In February of 1972 three airplanes, two were charter flights, the third was Air Force One, made their way from the United States to China en route to a rendezvous with what historian Margaret McMillan has referred to as “the week that changed the world.”
The two charters were a bit ahead of the presidential plane, and they carried everything necessary to ensure that the folks back home in America would be able to fully participate by proxy in an epoch event. Their cargo included cameras, technicians – and super stars. On one plane sat Walter Cronkite, Eric Severeid, and a host of news anchors and bureau chiefs – the main stream media of the day – 80 journalists in all.

And right there with them was a singular conservative anti-communist along for the ride – William F. Buckley.

At the time, Mr. Buckley was the virtual sole equivalent of today’s vast network of talk-radio hosts, conservative columnists, and right leaning pundits. He was THE voice of a movement. And, though he was surely glad to be on board the plane – he was far from on board with the politics of it all.

Richard Nixon, a man who had built his career and reputation on anti-communism, was going to break bread and new ground with the biggest Communist of them all – Mao Tse-tung.

The passing of Mr. Buckley this week at his Connecticut home at the age of 82, has been observed with the appropriate outpouring of eulogies and retrospectives. Often referred to as “The Patron Saint” of American conservatives, he was a consistent voice, whether in the wilderness or on center stage.

During the 1972 trip to China he was near center stage, but the voice was very much that of a wilderness cry.

Bill Buckley and Dick Nixon had a stormy and strained relationship punctuated by occasional periods of awkward fellowship. They had first met in 1957, when Nixon was Vice-President and as Buckley’s fledgling periodical, National Review, was developing cultural and political traction. By all accounts they were mutually impressed. Buckley had admiration for Nixon largely due to his defense of Whitaker Chambers against Alger Hiss. Nixon was drawn to the intellectual gifts of Buckley. Although this initial affinity did not necessarily translate into support for Nixon’s 1960 presidential candidacy. The Vice President was not conservative enough.

As that decade progressed, however, and the 1968 election approached, Mr. Buckley had, for the time being, suspended his hope for a viable die-hard conservative candidacy (he had passionately backed Goldwater in 1964), and instead he resigned himself to settling for a not-so-conservative candidate, if said contender might be sufficiently open to conservative ideas and influence. Following a meeting at Nixon’s Manhattan apartment in January of 1967, Buckley was well on his way to supporting Nixon for President. His support was more than beneficial that year – it was crucial. One way he helped was to use his television program, Firing Line, to score debating points (in a non-debate campaign year) on third-party contender, George Wallace, during an animated interview a shortly before the election.

By 1972, however, William F. Buckley had become decidedly unhappy with President Nixon. Though there were many issues troubling him, the announcement on July 15, 1971 that the President was planning to travel to China early the next year was when these concerns reached critical mass. China was evil; so was the Soviet Union. The developing détente was anathema to real conservatives. Period.

In spite of this, he had been invited to join the trip largely through the influence of Nixon aide Pat Buchanan, who himself had serious reservations about the whole initiative. Apparently the idea was to somehow bring Bill Buckley, and by extension the conservative movement, into the China card fold.

It didn’t work. Buckley didn’t budge. In fact, quite the contrary – he was emboldened in his anti-communism. Writing at the time about Nixon’s hyper-generous toasts to Mao and company, the very scene clearly distressing him, he said:

“It is unreasonable to suppose that anywhere in history have a few dozen men congregated who have been responsible for greater human mayhem than the hosts at this banquet and their spiritual colleagues, instruments all of Mao Tse-tung. The effect was as if Sir Hartley Shawcross had suddenly risen from the prosecutor’s stand at Nuremberg and descended to embrace Goering and Goebbels and Doenitz and Hess, begging them to join with him in the making of a better world.”

Then in response to the Shanghai Communique – the formal statement issued at the end of the trip pledging progress toward the ultimate normalization of relations between the two nations – Buckley opined: “We have lost – irretrievable – any remaining sense of moral mission in the world.”

Following the China trip, William F. Buckley flirted briefly with supporting the quixotic presidential bid of very conservative Ohio Congressman John Ashbrook. But the emergence of George McGovern’s liberal candidacy for the Democrats managed to keep the conservative intellectual giant in the Nixon fold for 1972.

And this week so many old Nixon hands are fondly and appropriately remembering the contrarian conservative as a giant. He didn’t always play ball with them, but he was a vital and interesting part of the history being made back then.

Mr. Buckley was a man who called them as he saw them. Yet, he seemed to be able to combine a flair for fierce and combative words and deeds with warm personal charm and authenticity – the kind that resonated with others who didn’t always share his views. Possibly his ultimate legacy will be larger than his ideas and will include his manner and method, as well.

Franklin Roosevelt was said to have had “a second rate intellect, but a first rate temperament.” William F. Buckley had equal measure, exceedingly high, of both to serve as bookends for his larger-than-life persona. That’s why he was so well respected and his voice will cry from the wilderness for quite some time following his peaceful passing this week.