William F. Buckley Jr.

American public intellectual, conservative author and political commentator (1925–2008)

William F. Buckley, Jr. (November 24 1925 - February 27 2008) was an American author, conservative journalist, who founded the conservative political magazine National Review in 1955 and hosted the television show Firing Line from 1966 until 1999.

I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.


Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.


  • [National Review] stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.
  • The largest cultural menace in America is the conformity of the intellectual cliques which, in education as well as the arts, are out to impose upon the nation their modish fads and fallacies, and have nearly succeeded in doing so. In this cultural issue, we are, without reservations, on the side of excellence (rather than "newness") and of honest intellectual combat (rather than conformity).
    • "Our Mission Statement" in National Review (November 19, 1955).
  • One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and started to run things. Run just about everything. There never was an age of conformity quite like this one, or a camaraderie quite like the Liberals'.
  • Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
    There are, thank Heaven, the exceptions. There are those of generous impulse and a sincere desire to encourage a responsible dissent from the Liberal orthodoxy. And there are those who recognize that when all is said and done, the market place depends for a license to operate freely on the men who issue licenses — on the politicians. They recognize, therefore, that efficient getting and spending is itself impossible except in an atmosphere that encourages efficient getting and spending. And back of all political institutions there are moral and philosophical concepts, implicit or defined. Our political economy and our high-energy industry run on large, general principles, on ideas — not by day-to-day guess work, expedients and improvisations. Ideas have to go into exchange to become or remain operative; and the medium of such exchange is the printed word.
    • "Publisher's Statement", in the first issue of National Review (November 19, 1955).
  • The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. National Review believes that the South's premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

    • Editorial, National Review (August 24, 1957).
  • I will not cede more power to the state. I will not willingly cede more power to anyone, not to the state, not to General Motors, not to the CIO. I will hoard my power like a miser, resisting every effort to drain it away from me. I will then use my power, as I see fit. I mean to live my life an obedient man, but obedient to God, subservient to the wisdom of my ancestors; never to the authority of political truths arrived at yesterday at the voting booth. That is a program of sorts, is it not? It is certainly program enough to keep conservatives busy, and liberals at bay. And the nation free.
    • Up from Liberalism (1959).
  • Though liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.
    • Up from Liberalism (1959); also quoted in The American Dissent : A Decade of Modern Conservatism (1966) by Jeffrey Peter Hart, p. 171
    • Variants:
    • Liberals claim to want to give a hearing to other views, but then are shocked and offended to discover that there are other views.
      • As quoted in The Nastiest Things Ever Said about Democrats (2006) by Martin Higgins, p. 93
    • Liberals do a great deal of talking about hearing other points of view, but it sometimes shocks them to learn that there are other points of view.
      • early National Review editorial as quoted in his obituary in The Times of London (28 February 2008).


  • The superstition that the hounds of truth will rout the vermin of error seems, like a fragment of Victorian lace, quaint, but too brittle to be lifted out of the showcase.
  • I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.
    • Listen the to actual quoted words: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2nf_bu-kBr4
    • 1963 statement, as quoted in The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes, p. 82
    • Variant: I would rather be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand people on the faculty of Harvard University.
      • Meet the Press (1965), as quoted in The Quote Verifier : Who Said What, Where, and When (2006) by Ralph Keyes, p. 82
      • The numbers cited in paraphrases of this quote often vary from 100 to 2000.
    • Unsourced variant: I would rather be governed by the first 2000 names in the Boston phone book than by the 2000 members of the faculty of Harvard University.
  • We are so concerned to flatter the majority that we lose sight of how very often it is necessary, in order to preserve freedom for the minority, let alone for the individual, to face that majority down.
    • The Jeweler’s Eye, New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons (1968) p. 68


  • It is safe to say that if the Communists took over the Sahara Desert tomorrow, two things would happen. First, nothing. And second, with their centralized approach to the market, there would be a shortage of sand.
    • “Buckley Heard By Tulane Unit”, John Roberts, Times-Picayune (New Orleans, Louisiana), (April 22, 1971) p. 22
  • Idealism is fine, but as it approaches reality, the costs become prohibitive.
    • As quoted in The Cynic's Lexicon : A Dictionary of Amoral Advice (1984) by Jonathon Green, p. 34.


  • The best defense against usurpatory government is an assertive citizenry.
    • Windfall : The End of the Affair (1992).

The War On Drugs Is Lost (1995)

Address to the New York Bar Association (Summer 1995); published in "The War On Drugs Is Lost" National Review Vol. 48, No. 2 (12 February 1996)]
  • More people die every year as a result of the war against drugs than die from what we call, generically, overdosing. These fatalities include, perhaps most prominently, drug merchants who compete for commercial territory, but include also people who are robbed and killed by those desperate for money to buy the drug to which they have become addicted.
    This is perhaps the moment to note that the pharmaceutical cost of cocaine and heroin is approximately 2 per cent of the street price of those drugs. Since a cocaine addict can spend as much as $1,000 per week to sustain his habit, he would need to come up with that $1,000. The approximate fencing cost of stolen goods is 80 per cent, so that to come up with $1,000 can require stealing $5,000 worth of jewels, cars, whatever. We can see that at free-market rates, $20 per week would provide the addict with the cocaine which, in this wartime drug situation, requires of him $1,000.
  • Treatment is not now available for almost half of those who would benefit from it. Yet we are willing to build more and more jails in which to isolate drug users even though at one-seventh the cost of building and maintaining jail space and pursuing, detaining, and prosecuting the drug user, we could subsidize commensurately effective medical care and psychological treatment.
  • The cost of the drug war is many times more painful, in all its manifestations, than would be the licensing of drugs combined with intensive education of non-users and intensive education designed to warn those who experiment with drugs.
  • Those who suffer from the abuse of drugs have themselves to blame for it. This does not mean that society is absolved from active concern for their plight. It does mean that their plight is subordinate to the plight of those citizens who do not experiment with drugs but whose life, liberty, and property are substantially affected by the illegalization of the drugs sought after by the minority.
  • It is outrageous to live in a society whose laws tolerate sending young people to life in prison because they grew, or distributed, a dozen ounces of marijuana. I would hope that the good offices of your vital profession would mobilize at least to protest such excesses of wartime zeal, the legal equivalent of a My Lai massacre. And perhaps proceed to recommend the legalization of the sale of most drugs, except to minors.


  • I've always subconsciously looked out for the total Christian and when I found him he turned out to be a non-practicing Jew.
    • Let Us Talk of Many Things : The Collected Speeches (2000) ISBN-13: 978-0761525516
    • Referring to Richard M. Clurman (1924 - 1996), a journalist, editor and administrator best known for his long association with Time magazine.
  • They are men and women who tend to believe that the human being is perfectible and social progress predictable, and that the instrument for effecting the two is reason; that truths are transitory and empirically determined; that equality is desirable and attainable through the action of state power; that social and individual differences, if they are not rational, are objectionable, and should be scientifically eliminated; that all people and societies strive to organize themselves upon a rationalist and scientific paradigm.
  • I am, I fully grant, a phenomenon, but not because of any speed in composition. 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.
    • "On Writing Speedily", first published in The New York Times Book Review (1986); republished in Miles Gone By : A Literary Autobiography (2004), p. 405.
  • Conservatives pride themselves on resisting change, which is as it should be. But intelligent deference to tradition and stability can evolve into intellectual sloth and moral fanaticism, as when conservatives simply decline to look up from dogma because the effort to raise their heads and reconsider is too great.
    The laws concerning marijuana aren't exactly indefensible, because practically nothing is, and the thunderers who tell us to stay the course can always find one man or woman who, having taken marijuana, moved on to severe mental disorder.
    But that argument, to quote myself, is on the order of saying that every rapist began by masturbating.
    General rules based on individual victims are unwise.
    And although there is a perfectly respectable case against using marijuana, the penalties imposed on those who reject that case, or who give way to weakness of resolution, are very difficult to defend.
    • "Free Weeds" National Review (June 29, 2004).
  • Oh yes, I won’t cavil on that point. The magazine has been everything the speakers tonight have so kindly said it was–is. It is preposterous to suppose that this is so because of my chancellorship. How gifted do you need to be to publish Whittaker Chambers and Russell Kirk, James Burnham and Keith Mano? But, yes, the journal needed to function. Somehow the staff and the writers had to be paid–if an editorial note is reserved for me in the encyclopedias, it will appear under the heading “Alchemy.” But the deficits were met, mostly, by our readers: by you. And, yes, we did as much as anybody with the exception of–Himself–to shepherd into the White House the man I am confident will emerge as the principal political figure of the second half of the 20th century, and he will be cherished, in the nursery tales told in future generations, as the American president who showed the same innocent audacity as the little boy who insisted that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, back when he said, at a critical moment in history, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an evil empire. It is my judgment that those words acted as a kind of harmonic resolution to the three frantic volumes of Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago told us everything we needed to know about the pathology of Soviet Communism. We were missing only the galvanizing summation; and we got it from President Reagan: and I think that the countdown for Communism began then.
  • Skepticism about life and nature is most often expressed by those who take it for granted that belief is an indulgence of the superstitious — indeed their opiate, to quote a historical cosmologist most profoundly dead. Granted, that to look up at the stars comes close to compelling disbelief — how can such a chance arrangement be other than an elaboration — near infinite — of natural impulses? Yes, on the other hand, who is to say that the arrangement of the stars is more easily traceable to nature, than to nature's molder? What is the greater miracle: the raising of the dead man in Lazarus, or the mere existence of the man who died and of the witnesses who swore to his revival?
  • When in 1951 I was inducted into the CIA as a deep cover agent, the procedures for disguising my affiliation and my work were unsmilingly comprehensive. It was three months before I was formally permitted to inform my wife what the real reason was for going to Mexico City to live. If, a year later, I had been apprehended, dosed with sodium pentothal, and forced to give out the names of everyone I knew in the CIA, I could have come up with exactly one name, that of my immediate boss (E. Howard Hunt, as it happened). In the passage of time one can indulge in idle talk on spook life. In 1980 I found myself seated next to the former president of Mexico at a ski-area restaurant. What, he asked amiably, had I done when I lived in Mexico? "I tried to undermine your regime, Mr. President." He thought this amusing, and that is all that it was, under the aspect of the heavens.
    We have noticed that Valerie Plame Wilson has lived in Washington since 1997. Where she was before that is not disclosed by research facilities at my disposal. But even if she was safe in Washington when the identity of her employer was given out, it does not mean that her outing was without consequence. We do not know what dealings she might have been engaging in which are now interrupted or even made impossible. ... In my case, it was 15 years after reentry into the secular world before my secret career in Mexico was blown, harming no one except perhaps some who might have been put off by my deception.
  • One can't doubt that the American objective in Iraq has failed. ... Our mission has failed because Iraqi animosities have proved uncontainable by an invading army of 130,000 Americans. The great human reserves that call for civil life haven't proved strong enough. No doubt they are latently there, but they have not been able to contend against the ice men who move about in the shadows with bombs and grenades and pistols.
    The Iraqis we hear about are first indignant, and then infuriated, that Americans aren't on the scene to protect them and to punish the aggressors. And so they join the clothing merchant who says that everything is the fault of the Americans.
  • If you had a European prime minister who experienced what we've experienced it would be expected that he would retire or resign.
  • I think Mr. Bush faces a singular problem best defined, I think, as the absence of effective conservative ideology — with the result that he ended up being very extravagant in domestic spending, extremely tolerant of excesses by Congress, and in respect of foreign policy, incapable of bringing together such forces as apparently were necessary to conclude the Iraq challenge.
    There will be no legacy for Mr. Bush. I don't believe his successor would re-enunciate the words he used in his second inaugural address because they were too ambitious. So therefore I think his legacy is indecipherable.
    • As quoted at "Buckley: Bush Not A True Conservative" at CBS News, (July 22, 2006).
  • Government can't do anything for you except in proportion as it can do something to you.
    • As quoted in "Broken Government: Where the right went wrong," CNN (November 3, 2006).
  • It was rumored, in 1946, that the hangman in Nuremberg adjusted the nooses of some of the condemned to magnify the pain of suffocation. Such sadism was not called for then and is not called for now. But if fornication is wrong, there is no denying that it can bring pleasure. The death of Saddam Hussein at rope's end brings a pleasure that is undeniable, and absolutely chaste in its provenance.
  • I get satisfaction of three kinds. One is creating something, one is being paid for it and one is the feeling that I haven’t just been sitting on my ass all afternoon.
    • As quoted in The Book of Positive Quotations (2007) by John Cook.
  • Demand a recount.


  • Marijuana never kicks down your door in the middle of the night. Marijuana never locks up sick and dying people, does not suppress medical research, does not peek in bedroom windows. Even if one takes every reefer madness allegation of the prohibitionists at face value, marijuana prohibition has done far more harm to far more people than marijuana ever could.
    • P. J. O'Rourke, as quoted in Busted : Stone Cowboys, Narco-lords, and Washington's War on Drugs (2002) edited by Mike Gray.
  • They told me if I voted for Goldwater, he would get us into a war in Vietnam. Well, I voted for Goldwater and that's what happened.
    • This appears to be a variant of a widely disseminated Republican joke with no published attribution of its authorship to Buckley.
    • Variant: They told me if I voted for Goldwater in 1964, that we'd have more war and higher prices. Well, I did, and we do.
      • Mark Hatfield, as quoted in The Condition of Republicanism (1968) by Nick Thimmesch, p. 65
    • They told me if I voted for Goldwater we'd be at war in Vietnam in six months — and I did and we were.
      • Anonymous voter, as quoted in It All Comes Back to Me Now : Character Portraits from the "Golden Apple" (2001) by William O'Shaughnessy, p. 85
    • Buckley did say this on the Firing Line episode "Vietnam: Pull Out? Stay In? Escalate?" According to the transcript here, he says "...if someone told me that if I voted for Goldwater, we would escalate the war, I did and we have."

Quotes about William F. Buckley, Jr.

In alphabetical order of author or source.
  • The idea to make New York City a state, in case you didn't know, is not original with me. There's been a long struggle for more "home rule," which, although it hasn't focused on statehood, has sought to get us more control over taxes, services and decision-making. Statehood was first proposed by the Mayor of New York in 1861; it was later advocated by such people as William Randolph Hearst and by William F. Buckley in his campaign for Mayor in 1965...
    • Bella Abzug Bella!: Ms. Abzug Goes to Washington (1972)
  • William F. Buckley Jr. was one of the great personalities of the United States of the last 50 years. He was the same in private as in public: urbane, humorous and always cordial. ... His humanity and gentlemanliness and unfailing courtesy, as well as his wit and erudition, enabled him to take positions that affronted the liberal conventional wisdom without attracting the venomous antagonism of its leaders. His close friends included such contrary spirits as John Kenneth Galbraith, Mario Cuomo and some of the Kennedys and Rockefellers.
  • "The central question that emerges," the National Review's founding editor, William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote in 1957, amid congressional debate over the first Civil Rights of the modern era, "is whether the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is yes-the white community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race." He continued: "It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority." It was a strikingly blunt defense of Jim Crow and affirmation of white supremacy from the father of the conservative movement. Later, when key civil rights questions had been settled by law, Buckley would essentially renounce these views, praising the movement and criticizing race-baiting demagogues like George C. Wallace. Still, his initial impulse-to give white political minorities a veto not just over policy but over democracy itself-reflected a tendency that would express itself again and again in the conservative politics he ushered into the mainstream, emerging when political, cultural, and demographic change threatened a narrow, exclusionary vision of American democracy.
  • We learned from our parents to prefer the good man to the brilliant man. It is a sacred humanity in people we respect. Our compassion is earned in the quality of the human condition. People are surprised to realize that we, princelings of Dame Fortune, as they feel us to be, tread the same hard interior landscape. And it may be this that comes through, that fascinates, because we do not presume, "Come, let us lead you," but, instead, petition, "Come, our philosophy is your way, the human way, and it is you who will and must lead yourselves…"
  • Jeffrey Hart suggested that Buckley was torn between his patrician roots and the populist temper of the movement he championed. An echt Burkean with a snob’s disdain for the contemporary Republican Party, Hart hinted at a road not taken, in which a Buckley-led conservative intelligentsia might have labored to infiltrate and convert the liberal-leaning Eastern Establishment, rather than making common cause with Sunbelt populists, Reagan Democrats and other faintly embarrassing constituencies.
    But it’s doubtful Buckley himself harbored such fantasies. From the beginning of his career, he seemed to grasp that any successful right-of-center politics in America would be populist, or it wouldn’t be at all. In post-New Deal America, with the welfare state firmly entrenched and the governing class squarely in the statist corner, conservatism’s obvious constituency was middle-class and put-upon, and its obvious purpose was to defend its constituents’ folkways and pocketbooks against sophisticates and social engineers. The establishment was solidly liberal, so the right needed to be anti-establishment; the alternative was the sidelines, or the fever swamps. The previous generation of conservative thinkers had chosen alienation, resentment, paranoia. Buckley chose populism — and with it, relevance.
  • William F. Buckley, Jr. once made the famous pronouncement that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phonebook than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT. Now that we are ruled by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, you can see what he meant.
  • Had there been no Buckley, there would likely have been no Reagan administration, no Morning in America, no “Tear down this wall,” and no Cold War triumph for liberty and the West.
    It may sometimes be confusing, what with all the intramural squabbling among libertarian conservatives, neoconservatives, paleoconservatives, and the like, to know exactly what “conservatism” stands for these days. But Buckley more than anyone made clear that there are things it would not stand for.
  • Bill was responsible for rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism. ... Without Bill — if he had decided to become an academic or a businessman or something else — without him, there probably would be no respectable conservative movement in this country.
  • He was really a quintessential leader of the conservative movement not just in New York but in the nation. There are no other Bill Buckleys now on the scene. On a personal level he was a very warm and kind individual.
  • You didn’t just part the Red Sea — you rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism. And then, as if that weren’t enough, you gave the world something different, something in its weariness it desperately needed, the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.
  • Where Coolidge's conservatism had led him to oppose police unions, the new right saw them as comrades. In New York City in 1965, in the midst of a quixotic run for mayor, famed National Review editor William E Buckley Jr praised the "restraint" of state troopers beating civil rights marchers an Selma, to a crowd of 5,600 cheering and clapping policemen who gave the conservative intellectual a "standing ovation." In Buckley's view, the troopers in Selma were standing for a world of "order and values," which in a certain sense was true. It was an explicitly racist order built on explicitly racist values, and the politics of policing allowed Buckley, and by extension the conservative movement, to defend that order and those values in the name of public safety rather than white supremacy.
  • Buckley was conservative before conservative was cool. He was brilliant, Ivy League, handsome and very, very, VERY articulate. And he was, well, so very self confident. All of his talent and style combined to rebirth the moribund conservative movement in this country. From his founding of the National Review to the day he stepped down from moderating his signature talk show, “Firing Line.” It is fair to say that Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich all owe their place in American history to the man who once famously wrote that he didn’t know anyone smarter than himself. ... In a way, it’s sad that people like Rush Limbaugh and Michael Savage are today’s mouthpieces for conservatism. What a far leap they are from the quick witted and smart Buckley. I think it’s fair to say that even Buckley’s ideological enemies admired him and respected him. That’s because Buckley was not a hate monger; he was a serious-minded person who made reasoned and rational arguments for his cause. No apologies to Limbaugh, Savage or their listeners and adherents — they are no substitute for Buckley’s class and intellectualism.
  • Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry, there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind.
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