Author, conservative editor was star of 'Line'

William F. Buckley Jr., the erudite Ivy Leaguer and conservative who founded the National Review and hosted TV’s “Firing Line” for 33 years, died Wednesday at his home in Stamford, Conn. He was 82.

The cause of death was unknown, but he had been ill with emphysema, his assistant Linda Bridges said.

Editor, columnist, novelist, debater, TV talkshow star, harpsichordist, transoceanic sailor and even a good-natured loser in a New York mayor’s race, Buckley worked at a daunting pace, taking as little as 20 minutes to write a column for his magazine, the National Review.

He also wrote at least 55 books and more than 5,600 “On the Right” syndicated newspaper columns.

“Firing Line” ran from 1966 to 1999, first on WOR-TV and then on PBS. It became the longest-running prominent show hosted by a single host, beating Johnny Carson by three years. Sparring with guests such as Germaine Greer and James Baldwin, he made his point with a reptilian smile and imposing vocabulary, savoring his opponent’s discomfort with wide-eyed glee.

Buckley had for years been withdrawing from public life, starting in 1990 when he stepped down as top editor of the National Review. In December 1999, he closed down “Firing Line,” which offered a wide range of guests from Richard Nixon to Allen Ginsberg. “You’ve got to end sometime, and I’d just as soon not die onstage,” he told the audience.

“For people of my generation, Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television,” fellow conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, said at the time the show ended. “He legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement.”

Buckley founded the biweekly magazine National Review in 1955. Although it perpetually lost money, the Review built its circulation from 16,000 in 1957 to 125,000 in 1964, the year conservative Sen. Barry Goldwater was the Republican presidential candidate. The magazine claimed a circulation of 155,000 when Buckley relinquished control in 2004, citing concerns about his mortality.

Over the years, the National Review attracted numerous young, talented writers: Some remained conservative (George Will, David Brooks), and some didn’t (Joan Didion, Garry Wills).

“I was very fond of him,” Didion said Wednesday. “Everyone was, even if they didn’t agree with him.”

Born in New York City, William Frank Buckley Jr. was the sixth of 10 children of a multimillionaire with oil holdings in seven countries. The son spent his early childhood in exclusive Roman Catholic schools in France and England.

His prominent family also included his brother James, who became a one-term senator from New York in the 1970s; his socialite wife, Pat, who died last April; and their son, Christopher, the author and satirist (“Thank You for Smoking”).

After graduating with honors from Yale U. in 1950, Buckley married Patricia Alden Austin Taylor, spent a “hedonistic summer” and then excoriated his alma mater for what he regarded as its antireligious and collectivist leanings, in “God and Man at Yale,” published in 1951.

Buckley also spent a year as a low-level agent for the CIA in Mexico, work he later dismissed as boring.

He wrote the first of his successful spy thrillers, “Saving the Queen,” in 1976, introducing Ivy League hero Blackford Oakes. Oakes was permitted a dash of sex — with the Queen of England, no less.

Buckley allowed himself occasionally to take positions at odds with conservative orthodoxy. He advocated the decriminalization of marijuana, supported the treaty ceding control of the Panama Canal and came to oppose the Iraq war.

Buckley also took on the archconservative John Birch Society, a growing force in the 1950s and 1960s.

Although he boasted he would never debate a Communist “because there isn’t much to say to someone who believes the moon is made of green cheese,” Buckley got on well with political foes. His friends included such liberals as John Kenneth Galbraith and Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., who despised Buckley’s “wrathful conservatism,” but came to admire him for his “wit, his passion for the harpsichord, his human decency, even for his compulsion to epater the liberals.”

Buckley also was capable of deep and genuine dislikes. In a 1968 television debate, when left-wing novelist and critic Gore Vidal called him a “pro-war crypto-Nazi,” Buckley snarled an antigay slur and threatened to “sock you in your … face and you’ll stay plastered.” Their feud continued in print, leading to mutual libel suits that were either dismissed (Vidal’s) or settled out of court (Buckley’s).

The National Review defended the Vietnam War, opposed civil rights legislation and once declared that “the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail.”

The National Review could do little to prevent Goldwater’s landslide defeat in 1964, but as conservatives gained influence, so did Buckley and his magazine. The long rise would culminate in 1980 when Buckley’s good friend, Ronald Reagan, was elected president. The outsiders were now in, a development Buckley accepted with a touch of rue: “I had much more fun criticizing than praising,” he told the Washington Post in 1985.

Buckley’s memoir about Goldwater, “Flying High,” was coming out this spring, and Christopher said his father was working on a book about Reagan.

Besides his son, he is survived by three sisters, two brothers, a granddaughter and a grandson.

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