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William Buckley: Loved by Reagan, hated by Gore and muzzled by Thatcher

William F Buckley, who died on Wednesday, aged 82, was an American author and broadcaster who called himself a radical conservative and who made a career of arguing a persuasive right-wing line on public affairs.

He produced a steady output of books and newspaper columns, chaired a public television discussion programme, spoke widely at universities and elsewhere and founded and edited the National Review, a journal of conservative opinion.

In all he was responsible for writing or editing some 50 books. Buckley's aim was to turn the right-wing movement in America into a recognisable, politically definable and powerful force, and to cleanse it of what some of its critics saw as leanings toward anti-semitism and fascism.

Unlike many of the scribbling classes, Buckley was also at several points in his life an activist: he founded a right-wing political party and ran unsuccessfully for mayor of New York; he sat as a US delegate at the United Nations; lectured at the New School for Social Research; and served on the advisory committee for the US Information Agency.

As relief from politics and journalism he took up yachting, twice crossing the Atlantic, learned gliding and played the harpsichord.

His first book, published shortly after he graduated, was God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom (1951), which caused a stir by condemning the university's curriculum as collectivist and anti-religious; it detailed what Buckley, as a conservative and Roman Catholic, had identified as the shortcomings of a liberal education.

In Up from Liberalism (1959), he proposed that "we must bring down the thing called liberalism, which is powerful but decadent, and salvage a thing called conservatism, which is weak but viable".

Buckley was often credited with being the originator of the conservative thrust of the post-war years. His greatest moment, arguably, came when Ronald Reagan defeated Jimmy Carter for the presidency in 1980. The fall of communism vindicated much of what he had fought for for decades.

William Francis Buckley Jr was born on November 24, 1925, in New York, the sixth of 10 children in a family of Irish descent, and was at first educated at private schools in England and France.

His spirit began to show at the age of eight, when he wrote King George V a sharp note reminding him of the debts Britain owed the United States for the First World War.

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After Millbrook School at Millbrook, New York, where he earned a dollar a page typing up his schoolfriends' essays (with a surcharge of 25c for correcting the grammar as he went) he progressed, in 1943, to the University of Mexico.

While there he learnt enough Spanish so that, after graduation, he remained at the university to teach the language. This was followed by another spell in Mexico City, working for the Central Intelligence Agency.

Buckley started the National Review in 1955, with his own and his wife's money, to counter what he perceived to be the dangers of liberal influence on public affairs. The fortnightly became the most-discussed right-wing publication in the country. It was said to be Reagan's favourite periodical.

Buckley became something of a celebrity with a wider audience when he started Firing Line in 1966, a television show on which he interviewed such people as Billy Graham, Noam Chomsky, Bernadette Devlin, Groucho Marx and Enoch Powell.

He also appeared in a series of heated television debates during the 1968 Democratic convention with Gore Vidal. Vidal, in one programme, called Buckley a "crypto-Nazi", to which Buckley replied: "Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I will sock you in your goddam face."

On a notable occasion Buckley had as a guest Margaret Thatcher. Once he had posed a question or two, Buckley found that, for once, he could barely get a word in on his own show.

When a particularly opinionated left-winger in the United States declined an invitation to appear on Firing Line, Buckley commented: "Well, one can hardly expect baloney to come willingly to the slicer."

Buckley drew on his CIA adventures when he wrote several spy novels. In the first, Saving the Queen (1976), his mildly improbable hero, Blackford Oakes, manages to discover who sold atomic secrets to the dreaded Commies, and seduces the fictional Queen Caroline of England.

One commentator characterised Buckley -- a rich man with no need to work -- as "what the English used to expect of their aristocrats", while another observed instead that, "He has the eyes of a child who has just displayed a horrid use for the microwave oven and the family cat."

He married, in 1950, Patricia Austin Taylor, who died last year; they had a son, the satirist Christopher Buckley.


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