In November 2005, Bill Buckley observed his 80th birthday, and his magazine, National Review, its 50th.  Both anniversaries were rather fulsomely saluted, George Will remarking that, thanks to Buckley and his magazine, the phrase “conservative intellectuals” had “ceased to be an oxymoron.”

Will’s comment was apt, but in a way he didn’t intend.  Oxymoron is indeed the sort of fancy word Buckley is notable for popularizing, but he has consistently misused it and has taught others to do likewise.  An oxymoron is not simply a contradiction in terms, as such intellectuals (including Rush Limbaugh) suppose, but a rhetorical figure, combining contradictory or opposite terms for deliberately paradoxical effect—“poorly rich,” “living death,” or “captive victor,” to use three examples conservative intellectuals may recall from The Rape of Lucrece.

Having worked for Buckley at National Review for 21 years, I came to realize, with some embarrassment, that I could not define what he, and it, stood for.  Neither could his liberal enemies, really; they might at one time (before he charmed them all to death) call him a “right-wing extremist,” but it was hard to say what he represented the extreme of.  He just isn’t an extreme sort of fellow, and never has been.  He’s been called a pseudointellectual, but it would be nearer the mark, and maybe nicer, to say that he has been a pseudoextremist.  Despite all the famous mannerisms and affectations that may purposely suggest eccentricity—those big words, the strangely unregional accent, the yachts and harpsichords—he has been, in all things, moderate.

Maybe Buckley appeared extreme to liberals in 1955: men of good hope, such as Norman Cousins, who believed in the United Nations, deplored “McCarthyism,” fretted about nuclear testing, revered Gandhi, and saw Sweden as the inspiring Middle Way.  Buckley made fun of all these things, which seemed insolent and anarchic at the time; and before that, in college, he had been called “the most dangerous undergraduate Yale has seen in years.”  Yes, dangerous!  It didn’t take much to terrify liberals in those days.  Buckley made fun of their fears as well as their pieties.  And fun it was.  He brought not just clever wit to political punditry but something more unusual as well: real humor.  The almost total disappearance of hilarity from his later writing can only mystify anyone who remembers his early work.

But though he defended Joe McCarthy, the segregated South, and a few other unfashionable causes, Buckley said hardly anything that sounds extreme now.  At his best—and it’s easy to forget, now, how amusing his best could be—he opposed liberal naiveté with witty common sense.  But there wasn’t much specific content in his conservatism, no doctrine you could identify as Buckleyism.  By the same token, there is no such thing as anti-Buckleyism.  If he’s no longer controversial, it may be because he never really was.

What was he for?  Anticommunism, capitalism, and Catholicism, in a general way; but his style, beyond a certain point, was strategically vague.  He attracted people who favored any or all these things, but he often disappointed them by being unwilling to take these principles to their logical conclusions.  Some of these people found him a compromiser and turned against him; his response, after every falling out, was to play the moderate.  The other guy had flipped out, gone to “the fever swamps” (another phrase he popularized), whether it was Garry Wills on the left or his brother-in-law Brent Bozell on the right.  Always, it seemed, the other guy was, well, extreme—that is, too principled.  Few men have tried to make so many old friends look bad.

In my own case, Buckley suggested that the problem was my health, “physical and mental.”  The real problem, though, wasn’t a disagreement; it was an agreement—an agreement he didn’t want to acknowledge.  Starting in 1982, when my two sons were approaching draft age, I saw that our neoconservative friends were itching for war with the Arabs, and I started writing about this in my syndicated column.  I argued that the U.S.-Israeli alliance could only mean trouble for this country.

The same theme had often been sounded in National Review, back when James Burnham had written its foreign-policy editorials.  But times had changed, I soon learned.  Bill tried to shoo me off the subject; later, I learned that he had been threatened by Norman Podhoretz, then editor of Commentary, who accused me of “antisemitism” and demanded that I be fired.  Buckley wouldn’t go that far, but he did keep pressuring me, and Podhoretz later told the Jerusalem Post that he had, in effect, made Buckley shut me up.  Meanwhile, he and his wife, Midge Decter, both ascribed my criticism of the Jewish state to antisemitism.  This was in 1986, more or less midway between their similar charges against Russell Kirk and Pat Buchanan.  When you pipe up against Israel or the neocons, it’s never long before you start hearing the words “antisemitism,” “holocaust,” and “genocide.”  Mother Podhoretz said that such views as mine had “led to the Holocaust.”

It’s an old story, now, but I finally took the pressure off both Bill and me in 1993 by quitting National Review—or more precisely, getting myself fired, by describing in a column the pressures he had put on me and saying he was “jumpy about Jews” (an understatement).  Bullied by Podhoretz, Buckley had made a journalistic innovation George Will’s tribute neglected to mention: He had given the editor of another publication a veto over the contents of his own magazine.

Today, the actual content of Bill Buckley’s conservatism has finally become clear: neoconservatism.  If National Review is still distinguishable from neocon organs like the Weekly Standard, you couldn’t prove it by me.