William F. Buckley, Jr., Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater (Basic Books, 2008).
Buckley’s book, Flying High, is much more a memoir of the conservative movement in the early 1960s than it is a biography of Goldwater. Indeed, without the subtitle and the book dust jacket bearing a picture of Goldwater campaigning in 1964, this might very well have been simply a work about Young Americans for Freedom or some other Buckley-sponsored organization.
This doesn’t, however, neglect the importance of the book. But, it probably does reveal two things. First, that Buckley and Basic Books thought this book would sell better with Goldwater in the title. And, two, that Buckley really did not have as much to say about Goldwater as he might have first supposed.
As with almost everything Buckley wrote, the book becomes autobiographical on page one.
I am the founder of a conservative journal which took its place, very soon afar its nativity, at the center of conservative political analysis in America. I, and others, expressed our resolve to resist collectivist solutions to problems at home and unprofitable accommodationalism in foreign policy.
To accomplish this, Buckley states, he helped create Young Americans for Freedom.
To give America’s conservative and libertarian youth a symbol, “we needed a national political figure around whom to consolidate, and so we transfigured Barry Goldwater.”
Frankly, Buckley sounds more utilitarian and Machiavellian than I was expecting.
To rally every one around Goldwater, a book, a manifesto, was needed (yes, I know I’m using lots of passive constructions here).
So, to explain “Americanism,” Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law, wrote The Conscience of a Conservative, giving credit to Goldwater.
Not surprisingly, Buckley has a number of great stories about various individuals in his circle: Charles Manion, a law professor at Notre Dame; Suzanne LaFollette, a former editor for Albert Jay Nock; James Burnham and Frank Meyer, former communists turned conservative.
The bad guy of the story is, unquestionably, the founder of the American Enterprise Institute, William Baroody. According to Buckley, it was the conniving and opportunistic Baroody who captured Goldwater and the Goldwater movement for his own personal benefit. He drove away Buckley and Russell Kirk as quickly as he could, believing them to be dangerous adversaries. Whatever Baroody did to or around Goldwater mattered not one bit, as long as he could secure money for his Washington, D.C. think tank.
Perhaps most tellingly, Baroody even wanted either to ignore or condemn Ronald Reagan’s famous television defense of Goldwater, “A Time for Choosing,” as he feared Reagan’s influence on the movement, possibly hijacking it, directing monetary resources away from his control. Only when a major donor, Walter Knotts (of Knott’s Berry Farm) intervened and threatened to pull out all kind of money from the campaign did Baroody back down.
Still, Goldwater never thanked Reagan for his efforts, and Nancy never forgot this. During the eight years of the Reagan presidency, Goldwater never entered the White House, as he was never welcome to do so.
Though Buckley never states it this explicitly, it becomes clear that the Goldwater movement suffered from the same ills as all anti-statist movements: a division between and within traditionalist, libertarian, and militarist (neo-con) camps.
While Buckley regrets Baroody’s influence over Goldwater’s movement, he suggests that the man himself remained himself. “He had emerged, in San Francisco, as a true individualist, an outsider–a non-union man.”
For better or worse, I’ve only grown interested in William F. Buckley in the last several years. Or, perhaps, it would be more accurate to state that I’ve only regained an interest in Buckley over the last several years.
I remember very well watching him sometime in the early 1980s debating with some Russian Communist on ABC’s Nightline. Toward the end of the debate, Buckley made a comment that the debate had been a sham, as the Russian would find a bullet in his head that night if he had spoken against the CP. Therefore, everything the man said was a simple lie. I was stunned and rather taken with Buckley at that moment.
I remember the scene well. It was over a holiday, there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, and I was traveling with my parents. We were staying at the White Haven motor lodge in Kansas City, Kansas, and I had just purchased “And Then There Were Three” by Genesis (several years after it first came out).
When I asked my mom about Buckley, she was rather dismissive, stating he had always been a trouble maker.
When I got back to my hometown, I started reading National Review and watching Buckley’s show, Firing Line. I must admit, though, at the time, I found each somewhat boring, and I wasn’t very taken with Buckley’s aristocratic demeanor. In politics, I was very taken with Reagan and others, such as David Stockman and Jack Kemp. But, when it came to reading, I was more interested in Henry Hazlitt, Milton Friedman, and Friedrich Hayek.
While this book isn’t nearly as intriguing and captivating as Buckley’s similar one on his friendship with Ronald Reagan, it is still excellent. The problem is that this book never quite captures the essence of Goldwater in the way Buckley so brilliantly understood Reagan. Of course, this might not be Buckley’s fault at all. Such a difference might very well reflect the respective personalities of the Arizonan and the Californian. And, this in turn might help explain why Reagan won with landslides against his opponents in 1980 and 1984, while Goldwater was trounced in 1964.
Whatever the reason, it’s a Buckley book and, therefore, revealing and important. As I get older, I find Buckley’s many eccentricities more interesting than annoying. I find his views on culture, politics, drugs, etc., far more enticing than I once did. And, while I of Kansas-German ancestry and farm stock will never quite get his Irish faux-aristocratism, I do appreciate that in the 1950s, he needed to be a character as eccentric and interesting as his friend, Jack Kerouac, to be taken seriously by the East Coast media and Ivy League elite.
Finally, on a personal note, I must state that my favorite part of the book was to be found at the end, a postscript of Buckley’s acknowledgements. There, I saw Buckley praise Arywnn Mattix. Arwynn, as it turns out, was a student in the very first class I taught at Hillsdale. I was taken with her and her abilities from the first few days of class, and I’m extremely proud to see she helped so much with this book. She will always be, to my mind, one of Hillsdale’s finest.
Dr. Bradley J. Birzer is co-founder of The Imaginative Conservative and a Senior Contributor. He is the author of Sanctifying the World: The Augustinian Life and Mind of Christopher Dawson, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Sanctifying Myth, and American Cicero: The Life of Charles Carroll. He is also author of The Humane Republic: The Imagination of Russell Kirk (forthcoming, University Press of Kentucky). Dr. Birzer also teaches Catholics in the Public Square for Catholic Courses.