In 1955, when William F. Buckley, Jr. published the first issue of National Review, the conservatism that he and his journal represented stood, isolated and forlorn, at the very outer margins of intellectual and political respectability. A quarter-century later, with the election of the most conservative President since the 1920’s—and one who claimed National Review as his favorite magazine—Buckley and his conservative movement had moved to the vital center of American political culture. It was an extraordinary progression, and one that, properly understood, can tell us much of what we need to know to make sense of American politics in our time.
The occasion for such an analytical exercise is provided by the appearance of John B. Judis’s biographical study, William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.1 It is an odd sort of book, one in which subject and author make an awkward fit. Judis is a man of the Left, a senior editor of the socialist journal In These Times and a contributor to a variety of other left-wing magazines ranging from the New Republic to the Progressive. Given the incompatibility between his politics and Buckley’s, one might reasonably expect to encounter here an ideological demolition project, a radical’s unveiling of the villainies of a leader of the reactionary Right.
Yet one gets no such thing. If Judis’s portrait of Buckley cannot properly be described as admiring, neither is it anything like a hatchet job. The book reads as if the author had come to an agreement with his subject, according to which, in exchange for access to Buckley’s personal papers and an open door to interviews with his family and friends, Judis would undertake to offer as impartial and dispassionate an ideological reading as possible. That, anyway, is the sense the reader gets, although Judis cannot resist an occasional political zinger, and much of the rest of the time writes as if he were working through clenched teeth.
Overall, the book has a distinctly equivocal and uncertain tone. Having exercised restraint in his political judgments, Judis compensates with gratuitous criticisms of Buckley’s style of life and career development. It is Judis’s dubious thesis that success has spoiled Bill Buckley, that his original critical edge has been lost through entry into the Establishment and descent into “celebritydom.” Judis appears to hold it against Buckley that his side has prospered and that, in the process, Buckley himself has become the sort of public personality to whom attention is paid for often trivial reasons. There is a peculiar process of critical displacement at work here, and it gives the book a certain off-center, unfocused quality. Judis, one feels, pushes his essentially petty criticism of Buckley’s social role in place of the potentially serious ideological critique he has denied himself. The result is a work that never adequately comes to grips with its subject.
But it is not, for all that, a bad book, simply a less than fully satisfactory one. Judis has amassed and arranged in good order a great amount of personal and political detail, and he has a number of sensible (if also some silly) things to say about the development of conservatism, and Buckley’s role in it, over the past three decades. Beyond that, his evident effort at ideological restraint, whatever its costs, is not only commendable in itself but properly allows the reader to focus attention on the book’s subject rather than its author.
It is characteristic of William Buckley that he should take the risk of placing himself in the hands of a potential enemy. As an individual, he frequently displays quite unconservative affinities for tempting fate, engaging the new, and seeking after the unknown. Buckley has said of himself that for all his philosophical and spiritual attachment to conservatism, “temperamentally I am not of the breed.”
It seems clear that Buckley’s ability to hold on to stable and traditional beliefs even while he indulges his instinct for change and variety traces to an unusually strong sense of self, which in turn finds its origin in childhood and family circumstances that were at once reassuringly secure and constantly stimulating. His father was the remarkable Will Buckley, a lawyer and businessman from Texas who made a fortune in oil in Mexico early in the century before getting embroiled in counterrevolutionary activities that finally (in 1921-22) resulted in his expulsion from the country and the confiscation of his property. Those events reinforced tendencies, already well developed, toward unyielding hatred of revolutionary politics and an equally intense devotion to the operations of the free market. After Mexico, Will Buckley directed his efforts to rebuilding his fortune (it took time, but he managed it successfully) and raising the large family that he and his wife, Aloise Steiner, had begun after their marriage in 1917.
Bill was born in 1925, the sixth of ten children. The Buckleys were an extraordinary family. Father ruled with an imperious and rather aloof hand (he spent much of his time in New York on business away from Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Connecticut, and he often preferred to communicate with his children through letters and memos rather than in person). His wife, a gracious, kindly, extroverted Southern belle, balanced Will’s patriarchal sternness with gentle affection, even as she reinforced the deep Catholic piety that bound the marriage and the family together.
The Buckley family was a fortress unto itself, whether at Great Elm or in its frequent excursions abroad. (By the time Bill was thirteen, he had lived for varying periods in Venezuela, France, and England.) Will, a cultured and widely-read man, personally supervised the children’s early education, and a succession of tutors, Mexican nanas, governesses, and special instructors turned the various Buckley residences into family schoolhouses as well. The education was rigorous and challenging—Bill had studied Latin and was fluent in French and Spanish before he entered prep school—and when Will was in residence he turned the dinner hour into a tutorial on current learning and a catechetical instruction on the proper views to be taken toward contemporary affairs.
It was more than the circumstances of their life or the natural clannishness of a large family that made the Buckleys particularly close. Will, who had grown up a deeply traditional Catholic in Protestant Texas, and whose formative adult experiences left him a profound enemy of any variety of Left politics (Communism was the very Antichrist), passed on to his children, apparently without exception, a counterrevolutionary ethos that marked them in their own minds as outsiders and rebels against the dominant strains of American life. They applied to themselves the Tory anarchist Albert Jay Nock’s conceit of “the Remnant,” a permanently embattled and cohesive minority upholding elite standards of civilization amidst the barbarian darkness. Will, for all his laissez-faire principles and business acumen, had nothing but contempt for vulgar materialism, and he urged his children to use the freedom his money gave them to pursue lives of intellectual and moral excellence. When it came time for the Buckley children each in turn to venture out of the tight family circle into the wider world, they did so as ideologues and crusaders determined to set their society straight as to its political and theological heresies.
None did so with greater enthusiasm or argumentative flair than Bill. The star of his father’s dinner-table interrogations, the brightest and quickest in a pack of able and competitive siblings, Will’s namesake absorbed without question the family orthodoxy. But he was not always, in his early years, an entirely successful proselytizer for the faith. Aware of his own precocity, imperious in manner, he antagonized as many of his contemporaries with his arrogance and snobbishness as he impressed with his brilliance. Even members of the family found him hard to take at times; one of his older sisters, Judis tells us, referred to him as “the young mahster.” In his prep-school days at Millbrook, Buckley, for all his ability, was a favorite neither of his teachers nor of his fellow students. He began to master the arts of social acceptability in his years in the army from 1944 to 1946; there he learned to moderate his instinctive combativeness and to distinguish between ideological compatibility and personal friendship.
Buckley flourished at Yale in his career there from 1946 to 1950. He starred in debate (especially in partnership with L. Brent Bozell, later his brother-in-law) and achieved his highest desire, chairmanship of the Yale Daily News. In those years he also met Pat Taylor, member of a very wealthy and very conservative Canadian family, whom he married just after graduation. If Buckley had gained maturity and social polish, however, he had not lost his ideological edge. He managed to outrage the Yale administration with his public attacks—later elaborated in God and Man at Yale (1951)—on the university’s failure openly to advocate free-enterprise economics and the Christian religion. If doctrines of academic freedom got in the way of such advocacy, he suggested, so much the worse for them. Buckley found support and encouragement for his ideas in the populist majoritarian views of a renegade member of the Yale political-science department, Willmoore Kendall, who spoke of a “public orthodoxy” that any society had the right to define and enforce against recalcitrant minorities.
Following graduation, and after discarding ideas of going on to law or graduate school, Buckley first brought himself to public attention with the publication of God and Man at Yale. Next followed a brief (and apparently uneventful) stint with the CIA in Mexico, after which he moved to New York City and busied himself for eighteen months, along with Brent Bozell, in the research and writing of his most controversial work, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954). If God and Man at Yale had made Buckley outrageous, the book in defense of McCarthy—which appeared just before the Army-McCarthy hearings that brought low the junior Senator from Wisconsin—made him, as Judis notes, a pariah.
After a series of false starts, Buckley brought out the first issue of National Review late the following year, portraying it and himself standing “athwart history, yelling Stop.” For years to come, Buckley’s position in American political thought remained as isolated as that remark indicates, and he was generally dismissed as an intellectual oddity rather than a significant contributor to national political debate. Even the Goldwater movement of 1964, to which National Review undoubtedly made a significant contribution, seemed in its ultimate disastrous failure against Lyndon Johnson a marginal and sectarian enterprise. Yet history, oddly enough, was gradually moving in Buckley’s direction, even if in a manner neither fast enough nor full enough to satisfy him. For conservative politics and ideas began to take on quasi-respectable status by the late 1960’s, less perhaps in their own right than as alternatives to the widely-perceived inanities and excesses of the New Left and the New Politics.
As conservatism’s fortunes looked up, so did Buckley’s career. The process began with his quixotic but highly publicized race for mayor of New York in 1965 and with the sprightly account of the campaign he published the following year, The Unmaking of a Mayor. That book, as Judis observes, revealed to the public a side of Buckley previously known only to his family and close associates. Instead of the arrogant, derisive, condescending persona with which people thought themselves familiar, they encountered in Unmaking an engaging and charming figure who, for all his customary archness, could laugh at himself as easily as at others.
The man whom the Left, when it noticed him at all, had loved to hate turned out to be not nearly so personally obnoxious as had earlier been thought. Indeed, Buckley’s circle of friends has always included people—Murray Kempton, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Mailer, and many others—whose political views are entirely alien to his own. (It should be noted as a general point that Judis provides a good deal of evidence to indicate that Buckley is a genuinely decent man: loyal and generous to his friends, forbearing, forgiving, and tolerant in personal relations, incapable of racial or religious prejudice, and a prolific dispenser throughout his adult life of anonymous gifts of charity.)
As Buckley’s audience widened and softened in its attitudes toward him, his marketability increased. He had already begun a syndicated column in 1962 and the TV show Firing Line followed in 1966. The greatest breakthrough came five years later with Cruising Speed, a narrative diary (laced with personal revelation and ideological commentary) of a week in the frantic Buckley life. It provided the perfect form for Buckley’s skills, and it was probably the best received of all his many books. Buckley’s sailing diaries, Airborne (1976) and Atlantic High (1982), also got favorable notices, although Cruising Speed‘s successor, Overdrive, appearing a dozen years after the original, received a number of nasty and sarcastic comments relating to its presumed self-absorption, snobbery, and vulgarity.
Judis seizes on the reaction to Overdrive to drive home his argument that the Buckley of recent years has sunk to the status of “celebrity intellectual.” Buckley has been damaged, Judis suggests, by the acceptance of conservatism and by his own drift into public esteem, self-satisfaction, and consequent loss of critical bite. In Judis’s estimation Buckley performed better as impassioned critic of liberal regimes than he does as complacent defender of Ronald Reagan, with whom he has close personal as well as political ties. Loss of combativeness has made Buckley “mellow and uninteresting”; no longer a “public outrage,” he has been defeated by his own success.
It is difficult to know what to make of such criticism. If Buckley is afflicted with “malaise,” as Judis says, it certainly has not affected his productivity. Between his work at National Review, his column, Firing Line, some 50 speeches a year, articles and reviews of various sorts, and his books (he writes at a book-a-year pace, alternating between nonfiction and the popular and well-crafted Blackford Oakes spy series, which began with Saving the Queen in 1975), Buckley’s output suggests the efforts of a small syndicate, not a lone individual. It also places Judis’s frequent slighting references to Buckley’s social life in proper perspective: either Buckley does not party nearly so often as Judis indicates, or if he does, he has such extraordinary energy that it does not interfere with his truly Stakhanovite work record. If Buckley has a problem in this area, it is that he is so overburdened that his work—as in his column, for example—occasionally displays evidence of excessive haste.
To say that Buckley has lost his critical edge is simply to put a negative spin on conservatism’s relative success in recent years. Buckley has not necessarily gone soft; rather, he now has something to defend. In any case, he has not become nearly so accommodationist as Judis sometimes suggests. If Buckley’s manner of expression has to some degree softened, his bedrock, hard-Right beliefs have changed very little—a point Judis is forced to concede, although he ignores the significance of that concession for his radical-to-establishmentarian thesis. As for Judis’s related argument that Buckley has lost his position as the dominating central figure of the conservative movement, that again reflects conservatism’s enlarged and more varied condition, not necessarily a loss of vitality on Buckley’s part.
Considered objectively, Buckley’s writing—at its best—is today more finished, more commanding, more persuasive than it has ever been, and Overdrive is among his best books, not his worst, even if Judis and other critics ignore its strengths in order to engage in misguided and fussily ad hominem cultural criticism. Buckley writes about the wealth and luxury that have always been part of his life in a straightforward and matter-of-fact manner, and his attitude on such issues is not vulgar but innocent. He does not flaunt his wealth but neither does he—vulgarly—apologize for it. Indeed, he is grateful for his material advantages, as for the other good things in his life, and the petition of gratitude with which he concludes Overdrive would better be emulated than scorned.
It makes little sense to focus criticism of Buckley on the conditions of his life or the way he writes about them. Buckley’s life and career have been by any reasonable measure a success. It is his ideas that need attending to.
The traditional claim of the Jesuits was that if they could have a child through age six, they would have him forever. Will Buckley had his children for considerably longer than that, and the results showed. The evidence indicates that Bill Buckley, although a naturally rebellious child, absorbed from his father a set of fundamental beliefs—Roman Catholicism, anti-Communism, and laissez-faire economics—from which he not only has never departed but which he never has felt the need to question. For the first (and most essential) of those beliefs he attempted publicly to proselytize only at the outset of his career—and then in generic form; but in support of the latter two he has been, throughout his life, a most zealous defender of the faith. That spirit of zealotry, more than the beliefs themselves, is what has given Buckley’s public life its distinctive character. Virtually all American conservatives, after all, are sympathetic to free-market economics and opposed to Communism; it is the intensity and purity of Buckley’s devotion to those principles that sets his conservatism apart.
Buckley’s first public cause bore all the trappings of a religious crusade. In God and Man at Yale he not only argued that the university’s alumni should see to it that the faculty inculcate in students the principles of Christianity (as well as of individualism and free-market economics), but he cast his argument in terms that breathed the spirit of traditional Catholicism, with its dictum that “error has no rights which truth is bound to observe.” Faculty members who continued to foster atheism and socialism (or even humanism and liberalism) should be sent packing. In the cause of upholding objective truth, academic freedom must give way to the principle of consumer (in this case alumni) sovereignty.
Buckley intended an academic counterrevolution. The free marketplace of ideas must be replaced by right ideas, by the “public orthodoxy” Willmoore Kendall had spoken of. The free marketplace, Buckley argued, did not in any case exist; Yale had already announced it would not hire Communists and, he was sure, it would not hire racists, either. What he was proposing, then, was not the imposition of limits that had not previously been observed, but rather their more precise and narrow definition.
Some critics of Buckley’s book (especially Catholic ones) noted that it represented, in Judis’s words, “a strange hybrid of religious traditionalism and libertarian and individualistic economics.” Buckley had applied to the Yale situation the complex of values he had learned from his father. He apparently had not noticed, any more than had his father, that the parts of this value system did not cohere in perfect harmony. His critics delighted in pointing out to him the long tradition in Catholic social thought antagonistic to unregulated capitalism and excessive individualism. Those criticisms seem to have left at least some impression; Buckley thereafter was more sensitive to the tension between virtue and freedom that was in fact to become one of the abiding preoccupations of the National Review circle in years to come.
Buckley’s assault on conventional liberal assumptions in education piqued the curiosity (and, in most instances, aroused the fury or scorn) of the intellectual community, but it involved, in the end, only an obscure corner of public concern. That was not at all the case with his next such assault in the book he wrote with Brent Bozell, McCarthy and His Enemies. If there was anything that inspired passionate unanimity among liberals in the early 1950’s it was the proposition that Senator McCarthy and his reckless demagoguery on the issue of domestic Communism represented a threat to civil liberties and an objective moral evil. Opposition to that proposition they took to be not merely wrongheaded but evidence of inadequate moral perception. (Several years later Dwight Macdonald said to Buckley, “You know, you never understood the real evil of McCarthy.” Buckley, as one might expect, responded that indeed he had not.)
Buckley and Bozell attempted to establish their case by distinguishing between McCarthy on the one hand and McCarthyism on the other. They criticized the Senator on a number of specific points, while striving to vindicate what they took to be his larger purpose, “the elimination of security risks in government.” And their conclusion, in words that were to live forever in the annals of liberal infamy, expressed confidence that “as long as McCarthyism fixes its goal with its present precision, it is a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.” It is for that statement, if for nothing else, that a large number of Americans—not all of them liberals—will never entirely be able to make their peace with William Buckley.
The issue of McCarthyism made Buckley a pariah, but it was more than that which placed him and the early National Review outside the mainstream of American political conversation. The 1950’s are popularly recalled as an age of consensus, and it is indeed the case that at no time in modern history have Americans enjoyed so much fundamental agreement on so many essential issues as they did during those years. They were agreed first of all on an anti-Communism that resisted not just Marxist doctrines but Marxist categories of thought, and that resolutely opposed the advance of Soviet influence beyond its existing borders. Liberals and conservatives quarreled, often noisily, over the tactical details of foreign policy, but on the essential strategy of the containment of Communism there was bipartisan agreement.
In domestic affairs, the consensus was less extensive, but still more far-reaching than at any time since at least the 1920’s. Most Americans supported a system of mildly-regulated free enterprise undergirded by a moderate welfare state. They disagreed among themselves as to the proper degree of regulation or provision of economic security, but few wanted either to dismantle the New Deal or radically to extend it.
Buckley and his friends would have no part of the Eisenhower consensus. They treated the President himself in dismissive terms that bordered on contempt, and they worked tirelessly (and mostly in intellectual isolation) to undermine the foundations of the centrist unity over which he presided. While virtually all other observers, then and since, have characterized the age as essentially conservative, the eccentric angle of vision of the Buckleyites led them to portray it as one of regnant Liberalism (the word was regularly capitalized), a condition accounted for by “Fabian operators” who had obtained control over both political parties. The National Review conservatives—in the context of the times, they might better be termed radicals of the Right—did want to dismantle the New Deal. They were free-market purists to whom the faintest whiff of Keynesianism was anathema, and they viewed virtually any form of the welfare state as an unacceptable interference with personal freedom and an insidious threat to the maintenance of moral character.
But it was the particular nature and style of their anti-Communism that most galvanized the Buckley conservatives and set them apart from the prevailing national mood. For the editors of National Review, the dominant strain of anti-Communism in the country—and in the America of the 50’s, anti-Communism was a political assumption, not a matter of discussion—lacked sufficient intensity and passion and depth. It did not possess the minds of its holders as it should. This insufficiency was reflected, Buckley and his associates thought, in anti-McCarthyism, in the willingness to countenance negotiations with the Soviet Union, in the kind of strategic timidity that satisfied itself with containment when the end pursued should be rollback and, ultimately, the final destruction of Communism everywhere. All this added up to a policy that, nominally anti-Communist, in fact was pervaded with the spirit of what National Review perceived (and relentlessly scorned) as anti-anti-Communism.
One can perhaps best get the sense of National Review‘s anti-Communism by comparing it with the ideology of anti-fascism that dominated the Popular Front mentality of the 1930’s. In each case, the term implies more than opposition to a particular regime or even a political philosophy. It suggests a comprehensive counter-ideology of its own, a system of total politics, one consumed by what it opposes and which therefore constructs a political universe in terms that derive almost exclusively from the felt imperatives of the conflict with the enemy.
The emotional force of the Buckley circle’s anti-Communism is most effectively conveyed in the work that became for them an almost sacred text, Whittaker Chambers’s Witness (1952). Buckley himself was profoundly moved by the book, and in 1954 began a close friendship with the author that lasted until Chambers’s death in 1961. Chambers’s account of his journey from Communism to anti-Communism, culminating in his epochal struggle in court against Alger Hiss in a case that took on mythic proportions, remains an enormously powerful work. The personal and political torments that Chambers endured and the agonies and soulwrenchings they inflicted on him give the book a Dostoevskian quality that makes it far more than just another anti-Communist memoir. People of any religious sensibility whatsoever cannot but be moved by its spiritual intensity, and its political cautionary power endures: the most complacent and prosaic reader comes away from Witness with a reawakened sense of the incalculable stakes involved in the struggle over Communism.
Yet Witness is at the same time a most unreliable base on which to build a politics. It is written out of the hermetic experience of the ex-Communist, and it conceives of politics in essentially apocalyptic terms. Here the only significant actors are Communists and ex-Communists, and in the end one is either a revolutionary or a counterrevolutionary. (Mere conservatives, Chambers informs us, are helpless in the struggle against Communism because they do not comprehend that the conflict cannot be won or even understood “except in terms of total sacrifice.”)
From such a perspective, critical intermediate distinctions easily get blurred. Thus for Chambers the New Deal was, however innocently, on the wrong side of the revolution/counterrevolution divide and therefore objectively aligned with those it thought it opposed: “Men who could not see that what they firmly believed was liberalism added up to socialism could scarcely be expected to see what added up to Communism.” Chambers radically misread the American situation (even if the particular circumstances of his case made that misreading quite understandable):
The simple fact is that when I took up my little sling and aimed at Communism, I also hit something else. What I hit was the forces of that great socialist revolution, which, in the name of liberalism, spasmodically, incompletely, somewhat formlessly, but always in the same direction, has been inching its ice cap over the nation for two decades. [Emphasis added]
This is the mentality which informed National Review at its origin and which one still perceives today in its frequent collective reference to all the forces on the Left, from liberals to Marxists, as “the Hive.”
The irony of the National Review‘s relationship with Chambers is that after writing Witness Chambers edged away from some of the formulations in it that Buckley and others on the Right had so eagerly taken up; Chambers became uneasy when his erstwhile students failed to make the distinctions he now was ready to recognize. Buckley could not persuade Chambers to sign on with National Review as a senior editor at its founding, and Judis makes clear that his later brief association with the journal (1957-59) was strained and uncomfortable. Chambers argued with the other editors over what he took to be their excessively rigid views on domestic and foreign issues alike. He contrasted National Review‘s conservatism with his own “Beaconsfield position.” The reference to Disraeli suggests what Chambers had in mind: a more flexible and politically sophisticated conservatism that would make necessary accommodations with modern economic conditions and, without at all relaxing its philosophical and spiritual opposition to Communism, take a non-apocalyptic approach to U.S.-Soviet relations.
Yet Buckley, for all his warm regard for Chambers, was not about to turn National Review in a pragmatic direction or to give up the journal’s pride of place in being out of step with history. The magazine was populated heavily with ex-Communists, people who had been over into the future, seen that it did not work, and become obsessed with relaying that message to their fellow citizens, most of whom, never having been tempted by the Communist heresy in the first place, found it difficult to make sense of the passionate urgency of those who had, and had then changed their minds. It was not easy working with zealots: Buckley expended extraordinary amounts of personal energy mediating among the many people of extreme moods and ideologies who filled his journal’s editorial chairs.
National Review in the 50’s and early 60’s remained a journal of the hard Right. It supported McCarthy to the bitter end (devoting two issues to tributes to him on his death in 1957), defended the white South against integration in the name of states’ rights (Buckley, personally without prejudice, flirted with racial assumptions in his arguments against civil rights), and maintained what Judis aptly terms a “quasi-religious” attitude toward the cold war. The magazine’s political purity—what Buckley termed “maintaining the paradigm”—revealed itself in a refusal to choose between Nixon and Kennedy in 1960. Buckley’s conservatism still evoked the spirit of Nock’s concept of the Remnant, aristocratic in temper and lukewarm toward democracy, and so remained at the margins of political or intellectual influence.
Yet events were moving Buckley and the conservatism he represented toward a position of greater political relevance. In part, that movement came from Buckley’s own actions. National Review might border on political extremism, but Buckley always had enough sense—and innate decency and sanity—to distance himself from the truly flaky Right. The journal repudiated Ayn Rand’s extreme libertarian individualism in the late 50’s, and, in a more significant action, dissociated itself from the John Birch Society in a number of articles in the early 60’s. The break with the Birchers, as Judis rightly notes, began to edge Buckley and National Review back into the intellectual respectability they had forfeited with their support of McCarthy (even if the break cost the magazine a number of subscribers and some significant financial support).
The 1960’s in any case marked a radical change in mood from the 50’s, and so witnessed a substantial alteration of political possibilities. On both Left and Right, stability and political placidity gave way to rapid, sometimes convulsive, change. The reawakening took place in the first instance on the Right, in the Goldwater movement of 1964 that signaled a revolt of the Hoover-Taft wing of the Republican party against the moderate Dewey-Eisenhower-Rockefeller forces which had controlled GOP presidential politics since 1940. Goldwater’s nomination resulted in a landslide victory for Lyndon Johnson in November, but the correlation of forces within the Republican party had been permanently rearranged. Buckley and National Review gave enthusiastic support to the Goldwater uprising, even though Buckley harbored private reservations over Gold-water’s abilities and over the potential damage a severe Goldwater defeat might do to long-term conservative fortunes. The Goldwater forces, for their part, kept Buckley and his journal at arm’s length; one suspects they understood that it would do Goldwater’s chances more harm than good if he were to become identified as Buckley’s candidate.
The defeat of Goldwater seemed to confirm Buckley’s worst fears concerning the future of conservatism. The Republican Right had been discredited in the debacle, and in President Johnson’s Great Society program a reinvigorated Left began the most ambitious extension of social reform since the 1930’s. Yet within a very few years everything had turned around. The Left’s ascendancy disintegrated into conditions of chaos and bitter internal division, a situation approaching a Hobbesian war of all against all. And so, virtually by default, conservatism found itself presented with new political and intellectual opportunities. Thus to understand the Right’s revival, one has to keep one’s eyes on the Left.
The problems for the Left began with the Great Society, which had its successes but which from the beginning cost more than had been expected and produced less than had been promised. At the heart of the Great Society agenda was the War on Poverty, which had as a particular target the improvement of conditions of life among urban racial minorities. Statistical indices of wealth for the urban poor turned upward, but social conditions—whether in education, crime, drug use, or family stability—appeared simultaneously to deteriorate. Worst of all, the nation’s inner cities were torn every summer from mid-decade onward in waves of arson, looting, and random violence. Liberalism had promised that the problems of the cities could be dealt with through the extension of New Deal reform methods; the riots made this position look feeble, and they created a backlash on racial issues rooted not simply in traditional attitudes of racism (though there was plenty of that) but also in sober reassessments of prevailing liberal views on the sources and solutions of the pathologies of urban life.
But it was Vietnam that provided the essential source of the Left’s breakdown. The problem was not only the intensely divisive nature of the issue itself, but the immense ideological overflow it generated. Ever since the late 1940’s, liberalism had found itself in an unnatural condition of ideological restraint. Postwar prosperity and, above all, the deradicalizing tendencies of the cold war had restricted the instinctive leftward urges of the liberal community that had flourished under the New Deal. By the mid-60’s, enormous ideological pressure had built up, and Vietnam provided the occasion for it to explode. The spectacular and undisciplined nature of that explosion bore a direct relationship to the protracted period of time in which liberals had repressed their true feelings and adopted a pragmatic moderation that could not begin to satisfy their inner longings.
Vietnam brought an end to the bipartisan policy of containment and, more importantly, to the anti-Communist consensus on which it had been built. That meant the obscuring of the clear distinctions which had carefully been drawn between liberals and radicals since the dissolution of the Popular Front. The New Left repudiated the generation-old prohibition on Marxist analysis and on cooperation with Communist groups, while the New Politics, on this as on so much else, fell into hopeless confusion and uncertainty. Most of the newly radicalized liberals opted in the end for a politics of generalized moral outrage that avoided actual identification with the Marxist Left, but at the same time they discarded their principled opposition to Communism in favor of a lofty “Communism-is-irrelevant” position. This allowed them to adopt radical stances without regard for the company they found themselves in or for the results of the positions they took.
As liberals lurched leftward into neoradicalism, conservatives found themselves occupying the deserted Center. Suddenly all the terrible things about liberalism that Buckley and National Review had been saying for years—things which at the time (and still in retrospect) seemed extreme and inordinate—took on an air of sober reality. There was a new congruence between the way Buckley perceived the liberal community and the way it actually behaved. When Buckley observed in 1956 that he would “sooner be governed by the first two thousand people in the Boston telephone directory than by the two thousand members of the faculty of Harvard University,” his observation had seemed clever but facile and overdrawn; a decade or so later, with the campuses—Harvard chief among them—overrun by febrile and deracinated radicals, it seemed the epitome of good sense and a sound starting place for locating oneself politically. Not all that many Americans actually converted to conservatism in the late 60’s and early 70’s, but a great many of them did begin to draw away from the Left.
It was during the 60’s that Buckley, in Judis’s estimate, began the process which in time transformed him from outsider to insider, from radical ideologue to conservative establishmentarian. That is true in the limited sense that an altered political landscape caused Buckley to be seen in a new perspective; things he said, for example, during the New York mayoral race concerning crime and welfare that were brushed aside in 1965 as reactionary and racist came up for sympathetic reconsideration a few years later as the urban crisis deepened and conventional views on the subject appeared increasingly implausible. The political spectrum, in other words, had on at least some issues moved far enough in Buckley’s direction to bring him within the compass of political respectability.
It is also true that, given the new circumstances, Buckley showed himself willing to make greater concessions to political reality than he earlier had been. Richard Nixon, when he ran for the Republican nomination in 1968, assiduously courted Buckley’s support (that he felt the need to do so indicates the increased conservative influence in the party), and Buckley, who knew well that Nixon was not a National Review conservative, nonetheless kept the journal evenhanded as between Nixon and Ronald Reagan, an action that angered a number of the magazine’s editors. (Reagan had just been elected Governor of California in 1966 and Buckley considered him too inexperienced for the presidency.) In November, National Review endorsed Nixon over Hubert Humphrey, its first endorsement of a candidate who was not a movement conservative.
But it was also in connection with Nixon that Buckley indicated the degree to which he was still committed to the conservative paradigm. Nixon, the quintessential conservative pragmatist, moved gradually toward the Center during his presidency, especially after the Republicans did badly during the 1970 congressional elections. That move, culminating in Nixon’s announcement in July 1971 that he would visit China, led Buckley to bring together a number of conservative activists—the Manhattan Twelve, as they became known—to consider what must be done. After some debate, the group announced that it was “suspending support” of the President. The administration remained obdurate: a month later Nixon announced wage-price controls and two months later his intention to visit Moscow the following year to negotiate the SALT treaty. By the end of the year the Twelve declared their intention to support Congressman John Ashbrook as an opponent to Nixon for the Republican nomination in 1972. It was, of course, an act of sheer political folly, and it went precisely nowhere. Buckley and National Review beat a lame retreat and, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern, offered lukewarm support for Nixon’s reelection.
The Watergate scandal not only wrecked the Nixon administration but short-circuited the national trend toward conservatism. Yet while the Democrats took back the White House in 1976 (National Review strongly supported Reagan’s narrowly unsuccessful attempt that year to take the Republican nomination away from Gerald Ford), the Carter administration’s ideological flaccidity, plus its unfortunate combination of ineptitude and bad luck, foreclosed any possibility of a genuine liberal revival. By the late 70’s the nation found itself in a condition of political, economic, and ideological stagnation.
If, by that time, conservatism could not accurately be described as holding a dominant position in American political thought, it had undoubtedly, if erratically, improved its condition since the early 1960’s. And as conservative influence grew, the ranks became more crowded and more varied. In the late 50’s, Buckley and National Review had constituted whatever there was of conservative thought. (American conservatism has always fared better politically than it has in the intellectual realm.) In the aftermath of the convulsions of the 60’s, that was no longer the case.
There was, on the one hand, the New Right, which had its origins in the conservative populist campaign of George Wallace in 1968 but which broadened to become a general reaction against modernist liberal values in virtually all areas of American social life. Even though the New Right deviated little from National Review on specific issues, its populist character made it somewhat alien to Buckley’s “elitist” conservatism. The differences had to do essentially with matters of style and emphasis. The New Right social base was in the lower middle class, a long way removed from Buckley’s patrician style or instincts. It focused its attention on social concerns such as busing, crime, racial quotas, and welfare, while Buckley, although agreeing with New Right positions on these matters, paid more attention to issues relating to foreign policy and free-market economics. A number of New Right publicists, Kevin Phillips perhaps chief among them, took delight in portraying Buckley and National Review as hopelessly out of touch with the grass-roots concerns of Middle American conservatism. (Buckley in response dismissed Phillips as “a Jimmy Breslin conservative.”)
Another, somewhat ambivalent, addition to the ranks of the Right came in the form of neoconservatism. Neoconservatism was a byproduct mainly of the Left’s disintegration in the late 60’s. Neoconservatives were for the most part disillusioned liberals who broke with their former leftist allies over what they considered the reflexive, guilt-ridden anti-Americanism into which much of the Left had stumbled in the wake of Vietnam. (A great many neoconservatives participated in the early stages of the antiwar movement but parted from it in its latter radical stages.)
The neoconservatives (most of whom came to accept the term only under extreme duress) brought to the Right a measure of intellectual recognition it had formerly lacked. Prior to the neoconservatives’ emergence, liberals for the most part dealt with intellectual challenges from their Right by not dealing with them, by ignoring conservative arguments and the people who made them. It was harder for liberals to disregard the neoconservatives, who had gained intellectual recognition while still on the Left and who therefore could not so easily be treated as if they were not there. Neoconservative critiques of the Left achieved a visibility and thus an influence that earlier criticisms had not.
Relations between Buckley conservatives and the neoconservatives were often distant and uncomfortable, especially at first. The two groups had different histories, different intellectual styles, different preoccupations. Several in the Buckley group (though not Buckley himself) treated the neoconservatives as interlopers and tended to suspect them of closet liberal sympathies (which, the way National Review defined such things, was not an altogether unfounded suspicion). Many neoconservatives, for their part, could not accustom themselves to regarding as allies people whom all their lives they had considered beyond the bounds of intellectual respectability.
The nomination and election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 brought clarity and shape to what, for much of the previous decade, had been an inchoate political and ideological landscape. Men and women who had wandered uncertainly amid the shapeless politics of the 70’s were suddenly brought up short and made to decide, “Which side are you on?” Reagan was a galvanizing and polarizing figure, a man toward whom it was nearly impossible to maintain a neutral or dispassionate attitude.
The experience of the neoconservatives typified the situation. Few, if any, neoconservatives had been early supporters of Reagan; most had regarded him with variable mixtures of condescension and mistrust. Once he was nominated, however—and even more once he was elected—the majority of them drifted, at varying rates of speed and with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to his support. The dynamics of politics in the Reagan era made neoconservatives, by the late 80’s, far more unambiguously conservative than they had been a decade before. (It also cost them what Irving Kristol called their “social-democratic wing”; it is noteworthy that two of the three men to whom Peter Steinfels devoted individual chapters in his 1979 study The Neoconservatives—Daniel Bell and Daniel Patrick Moynihan—are no longer included in neoconservative ranks.) The Reagan phenomenon thus consolidated and brought to successful fruition a conservative impulse that had been gathering, off and on, for a decade and a half.
Buckley and his friends, of course, experienced nothing of the neoconservatives’ ambivalence over Reagan. Buckley by 1980 had been politically and personally close to the Reagans for years, and in Reagan, Buckley had for the first time in his life a President who spoke his language and whom he could support not with reluctance or reservations but with wholehearted enthusiasm. Reagan’s dedication to laissez-faire (“government is not the solution to our problem; it is the problem”) and his fervid anti-Communism embodied the deepest commitments that had driven Buckley from the beginning of his public career. Judis argues that Buckley had joined the Establishment; one could as well say that, in Reagan, the Establishment had come to Buckley. It would have been an act of ideological supererogation for Buckley to remain in opposition once Reagan entered the White House.
Not that Buckley has been entirely uncritical of the administration. He has goaded it from the Right and watched nervously for signs of backsliding. National Review has on a number of occasions found reason to complain that the President’s advisers are not letting Reagan be Reagan. Buckley has watched with dismay and disappointment as the administration has faltered and foundered in the wake of the loss of the Senate, the Iran-contra disaster, and the collapse of the Bork nomination. He worries about what he sees as the administration’s excessive eagerness in its declining days to negotiate with the Soviet Union, and he wonders uneasily, as do many others on the Right, about the future of conservatism once Reagan has departed the scene. Still, given the contingencies and inevitable compromises of politics, Buckley surely understands that in Ronald Reagan his conservative paradigm found presidential hands as safe as it has ever known or is ever likely to know.
Judis concludes his book on the same note of pessimism that appears to dominate most contemporary estimates, whether from the Left or the Right, of the conservative future. Conservatism today, he says, is adrift, no longer in control of public opinion, lacking in leadership, internally divided (traditional conservatives don’t like neoconservatives who don’t like New Rightists), and altogether in parlous straits. At the same time, he writes, what is bad for conservatism might paradoxically be good for Buckley. Buckley, Judis thinks, has always performed best under conditions of adversity. Made soft by success and adulation, he might well be revived by the slings and arrows of a rejuvenated Left. It would be of benefit to Buckley, Judis suggests, to find himself embattled and isolated, once again defiantly standing athwart history and yelling stop.
Perhaps so, but there is good reason to question both the description of conservative fortunes and the prescription for Buckley’s career.
If conservatism has its problems, as it no doubt does, it is only reasonable to point out that the movement is still, in general terms, in better condition than it has been at virtually any other time in modern American history. It is, after all, liberalism and not conservatism that today is afraid politically to speak its name. If conservatism has not established hegemony over American political life, let alone over American intellectual life, it has certainly broken the hegemony of the Left. (Conservative intellectuals tend to excessively gloomy estimates of conservative fortunes because the particular circles in which they move are the ones in our society that are the least receptive to conservative ideas; but the world beyond the universities, the churches, and the media is far more welcoming.)
Although there is clearly no prospective leader on the political horizon comparable to Reagan, leaders of his magnitude come along at best once in a generation; what is of greater significance in this connection is that every one of the Republican candidates for President this year came from the conservative camp. The GOP, which at the presidential level has fared very well in recent electoral history, will thus remain an impregnable conservative fortress into the foreseeable future.
That conservative forces are divided is entirely understandable and not in itself a cause for concern. Such is the nature of all political coalitions: consider liberalism under the New Deal, divided at least as badly as contemporary conservatism and yet able to function, over the long run, quite successfully. In terms strictly of prospects for national success, an ambitious young political leader today would probably still be better advised to cast his lot with the Right than with the Left.
As for the advice to Buckley to revert to his original radical oppositionist stance, that might or might not make sense in narrow career terms, but it is almost certainly a bad idea in terms of its implications for conservatism or for Buckley’s place in the conservative movement. Buckley’s writings in the 50’s were curiously out of phase with actual political conditions. He wrote on domestic issues as if liberals were in their most zealous stages of New Deal enthusiasm (if not beyond), and on foreign policy as if the Popular Front mentality still controlled liberal sensibilities. Neither was in fact the case, and so Buckley and National Review existed at a curious distance from political reality as most Americans experienced it.
One might best characterize the 50’s as a conservative golden age, an era in which an essentially conservative President reigned over a tranquil and orderly society committed to democratic capitalism (modified by a limited welfare state) at home and to a sober anti-Communist strategy abroad. It was against this spirit that Buckley set himself, establishing as his goals a set of reactionary ideals: the abolition of academic freedom (which no genuine academic, of whatever stripe, could countenance); the defense of McCarthyism (a political and moral blight from which the anti-Communist cause has never entirely recovered); restoration of a laissez-faire political economy (which ordinary Americans would overwhelmingly have rejected); and opposition to virtually any manner of civil-rights reform (which has ever since left all conservatives open to suspicion of racism).
It is not Buckley’s strength but rather his weakness that virtually everything he writes has an ideological edge. Judis recounts Buckley’s failed attempt to write the Big Book: the exercise in political philosophy that would rise above the issues of the time and establish its author’s credentials as something more than a talented controversialist. No one familiar with Buckley’s extensive publications can suppose that his failure to produce such a work stems from an intellectual disability. The problem is one of habit of mind.
Buckley’s intellectual style is that of the debater, wholly preoccupied with the effort to score points. Ideas for him are not possibilities to be considered, pondered, wondered over; they are rather forces to be marshaled in the cause of a truth that on all major matters, and most minor ones as well, is already fully known. Every intellectual engagement becomes a polemical occasion. All this leaves the impression, no doubt unfair to Buckley, of a mind that is terribly quick but not finally very deep.
Buckley’s habit of mind reflects itself politically in his persistent concern with maintaining the conservative paradigm, a concern that marks him as in many ways the mirror image of the utopian idealists in the adversary culture of the Left. He likes to invoke against them Eric Voegelin’s warning about “immanentizing the eschaton,” but his own preoccupation with paradigmatic politics indicates a similar ideological inclination.
All of which suggests that Judis’s advice would take Buckley precisely in the reverse direction from that he might most fruitfully follow. (It is odd to see a radical telling a conservative that he ought once more become a reactionary.) Buckley’s recent tendencies (rather slight in any case) to relax the paradigm in light of the practical ought to be encouraged, not disparaged. Buckley is at his most attractive when he is being least immediately ideological. The side of him revealed in his private life—the catholicity of interests, the immense and tolerant curiosity, the openness to the new—might with great benefit find greater expression in his politics.
The suggestion here is not that Buckley turn himself into some kind of Ripon Society Republican. It is rather that he reconsider his old friend Whittaker Chambers’s Beaconsfield position. Conservatism in America, after all, is no longer a marginal or fringe phenomenon. It is edging toward the center of things. If it wants to supplant liberalism as the national political establishment, it will have to act accordingly. (That one can react to political events with flexibility without sacrificing philosophical integrity is revealed in the career of George Will, a man whom one suspects Chambers would have admired greatly.)
It may be, of course, that William Buckley, having considered all this, has nonetheless knowingly committed himself to the role of the gadfly, the man who intentionally makes of himself a permanent outsider. If so, he must know that he has condemned himself to the enduring frustration of the ideologue functioning in an immutably pragmatic society. There are worse political fates, no doubt, but better ones, too.
1 Simon & Schuster, 528 pp., $22.95.