December 10, 2011


William F. Buckley Jr.: Right Man, Right Time: a review of  BUCKLEY: William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism By Carl T. Bogus (GEOFFREY KABASERVICE, 12/09/11, NY Times Book Review)

William F. Buckley Jr. was an immodest man with much to be immodest about. Not only was he the high priest of the modern American conservative movement and the founding editor in chief of its leading intellectual publication, National Review; he was also a gifted polemicist, best-selling novelist, sesquipedalian speaker, television star, political candidate, yachtsman, harpsichordist, wit and bon vivant. Small wonder that I once saw him nod approvingly when a tongue-tied freshman referred to his 1951 autobiographical best seller as "God as Man at Yale." He performed his many roles with such panache, and such obvious enjoyment of being William F. Buckley Jr., that he captivated people who otherwise would have despised someone who did much to move the United States politically to the right from the early 1950s until his death in 2008. But even liberals had to laugh when Buckley, asked whether he slouched in his chair as host of the TV program "Firing Line" because he couldn't think on his feet, drawled, "It is hard . . . to stand up . . . under the weight . . . of all that I know." [...]

Bogus identifies traditionalist conservatism with the views of the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke and his ­latter-day adherents, notably Russell Kirk and the short-lived "new conservative" movement of the early 1950s. The traditionalists venerated deeply rooted communities and cultures, and worshiped established institutions and elites. They feared transformative ideologies and capitalism's potential for creative destruction. Traditionalists did not resist all change, Bogus points out, but they were pragmatists at heart: with Burke, they "believed that changes should be made carefully and with a healthy respect for the risks of unintended consequences." Set against them were the libertarians, who advocated unfettered individual freedom and an unregulated free market, and the neoconservatives, whom Bogus somewhat anachronistically equates with the most aggressive cold war interventionists seeking to "roll back" Communism around the globe. [...]

In flatly identifying Buckley as a libertarian and dismissing National Review's "fusionism," Bogus underestimates Buckley's masterly ability to hold together a movement that was riven by internal contradictions. In truth, Buckley considered himself a traditionalist as much as a libertarian, and artfully refused to take either of those tendencies to their logical conclusions. He opposed fanatics of all stripes. As a committed Catholic, he resisted the libertarian impulse to undermine established authority and devolve into anarchy. And while Buckley respected traditionalists like Kirk and the Agrarians (whom Bogus doesn't mention), he believed that Kirk was too fey in his medievalism, and the Southerners too openly desirous of owning black people, to allow them to dictate the conservative position. Bogus also overlooks Buckley's pragmatic evolution, evident in his famous pronouncement that he would support "the most right, viable candidate" rather than the most uncompromising conservative. Indeed, Buckley's pragmatism, tolerant spirit and intellectual sophistication are notably absent from the conservative movement today.

And yet Bogus's attempt to credit the success of the conservative movement almost exclusively to Buckley is ivory tower history with a vengeance. Ideas have consequences, but they don't make political realities by themselves. Liberals yearn for a Buckley of their own, someone who can build a movement on the left through the force of personality and philosophy. But they too often neglect the role of grubbier figures like William Rusher, Richard Viguerie and Paul Weyrich, none of whom are likely to attract admiring liberal biographers but who arguably did more than Buckley to mobilize conservatism as a political force at the grass roots. Until liberals see the history of the conservative movement whole, they are unlikely to learn from it.

Not that many on the Right understand the conservative movement or Mr. Buckley's project either.

Posted by at December 10, 2011 5:32 AM

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