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View From The North
March 18, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr.:
Founder — and Underminer — of American Conservatism?

by Mark Wegierski

When the young William F. Buckley Jr. burst onto the American political scene with the founding of National Review in 1955, it was a gust of fresh air in a society where — regardless of large-scale social conservatism — liberalism was regnant in the academy and intellectual and artistic circles. With the assistance of such figures as Russell Kirk, the author of the huge bestseller The Conservative Mind (first published in 1953), and numerous other astute thinkers and writers who filled the pages of the early National Review, Buckley gave a robust definition to a serious, intellectual conservatism. Indeed, he was the main inspiration for the Goldwater candidacy, a candidacy that, although it failed in the short term, built the foundation for the two-term triumph of Ronald Reagan.

In the 1970s, Buckley’s television program, Firing Line, sparkled with wit and aperçus and incisive analyses of liberalism and the behemoth state. It was in this fashion, with the creation of a widely circulated public persona, that large numbers of people would be reached and influenced. Indeed, as a gauge of the undeniable intellectual gravitas he brought to bear, even Woody Allen made a memorable reference to Buckley in Allen’s popular movie Annie Hall.

All of Buckley’s endeavors laid the groundwork for the triumph of Reagan in 1980. Eventually, though, the triumph turned sour. While Reagan was spectacularly successful in winning the Cold War against the Soviet Union, he fared considerably less well in the domestic culture war. This was the time when the neoconservatives were able to reach increasing positions of influence in the Reagan administration and the American polity in general. Their ascendancy came at the expense of what were coming to be called the paleoconservatives who had expected to share in the Reagan victories. The signal battle was the conflict over the nomination of M.E. Bradford to the chairmanship of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Bradford was accused of holding disrespectful views of Lincoln, and the nomination went to the neocon favorite and (at the time) little-known William Bennett.

In 1988, the neocons orchestrated the deselection of prominent conservative political theorist Paul Edward Gottfried from a prestigious academic posting at the Catholic University of America. Younger paleos experienced similar processes of exclusion across the conservative movement, for example, the gutting of the Yale Literary Magazine and the redirection of major foundation funding away from core traditionalist concerns.

What was Buckley’s response? He hesitated a little and then mostly caved in to the neoconservatives. Although National Review still urged New Hampshire Republicans to vote for Pat Buchanan in the 1992 primaries, Buckley took pains to defer to neocon concerns and to show himself sufficiently sensitive to them. Indeed, he sacked Joe Sobran in 1993, resulting in substantial damage to Sobran’s future. The firing of Peter Brimelow followed, as well as the demotion of John O’Sullivan, who had been brought in as a hoped-for “rescuer” of a flagging National Review.

By the 1990s there was a widespread perception among more astute observers of the cultural scene that Buckley had virtually become a caricature of himself. The early Buckley quite likely would have repudiated most of what the later Buckley was saying.

For Buckley in the earlier period, anti-Communism and the decisive prosecution of the Cold War was often the central principle. Someone could be consigned to outer darkness because of principled opposition to U.S. wars and interventions abroad — while being derided as a “kook” for holding so-called conspiracy theories (for example, about the less-than-salubrious nature of the U.S. national-security apparatus and the military-industrial complex).

As the years went on, Buckley appeared to have become ever-more accepting of big government, as well as willing to continue the tradition of purging “extremists” from the “official” conservative movement. In the late 1980s and later, this seemed to dovetail nicely with the neoconservative agenda. In 1996, National Review certainly had little good to say about the Buchanan candidacy, preferring to provide a strong endorsement for the lackluster Robert Dole.

By today, National Review has become a magazine that most thoughtful American conservatives and traditionalists see, at best, as but a very pale shadow of its former robust self.

Buckley was one of the founders of postwar American conservatism. However, the sociocultural and political shift over the decades — as well as what seems like an excessive craving of respectability (especially vis-á-vis his legendary New York dining partners) — appears to have overwhelmed his once-acute, penetrating mind. The result has been an increasingly bland conformity with the neoconservative outlook — or, more generally, of broad acquiescence to it.

Partly because of this conceptual and personal drift of Buckley in his later years, any more-authentic, serious, and intellectually resilient forms of conservatism, traditionalism, and libertarianism have grown increasingly attenuated in 21st-century America. It has become increasingly difficult to fill the void created when the once-brilliant Buckley and his influential magazine largely surrendered to the prevalent sociocultural milieu.

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