Mr. Inside Becomes Mr. Outside


William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, by John Judis, New York: Simon and Schuster, 528 pages, $22.95

When William F. Buckley, Jr., ran for mayor of New York in 1965, he did exceptionally well in Staten Island and my own Brooklyn neighborhood of Bay Ridge. Both areas were heavily Irish and Italian bastions of the "streetcorner conservatism" that was the antithesis of the "limousine liberalism" epitomized by Buckley's main rival and the eventual winner, John V. Lindsay. A few weeks after the election came the first big New York blackout, with the entire city plunged into darkness—except for Bay Ridge and Staten Island, which weren't hooked into the main city grid. As the agony of the Lindsay years unfolded, we couldn't help wondering if the Almighty hadn't been sending everyone else a message.

How long ago all that seems. It's hard to recall now, but Bill Buckley—as he was and is universally known—was a very big wheel in New York City and state politics in those days. But a decade after his run for mayor, when the conservative movement was demoralized in the aftermath of the Nixon administration's self-destruction and was desperately seeking leadership, Bill Buckley boarded his yacht Cyrano and sailed away. In a very real sense, he has never come back. Where has he been, and why did he go?

At first glance, it might seem odd that Buckley allowed John Judis, a member of the staff of the socialist weekly, In These Times, to have access to his papers and friends in order to write this biography. Fifteen years ago, Buckley and his family granted a similar favor to a writer named Charles Markmann, who produced a savagely critical book, The Buckleys.

Whatever his reasons, it was a smart decision. Judis has written an eminently (perhaps surprisingly) fair, nonjudgmental work that seems certain to stand as definitive for at least as long as its subject is still alive.

What may be at work here is the "horseshoe" theory of ideology: that the ends of the political spectrum are actually closer to each other in some ways than they are to the moderate center. Judis and Buckley are men who obviously like their politics strong, and that may be the source of the affinity. In fact, Judis's primary complaint about Buckley is the same one so frequently heard on the right—that he sacrificed his chances for political and intellectual seriousness in pursuit of comparatively frivolous pursuits like yachting and vicariously living out his fantasies in a series of spy novels.

The disappointment is in many ways understandable, for Buckley is truly one of the most important figures to land on the American scene in the postwar years. There can be no question that almost single-handedly, William F. Buckley, Jr., made conservatism, as opposed to simple Republicanism, respectable again in America nearly 20 years after almost everyone assumed it had been buried by the New Deal.

Unlike many of the "first-generation" conservatives who found a home at Buckley's National Review in the 1950s and 1960s, Buckley was not a disillusioned leftist who came by his beliefs the hard way. His was, for all intents and purposes, a political virgin birth. One of nine children of a wealthy Texas oil man, Buckley grew up in privileged surroundings. He was treated to elite English and American prep schools and then, after two unhappy years in the army during World War II, he attended Yale. Still, the Catholic and Southern Buckleys were always made to feel as outsiders among the Protestant New England rich.

That he was not quite a member of the "club" was dramatically confirmed by the hostile reception to his first book, the polemical God and Man at Yale, published in 1951. America was then approaching the zenith of what became known later as the "liberal consensus." The welfare state was established to stay and all that was now needed was a little fine tuning—such as civil rights for blacks—and America would be a virtual Arcadia.

Buckley rudely challenged that view, making the uncomfortable observation that conventional wisdom at the academy (the hostility to religion, for example) was widely at variance with what most Americans believed. As a member of Skull and Bones and former chairman of the Yale Daily News, Buckley could not be dismissed as some crank tilting at Ivy League windmills. Yale alumni such as McGeorge Bundy fired back with scarcely concealed anti-Catholic broadsides that make shocking reading today and no doubt confirmed in many minds Buckley's thesis about the Establishment's attitude toward strongly flavored religious feeling.

The hostility, however, made Buckley an overnight sensation, much in demand on the lecture circuit. To the surprise of many who expected a tweedy, prematurely serious young man, Buckley turned out to be sharp, witty, and eloquent, and spoke it all in what sounded like an Anglicized Texas drawl. He had a certain style and grace that drew a sharp contrast with such stereotypical conservatives up to that time as Sen. Robert Taft and John Bricker. When he founded National Review in 1955, he sought to redefine conservatism by banishing from it such obnoxious and outmoded aspects as anti-Semitism and isolationism.

Through it all, however, Buckley remained Mr. Outside. Even well into the 1960s, National Review expressed skepticism about the civil rights movement at home and even was running articles suggesting that perhaps things in South Africa weren't all that bad. Nevertheless, he eventually abandoned any attempts at defending segregation. This was evidence of Buckley's strong sense of pragmatism.

But it was this desire for acceptance that ultimately began leading him away from the Mr. Outside stance he seemed to relish. His debonair attitude, erudite conversationalism, and flashy style of high living all began to endear him to the "limousine liberals" he had denounced in his mayoral race. He and his wife, Patricia, began appearing more and more frequently in New York's gossip columns as the '60s wound into the '70s. In 1971, he indulged himself publicly for the first time with Cruising Speed, a journal of a week in his life. Two years after that, he put out his last serious book about public policy, Four Reforms. Two years later came the sailing trip and a book about it, Airborne. Next, the first Blackford Oakes novel appeared. Mr. Outside had become Mr. Inside. William Buckley had ceased to offend almost anyone.

While Buckley never wrote the magnum opus summing up conservative thought that he had envisioned writing in the early '60s—because, as Judis convincingly shows, he probably could not bring himself to finally admit his distrust of popular democracy—his influence on the conservative movement cannot be gainsaid. The New Right may despise him for his condescension toward them and dismiss him as irrelevant, but without him it's hard to say where important pundits such as George Will and R. Emmett Tyrrell would have come from. It was the intellectual firepower provided by these men and many others like them in the late '70s that made possible the conservative renaissance early in this decade. It seems highly unlikely that conservatism will soon be relegated once again to the fringes of American politics.

This fair-minded, judicious biography is well worth the time of anyone who seeks illumination about the man who began this process. Until the subject himself weighs in with his own memoirs, it remains the best portrait we are likely to get.

John A. Barnes, deputy editorial page editor of the Detroit News, worked as a staff assistant at National Review from 1979 to 1981.