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
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
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
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
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
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