Know Your Right Wingers
William F. Buckley, Jr.
SOURCE: August Pollak
[Editors’ Note: Though William Buckley has passed away on February 27, 2008, there is no question that his legacy will live on. Without Buckley, conservative ideals might never have taken center stage in American politics. Though we tended to disagree with him, we admit that Buckley’s style was refreshing; as Tim Fernholz put it in our original profile, Buckley was “one of the few intellectually honest conservatives” in the public sphere. In today’s era of overpaid gasbags like Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity, we can respect Buckley’s integrity, even if we stand for a completely different set of goals. Campus Progress has decided to keep Buckley’s biography in the present tense in recognition of his lasting impact on late twentieth-century American politics.]
William F. Buckley, Jr. is the man with the plan, the original conservative, the brain behind the Bushes. Get to know him, because you want to be him. A witty speaker and a brilliant writer, one of the few intellectually honest conservatives out there, he laid the groundwork for the modern conservative movement at a time when Lionel Trilling claimed that there were “no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.” But his attacks on the Civil Rights Movement, his bigotry-tinged and occasionally homophobic public presence, as well as his apologies for anti-Semitism and McCarthyism, demonstrated the ill-intentions of the conservatism he founded. So gather ’round, progressive youth, because it’s time to learn how a public intellectual can found a political movement and betray its promise (but not from the man himself: his assistant refused to put Campus Progress in touch with Buckley because he no longer “does those kind of interviews” — presumably the kind with questions).
Buckley was born in 1925, the scion of large oil-wealthy family in Connecticut. He was educated in England, France and the Millbrook School, and attended the University of Mexico just before he joined the military in 1944. After he was discharged, he joined the CIA for a year before entering Yale and graduating in 1950. Then he entered political society with a bang, publishing the seminal book God and Man at Yale.
Perhaps the first instance of the right’s “academic freedom” follies, Buckley’s book was an attack on his alma mater, charging that it violated both the Christian principles of its founding and contemporary American values; he argued that liberal professors forced their views on students. Though his arguments are about as valid as those of today, the book caused a stir, and soon after, with the founding of National Review in 1955 and the national syndication of his column “On the Right,” he became the national voice of conservatism. National Review was founded with the mantra that conservatism “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” — later explained as a reference to communism’s faith in its own historical inevitability, though some might ask what sort of history-making in 1955 it was trying to stop… integration perhaps?
At the time, the conservative movement was a hodgepodge of John Birch Society paranoids, Ayn Rand’s self-obsessed objectivists, libertarians, reactionary anti-communists and others sidelined by then-mainstream New Deal politics. But Buckley’s eloquent and inoffensive support of the free market and low taxes, a small government and a strong (and anti-communist) national defense, as well as his willingness to sideline the more extreme elements of the conservative movement, allowed it to grow into the mainstream. Barry Goldwater, the original modern conservative presidential candidate, said that National Review inspired him; Ronald Reagan said the same thing.
Under Buckley’s editorship, the magazine featured, besides ideological disagreements to offend any progressive, arguments that would offend anyone who values civil rights. One editorial from the sixties: “The central question… 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…. National Review believes that the South’s premises are correct…” In other words National Review opposed civil rights legislation. Buckley later characterized that stance regretfully, saying, “I think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us.” Whether this apology exonerates Buckley, and we believe it does not, it is important to recognize that conservatives used support for segregationists pull the South out of the New Deal Democratic coalition, paving the way to the landmark victories of Ronald Reagan in 1980 (who, like Buckley and National Review, was against school busing for integration) and the Republican congress in 1994.
Perhaps Buckley’s most important effort at crystallizing what it means to be a modern conservative took place during New York’s 1965 mayoral elections. Buckley ran under the auspices of the Conservative Party, against a liberal “Rockefeller Republican” and a Democrat. The campaign was half-joking (Buckley, when famously asked what he would do if he won, said he would demand a recount) but forced Buckley to develop policy positions that outlined conservatism’s response to the demands of a liberal northern city. He took 13 percent of the vote.
Part of his success was due to a timely newspaper strike, forcing most of the campaign’s media presence to be conducted on television. Buckley’s wit and aristocratic drawl made a mockery of his opponents, and he put his skill to good use as a frequent commentator and on his talk show. “Firing Line,” famous for its serious approach to intellectual issues, ran from 1966 to 1999. But Buckley’s most infamous TV moment occurred in 1968, during a debate with writer Gore Vidal. Vidal, who is gay, called the conservative a “pro-war-crypto-Nazi,” to which Buckley replied, “ Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in you goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered."The exchange led to a series of counter-essays in Esquire magazine and then a series of libel lawsuits. Buckley apologized to Vidal, but wrote that “the man who in his essays proclaims the normalcy of his affliction [i.e., homosexuality], and in his art the desirability of it, is not to be confused with the man who bears his sorrow quietly. The addict is to be pitied and even respected, not the pusher.” Well-known as a fervent follower of Roman Catholicism (except when it comes to the Pope’s teachings about social justice and fighting poverty), Buckley apparently buys into its interpretation of homosexuality. Today, he opposes gay marriage and supports a constitutional amendment to ban it.
The final flaw of Buckley’s is his defense of the indefensible: anti-Semitism and McCarthyism. His defense of McCarthyism is well-known — he has written both a book and a novel on the subject. On the subject of anti-Semitism, he engaged in a public argument with late New York Times editor and columnist A.M. Rosenthal. Buckley published a long essay, “In Search of Anti-Semitism,” in National Review (rebutted by Rosenthal in “In Search of Buckley”), which found that conservative politician Pat Buchanan had said “things about Jews” that were anti-Semitic, but excused it as “he iconoclastic daemon having a night out on the town.”
Much of the writing here has been on Buckley’s flaws, though there is much to admire in him; his famed bon mots, his political independence (he favors the legalization of drugs and has criticized President Bush for the war in Iraq). There is, alas, no time to go into the rest of his career — numerous novels, books and articles. Progressives should be reminded of the task and time ahead of them in their own fight for a political revolution: Before there was Newt, before Reagan, before Goldwater, there was Buckley and his little magazine. His ideas mattered, and still do — they are what we argue against (and it is more fun when we have so talented an opponent as Buckley). And, though we brand ourselves progressive, it is worth remembering “conservative” was as dirty a word in 1950 just as “liberal” is today. Buckley had the audacity to try to reverse the direction of history, and he succeeded. Where Buckley dared to tread, so must we.
Illustration: August J. Pollak