Posted: July 5, 2005
Books by William F. Buckley, Jr., mentioned in this essay:
Guides to WFB's writings:
an it be that National Review, flagship of the modern conservative movement, is turning 50 years old? And can it be that William F. Buckley, eminence of both magazine and movement, will soon celebrate his 80th birthday? To conservatives who came of age along with National Review, both facts must seem highly improbable. It was only yesterday, after all, that Chairman Bill gaveled the ragtag national conservative meeting to order and urged it (as National Review's inaugural issue had famously instructed) to "stand athwart history, yelling Stop."
"Stand Athwart History!" was certainly a bracing imperative for a new political movement, but what exactly did it mean? Buckley and his colleagues did not arrive on the scene with a prefabricated platform, but in due course a conservative program of sorts began to emerge in the pages of their magazine. A more vigorous foreign policy came first in the order of battle. The Eisenhower Administration could hardly be accused of being "soft" on Communism, but it exhibited an almost preternatural fear about discussing foreign policy outside the realist vocabulary of the containment doctrine. To the editors of National Review, however, containment was a tactic, not a strategy. What was needed was a specifically moral understanding of the protracted struggle with Communism. Without it, a policy of containment would become a recipe for drift and, ultimately, defeat.
Domestic policy was discussed in only slightly less moral terms. While the urgencies of foreign policy took precedence, the preservation of freedom at home was no less important than the defense against Communist aggression abroad. Left to its own devices, liberalism would by gradual degrees lead America to increasing collectivization of its economic and social life. The Eisenhower Administration seemed to think that a pale Republican version of the New Deal was indispensable to electoral success. Here, no less than in foreign policy, Eisenhower Republicanism was hopelessly adrift. To the editors ofNational Review nothing was inevitable about the growth of the administrative state.
A third programmatic goal transcended the immediate importance of any foreign or domestic initiative. Buckley and his colleagues believed that all enduring political revolutions had been mounted on the backs of ideas. The prevailing ethos of the day, repeated endlessly in liberal journals of opinion, held that conservatism had no ideas worthy of serious consideration by the thinking class. From its very first issue, National Review undertook to prove why the charge was false; it undertook, in short, to show that conservatism was intellectually respectable.
There was, finally, a point of the utmost practical importance. Spurred by its publisher, William A. Rusher, National Reviewsoon thrust itself into the struggle to define the future of the Republican Party. The logic here was simplicity itself: Speculation about public policy was interesting and necessary, but unless conservatives acquired the means to translate their ideas into practice, all would be for nought. The strategic imperative: Seize control of the Republican Party.
Such were the major goals of the new conservative movement launched by the founding of National Review. Its subsequent success, which within 20 years had moved the center of American politics noticeably to the right, tends to obscure the audacious, some might say quixotic, character of the original program. The cultural and political milieu of the 1950s, after all, offered little evidence to sustain the hope that an explicitly conservative movement was necessary, desirable, or even possible. Did anyone besides the Buckleyites seriously believe that socialism would come creeping in on the little cat feet of Eisenhower Republicanism? Undaunted, the new conservatives responded with the cheerful determination of The Little Engine That Could. If the body politic was ignorant of or indifferent to threats deemed palpably dangerous by the editors of National Review, it would simply have to be instructed.
Half-a-century on, three parts of the original four-part platform have been substantially accomplished (rolling back the Soviet Union, capturing the Republican Party, making conservative ideas respectable). As to the fourth, despite the revolution in economic thought initiated by the Chicago School and other free-market votaries, restraining the appetite of the administrative state has proved, so far, beyond human ingenuity—even for conservative Republicans. Still, considering the immensity of what was accomplished and the improbability of its occurrence, the success of modern conservatism is nothing short of remarkable. And much of its success would have been unthinkable without the inspiration, verve, and genius of Bill Buckley.
He would be the first to say that he had a lot of help from his friends—not least a long-time National Review subscriber by the name of Ronald Reagan, who gave conservatism a sunny face and a record of measurable political accomplishment. True enough, but a case can be made that without Buckley, there would have been no Reagan. Indeed, Buckley would have been a noteworthy figure even if Reagan had never come on the scene. God graced him with an angel's wit, a zest for life, and an extraordinary capacity for hard work. He has deployed these talents—and others as well—over the past half century in ways that would have depleted the energies of the next three prodigies you'd care to name. National Review wasn't simply the conservative magazine of record; it was the omnium gatherum for a major political movement that Buckley created more or less ex nihilo and thereafter guided like a (mostly) benign monarch.
Buckley practically invented a new style of political combat, in which he was both observer and participant, bringing to both roles beguiling elegance. His writing was marked by a distinctive, even daring mannerism quite unlike any before seen. It was at times unduly Latinate and, as Bill taught us all to say, sesquipedalian, but it was unique and uniquely his own. In less competent hands, such a style might have been reduced to mere eccentricity, but in Buckley's, the result was captivating, at once vigorous and playful, always exhibiting a fine ear for the music of language. These distinctive marks have been sustained over five decades in a body of work astonishing no less for its size than for its grace. A 275-page bibliography, covering his works through 2000, noted 35 volumes of non-fiction (of which about 10 are collections), 15 novels, some 1,500 articles, reviews, and editorials in National Review and other magazines, and more than 4,000 newspaper columns. Hillsdale College is assembling Buckley Online, a searchable archive of his publications, at www.hillsdale.edu/buckley. Neither the bibliography nor the website includes Buckley's voluminous correspondence, which will one day prove to be a treasure trove for historians and biographers. Yale's Sterling Library is said to have some 1,000 boxes of Buckleyana already on file.
Until he began to wind it down in the 1990s, the Buckley perpetual motion machine was for the better part of 50 years an object of popular acclaim on the national speakers' circuit. In as many as 70 appearances a year (often in debate) before audiences large and small, young and old, Preacher Buckley spread the conservative gospel across the land. For 34 of those years, he also hosted a weekly television talk show, Firing Line, the longest-running (and easily the most thoughtful) example of its genre. He is, in addition, a passable harpsichord recitalist (he has performed nine concerts with symphony orchestras), as well as an intrepid ocean mariner. And did I mention that Buckley also ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, receiving 13% of the vote in what many regard as the most entertaining political campaign of modern times?
Buckley has slowed his pace in recent years and begun to prepare for what his epilogue to Miles Gone By calls a "final passage." In 1990 he surrendered day-to-day supervision of National Review's editorial activities. He has given up the lecture circuit and now makes only occasional public appearances. He has captained his last ocean voyage, cut his syndicated column to twice a week (after 35 years at three times a week), and signed off on his last Firing Linebroadcast.
Buckley's letting go would for most mortals constitute a rather full, not to say hectic life. Since he began to slack off in 1990, he has published nine novels, edited three anthologies, written a superb account of the last days of the Cold War (The Fall of the Berlin Wall), and offered considered reflections on his religious convictions (Nearer, My God). Among the recent novels are a more or less true-to-life account (The Redhunter) of his association with Senator Joseph R. McCarthy, in which Buckley provides his final (and substantially revised) assessment of the man whose name has become an "era"; and the newly published last installment of his Blackford Oakes spy series (Last Call for Blackford Oakes). Of the anthologies, the most interesting by far is Let Us Talk of Many Things: The Collected Speeches, which provides a revealing portrait, sketched over a half century, of Buckley at work in the public arena.
Someone desiring to grasp the essence of the Buckley persona might do well to begin with the speeches, which present him as the world has seen him, and proceed from there to Nearer, My God and Miles Gone By to glimpse those features of his life for which he would perhaps most like to be remembered.
Words and Deeds
Miles Gone By, subtitled "a Literary Autobiography," is a collection of 63 pieces written by Buckley during and about different phases of his remarkable career. (As an added inducement, the volume comes with an accompanying CD on which you can savor Buckley reading excerpts from his excerpts. The CD is so good that it is a shame he did not record the whole book.) In contrast to his previous collections, which drew heavily on Buckley's public policy commentaries, the present volume attempts what he describes as "a narrative survey of my life, at work and play." The public persona is present (how could it not be?), but the emphasis here is distinctly personal. There are warm recollections of his remarkable parents and upbringing, his formal education at home, in England, and at Yale; assorted billets doux to wine, the glories and complexities of the English language, skiing, and (at some length) sailing; sketches on travel, public speaking, playing Bach on the harpsichord, and going down to see the Titanic; reflections on social mores, thoughts on his pilgrimage to Lourdes, and detailed recollections of two interesting political encounters (running for mayor of New York in 1965, debating Governor Ronald Reagan about the Panama Canal in 1978).
Also included are the author's reflections on 20 friends and colleagues. If everything else were excluded from the book, these alone would make it a treasure. No one in our time has written more perceptively, or more affectingly, about friends and friendship, an undertaking that tells you as much about Buckley as it does about his subjects. The pieces vary in length, from shorter portraits that capture in a mere 750-1,000 words some compelling feature of the person being observed, to longer pointillist sketches that reveal facets of character in the manner of a precious stone being turned beneath a jeweler's eye. Some critics have faulted Buckley over the years for being a serial name-dropper of world-class proportions. That he certainly is, but how many people do you suppose can claim simultaneous close acquaintance with David Niven, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Clare Boothe Luce, Tom Wolfe, Vladimir Horowitz, Roger Moore, Alistair Cooke, Princess Grace, John Kenneth Galbraith, William Shawn, and Whittaker Chambers (to name only a dozen whose lives are limned in the present volume)?
The writing in Miles is as varied as the author's personality—alternately somber and light, sometimes rhapsodic (never more so than when he dilates upon sailing, about which he has written as beautifully as anyone in our or any other time), sometimes sparse, but invariably witty, lively, and engaging. The overall affect is one of warmth and cheerful vivacity, like the man himself. Even for one who has read most of the pieces before, revisiting them is an amiable undertaking, like sitting down with an old friend one has not seen in many years and picking up where the conversation left off.
Inevitably, any collection of this sort is bound to dissatisfy someone. An anthology, after all, is only an anthology. It cannot, no matter how well woven, tell a complete tale, and as "a literary autobiography" made up of previously published pieces, it intentionally eschews sustained personal reflection. To the disappointment of his friends and admirers, Buckley decided some time ago not to try his hand at a straight autobiography. "I do resist introspection," he once wrote, "though I cannot claim to have 'guarded' against it, because even to say that would suppose that the temptation to do so was there, which it isn't."
He is probably the shrewdest judge of himself in this respect. So much of Buckley's life—at least that part he would wish to have on public view—has been lived in the arena and has already been chronicled by him in millions of words. What more, this dashing man of action must have reflected, what more can I say? Autobiography requires not only a certain kind of introspection that, rightly or wrongly, Buckley believes he lacks, but a certain kind of ego that, one suspects, he greatly disdains. Many years ago, when reviewing the memoirs of some self-important figure, Buckley dryly observed that the work fell into a literary category that might be labeled, "Waters I Have Walked On."
Even putting ego to one side, not all great writers possess the special art necessary to the execution of a memorable autobiography. There may be no great loss in that. What might William Shakespeare tell us about himself half so interesting as his plays or poetry? The same question might be asked of Abraham Lincoln, whose speeches tell us, in a sense, most of what we need to know. Thomas Jefferson's Autobiography scarcely bears that description, whereas his other writings give a rather full view of the man. In fact, one can count the great presidential autobiographies on one finger (Ulysses S. Grant's, which some say shows the hand of Mark Twain). Even saints fall short of the mark, unless they happen to be Augustine, or perhaps Teresa of Lisieux, whose Story of a Soul hardly fits the definition of autobiography at all. The lesson seems to be that saints, like politicians, are better judged by deeds than words. In the case of writers, their words are their deeds, and a sizable literary corpus will often reveal more than conscious efforts at self-analysis would. So, however deprived some may feel, Bill Buckley may be forgiven for sparing us detailed introspections of his own life. Beyond what he has already provided us, heavier lifting will have to await the labors of a thoughtful biographer.
A Magazine and a Movement
In the meantime, a preliminary assessment of this remarkable man might best begin by returning to those thrilling days of yesteryear, when the conservative cause enjoyed neither the comfort of intellectual respectability nor the experience of political success. In its early years especially (ca. 1955-60), National Review performed multiple functions at once: It created a forum in which conservative ideas were treated seriously; it acted as an information clearinghouse for conservative activists; and (not least) it created a magnetic field that gradually drew into its orbit an astonishing array of intellectual diversity. Contrary to the restrictive paradigms established by fashionable academic opinion, modern conservatism tends to defeat neat doctrinal definition. National Review understood and acted upon that fact from its inception. Then as now, five different kinds of libertarians warred with five different kinds of traditionalists, debating everything from theology and epistemology to whether Richard Nixon was or wasn't a "true" conservative. However else they differed, they agreed that they were not liberals. Beyond that, two things held the nascent movement together: the compelling persona of Bill Buckley and the exigencies of the anti-Communist cause.
In the early days, when the tribe was small, everyone knew pretty much everyone else. In 1960, Frank Chodorov, the gentle and generous libertarian who helped to start National Review, walked into a relatively modest gathering of the clan in New York, looked around, and declared, "My God, if the Commies only knew, they could rub out the entire conservative movement." Even a modestly alert undergraduate who worked National Review's precincts could get to know most of the magazine's writers and editors, who were wonderfully generous with their time. That included the editor-in-chief, who was conscious of having founded a movement no less than a magazine. Indeed, at the beginning cause and leader were inextricably fused. When factional warfare threatened to break out (which was almost always the case) Buckley held things together through frequent applications of his copious charm. He didn't always succeed, but he was without question The Man.
As to the cause itself, National Review provided its readers with a continuing stream of evidence, not otherwise easily available, on the aggressive motives and tactics of Soviet foreign policy. Readers also learned that the Cold War could not be properly understood without addressing its moral dimension. The indispensable guide on that point, the Ur-text as it were, was Witness, the compelling testament of Whittaker Chambers, whom Buckley induced for a time to serve as a contributing editor. By attending carefully to that great book and the controversy that caused it to be written, one could discover the fatal fault lines of the contemporary liberal establishment. Even more, perhaps, than Chambers himself, Buckley drew the lesson in stark relief: An establishment that could not bring itself to acknowledge the moral fault and legal guilt of Alger Hiss was an establishment that could not be counted on to stand up against Soviet imperialism when the crunch came. The permutations of that proposition, which worked themselves out in a hundred implicit and explicit ways in National Review's editorial policy, became the magazine's raison d'Ãªtre. If membership in the conservative cause had been determined by an entrance exam, the leading question would have been where one stood on the Hiss case. On this, as on many other matters, philosophical understanding preceded and defined the order of battle.
When it came to battle, Buckley was conservatism's Henry at Agincourt, instructing and inspiring through noble speech and leading by courageous example. He seemed to be everywhere on the battlefield at once, directing a charge over here, retrieving the wounded over there, always ready to engage in hand-to-hand combat whenever necessary. He was not conservatism's only hero, but he was certainly its most conspicuous warrior, one who seemed equally at home in philosophical disputation and in political infighting. As the case required, his rhetoric might be high-toned, sardonic, combative, or lyrical, but in any of its carefully orchestrated modes it was not only unique but uniquely enticing. For those even slightly oriented toward a conservative disposition, it was utterly intoxicating.
In the Arena
Turn the clock back, if you will, to September 1960. President Eisenhower, nearing the end of his tenure, had invited Nikita Khrushchev to the United States. Why the Russian premier should have been invited for an extended state visit at that particular moment, and precisely how relations between the U.S. and the USSR would be improved thereby, were questions that our government had failed to address to the satisfaction of National Review's editors. Premier Khrushchev began his American trip with a stop at the United Nations in New York City, which accorded him the sort of hospitality normally reserved for benevolent monarchs or elected leaders of allied states. The attendant obsequies dismayed Buckley and his colleagues, confirming their conviction that the regnant suppositions of the foreign policy establishment, Republican and Democratic alike, were fatally flawed. The invitation betrayed weakness—a foolish diplomatic gesture designed by and for State Department bureaucrats, pleasing to the editorial palate of the New York Times and other centers of fashionable opinion, but in the end sure to earn only dangerous contempt on the part of the Soviets.
It simply would not do to have the butcher of Budapest honored like benign royalty—not when millions of slaves behind the Iron Curtain looked to the United States for inspiration and succor. Accordingly, from Buckley's command center atNational Review, the orders went out. These included organizing a massive rally at Carnegie Hall, where eleven speakers inveighed against Khrushchev, the Soviet Union, American pusillanimity, the editorial policy of the New York Times, and a variety of related lesser evils all of which were thoroughly familiar to regular readers of National Review. The hall was packed to the rafters, the air electrically charged with conservative fervor. The speakers proceeded one by one to ring the changes, building toward what everyone knew would be the evening's crowning glory, the peroration by Chairman Bill.
He did not disappoint. His speech, even after 45 years, retains an extraordinary capacity to move. If you want a window on the soul of the burgeoning conservative movement, and on the soul of its founding father, you cannot do better than to consult it. (It may be found in Let Us Talk of Many Things.) Buckley opened by leading the audience through every implausible reason why Khrushchev should be treated like an honored guest. As one lame rationale after another was demolished with devastating logic and acidic humor ("What reason have we to believe that a man who knows Russia andstill has not rejected Marx will be moved by the sight of Levittown?"), Buckley built to his major point: that Eisenhower's "diplomatic sentimentality…can only confirm Khrushchev in the contempt he feels for the dissipated morale of a nation far gone, as the theorists of Marxism have all along contended, in decrepitude."
That he should achieve orthodox diplomatic recognition not four years after shocking history itself by the brutalities of Budapest; months after the shooting down of an unarmed American plane; only weeks since he last shrieked his intention of demolishing the West; only days since publishing in an American magazine his undiluted resolve to enslave the citizens of free Berlin—that such an introduction should end up constituting his credentials for a visit to America will teach him something about the West that some of us wish he might never have known.
….Will he not return to Moscow convinced that behind the modulated hubbub at the White House, in the State Department, in the city halls, in the country clubs, at the economic clubs, at the industrial banquets, he heard—with his own ears—the death rattle of the West?
The major foreign policy point having been established, Buckley then turned to humor, finding his target of opportunity in the hapless Robert Wagner, Jr., mayor of New York. Noting that the mayor had warmly greeted Khrushchev that very afternoon, Buckley expressed puzzlement. Only a year before, after all, Mayor Wagner had ostentatiously refused to greet King Ibn Saud, because Ibn Saud discriminated against Jews in Saudi Arabia, and no one, by God, who discriminates against Jews is going shake the hand of Bob Wagner, mayor of New York. There was a little problem with the mayor's formulation, however, as Buckley now proceeded to point out:
Now, as everybody knows, what Nikita Khrushchev does to Jews is kill them. On the other hand, he does much the same thing to Catholics and Protestants. Could that be why Mr. Wagner consented to honor Khrushchev? Khrushchev murders people without regard to race, color, or creed, and therefore whatever he is guilty of, he is not guilty of discrimination?
It was a classic piece of mordant Buckley wit, which he had spent much of the 1950s honing against the complacent shibboleths of liberalism. The audience loved it and hooted its approbation till the rafters shook.
Following this brief excursus into comic relief, Buckley returned to the sobriety of the early part of the speech. Having twisted the dagger into the conventional hypocrisies of poor Bob Wagner, who was after all only a bit player in Bill's larger moral drama, Buckley now turned, well, priestly:
Ladies and Gentlemen, we deem it the central revelation of Western experience that man cannot ineradicably stain himself, for the wells of regeneration are infinitely deep. No temple has ever been so profaned that it cannot be purified; no man is ever truly lost; no nation is irrevocably dishonored. Khrushchev cannot take permanent advantage of our temporary disadvantage, for it is the West he is fighting. And in the West there lie, however encysted, the ultimate resources, which are moral in nature. Khrushchev is not aware that the gates of hell shall not prevail against us. Even out of the depths of despair, we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope. In the end, we will bury him.
If you unstitch the speech, especially its concluding paragraph, and follow the resultant threads to their original premises, you will in due course understand the animating moral fervor of conservative Cold War policy. If you leap ahead 20 years, what you will find is Ronald Reagan talking about the Evil Empire and telling Gorbachev to tear down the Berlin Wall. The speech also shows Buckley at the height of his rhetorical powers. All of the trademark attributes of the inimitable Buckley style are there—the slashing wit, the artful skewering of pretentious liberal propositions, the call to arms, the metaphysical connection of political action to higher purposes, the musical cadence of the sentences, and (if you happened to be there) the perfectly polished delivery. For conservatives, there was no one to match their darlin' Bill.
To their dismay, liberals would spend much of the '60s discovering the same thing. Skip ahead five years to 1965, when Buckley entered the New York City mayor's race on the Conservative Party ticket. He had no expectation of winning, but even in losing believed he might demonstrate the incompetence of liberal urban policy and, as well, the relevance of conservative principles. The Democratic nominee was the colorless Abraham Beame, a decent man utterly in thrall to his party's power brokers. The Golden Boy of the race was the congressman from Manhattan's so-called "silk-stocking" district, John Lindsay, who had received the endorsement of the Republicans and the Liberal Party. Lindsay's supporters believed that the genteel Yale-educated lawyer was destined to become the Republican Party's JFK. The idea seemed to be that Lindsay, having made New York City a showcase for liberal social policies, would launch himself onto the national stage and into the race for the Republican presidential nomination.
To conservatives, New York City was already dying from an overdose of liberal pieties. It was time, perhaps, for some truth-telling about what ailed the City. The opportunity proved irresistible to Buckley, who took to the challenge with undisguised glee. In the event, he received 13% of the vote, demonstrating in the process that John Lindsay was, as anEsquire magazine profile had put it, "less than meets the eye." The Conservative candidate had a rollicking good time playing Lindsay off against Beame, Beame off against Lindsay, and both off against the hypocrisies of urban politics, which precluded Beame and Lindsay from saying anything serious about the city's real problems. Buckley has left us a wonderful account, at once droll and serious, of that campaign in The Unmaking of a Mayor, which may justly take its place among his best books. In a better universe, it would be required reading in a course on the decline of American cities. (A generous excerpt from his account is included in Miles.)
Buckley announced his candidacy with a characteristically elegant statement of high conservative principle, which he proceeded to read, with the signature Buckley mannerisms, to a jumble of hard-nosed New York reporters. A stenographer who had been hired to log the event later complained that his writing hand ached for two days: "I never heard anything like it before. The syllabic content was tremendous." The sainted Murray Kempton, the most gifted stylist in American journalism, found (as he so often did) the mots justes: Watching Buckley, he said, reminded him of nothing so much as "an Edwardian resident commissioner reading the Anglican Articles to a captive assemblage of Zulus." Only Kempton, it may be safely said, could have written that, and only about Buckley. The ensuing Q-and-A featured such gems as the following:
Q: Do you think you have any chance of winning?
Q: How many votes do you expect to get, conservatively speaking?
A: Conservatively speaking, one.
Buckley's impishness on that occasion, in the debates, and in other press conferences was irresistible, even to hardened reporters who had grown old listening to the bromides routinely dished up by urban politicians. And it was especially enchanting for young conservatives, who knew that Buckley's good-natured humor was but his entrée to the salient point: that our cities were being governed by mountebanks and fools who indulged in endless cant at the expense of thoughtful policy. Lindsay won, but his victory only served to prove that the emperor wasn't wearing any clothes. With each year of his increasingly ineffectual administration New York sank deeper and deeper into a fiscal and bureaucratic morass that entangles it even now. Lindsay's national ambitions sank along with the city.
The S.S. Buckley sailed merrily on to other ports of call but not without leaving an important legacy. Buckley's candidacy had helped to make the Conservative Party a permanent fixture of state politics, powerful enough, for example, to elect his brother Jim as U.S. Senator from New York in 1970. The wise men of the eastern GOP establishment, for their part, continued their search for a liberal Republican JFK. Little did they realize that the party machinery was now already in the hands of conservatives, where it has remained ever since. Even less could they imagine that when the Republican JFK finally appeared, his name would be Ronald Reagan. In no small part, we have Bill Buckley to thank for that too, but that's another story.