William F. Buckley, RIP

Why we should be (mostly) glad that he outlived his brand of conservatism.

William F. Buckley Jr. in 2001

William F. Buckley, who died today, outlived a conservative movement that was largely his creation.

Buckley established himself as intellectual father to conservatism in 1955, when he founded National Review. Contrary to Lionel Trilling’s famous declaration in 1950 that liberalism was “the sole intellectual tradition” in the United States, conservatism did exist before Buckley. But it was diffuse, encompassing WASP aristocrats (the people Franklin Roosevelt denounced as “economic royalists“); an assortment of cultural conservatives motivated largely by anti-Semitism, racism, nativism, and anti-Catholicism; and a small circle of intellectuals, of whom the best-remembered are the Burkean Russell Kirk and libertarians Friedrich Hayek and Ayn Rand. Buckley gathered and sifted through these disparate groups, spurning the anti-Semites and anti-Catholics (prompting the John Birch Society to tag him the “pied piper for the establishment“), tolerating but not joining the racists and the nativists, and embracing the libertarians so long as they didn’t disparage religious belief. This last caveat excluded the cultish Rand, whose Atlas Shrugged Whittaker Chambers panned in National Review, taking exception to its atheism and its materialism, which in Chambers’ view made it a conservative mirror image of Marxism. Christian piety and anti-communism were Buckley’s twin pillars, the former to such an extent that Buckley ruled out David Brooks, his onetime protégé, as a possible editor of National Review on the grounds that Brooks was Jewish. Buckley wasn’t willing to sacrifice National Review’s identity as a publication whose mission was at least partly theological.

More prosaically, National Review defined itself in opposition to the “modern Republicanism” of Dwight D. Eisenhower. In a publisher’s statement accompanying the first issue—the one famous for pledging to stand “athwart history, yelling Stop”—Buckley denounced conservatives who “made their peace with the New Deal,” as the sitting president did, as “the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality [have] never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.” It was this mission, more than the others, that defined Buckley’s influence on conservatism. Within 10 years, the Republicans would nominate for president Barry Goldwater, a candidate who represented the antithesis of modern Republicanism. After Goldwater’s landslide defeat, Buckley’s movement pressed on, and in 1980 it installed Ronald Reagan, one of its own, as president.

It’s rare that a writer as influential as Buckley leaves behind so little in the way of lasting works. Buckley published many books in his lifetime, but only his first, God and Man at Yale, will likely stand the test of time. Buckley extended his influence mainly through National Review, through a syndicated newspaper column, and through Firing Line, the lively debate program on public television that elevated him to national celebrity. His public persona drew admiration from ideological friend and foe alike because of Buckley’s obvious charm, his playful wit, his generosity, and his insistence that political differences be expressed in a civil tone.

But sorry as we may be to mark Buckley’s passing, we should be very glad that the country ignored much of what he had to say. Consider, for example, this National Review editorial from 1957 (cited in Paul Krugman’s recent book The Conscience of a Liberal):

The central question that emerges—and it is not a parliamentary question or a question that is answered by merely consulting a catalog of the rights of American citizens, born Equal—is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not predominate numerically? The sobering answer is Yes—the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. …National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct. If the majority wills what is socially atavistic, then to thwart the majority may be, though undemocratic, enlightened. It is more important for any community, anywhere in the world, to affirm and live by civilized standards, than to bow to the demands of the numerical majority. Sometimes it becomes impossible to assert the will of a minority, in which case it must give way; and the society will regress; sometimes the numerical minority cannot prevail except by violence: then it must determine whether the prevalence of its will is worth the terrible price of violence.

The equanimity in that last clause is particularly chilling when you consider that it was published only two years after Emmett Till’s murder. Buckley was not himself a bigot, but he was at best blind and at worst indifferent to the bigotry all around him, and there can be no question that he stood in the way of racial progress. In a 1963 column taking exception to the imminent march on Washington, where Martin Luther King would deliver his “I Have a Dream” speech, Buckley described himself as someone who believed that

a federal law, artificially deduced from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution or from the 14th Amendment, whose marginal effect will be to instruct small merchants in the Deep South on how they may conduct their business, is no way at all of promoting the kind of understanding which is the basis of progressive and charitable relationships between the races.

Buckley was similarly oblivious to the danger posed by Sen. Joe McCarthy, about whom he co-authored a sympathetic book in 1953. As late as December 2005, Buckley was still hedging carefully any criticism of McCarthy’s irresponsible witch hunt:

[M]y own study of McCarthy ended with his activity in September 1953 … his fight with the Army, which was what the fracas [depicted in George Clooney’s film Good Night and Good Luck] was about in 1954—which got him censured, and which loosed Edward R. Murrow—was something else. … McCarthy had thrown restraint to one side. … [H]e was deep in booze in those days and did some flatly inexcusable things, for instance his attack on General Ralph Zwicker.

Although he was tough on communism, Buckley was soft on fascism. In a “Letter From Spain” for National Review (also unearthed by Krugman), he wrote:

General Franco is an authentic national hero. It is generally conceded that he above others had the combination of talents, the perseverance, and the sense of righteousness of his cause, that were required to wrest Spain from the hands of the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists and nihlistis that were imposing on her, in the thirties, a regime so grotesque as to do violence to the Spanish soul, to deny, even Spain’s historical identity.

Fortunately for all of us, by the time Buckley’s man Ronald Reagan entered the White House, various civil rights laws were already on the books, communism was dying of natural causes, and Gen. Franco (to quoteSaturday Night Live) was still dead. As for dismantling the New Deal, Reagan rallied the nation against big government but did little to shrink it, instead ballooning the budget deficit from $74 billion to $155 billion. About this, Buckley said at the close of Reagan’s presidency, “most cool observers now realize that the deficit is a problem not curable by any means as easy as voting for one or another presidential candidate.” Meanwhile, Buckley praised the tax cuts that helped create those deficits as “a revolution not merely in economic thought but in ethical thought as well.”

Reagan was clearly a Buckleyite, but the presidency of his ideological successor George W. Bush led Republicans away from Buckley-style conservatism. Partly, Bush did this by making his peace with the New Deal. Reagan had railed against big government while doing little to reduce it; Bush dispensed with the rhetoric and used the federal agencies as a patronage machine for disastrously incompetent loyalists. Bush also turned his foreign policy over to the neoconservative movement to a much greater extent than Reagan had, with the unending Iraq war the result. Buckley had never cottoned to the neoconservative movement, probably because it was too tolerant of the New Deal. Eventually Buckley would declare the Iraq war a mistake, putting himself at odds with his own magazine, which under the editorship of Rich Lowry had become emphatically neoconservative. Shortly before Buckley died, David Frum, a National Review writer, published a book that called for a carbon tax and promoted government action to combat obesity. As I write this, the Republican Party is preparing to nominate a candidate—John McCain—who, if elected, seems likely to revive Eisenhower-style modern Republicanism.

History did not stop. It never does. That’s the good news, and also the bad.