William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement
by Lee Edwards
Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 208 pp.,$24.95
“As 1954 ended, the future of the American Right seemed uncertain,” writes Lee Edwards, the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, in his new biography of William F. Buckley Jr. “’Mr. Republican’ Robert Taft was dead of cancer, Joe McCarthy had a been censured by his peers, the Democrats had retaken Congress after a brief Republican interregnum, President Eisenhower had morphed into a modern Republican, and Barry Goldwater was an unknown junior senator from Arizona.”
At this perilous time for conservatism in America, the movement was, at best, “a congeries of ill assorted enemies,” as longtime National Review publisher William A. Rusher once described it. But then an intellectually gifted, charming, well-to-do, not-yet-30-year-old William F. Buckley, Jr. entered the stage with a bold new project that changed everything.
If it is an exaggeration, it is only a slight one to say that without Buckley and his National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955, there may not have been a President Ronald Reagan. His foundational efforts to form a conservative movement and popularize conservative ideas starting in the 1950s, made the conservative revolution of the 1980s conceivable.
What Buckley was able to do, argues Edwards, was fuse together different elements of the conservative base, most notably traditionalists, libertarians and anti-communists, into a strong political coalition. Buckley himself embodied elements of each part of the coalition just as his four main intellectual influences, suggests Edwards, represented the different intellectual wings.
There was libertarian thinker Albert Jay Nock who Buckley read and met as a teenager. Willmoore Kendall was an argumentative traditionalist Buckley studied under at Yale and would serve as an editor of the National Review. The pragmatic James Burnham would also become a senior editor at National Review. Finally, there was the former communist turned ardent anti-communist Whitaker Chambers who too would serve as an editor at National Review.
“All four men were facets of the fusionist conservatism,” Edwards writes, “that Buckley personified and employed to shape the American conservative movement.”
As Buckley endeavored with the National Review to “stand athwart history yelling, Stop,” he also sought to use his energies to accomplish several objectives with the magazine. First, he wanted to ensure that the Republican Party was the main vehicle of conservatism and that the party leaned rightward. Secondly, he sought to confront liberal ideology with both wit and vigor and make life for liberals uncomfortable. Finally, he sought victory over communism, not accommodation.
Indeed, these goals were all in pursuit of the main causes that consumed Buckley throughout his life: “a contempt for Communism, a firm belief in private enterprise, and an abiding faith in God.”
But while Buckley sought to bring the different elements of conservatism under one roof, he had little tolerance for the “kooks” in the movement. And so Buckley took it upon himself to purge those who embarrassed the cause.
As Edwards notes, the first person excised from the movement was Ayn Rand. Besides her dogmatic tone, Buckley disdained her hatred of God, “her desiccated philosophy’s conclusive incompatibility with the conservative’s emphasis on the transcendence, intellectual and moral.” This is not to say that Buckley thought that atheists could not be good conservatives.
“Can you be a conservative and not believe in God?,” Buckley asked in an essay. His answer was yes. But he went on to ask, “Can you be a conservative and despise God and feel contempt for those who believe in God?” On that question, he answered a decisive no.
After Rand, Buckley went after what he saw as other unsavory elements attached to the conservative movement, like the John Birch Society’s Robert Welch, who believed that President Eisenhower was an agent of the Soviet Union, and the American Mercury, by then an anti-Semitic rag. To be taken seriously, Buckley knew the conservative movement had to be respectable.
The ultimate manifestation of Buckley’s success in shaping the modern conservative movement occurred in 1980, when his friend Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States in a landslide. When Buckley founded the National Review in the 1950s, the conservative movement was in shambles. By 1980, things had dramatically changed.
But what makes Buckley remain such an attractive figure more than two years after his death is not just his towering intellect and phenomenal political success, but the bon vivant lifestyle he led while achieving his historic accomplishments. Whether churning out an annual tome while vacationing in Gstaad or tearing to pieces an esteemed debate opponent, Buckley made things look so effortless.
Throughout the biography, Edwards sprinkles in stories of Buckley’s great wit and legendary antics.
For instance, when Buckley debated liberal author Arthur Schlesinger in 1961, Schlesinger sought to set Buckley up with a compliment. “Mr. Buckley,” he said, “has the facility for rhetoric which I envy as well as a wit which I seek clumsily and vainly to emulate.” Buckley took Schlesinger’s words and decided to use them as a blurb for his next book. Though Schlesinger threatened to sue, Buckley insisted the blurb remain, promising his publisher that he would pick up the cost of any legal action. When Buckley next saw Schlesinger at a party, he again enraged the liberal author by informing him, “Your deadline for my next cover blurb is the first of the month.”
Or there was the time after Buckley filmed the final episode of his PBS show Firing Line in 1999 and then appeared on ABC’s Nightline. As Ted Koppel concluded the interview, he asked Buckley to sum up the show’s impact over 33 years. “Bill, we have one minute left. Would you care to sum up your 33 years in television?,” Koppel asked. “No,” Buckley replied.
Inspecting his father’s papers at Yale’s Sterling Library, Christopher Buckley recounted at his father’s memorial service in 2008 that the papers measured 550 linear feet, “higher than the spire of St. Patrick’s [Cathedral].” The figure did not include Buckley’s 6,000 newspaper columns, 1,504 Firing Line episodes, and 55 books. Yet, Buckley’s legacy is far greater than the countless words he has written. His legacy is seen in the conservative infrastructure that exists and in the innumerable conservative writers and activists he personally mentored and encouraged.
Edwards’s book provides a valuable and concise overview of a man who, along with Reagan and economist of liberty Milton Friedman, did as much as anybody to help liberty and conservatism thrive in America in the last half-century. While Bill Buckley had the resources and the charm to have been “the Playboy of the Western world,” Edwards concludes, he “chose instead to be the St. Paul of the modern American conservative movement.”