NEW YORK (Reuters) - Writer and commentator William F. Buckley, the patrician intellectual credited with founding the modern conservative movement in U.S. politics, died on Wednesday at age 82.
Buckley suffered from emphysema over the past year and died early on Wednesday while writing in his study in Stamford, Connecticut, said Jack Fowler, publisher of National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955.
Buckley influenced the views of former U.S. President Ronald Reagan and was a leading voice in the conservative movement that helped send Republicans to the White House in seven of the past 10 U.S. presidential elections.
“He influenced a lot of people, including me,” U.S. President George W. Bush said from the Oval Office.
“He was so articulate and he captured the imagination of a lot of folks because he had a great way of defining the issues. It was erudite and yet a lot of folks from different walks of life could understand it,” Bush said.
Buckley packaged his opinions with a charm and scholarly tone that made him a hero on the right, although some critics saw him as smug and pompous and perhaps even racist.
That the late historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. called him “the scourge of liberalism,” was said to have caused Buckley delight.
He could be pugnacious, as in a 1968 television debate with writer Gore Vidal when Buckley said, “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll knock you in the God-damned teeth.”
Although Buckley, a Roman Catholic, denounced anti-Semitism, he also believed in white superiority over blacks as late as 1961, said the author of the upcoming book “White Protestant Nation: The Rise of the American Conservative Movement.”
Allan Lichtman, who reviewed Buckley’s papers at Yale University, said Buckley defended apartheid in South Africa and that National Review editorials referred to white superiority.
“I pray every Negro will not be given the vote in South Carolina tomorrow,” Buckley wrote in a private letter to Douglas Stewart dated October 10, 1961, according to Lichtman.
“This was the heyday of the civil rights movement,” Lichtman said. “All of these racist views were being challenged. He may have changed that view. But as late as 1961 he was against measures of equality for blacks.”
Yet no one doubts his importance to conservatism. Lichtman said Buckley ranked second only to Reagan for conservatism’s revival in the second half of the 20th century.
“He created the conservative movement. I don’t think anybody else had the charm and talent to pull this off,” said Fowler, the National Review publisher. “And it’s a monumental achievement. He created a major political movement that has profoundly shaped America and the world.”
Known for challenging conventional wisdom, Buckley authored more than 40 books including 1951’s “God and Man at Yale,” a criticism of liberal ideology that catapulted him to fame.
He was perhaps best known as the host for more than 30 years of the television show “Firing Line,” and his column “On the Right” was syndicated to more than 300 newspapers.
On TV he regaled in skewering liberals with a smile, and his use of long words sent many viewers to the dictionary.
“Great man, great leader. Great conservative ahead of his time, articulate and entertaining,” said U.S. Sen. John McCain, the probable 2008 Republican presidential candidate.
In 1965 Buckley ran for mayor of New York City and won 13.4 percent of the vote on the Conservative Party ticket.
William Rusher, publisher of National Review from 1957 to 1988, said Buckley “did finally take the position that the war in Iraq was a mistake, that we should not have gone in ... but that did not turn him against Bush or the conservative movement.”
His wife Pat Buckley, a fixture on New York’s social and fashion scene, died last year.
Their son Christopher Buckley is a well-known political satirist and author. (Additional reporting by Andrew Sullivan, David Alexander, Ed Stoddard and Adam Tanner)