Lessons from the life of Buckley

The formidable Germaine Greer; William Buckley had the courage to debate her. Photograph by Anthony Browell, from an exhibit at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia.

I’ve been accused of being far too kind to William F. Buckley in the obituary  I wrote last week. I have a response to these complaints in an article for the Guardian, which can be found here.

Here are some excerpts:

If you’re a leftist it’s fairly easy to hate William F Buckley. A quick survey of his life reveals a long list of his ideological crimes: McCarthyism, fascist fellow travelling (“General Franco is an authentic national hero.”), youthful racism, late-life homophobia (ie wanting to tattoo Aids victims on their butts) and all-purpose demented war-mongering (ie, urging a preemptive attack on the Soviet Union in the 1950s, even at the risk of a nuclear holocaust and blithely arguing, “And if we die? We die.”).

But the proper response to a hugely influential historical figure like Buckley is not simple rejection of his bad ideas.

The fact is that Buckley enjoyed a remarkable successful life. In 1955, when Buckley started National Review, American conservatism was in disarray. A quarter century later, Ronald Reagan, a National Review charter subscriber, was elected president. I wish to God that there was a leftist Buckley or for that matter even a liberal Buckley. There is much to learn from the man’s career, a stellar example of how an intellectual can be politically effective.


4. Be willing to debate smart enemies.
Buckley made a name for himself partially because he didn’t just go after easy targets but instead debated the best liberalism and the left had to offer: John Kenneth Galbraith, James Baldwin, Noam Chomsky, Germaine Greer, Michael Harrington. Debating thinkers of this calibre not only kept Buckley’s own mind in fighting trim, it also demonstrated his seriousness and raised the stature of his political movement. In arguing with conservatives you could make a full-time career combating the dim. God knows, I’ve spent some time criticising Jonah Goldberg, the author of Liberal Fascism. But there is a lot to be said for fighting your strongest foes.

5. Make time for culture.
I’m not sure if this was part of Buckley’s political success, but it certainly made him a more appealing figure and gave balance to his life: he cared about culture, especially music. He also had a taste for quirky prose, as seen by his friendship with the great literary critic Hugh Kenner. Being political doesn’t have to mean being a philistine. Temperamentally Buckley wasn’t a stodgy conservative at all but a neophile. He loved new gadgets, new ideas, new writers. There’s a life lesson here as well.


2 thoughts on “Lessons from the life of Buckley

  1. On Matt Yglesias’s first thread about WFB’s death, I wrote, “Jeet Heer is right about everything.” I like this article quite a bit as well.

    However, I don’t think it’s necessary to engage with your smartest critics in order to advance your point of view. Rush Limbaugh, Tom DeLay, Karl Rove, Grover Norquist, and Ann Coulter helped put together a pretty solid base of power for a while, and I don’t think they’ve ever considered anything important that any liberal has ever said. Now, that kind of movement is prone to prize political correctness over accuracy, and thus to sew the seeds of its own demise. But rallying against straw-man enemies may be a better way to draw supporters than reasoned debate. (There are medium (magazine vs. radio) and cultural aspects to the change in movement conservatism’s style, too).

    Plus, your paragraph about all of NR’s 1950s-era principles that went unrealized makes me wonder what, exactly, Buckley achieved. Reagan brought lower taxes and harsh anti-Soviet rhetoric, sure, but he climbed down from both of those. (Though we’re never going back to pre-Reagan tax rates). Buckley did say recently that his movement conservatism was a success because “what animated the conservative core for 40 years was the Soviet menace, plus the rise of dogmatic socialism. That’s pretty well gone.” Which is well and good, but I don’t think that Eisenhower, or any other post-WWII leaders, ever expected that we’d eventually surrender to the USSR.

    After reading your article, I’m wondering if movement conservatism succeeded in getting people to identify as conservatives and Republicans the way I identify as a Red Sox fan, but without a whole lot in the way of policy achievements. That’s never occurred to me before, and it must be overstated. As you point out, he made it “much harder to push for liberal and social democratic policies.” So, there’s that, which fits with the whole “athwart history yelling stop” business. But did the election of Reagan really put a stop to creeping statism?

    Holy cow– Googling around, I came across this abomination from the Heritage Foundation. This is conservatism? This is a think tank? Exhorting us to listen to Sean Hannity and Laura Ingram, and quizzing, “What did Reagan do to protect America? (1) Pulled all U.S. troops out of other countries; (2) Spent what it took to rebuild our military; (3) Relied on the United Nations to secure global peace”?

  2. Hi Elvis — thanks for the kind words and especially for the link to that Heritage Quiz. Heritage is in a whole other world: they’re taking the think out of think tank.

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