It is hard to know where to begin in responding to Jack Trotter’s profile of a founding father of the modern conservative movement (“Remembering William F. Buckley, Jr.,” April/May 2020).

In discussing Buckley’s background, Trotter relies heavily on John Judis’s biography, Patron Saint of the Conservatives (1998). While Judis seems to provide an objective account, he was no impartial observer. At the time he wrote his biography, Judis was the editor of In These Times, a Trotskyist magazine based in Chicago. I read excerpts of his Buckley biography when it first appeared and concluded that it was nothing more than a hit job. A reviewer noted in Publishers Weekly, “Judis…strives to draw a balanced, objective portrait of arch-conservative Buckley, whose politics he clearly deplores.”

Let me tell you about the Bill Buckley I knew. I arrived at Georgetown University as a freshman in the fall of 1961. Buckley had been banned from speaking the year before I arrived because his views were considered “too radical.” He was finally invited to speak during my sophomore year, despite continued opposition. A leftist priest, Fr. McSorley, had gone around campus tearing down posters announcing Buckley’s upcoming appearance in the hope of discouraging a large turnout.

It had just the opposite effect. Students and faculty packed Gaston Hall to hear Buckley speak and answer questions. To a young conservative like myself, he was a breath of fresh air as he challenged the premises of the liberal establishment in an effective and humorous way. I still remember Buckley telling the audience that he would rather be governed by the first 35 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty. A liberal professor in attendance tried to get the better of Buckley with hostile questions, but to no avail: Bill Buckley made him look like a fool with a withering response.

Prof. Trotter may not appreciate how brilliantly Buckley once led the charge against the conventional liberal “wisdom” of his age and how he inspired young people like myself to join the conservative cause. Buckley’s book Up from Liberalism (1959)resonated with many of us. The book’s dedication read, “To Brent Bozell, James Burnham, John Chamberlain, Whittaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer—mentors, colleagues, friends.” Its preface was written by the novelist John Dos Passos. According to Dos Passos, “The ‘liberal’ mentality which Mr. Buckley puts over a barrel in this book is, I am beginning to suspect, the ideological camouflage of the will to power of this new ruling class.”

Prof. Trotter also slights the enormous influence of Willmoore Kendall on Buckley’s thinking. Kendall was Buckley’s teacher at Yale and also taught Brent Bozell, Buckley’s later collaborator and eventual brother-in-law. As David Frist points out in his accompanying article on Kendall (“Remembering Willmoore Kendall,” April/May 2020), “Buckley told the conservative publisher Henry Regnery: ‘I attribute whatever political and philosophical insights I have to (Kendall’s) tutelage and his friendship.’” Many “Buckleyisms,” e.g., the Committee to Abolish Original Sin and being governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston phone book, originated with Kendall.

Prof. Trotter correctly characterizes Buckley as a “Cold War conservative.” Buckley’s views were not derived from the interwar isolationist right, although he was clearly in sympathy with its critique of the New Deal. Rather he came to conservatism as a Catholic conservative whose views were shaped by his faith. He saw “atheistic Communism” as the principal threat of his time, and the Soviet Union as the power center of the Communists. His goals were the defense of Western civilization and the ultimate defeat of the Soviet Empire.

Buckley’ first books made those goals explicit. God and Man at Yale (1951) recounts the anti-Christian bias of many of his Yale professors. His second book, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954), coauthored with Brent Bozell, highlights the Communist infiltration of our government by Soviet spies. His magazine, National Review, was populated by a number of ex-Communists (or Communist sympathizers) who had seen the light and become fierce foes of Communism. An unwieldly coalition of conservatives made up of traditionalists, libertarians, and anti-Communists had come together by the early 1960s to challenge the liberal establishment. Much of the credit for the formation of that alliance goes to Buckley.

On the political front, National Review promoted Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy, which was effectively derailed by the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In 1964, Goldwater lost to Lyndon Baines Johnson in a landslide. Buckley, however persisted with his vision and found a new political champion in Ronald Reagan. Reagan was elected president 16 years later and orchestrated an effective strategy that won the Cold War and dismantled the Soviet Empire.

Buckley had realized his hopes to elect an unmistakably anti-Communist president and to witness the collapse of the Soviet Empire. It was a high point in his life—and in mine. As a foot soldier in those early days, I never thought I would see in my lifetime the defeat of the Soviet Empire and the election to the presidency of a conservative Republican. Buckley was one of the reasons I signed on to the conservative cause, and he was a major force in whatever success American conservatism achieved in bringing down the Communist empire.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for American conservatism. The unifying element in the unwieldy conservative coalition had been opposition to Communism. To that end, Cold War conservatives welcomed into our tent a group of self-styled, Scoop Jackson/Hubert Humphrey Democrats who had broken away from the McGovernites in control of the Democratic Party. Members of this group became known as “neoconservatives,” but they were never philosophical conservatives.

Nonetheless, we welcomed them as allies in the fight against the Soviet Empire. Both Reagan and Buckley threw out the welcome mat for them; I plead guilty as well. As director of a federal agency for President Reagan, I hired a number of neoconservatives. Most of them were recommended by the Heritage Foundation, which is a conservative think tank based in Washington, D. C.

I found out the hard way that the neoconservatives were only loyal to themselves. Moreover, their agenda was markedly different from what true conservatives believed. This problem was highlighted in what happened to Joe Sobran. A Buckley protégé, Sobran had been with National Review since 1972 and was a senior editor. He was, in the words of Matthew Scully, “the finest writer ever to pass through National Review.” Many compared Sobran to the great British author G. K. Chesterton.

In the late 1980s, Commentary Editor Norman Podhoretz and his wife Midge Decter waged an unrelenting campaign to get Joe Sobran fired at National Review for his alleged anti-Semitism. This, because Joe had been critical of Israel in some of his articles. Buckley yielded to the pressure, and Sobran was fired.

It was a portent of things to come. The magazine became the bully pulpit for the neoconservative war hawks eager to get us into endless wars in the Middle East. The worst example of this was David Frum’s cover story in National Review entitled “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in which Frum attacked all conservatives opposed to George W. Bush’s Iraq War as “unpatriotic.” That included conservatives on the right such as Robert Novak, Patrick Buchanan, Lew Rockwell, Thomas Fleming, and Paul Gottfried. By then, Buckley had surrendered control of National Review to the neocons.

Like most great men, Buckley had his feet of clay, but his achievements in my judgment clearly outweigh his mistakes. It is frequently overlooked that toward the end of his life, Buckley came out against the Iraq War and renewed his friendship with Sobran. One might have hoped that at that point he would have also broken with the neocons. But given his deteriorating health, that kind of move might not have been possible by then.

Prof. Trotter concludes his article by suggesting that Buckley had abandoned his early beliefs and succumbed to the “egalitarianism” exemplified by Harry Jaffa. Trotter quotes from an Atlantic piece by Buckley in support of his argument. Significantly, that same article concludes with Buckley’s statement that the American idea should be “grounded in the bulwark of Christian faith.” Although admittedly Buckley had been seduced by Jaffaite egalitarian doctrines from the 1970s on, he did periodically and clearly toward the end of his life move back to other inspirations. In his remarks about the need for a “virtuous people,” one could hear echoes of his teacher Willmoore Kendall talking about the “American Idea.”

—Tom Pauken
Vice-Chairman of Charlemagne Institute
Port Aransas, Texas


Prof. Trotter Replies:

Mr. Pauken is one of the greatest friends and supporters of this magazine, so I am especially eager to respond to his comments about my essay on Bill Buckley. I suspect we are more closely in agreement than he suggests.

Tom’s primary concerns are that I failed to discuss the role played by Buckley’s Up From Liberalism, which inspired a generation of young conservatives, and that I overlooked the influence of Willmoore Kendall on Buckley’s thought. I plead guilty—but with mitigating circumstances.

Initially, I intended to reserve a paragraph for Up From Liberalism, which was, indeed, a galvanizing work, especially for conservative college students who lacked both a “movement” with which they might identify, and a charismatic leader like Buckley whose rhetorical skills were such that “conservatism” acquired by his pen a new cachet. I was aware when I completed the piece that Up From Liberalism was conspicuously absent, but journalists are forever harassed by word limits and deadlines. I could not find a way to include that material.

I gave Kendall’s influence no more than a mention simply because Buckley’s long relationship with Kendall has been well-documented. I had nothing new to say about it and had other fish to fry. I became far more interested in the influence of men like the arch-Machiavel James Burnham.

I agree, and said so in my piece, that Reagan’s election was a watershed for the modern conservative moment. But along the way to that victory, Buckley lost his bearings. As Tom admits, he gradually drifted into the neoconservative camp. It may very well be true that in the last years of his life Buckley demonstrated awareness that America’s quest for global hegemony was dangerous and foolhardy. But by then he had lost control of National Review, so for all practical purposes it was too little, too late.