And before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater and before there was Barry Goldwater, there was National Review and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind and the spark in 1980 became a conflagration. –
George F. Will
When I started high school in 1977, my circle of friends ate lunch in a conference room in the social studies department library. The department was staffed by half a dozen teachers, among whom was a Scottish Labourite, an NDP-er, a Trudeaupian Liberal and a former Berkeley PhD candidate. This was anything but a safe place for nurturing a conservative disposition, except for two things.
First, these teachers were committed to an open liberalism, willing to debate and to encourage learning of all kinds. The second had to do with that social studies library. Today, its card catalogue might not stand the scrutiny of political correctness. One of its periodicals was strangely out of place: National Review. Or not.
In the late 1970s, liberalism’s proverbial chickens were coming home to roost … and lay eggs. The eggs were stinking rotten: “stag-flation” and unchecked deficit spending; higher crime, divorce, teenage pregnancy and abortion rates; and a West that – in the face of Soviet totalitarianism – had, as Solzhenitsyn put it, lost its nerve and the will to live. Liberalism seemed powerless and, worse, unwilling to tackle the situation.
In Bill Buckley and National Review, I found a world view that was acutely aware of the state of Western culture – not just politics – and had charted a way out. As George Will pointed out, William F. Buckley didn’t just set the stage for conservative advances in the 1980s or for its overturning the economics of Keynes and Galbraith. Buckley built it, piece by piece, and had done so since his first issue of National Review, Nov. 19 1955, with a publisher’s statement entitled, “Standing athwart history, yelling ‘Stop.’”
In that statement, Buckley castigated both an “irresponsible right” and “the intransigence of the liberals.” Buckley would have no truck or trade with the John Birch Society or anti-Semitism. He was decidedly anti-Communist, but critical of Senator Joe McCarthy’s conduct of an anti-Communist campaign against “un-American activities.” Buckley engaged an ex-Communist and the author of Witness, Whittaker Chambers, to address in the National Review the godless, radical individualism of Ayn Rand’s “objectivism.” Buckley supported JFK and LBJ’s entry into the Vietnam War as an effort to halt the expansion of world communism, but opposed LBJ’s “Great Society.” He supported Nixon’s continued prosecution of the Vietnam War, but broke with Nixon over wage and price controls.
Buckley wasn’t always right, er, correct. He opposed the civil rights movement. Buckley seemed unable to distinguish between the radicalism of Elijah Mohamed and Malcolm X and the peaceful, though militant, movement led by the black Baptist preacher Martin Luther King, Jr. Although undoubtedly conversant in the Christian doctrine of the “IMAGO DEI,” Buckley supported white Southern Dixiecrats’ adherence to Southern tradition and privilege over King’s aspirations for all Americans. Buckley also opposed George Bush’s invasion of Iraq and Norman Podhoretz’s characterization of the invasion and occupation of Iraq as an installment in “World War IV.”
There were other contradictions. Bill Buckley was a devout Catholic devoted to playing the music of the Lutheran Bach on his harpsichord and who inhabited the upper reaches of a Manhattan high society created by generations of Upper East Side WASPs. He disavowed physical exercise, but was an expert sailor who navigated Atlantic crossings three times. Buckley was a mid-Atlantic “Americanist” who married a West Coast Canadian socialite, his beloved Patricia. Buckley took a formerly dour, cranky conservatism and mounted a charm offensive with a wry sense of humour and mischievous turns of phrase populated by some of the English language’s most obscure vocabulary. He gave it a better wardrobe. Ronald Reagan’s easy ways and expansiveness were the California version of Buckley’s mid-Atlantic sophistication and winsomeness. Buckley made conservatism “cool!”
Like the 18th century’s Edmund Burke, who refused to celebrate a French Revolution that culminated in the Reign of Terror and Napoleon’s dictatorship, Buckley opposed the inevitability of a mid-20th century liberalism that was dragging Western civilization ever onward to the abyss. Buckley was a public intellectual who led Western conservatives to call the evil of communism by its right name and to take their countrymen to task for what liberalism hath wrought. He stood athwart history, and yelled, “Stop!” But William Frank Buckley, Jr., also strode ahead and motioned as if to say, “Come on!”
Lord willing, his influence will not diminish, nor shall he stop.
Russ Kuykendall is senior researcher at the Work Research Foundation and a frequent contributor to The Interim.