The Indispensable Bill Buckley

Lee Edwards engages in some (forgivable) hyperbole in his latest book when he claims that William F. Buckley, Jr is “the maker” of the conservative movement. That movement, now more than a half-century old, is the product of many minds and many hands. The list of the conservative movement’s leaders is long and illustrious, including Barry Goldwater, Ronald Reagan, Jack Kemp, Russell Kirk, M. Stanton Evans, HUMAN EVENTS, The Freeman, Americans for Constitutional Action and Fulton Lewis, Jr., just to name a few. Many of their efforts pre-date the work of Buckley.

Then there were also the thousands of conservative philanthropists already active when Buckley came on the scene, who funded Buckley’s new National Review, many continuing to do so for decades.

Yet Edwards makes a convincing case that, except for Buckley’s intellectual leadership, all might have come to naught. Buckley’s first notable (and indisputable) achievement was to forge a conservative consensus on the meaning of conservatism, a term first used by Russell Kirk in his book The Conservative Mind, published in 1953.

As Edwards recounts, Buckley did so by bringing together many of the disputatious spokesmen for factions on the right and actually getting them to work together.

“Why were there so few defectors?” asks Edwards, and then provides the answer:  “Because of Buckley’s extraordinary skill at honoring and integrating the conflicting voices of the conservative choir. And because one and all realized, eventually, that they were part of something historic—what Buckley would come to call “our movement.”

NR editors Russell Kirk (a traditionalist) and Frank Meyer (a libertarian), sharply at odds at the outset, eventually came to a consensus position called “fusionism,” which basically became the operative philosophy of the emerging conservative movement.

Edwards quotes Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol’s assessment of Buckley’s achievement: “Plenty of Americans had conservative inclinations and sentiments. But Buckley created conservatism as a political and intellectual movement.”

Edwards traces Buckley’s key contribution to the Goldwater movement. National Review was an early and enthusiastic supporter of Goldwater for President and provided crucial support. Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell was the ghostwriter for Goldwater’s book The Conscience of a Conservative, which sold millions of copies, had an enormous impact and established Goldwater as the leading political spokesman for the conservative movement. National Review‘s publisher, William A. Rusher, played a key role along with his friend F. Clifton White, in the successful Draft Goldwater movement. And of course the Goldwater campaign brought Ronald Reagan to national attention with “the Speech,” which caused a huge sensation that led to Reagan’s eventual campaign and election as governor of California and then President.

Reagan was a reader of National Review practically from its inception and freely admitted the impact of Buckley and NR had on him, and he and Buckley were friends for more than 40 years.

Among other interesting aspects of the book are the portraits drawn of the intellectuals who shaped Buckley’s thinking including Albert Jay Nock, James Burnham and Willmoore Kendall, of whom Buckley said, “I attribute whatever political and philosophical insights I have to his tutelage and his friendship.”

Edwards also writes perceptively of Buckley’s role as a “broker of ideas” (Stan Evans’ words). He notes that Buckley anticipated Arthur Laffer and the supply-side school of economics by several years by hiring supply-side writer Alan Reynolds in 1971, making NR one of the first publications to advocate supply-side economics.

He also notes that in his campaign for mayor of New York in 1965, Buckley anticipated Jack Kemp’s enterprise zones by a decade and Ronald Reagan’s welfare reform plan by several years.

In his book, Four Reforms: A Guide for the Seventies, Buckley also offered interesting and innovative proposals on welfare, taxes (a flat tax), education (vouchers) and crime.

As Edwards demonstrates, Buckley’s influence was immense across an enormous range of areas. One conservative youth organization, Young Americans For Freedom, was founded at the Buckley estate in Sharon, Conn., and Buckley was instrumental in the founding of the American Conservative Union and the Conservative Party of New York among other organizations.
He inspired innumerable conservative leaders from Pat Buchanan to Rush Limbaugh and gave a platform to dozens more on his weekly program, “Firing Line.”

Edwards quotes Nicholas Lehman, dean of the Columbia University School of Broadcasting as saying that during the Reagan Administration “the 5,000 middle-level officials, journalists and policy intellectuals that it takes to run a government, were deeply influenced by Buckley’s example.”

In this concise, thoroughly satisfying account of Buckley’s life and legacy, Edwards covers the highlights of his personal and professional life, the deep impact of his Catholic faith on him and his astonishing productivity.

Edward’s tallies Buckley’s “Mississippi River” of words flowing from his typewriter and PC–248.8 linear feet according to Buckley’s son Christopher, not including 6,000 columns, hundreds of editorials written for National Review, 1,504 “Firing Line” programs, 55 books and the 80 or so speeches that he made in a typical year.

To sustain this astonishing output, Buckley employed a phalanx of assistants. Edwards says: “Long-time associate Linda Bridges has estimated that at the long height of his career (from 1966 to 1999), he kept busy a secretary one and sometimes two typists, and four researchers. (The researchers he shared with the magazine.) This supporting group did not include the NR staff, the ‘Firing Line’ production staff and a limousine and driver that enabled him to work—dictating a letter, polishing an essay or a speech—while going from place to place.”

Observing his breakneck pace, Peter Robinson, the Buckley’s researcher, asked him, why, given his wealth and fame, he continued to work so hard.

“WFB looked at me, surprised,” Robinson recalled, and replied, “My father taught me that I owe it to my country,” he replied.  It’s how I pay my debt.”

William F. Buckley paid his debt to his country many times over. Lee Edwards’ book is a fitting tribute to this giant of conservatism.

Cartoon by Brett Noel.