which the book formed only a part—his radical purpose to "agitate for reform" at Yale. Outraging liberals did only half the job. Conservatives needed a plan of action. Buckley knew from his fund-raising appearances that Yale's coffers were nearly empty, because of the drain of the G.I. Bill enrollments. An uprising among alumni "and friends"—and clearly the administration feared one; why else had Seymour barred Buckley from the podium on Alumni Day?—would send a powerful shock through Woodbridge Hall.

In the spring, Buckley sent the manuscript to Henry Regnery, a wealthy Chicago conservative who had founded a new publishing house. Regnery and his colleagues were enthusiastic. One pronounced Buckley a "genius." Regnery wanted to bring it out in the fall when Yale would be celebrating its 250th anniversary. Buckley worked rapidly on revisions to meet the deadlines the publisher set, and the book was published in time to be read as a dissent from all the fanfare.

The novelty of God and Man at Yale was plain from the dust jacket: the boyish author gazed from the back of the book with aristocratic hauteur, just above the summary of campus triumphs: honors graduate, Daily News chairman, champion debater, class orator, plus "the Fence Club, Elizabethan Club, Torch Honor Society, and Skull and Bones." Buckley, who wrote the copy himself, had some misgivings about mentioning Bones—"nothing more than snob-appeal"—but saw it clinched what in a later day would be called the "high concept" that Regnery wanted to emphasize: this was an attack on the citadel mounted from within. The effect was to lend the book something of the glamour of a titillating exposé, in the vein of the U.S.A. Confidential series then topping best-seller lists. Here was the "inside" story of an Ivy League campus.

It all worked. Not since Friedrich Hayek's The Road To Serfdom, published in 1944, did a conservative polemic excite such response. That Buckley was so young heightened the interest, for he sprang into celebrity at the same moment that Time magazine, in a deft exercise in trend-spotting, had identified a new "silent generation" of docile college-age men and women, content with things as they were, their ambitions reaching no further than a Wall Street job and a kitchen full of sparkling appliances. Yet skepticism was now coming from a "rebel in reverse" (said Time) who resembled (said Life), "the brat who comes to the party and tells the guests that their birthday boy is secretly a dope addict."

The furor translated into brisk sales. The first printing sold out in a week; the next three went almost as quickly—enough to put God and Man at Yale on the Herald Tribune best-seller list. By December it had sold nearly 23,000 copies, an astonishing success.

More important, Buckley had fused long-standing grievances, political and cultural, into the basis of a single unified rebellion. No longer would the right limit itself to rants about taxation and "too much damn government in business" and wait patiently for better days. Instead it would surge up against those who seemed to be deciding the direction postwar America would take: the Washington mandarins and Ivy League professors, the intellectuals and journalists. God and Man at Yale was more than a brilliant performance by a very young man. It contained the seeds of a modern movement.

Ultimately, the university Buckley had battled so strenuously embraced him as its own. And Bill Buckley, for his part, remained steadfast in his devotion to Yale. He returned to the campus many times over the years. He also recruited bright young graduates to help him research his books or to join the staff of National Review. And until his health declined, he placed an annual ad in the News inviting young men with sailing experience to crew on his sloop, Patito.

A few months before he died Bill Buckley asked me to return the scrapbook, bound in Moroccan leather, that he had carefully assembled during his Yale years. Before I sent it off I cautioned him that the album had been a research tool for me and was somewhat worse for wear: photos, letters, awards, commendations, News editorials, and sundry other documents had become unglued from the crumbling black pages. I patched it all together as best I could. Buckley didn't say why he needed the book, but I didn't have to ask. His last days were passed in considerable pain and anguish. He was struggling mightily with emphysema and diabetes and also feeling the loss of so much that had mattered to him—particularly the loss of his wife, Pat, who died in April 2007, after 57 years of marriage. To page through his Yale album was to recover the warm glow of a happy time, quite possibly the happiest in a long, singular life.

The scrapbook will soon be shipped to the Sterling Library, where it belongs. It is the priceless record of one of Yale's most refulgent stars—the class of 1950's "Bright Young Man," as the class historian noted at the time. He added: "We had none to match him." 

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