The Quintessential Modern Conservative
Right Reason, by William F. Buckley, New York: Doubleday, 454 pages, $19.95
Critic Lionel Trilling's oft-quoted 1949 observation that "in the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition for…nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation" was distressingly accurate. The libertarian ideals that animated Jefferson, Paine, and the American Revolution were nearly extinguished, at least among the intelligentsia, by the early 1950s. The handful of writers and politicians who still clung to the principles of '76 were dismissed by those in power as Neanderthals, isolationists, and reactionary cranks. When their tribune, Sen. Robert Taft, died in 1953, the fate of individualism seemed gloomy indeed.
And then along came the brash young sesquipedalian William F. Buckley, not yet 30, a self-described "wizened ex-schoolboy known mostly for an iconoclastic screed directed at his alma mater," and damned if he and his journal, National Review, didn't resuscitate the corpse, albeit in mutated form. Born in 1955, National Review boasted an outstanding and ideologically variegated crew of writers and thinkers—from the majoritarian Willmoore Kendall to the Burkean Russell Kirk to the near-anarchist Frank Chodorov—all presided over with great wit and panache by young Buckley. It was lively and zesty and it drove the liberals mad.
Thirty years later, former Wunderkind Buckley is an establishment pillar. His magazine, grown staid and much less eclectic, counts among its influential readers the president of the United States. Buckley, through his syndicated column and frequent TV appearances, has become certifiably famous. Even old enemies seek his companionship. The lad once denounced by McGeorge Bundy as "a twisted and ignorant young man" has been inducted into that Bundy social club, the Council on Foreign Relations. Give Buckley credit. His side has won. The Cold War conservatism that found its most eloquent and persuasive voice in National Review has supplanted Cold War liberalism as the ideology that drives the federal government.
That ideology is on display in Right Reason, Buckley's 23rd book, a collection of essays, letters, and columns culled from his oeuvre of the last seven years. It's a curiously lifeless book for such a piquant writer. Save, that is, for several typically gracious eulogies and the fascinating tale of Edgar Smith, a convicted New Jersey murderer whose cause Buckley championed throughout the '60s and who, when finally released in 1971, took a recidivistic turn.
Now and then a Buckley bon mot does pop up, but to save you $19.95, I herewith present the best of Right Reason:
• On Yale President A. Bartlett Giamatti's speech warning entering freshmen to beware the Moral Majority: "To be lectured against the perils of the Moral Majority on entering Yale is on the order of being lectured on the dangers of bedbugs on entering a brothel."
• On getting the Soviet Union to apologize for shooting down KAL 007: "Circumstances put the Soviet Union in the position of a drunkard being asked to repudiate his liver."
• On Hartpence of Troublesome Gulch's pandering to interest groups: "Gary Hart went further in his public pledges to the territorial integrity of Israel during the campaign than he'd have been willing to go on behalf of Iowa."
• On socialist economist Robert Lekachman: "His idea of a perfect society is one in which 100 percent of all the money above whatever his salary is…would go to the government."
A Buckley column is typically interlarded with such witticisms, making it refuge from the humorless blather of 95 percent of his syndicated brethren. Even when wrong, or dull, as he often is in Right Reason, the man knows how to turn a phrase, and the pensees he dashes off (legend has it) in 20 minutes usually repay the reading. One looks forward to delving into a Buckley omnibus, whereas the mind boggles at the prospect of reading the collected lucubrations of Carl Rowan or Tom Wicker or, God help us, Richard Cohen.
The occasional one-liners aside, Right Reason's chief virtue is in showing us how completely foreign affairs have come to dominate 1980s-style conservative thinking. Buckley's fear of communist expansionism has led him (and his fan Reagan) to policy conclusions very much rooted in the postwar liberalism whose scourge he used to be. Any resemblance between the world view on display here and that of the flinty Old Right of the '50s, which shunned interventionism abroad and held personal liberty as the ultimate political value, is strictly coincidental.
There are, to be sure, a handful of short columns prescribing tax and spending cuts as economically salubrious. Buckley also presents the case for making heroin available to terminally ill cancer patients, which, too, is fine and dandy. And that's about it on the personal-liberty side of the ledger.
For Buckley's grand obsession in Right Reason, blotting out liberty as a dark cloud does the sun, is the matter of America's role in the world. He desires us to be, er, assertive. In 1980 he would have us declare war on Iran and detain Iranian citizens (perhaps in the concentration camps the Great Roosevelt built for Americans unfortunate enough to be of Japanese ancestry?). Four years later we are to declare war on Nicaragua and fight until the Sandinista rulers are brought to their knees. He is positively gleeful over the heroic invasion of Grenada.
To take on these Third World colossi, as well as the Soviet Union, Buckley advocates suspending various of our rights in order to augment the power of the national government. Trade embargoes, restrictions on movement across borders, even the draft are instruments to be employed in the struggle against communism. Those who demur are written off as naifs. Or worse.
He writes: "The appeaser tends to oppose a national draft, to oppose any increase in defense spending, to oppose economic boycotts, cultural boycotts, boycotts of athletic events." Now one expects this kind of nonsense from the blow-dried rogues and assorted idiots who are elected to Congress on the Republican ticket. But not from William F. Buckley. Are those who despise communism and Soviet Empire but refuse to combat our enemies by adopting their tactics really appeasers? Was Frank Chodorov, whom Buckley admired and published for so many years and who fits the above description exactly, an appeaser? Are old friends being traduced here, or is Buckley just careless?
Surely the latter explanation holds. Buckley is one of the great personalities of our day, and I suppose we can forgive him his overstatements. Whether his role in steering modern conservatism in its tragic direction away from liberty and toward empire can be so easily forgiven is another matter.
At all events, this collection of essays has little to recommend it. Those searching for choice Buckley should pick up The Unmaking of a Mayor, a riotous account of Buckley's quixotic 1965 campaign for mayor of New York City. Oh, to have witnessed him in debate against John Lindsay, the quintessential limousine liberal, and the phlegmatic hack Abe Beame! What a grand mayor he'd be—after all, Sin City has no foreign policy.
Bill Kauffman is assistant editor of REASON.