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William F. Buckley

Buckley: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism, by Carl T. Bogus. Bloomsbury Press, 2011.

William F. Buckley, Jr. continues to stand as the representative conservative of the postwar era. Bon vivant, former CIA operative, heir to an oil fortune—not to mention best-selling writer of spy novels and founding editor of National Review, still conservatism’s standard-bearer—and sometime ideological enforcer, Buckley was in many ways larger than life.

Buckley, who died in 2008 at the age of 82, demonstrated for many people that conservatism could combine erudition, style, and a sense of humor. What Carl Bogus, a professed liberal and professor of law at Roger Williams University, seeks to explain in this new book is how Buckley was able to so completely shape American conservatism in his image. Bogus argues, effectively, that Buckley was not only an engaging essayist and wit, but also conservatism’s “commander in chief who made many of the strategic and tactical decisions that determined the fate of the conservative movement.” This lively study is a welcome contribution to the scholarship of the American Right.

Following World War II, conservatism was disdained by both Republican Party stalwarts, who tried to elect people like the liberal Wendell Willkie, and intellectuals such as Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who thought conservatism little more than irrational prejudice. But these were outside forces. Bogus says the real controversies were within conservatism itself. He focuses on the crucial years between 1951, when the young Buckley published his blockbuster God and Man at Yale, and 1968, the annus terribilis that both brought the counterculture to power and energized the conservative legions, eventually resulting in the election of Ronald Reagan, who had himself been converted from New Deal liberalism through his reading of National Review.

In those years, conservatism was divided among the traditionalists, libertarians, and the ex-Communists. The traditionalists were represented politically by Robert A. Taft and intellectually by the influential critic Russell Kirk, an early National Review contributor and author of the foundational text The Conservative Mind (1953). Kirk—whom Bogus treats respectfully here, better than most liberal commentators—advocated a conservatism, derived from Edmund Burke, that favored gradual change, a small role for government with an emphasis on preserving and strengthening local communities, and an allergy to foreign entanglements.

The implacable Frank Meyer was both ex-Communist and libertarian. Though they vehemently disagreed on conservatism’s true nature, both Kirk and Meyer became writers for National Review. Bogus recounts Buckley’s careful courting of these rivals to bring them under the National Review umbrella. Buckley was able to unite these schools because he was himself the embodiment of conservatism’s various strands: both libertarian and traditional, religious and cosmopolitan, elitist yet opposed to the liberal knowledge classes. Thus when Buckley pronounced certain ideas beyond the pale—most famously, his ostracism of the John Birch Society and the Ayn Randians—they stayed there.

By the time the cultural revolution arrived in 1968, because of Buckley “[c]onservatism was no longer a philosophy about community—a hallmark of Burkeanism; it had become a philosophy of individualism. Conservatism was no longer wary of military adventurism,” a position that would be better known as neoconservatism. More than any other figure, Bogus contends, Buckley transformed a conservatism into a political program based on the individual and a strong nationalism.

Bogus unearths the roots of Buckley’s libertarian streak in this example of his father, Will Buckley, who went to Mexico penniless and came back successful. Bogus finds that the younger Buckley derived a strong sense of individualism from this history, which initially overcame the religious and traditionalist elements in his conservatism. This sometimes translated into shallow critiques of traditionalist thinking, or his holding on too long to positions inconsistent with conservatism, and even of his individualist brand, such as prolonged military actions.

Bogus, however, slightly overstates his case. William F. Buckley, Jr. became more Burkean as he grew older—acknowledging error in supporting the second Iraq war, for example—and he always maintained a strong affinity for conservative ideas about community, tradition, and the family. (Kirk, meanwhile, was more of an individualist than Bogus acknowledges.) Bogus’s interpretation implicitly collapses a capitalist individualism that is more Randian into a Buckleyite mold, which might easily lend itself to a cheap shot at what passes for conservatism today.

Better to say that Buckley used his extraordinary personal abilities to create the kind of culture one would want to preserve. For that achievement, he remains in many ways an admirable conservative.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreReprinted with the gracious permission of the University Bookman (Fall 2011).

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9 replies to this post
  1. The book ends in the sixties and does not include Buckley's later life, but it is very well argued. In the end, I think, the Buckley of the 50s and 60s seemed less shining and admirable than most conservatives represent him. Anticommunism and the suspicion of government action in the civil rights question stained what could be a still more interesting life. I do not think these were minor mistakes in WFB's life, since they can still be felt in some degree in American conservative positions. For all the rhetoric against liberal "abstractions", sometimes even an arch-conservative like Buckley and some of the ex-Communists in the NR staff could be very doctrinaire and hard line as to some crucial moral issues of their day.

    Best regards,

  2. There would not have been a conservative movement without the moral necessity to fight the great evil of the 20th century, communism. I assume that what is meant above is a veiled reference to WFB's support of Joe McCarthy–and it also seems that Rodrigo has accepted the Left's caricature of that man and movement. WFB did a great moral service by insisting that McCarthy was not the enemy.
    The civil rights question was also much more morally nuanced than Rodrigo here implies. The end result was a revolution not so much in "civil" rights as in the power of the national government. That MLK Jr. chose to fight it as a national crusade instead of as a series of local and state issues hurt us all, I think–and that was, most of the time, WFB's point.
    Buckley had faults that ended in his magazine becoming less than what I call conservative–in part because he chose to excommunicate many of the wrong people and in part because he sank into the New York literary crowd the way the neocons have into the beltway crowd–but he was a hero in the 50s, and much less doctrinaire than most of those who opposed him.

  3. If Mr. Willson means to imply that William F. Buckley, Jr., was somehow corrupted by New York's "literary crowd," I'm not sure how Mr. Buckley manifested that corruption. Regardless, his literary talent made WFB a superior leader of the conservative movement because he invalidated the stereotype of the conservative as ogre. Although he wrote in many genres, including his trademark polemical pieces, as an English teacher I think his best work was the character sketch. Buckley was never better than when he was rendering his family and friends through memoir, vignette, and, poignantly, obituary. His writing showed a sanguine love of people, which no doubt flowed from a general love of life; in fact, probably more than any other reason, Buckley's happiness accounted for his celebrity status. He was witty but respectful, poking fun at zany ideas but never at the expense of the people who held them. Yes, he famously threatened to "sock" Gore Vidal, but Vidal had gone ad hominem by calling his opponent a "crypto-Nazi"; given the insult, I'm surprised that Buckley extended to Vidal the courtesy of a fair warning.

    I never knew Mr. Buckley, and my never meeting him will always be one of my chief regrets. I derive some consolation from reading his books, one of which is a signed copy of "The Unmaking of a Mayor" that I found in a used-books shop. WFB has been a hero of mine since I was a teenager; I am now forty-six. I even have a T-shirt with his image on it, which, when I wear it to school on dress-down Fridays, functions as a target for all kinds of ridicule, but I suffer happily.



  4. Hello, John Wilson and all.

    In fact, I was not thinking of McCarthy, but of Vietnam — though I think WFB's position on the two issues had the same roots, of course. I agree that he was a very intelligent and charming man and could give a respectable appearance to whatever position he happened to defend. He had more than enough wit and education for that, and that's a talent we should recognize and celebrate. *But* a man must be judged for more than style, as charming as it can be — contents is important, too. And I think, based on Bogus' book — a very well-aregued and sympathetic biography — that the Manichaean Cold War (and antiliberal) vision harmed Buckley's (and most of the NR staff's) moral stature in some issues. If you read the famous editorial, "Why the South must prevail", that's clear. Were they a bit less prone to ideological fighting and more sensitive to very real, empirically verifiable problems — and a conservative, in theory, should be the empirically inclined analyst par excellence — their position could be more nuanced and I dare to say, even compassive. But the opposition by principle made it very difficult — and the civil rights became an issue easily reclaimed by the Left. For example, while the Communists were known for not discriminating blacks in the unions and associations, what did conservatives offer them? A Booker T. Washington slow and quietist approach?

    I read somewhere — maybe it was mentioned by Bogus, I can't remember — that WFB regretted some of these early positions. If so, he was wise. But we should not apologize for positions regretted by the agents themselves. Of course, we have the privilege of hindsight; but even at that time, many people could see that some conservative visions were doctrinaire, based on abstract principle more than concrete realities. And that, as we all know, is the classic flaw of radicals, not real conservatives.


    P.S.: I apologize in advance for any English errors.

  5. Rodrigo and Others:

    I will never understand how people outside the black community can pass judgment on Booker T. Washington, a brave black man who did what he believed was right for his people. Born a slave and living the rest of his life under Jim Crow, Washington experienced first-hand the danger of defending black liberty in the South. Consequently, his so-called "gradualist" approach was in his mind the best way to lift blacks from oppression and poverty without undue loss of life. As everyone knows, W.E.B. Du Bois was Washington's arch-rival in the civil rights debate of the early 1900s; he criticized Washington as an Uncle Tom for not demanding immediate and total equality and implicitly questioned his courage. Du Bois's position was noble, but unlike Washington he had the benefit of growing up in Massachusetts and attending Harvard University, so he faced little threat of personal harm for speaking his mind. (As for the communists, they exploited the blacks' plight for mere political power, as Ralph Ellison illustrates in his novel "Invisible Man.") Although Du Bois left as his legacy the invaluable NAACP, Washington bestowed on blacks the priceless gift of education through the Tuskegee Institute, underscoring the old adage about teaching a man to fish, as it were.

    Obviously, many white Southerners cynically championed Washington's cause because they planned never to extend the respect to blacks that Washington believed would be earned through skill and hard work, but we cannot vilify him for having been hopeful. We also must put ourselves in the minds of average Southerners of the time who may or may not have been racist but still faced upheaval and national scorn. I am willing to bet that most Southerners reacted more from pride in their homeland than hatred for blacks; through mere fate, Southern whites were born into a lugubrious world of guilt and defensiveness generated mainly by the Civil War and the draconian Reconstruction policies of Andrew Johnson, and that milieu persisted for generations. To say that slavery and Jim Crow were evil is to state a fact, and it takes a Manichean view to make that claim; but to say that Southerners simply should have let the nation–principally Northerners–dictate to them the proper method for solving local and regional conflicts is to ignore a key element of everyone's personality: pride. "Don't Tread on Me" is a slogan that captures the American spirit, for good or for ill. Recognizing that fact has nothing to do with ideology, which is why conservatives frequently rally around it and why Buckley, originally a Southerner himself, took his controversial positions. He made his statements when he was in his 30s; he lived to the age of 82 and, as Rodrigo states, changed some of his views. He also had the courage to make all of his views public and tested them on his long-running show "Firing Line." Both Buckley and Booker T. Washington displayed more integrity than I will ever have, so Buckley remains my hero and Washington, in my view, a legitimate champion of civil rights.



  6. Mr. Cote, you use the word "corrupt," not I. WFB's worst moment, I believe, was his excommunication of Pat Buchanan and Joe Sobran, effectively ending his career, for a phantom "anti-Semitism," which was directly influenced by the NYC literary crowd. He had cosmopolitan and ideological tendencies that have always made me uncomfortable (he often said that he didn't think he was "temperamentally" conservative), despite the enormous respect I have always had for his leadership. Having worked for one superstar for 25 years, I'm glad not to have been drawn into the NR circle.
    Rodrigo, I like most of your comments very much–they are actually quite generous and thoughtful and clearly seem to imply that you understand that the enemy of conservatism is not liberalism, it is ideology. I probably won't read Bogus's book–I'm tired of liberals telling us who and what to admire about conservatives. I would take you to task for two points: First, it was not Buckley and the conservatives who were responsible for Vietnam, it was Kennedy, Johnson and the liberal internationalists. I argued then and still do that conservatives were co-opted into what you call a Manichean Cold War out of misplaced patriotism. Second, please don't condescend to Booker T. Washington, a truly great American who will someday be given his due.

  7. John,

    "First, it was not Buckley and the conservatives who were responsible for Vietnam, it was Kennedy, Johnson and the liberal internationalists."

    Good point. But National Review embraced the cause, didn't it? And why did they do it, when international crusadism was a traditionally a liberal (if not radical) trait? Again, because the conservatism they professed was different from the Old Right and had accepted the US as a guardian of the free world. The obsession with communism (not exclusive of conservatives, of course) had a moral price in some of the causes spoused by them. Misplaced patriotism is a way of defining it, I agree with you.

    As to Booker T. Washington, I'm not condescending to him. I understand his position in a still harder time for black people and when the American dream of ascension seemed more real than it would seem later. But, in the 1950s, with the Civil Rights Movement going to the streets and scoring some victories, could his approach still look viable? Then, my point is: what could conservatives at the time offer blacks that was different from self-organising e requiring rights already included in the Constitution? I don't know if Buckley or any other thought of alternatives, but if their only positon was to criticize (and from some readings and from Bogus' book, it seems it was the only thing they did) they were in the wrong side. Was this approach inherent to the type of Conservatism they were building? I don't think it was, but even so it was their prevailing attitude (as far as I know). I'm happy Buckley reconsidered it.

    Just out of curiosity, John: you said you worked for a superstar. You mean, a real one?

    Thanks for your attention.


  8. Libertarianism stands next to Conservatism, but to the Left, with only the overlap of so-called “Fiscal” Conservatism. Individualism very soon drifts leftward into Libertarianism, only a short slippery-slope slide to antinomianism, anarchy, and/or Liberalism.

  9. When WFB founded ISI as “The International Society of Individualists,” Russell Kirk pointed out that it’s impossible to have a society of individualists. Thus ISI became the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Buckley was a popularizer, facilitator, and evangelist, but Russell Kirk was a sage and a prophet.

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