National Review loves Donald Rumsfeld; doesn’t care for Christopher Buckley or Jeffrey Hart.
Perhaps because so many of its founding editors were erstwhile Stalinists and Trotskyists, the editors of National Review have always had a propensity for purges, ideological house-cleanings that involve black-balling those who don’t follow the party line. Some of these purges have been entirely justified: the conservative magazine did well to kick out kooks like Revilo Oliver and the Birchers in the early 1960s. And good riddance to the Randians as well. Other purges have been regrettable: anti-war libertarians were a strong presence on the American right till National Review started boycotting them. It would have been nice if those anti-war voices had remained part of the conservative conversation.
Now the magazine seems to be going through another one of its periodic ideological civil wars, kicking out anyone who might have a kind word to say about Barack Obama. As has been widely discussed, Christopher Buckley, son of founding editor William F. Buckley, lost his column in the magazine after he wrote an endorsement of Obama (an article that ran in another publication, The Daily Beast).
Less attention has been given to the firing of Jeffrey Hart, who has been an editor at National Review since the late 1960s. Hart has also been vocal in his support of Obama, saying that the candidate is much more prudential and instinctively conservative than his Republican rivals. So after 30 years of service, Hart was shown the exit.
In some ways, the shabby dismissal of Hart is even more telling than the firing of Christopher Buckley. The younger Buckley was never much of an ideologue; his ties to the magazine were largely personal and his column was humorous. It should be added that there is a lot of evidence that William F. Buckley in his last years was very unhappy with the direction National Review was taking, especially in its uncritical support for the Bush administration. So severing ties with Christopher Buckley was perhaps part of the lingering tension between the magazine and the late founding father.
Hart, much more so than Christopher Buckley, has been a key player at National Review, the most important second-generation editor after the major founders of the magazine (notably James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall) went into semi-retirement or left the magazine. No Johnny-come-lately to conservatism, Hart worked as a speech writer for both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.
An eclectic Burkean Tory, Hart suffered of course from all the political failings of the early National Review (notably a tendency to be all too forgiving of right-wing dictators like Franco and Mussolini). Still, like the best writers for the magazine, he made conservative arguments with real intellectual flair. As a student at Columbia, his mentors were Lionel Trilling and Jacques Barzun, who taught him the art of writing fluid and flexible cultural essays that turned ideas into dramatic events. Hart’s essay collection Acts of Recovery has a number of fine pieces, notably on G.K. Chesterton and Robert Frost. Hart is especially good at taking fairly abstract academic theories (say Georg Simmel’s sociology) and teasing out its political implications.
His two historical works (When the Going Was Good and From This Moment On) can’t be taken seriously as works of scholarship but they are quite evocative of the world of Hart’s childhood and young manhood, the early 1940s and the 1950s. Certainly as a writer and thinker, Hart is much superior to the typical modern-day National Reviewer, all of whom have the air of being a perpetually callow undergraduate.
If the editors of National Review had any sense of tradition, of loyalty, or of decency (all fine conservative values) they wouldn’t have fired Hart.
The firing of Jeffrey Hart is just another sign of the on-going conservative crack-up.