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Published: Saturday, 3/1/2008

Conservatism's wordsmith

REGARDLESS of whether you agreed with what conservative herald William F. Buckley, Jr., had to say, you had to admire how he said it. The brilliant editor, columnist, novelist, and television talk-show host, who died Wednesday at 82, was a master craftsman not only of ideology but of words.

He used his imposing vocabulary in a most eloquent manner to skewer all things liberal. But even his political foes came to admire his command of the language, as well as his wit and absolute love of a good argument.

The scholarly Ivy Leaguer was funny, disarming, and delighted to win checkmate in a spirited debate with that famously arched brow that belied his glee. But there were early indications that Mr. Buckley would be an uncommon intellectual with an ax to grind.

The year after he graduated with honors from Yale he publicly ripped his alma mater in a book called God and Man at Yale for what he viewed as anti-religious and collectivist leanings. A few years later he founded the biweekly National Review magazine as a platform from which he could stand "athwart history, yelling 'stop' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it."

The publication perpetually lost money but gradually built a respectable circulation and, over the years, attracted numerous talented young writers. The conservative passion and prose of the Buckley persona also played well for 23 years on TV as he effortlessly dissected ideology on public television's Firing Line with a range of guests from Richard Nixon to Allen Ginsberg.

In 1986, the droll conservative commentator acknowledged that he was indeed a phenomenon to many, not because of any grand composition, but because he was mostly correct about things. "I asked myself the other day, 'Who else, on so many issues, has been so right so much of the time?' I couldn't think of anyone."

That was quintessential William F. Buckley. Cheeky. Compelling. Controversial. As his fellow conservative William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, put it, he "legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement."

But it was how he did it with words, expertly woven into always thoughtful arguments that so impressed many across the political spectrum. More than anyone, he raised political discourse in the country to an intellectual exercise. What a triumph and contribution to the times.

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