Buckley Revisited, Again

In a Chronicles Online review of the recent PBS documentary The Incomparable Mr. Buckley, Emina Melonic makes this telling observation:

William F. Buckley, Jr., is unrepeatable, both from the standpoint of history and his own uniqueness as a person. Any real assessment of Buckley can only happen from a distance, in a place where he is treated as a biographical subject.

One can accept this view without having to agree with everything that Buckley wrote and did throughout his life. It may be surprising to learn that at the time of his death in 2008, the purveyors of generally leftist opinions praised Buckley to the skies. When Buckley stepped down as National Review’s editor in 2005, Washington Post columnist E. J. Dionne confessed his “illicit love” for his ideological opponent. That’s because Dionne believed Buckley had cleansed the conservative establishment of “wingnuts”—that is, supposed anti-Semites and racists—and left behind a movement that was acceptable to an enlightened public.

From what Melonic tells us, that generous opinion has predictably changed since our ruling class has decided to treat Buckley as a precursor of Donald Trump. Despite all the social skills Buckley deployed in building up multiple friendships on the left, that side of the political spectrum has turned on him—a development easily predicted given the evidence that, at one time, Buckley did express unmistakably rightist views.

Where I depart from Melonic’s assessment is that I’m not sure Buckley consistently represented conservative principles so much as himself. He created the postwar American right and structured it around anti-Communism. Reenforcing that mission, of course, were other positions, such as defending the civilization America inherited from Britain and Europe, upholding a free market economy, and restoring a pre-New Deal constitutional regime. Although there was nothing in this rhetoric that would now strike a conventional conservative as unusual, what Buckley cobbled together showed the force of his extraordinary charm and verbal brilliance. As a young man, I was struck by how masterfully Buckley built an entire movement and kept it going by force of personality. Even then, however, I was increasingly turned off by Buckley’s crusading anti-Communism—and that was long  before he wandered off in a neoconservative direction.

I also became concerned with how Buckley lavished favors on his buddies on the left and the manner in which he inserted them into National Review, and then on his TV interview program, Firing Line. By the 1990s, Buckley made only feeble attempts to defend longtime friends and loyal employees who came under assault from the neocons and from those further on the left. 

Buckley also left his magazine in reliably non-right-wing hands by the time he stepped down as editor. Although National Review has journeyed further leftward since Buckley’s departure, it would be ridiculous to pretend that he had nothing to do with that development. The magazine had begun to move leftward on social issues (though not in its crusading anti-Communism) while Buckley was still technically in charge. 

Buckley also collaborated in reconstructing the early history of his magazine to make it appear that National Review  from the outset had been purging contributors from the far right. The early contributors who were driven away were mostly Jewish libertarians whom Buckley deemed insufficiently anti-Communist. Further, when National Review’s editorial board went after the Birchers in the mid-1960s, it was mostly for their opposition to the Vietnam War. Like many other American journalists in the second half of the last century, Buckley moved periodically to the left to remain “relevant.” He also moved in that direction during the second half of his life because of his extensive involvement in New York social life. 

In reading the annoyed online responses to Melonic’s sympathetic depiction of Buckley, I find myself saying to these critics “you’re right, but…” Everything Buckley’s critics on the right say is unfortunately true, but they fail to note why Buckley was “unrepeatable.” My generation of conservatives once worshipped Buckley as a hero, and I doubt that we were entirely wrong about the personal magnetism and debating verve that we associated with him. To make comparable examples, I adore Wagnerian music but concede that this object of my veneration suffered from character flaws. Ditto for the political philosopher Carl Schmitt, about whom I have written copiously. Why can’t we just admit that those whom we praise for their strengths and talents were also defective human beings and left behind a mixed legacy? 

In Buckley’s case, however, his blunders were particularly catastrophic because he turned on his onetime friends and followers. He also left the conservative movement in very bad hands. Buckley joined with the neocons in purging from the pages of his magazine those who didn’t fit the new face of conservatism after the 1980s. Not surprisingly, his magazine became tedious reading matter, even while it continued to be funded by donors whom Buckley attracted.

We might ask ourselves if the conservative movement Buckley bequeathed to a now-sclerotic American conservative establishment would have been different if he had behaved more courageously during the second half of his life. It may be hard to dismiss entirely the effect of his questionable personal decisions, but it would also be wrong to overestimate their significance. The neoconservative ascendancy of the 1980s would have occurred in all probability without Buckley’s collaboration. Lots of other players joined the well-heeled future winners, including Republican think tanks and newspapers like The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Times, and New York Post.

By the 1980s, there was a vast well-paid conservative establishment, and the overwhelming majority of its rent-seekers rushed to adopt the new party line and serve their new masters. Buckley’s enthusiastic assistance is regrettable but may not have mattered much, given the direction in which most professional conservatives were then moving. So determinative was the course the conservative movement took in the mid- and late 1980s that Buckley’s hypothetical opposition would not have delayed the result for very long. And it’s certainly conceivable that if the National Review editorial board had taken the positions that we at Chronicles did, such as opposing the open immigration and unrestrained global capitalism that has devastated the American middle class, it might have suffered a similar isolation.

Although I doubt Buckley and his old friends could have saved us from the conservative movement’s unhappy transformation, he did do things in the 1980s that went well beyond accepting a fait accompli. For example, Buckley paid a surreptitious visit to then-President Reagan in the company of the president of the Heritage Foundation. The two went to plead against the appointment of M. E. Bradforda Southern paleoconservative and Chronicles contributor—to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for Humanities and to push the candidacy of Bill Bennett, who was then the neoconservative alternative.

Buckley’s shocking visit to President Reagan on behalf of Bennett, in which he defamed Bradford, turns up inter alia in Mark Gerson’s 1996 book The Neoconservative Vision: From the Cold War to the Culture Wars. This book, which profusely praises the neoconservative “accomplishment,” treats Buckley quite favorably for his action against Bradford. Please note that at the same time this was occurring, Bradford’s longtime debating opponent, the Claremont School’s Harry Jaffa, as well as the Marxist historian of the South, Eugene Genovese, were openly rushing to defend him against this unfair treatment.

I spoke with Bradford after Bennett’s appointment, and he had mistakenly imagined that Buckley, his longtime comrade-in-arms, had stood by him throughout his struggle with the neoconservatives. Unfortunately, that was not the case—it was his “friend” who was holding the dagger. Here, as in other matters, Buckley did not “stand athwart History and yell ‘Stop!’” He fell far short of what he expected of others in the movement that he helped create. 

As a final memory, I recall my correspondence with Buckley in the 1990s, when he asserted that he had never changed his political or moral principles. I only wish that were true. 

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