Like Old Man River, William F. Buckley, Jr. just keeps rolling along. At an age when most writers can only repeat themselves or have fallen silent, the 78-year-old Buckley continues to provoke and entertain as he has since his first book, God and Man at Yale, published over five decades ago.
In his latest historical novel, Getting It Right, Buckley limns the conservative movement in its early years between the Hungarian revolution of 1956 and the Goldwater presidential campaign of 1964.
Buckley offers telling portraits of then-major figures such as Robert Welch, the bright but paranoiac founder of the John Birch Society (JBS); Ayn Rand, the bright but megalomaniacal founder of Objectivism; and Gen. Edwin A. Walker, the former military hero turned inarticulate activist who was nearly assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald.
Acceding to the marketplace, Buckley offers a love story between Woodroe Raynor, a former Mormon missionary in Austria, and Leonora Goldstein, the daughter of an anti-Communist union leader. After watching Soviet soldiers gun down Hungarian freedom fighters (and being wounded himself), Woodroe returns to America and joins the Birch Society, while Leonora, brilliant and idealistic, succumbs to the hypnotic rhetoric of the luminous-eyed Rand.
Although replete with bedroom scenes, the Woodroe-Leonora romance is essentially a device by which the author exposes the intellectual and personal flaws of the two absolutists who appealed to many conservatives in the late 50s and early 60s-Robert Welch and Ayn Rand.
Both Welch and Rand were possessed by an idea of their creation-Welch arguing that a Communist conspiracy reaching to the highest levels of the U.S. government was responsible for America’s repeated losses and the Soviet Union’s constant gains in the Cold War; Rand asserting that all collective activity (regardless of motivation) was “seditious” and only self-interest should guide an individual’s thoughts and actions.
Buckley stresses how much alike the two figures were in their charismatic personalities and the certainty of their life-views and how that certainty appealed strongly to the young and not so young of the time.
In retrospect, it is amazing how out of touch with reality Robert Welch, who had attended the University of North Carolina, the Naval Academy, and Harvard Law School, was, stating not only that Dwight Eisenhower was a Communist but that America was 60-80% “Communist-dominated.”
Woodroe finally resigns from the JBS after the palindromic Revilo Oliver wrote in the society’s magazine American Opinion following the assassination of John F. Kennedy that “his memory will be cherished with execration and loathing.” Even so, it was not until 1965 that the editors of National Review, in conjunction with Senators Barry Goldwater (R.-Ariz.) and John Tower (R.-Tex.), Russell Kirk, and other conservative icons formally read the John Birch Society out of the movement.
Buckley reserves his sharpest shafts for Ayn Rand, an imperious Caesar who must be obeyed in all things, philosophical and physical. A faithful disciple is expelled for making unauthorized changes in a few lines of a Rand play. Another is dismissed because he suggests that the source of certain ideas he is advancing is a medieval scholar and not the omniscient Rand.
And then there is the m??©nage a quatre of Ayn Rand, who takes her successor-designate Nathaniel Branden, 25 years her junior, as her lover with the resigned acquiescence of her husband Frank O’Connor and her lover’s wife, Barbara.
But the goddess of Objectivism reveals a subjectivist side of her nature when Branden admits a year later that he is no longer interested in sexual relations with Ayn and has fallen in love with a much younger and very beautiful woman. Rand’s anger is like “a great tidal smashing everything in its path.” Branden is thrown into the outer darkness as an enraged and betrayed Rand promises, “I’ll destroy you!”
Woodroe’s mentor, Princeton Prof. Theocritus Romney, explains why it was necessary to exorcise the two extremes: “The job at hand is to encourage an anti-Communist, conservative political party-the Republican Party, as history has worked it out-that is unburdened by mind-clogging distractions. The GOP can do better by repelling impurities.”
There is much to enjoy and for those of a certain age to remember in Getting It Right. There are the defining moments such as the founding of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) at the ancestral manse of Bill Buckley in Sharon, Conn.; the 1962 YAF rally that drew 20,000 people to Madison Square Garden to hear Barry Goldwater and alerted President Kennedy that something new and important was stirring in American politics; the late November day when JFK died and the mass media kept pointing out that the President had been shot in the heart of “Goldwaterland,” and the 1964 Republican National Convention that nominated Goldwater and confirmed the political maturation of the American conservative movement.
There are the people who helped build the movement-Marvin Liebman, conservative organizer extraordinaire; Robert Schuchman, the irrepressible first YAF chairman who died of an embolism at 27; M. Stanton Evans, author of the Sharon Statement and a thousand witticisms about Washington politics; Prof. Harry Jaffa, writer of Goldwater’s acceptance address with the immortal line, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”; chain-smoking Frank Meyer, senior editor of National Review and architect of fusionism; red-headed L. Brent Bozell, ghost-writer for Joe McCarthy and Barry Goldwater, including the pivotal book, The Conscience of a Conservative.
Buckley gets almost all of it right in this-his 17th novel-although Karl Hess was not presidential candidate Goldwater’s “press chief” but his chief speech writer, and Gen. Walker was at least in the minds of most young conservatives, a peripheral rather than a central character in their political considerations.
Getting It Right is a wonderful example of what British novelist Graham Green called “an entertainment”-a work meant to be enjoyed. But I believe it will also provide future historians with important insights into the movement that reshaped American politics in the last half of the 20th Century and into the 21st.