March 9, 2008


Walking the Road that Buckley Built (Michael Johns, 3/07/08, Freedom and Prosperity)

So diverse and ultimately immense were Buckley's accomplishments that it becomes dangerously easy to short change the vastness of his ultimate legacy. During the 82 years that God granted him to us, he was described as the most prolific conservative writer of modern times. No doubt. From the early 1950s until a few weeks ago, Buckley's writings eloquently challenged liberalism's false promises at every step and defined the intellectual and political alternative that was and still is contemporary conservatism. His books (35 non-fiction, 12 in the Blackford Oakes novel series, and another eight of fiction), his National Review columns and commentary (beginning with the magazine's 1955 founding and continuing through early this year), and his syndicated column (published since 1962 in over 300 U.S. and global newspapers) represent nothing short of a library of modern conservative thought. In these writings lies not just Buckley's persuasive case for conservative policies and principles but one of the best depictions of conservatism's evolution from a nascent ideology to the most consequential intellectual and political force of modern times. What a literary treasure he has left us.

But Buckley's impact is not constrained to his role as the most prolific conservative author and writer of our times. His role in the ultimate ascent of conservatism as a national and even global political force is less broadly recognized but equally undeniable and important. The conservative revolution may have materialized nationally with Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, but that electoral victory was the result of over two decades of work in the trenches, pre-dating even Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 challenge against Lyndon Johnson. What existed before Buckley was an ineffectual group (one cannot even really call it a political movement) of self-described conservatives whose relevance was largely negligible. Before Buckley, modern conservatism had no refined policy agenda (and if one existed at all, it would likely have been equated with Robert Taft's dangerous isolationism at a moment when the global threat of communism was amassing). Conservatism then also had zero skill in communicating to, and connecting with, the hearts and minds of the American people. Add those two things up, and it's not surprising that conservatives, pre-Buckley, also failed in the electoral process.

It was Buckley who, in 1960, quickly looked at this "movement," and changed it forever. One of his first steps, the founding of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), formed the foundation that ultimately propelled Goldwater's candidacy. On September 11, 1960, conservatives gathered in Buckley's hometown of Sharon, Connecticut, where conservative author M. Stanton Evans, one of the first and greatest Buckley proteges, with input from Annette Kirk (wife of the late Russell Kirk), drafted the "Sharon Statement." It is not an overstatement that it may well be one of the most important documents on the American purpose and conservative vision since the Declaration of Independence itself.

"In this time of moral and political crises," the Sharon Document began, "it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths." It immediately and appropriately referenced the fact that it was only God's gift of free will that permits man's "rights to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force." It followed with an unhesitating and accurate reference to the fact that political freedom, without economic freedom, cannot long endure. It defined the Constitutionally protected freedoms and national security interests that were incumbent on the American government to protect (including, if necessary, by military force). Consistent with this, it boldly called for victory over, not coexistence with, global communism, stating "that the forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties" and "that the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace." Invigorated at Sharon, conservatives left that conference with a clear cut vision of who and what they were and who and what they opposed. Modern conservatism was born.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 9, 2008 8:32 AM
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