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A beautifully edited half century of Bill Buckley.
Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions,
and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr.
Edited by Linda Bridges and Roger Kimball
(Encounter Books, 550 pages, $29.95)
AT NATIONAL REVIEW’S 25TH ANNIVERSARY PARTY, one month after Ronald Reagan was elected president, George Will said: “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”
Five years later, at the 30th anniversary party, Ronald Reagan himself put it this way: “You and I remember a time of the forest primeval, a time when nightmare and danger reigned and only the knights of darkness prevailed; when conservatives seemed without a champion. And then, suddenly riding up through the lists, came our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.”
That’s the Bill Buckley to whom we rallied when the liberal left dominated the national political and intellectual debate and set its terms, the Bill Buckley who threw down the gauntlet that was to change the direction of American social and political history. The challenge was issued in 1955, coming in the form of a statement of purpose for the newly launched National Review, announcing that the magazine “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The statement, which was to become a conservative manifesto and a founding document of the American conservative movement, laid down the lines of battle.
National Review is out of place, in the sense that the United Nations and the League of Women Voters and the New York Times and Henry Steele Commager are in place. It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation….One must recently have lived on or close to a college campus to have a vivid intimation of what has happened. It is there that we see how a number of energetic social innovators, plugging their grand designs, succeeded over the years in capturing the liberal intellectual imagination. And since ideas rule the world, the ideologues, having won over the intellectual class, simply walked in and took over.
It would be the mission of his new magazine, Buckley wrote, to take it back: We offer “a position that has not grown old under the weight of a gigantic, parasitic bureaucracy, a position untempered by the doctoral dissertations of a generation of PhDs in social architecture, unattenuated by a thousand vulgar promises to a thousand different pressure groups, uncorroded by a cynical contempt for human freedom. And that, ladies and gentlemen, leaves us just about the hottest thing in town.”
As Daniel Oliver recently observed in TAS, “We need to reread, perhaps fortnightly, National Review’s opening call, and marvel at its clarity and courage.”
The reaction among the liberal mandarins — and in those days the liberal/left journals of opinion they controlled exercised an outsized influence — was, by any standard, disproportionate. Four years earlier, in 1951, with the publication of God and Man at Yale (Gamay, as its publisher Henry Regnery named it), Buckley had already caused a panic attack among the guardians of liberal intellectual hegemony. In his excellent introduction to Athwart History, Roger Kimball describes that reaction: “Bill’s opening credo that ‘the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world’ was simply not to be borne. His codicil — ‘I further believe that the struggle between individualism [i.e., conservatism] and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level’ — elevated disbelief into rage.”
Kimball continues: “The nerve that Bill struck with God and Man at Yale is still smarting; indeed, it is still throbbing uncontrollably [as witness] the discrepancy between proclamations of ‘diversity’ on campuses and the practice there of enforcing a politically correct orthodoxy…there is plenty of room for ‘diversity,’ so long as you embrace the liberal-left dogma. Diverge from that dogma and you will find that the rhetoric of diversity has been replaced by talk of ‘prejudice,’ ‘hate speech,’ and the entire lexicon of liberal denunciation.”
True enough. But in a career spanning the second half of what may have been history’s most eventful century, Bill Buckley helped ensure, at first almost singlehandedly, that opposing voices were heard above the collectivist cacophony. And when he finally relinquished command of his magazine and his numerous enterprises, conservatism, if not triumphant, had been reestablished as a reborn and vital political and philosophical alternative to the once-dominant liberal ideology.
In the end, writes George Will in his preface to this volume, Bill Buckley was “a history-making figure” who “asserted, and then proved, that a few determined men and women, equipped with sound ideas, could put paid to all ideas of determinism. They could command history to halt, step back, and turn right.
“It did. It had no choice.”
IN THIS VOLUME, the story of that historic turnabout and the consequent conservative ascendancy is chronicled through pieces culled, as the editors tell us, from millions of published words, spanning nearly six decades, with commentaries on subjects as diverse as Edward Kennedy and Robert Bork, George Bush and Barack Obama, Kremlinology and Communist China, the New York Times and Cuba, rock music and peanut butter, and the debt of gratitude we owe to Dr. George Washington Carver. The last anthology Buckley himself assembled, Miles Gone By (2004), was intended to serve as his “literary autobiography” — in Kimball’s words, “a cheerful book, a convivial book” intended to “reflect the depth and variousness of its author’s pleasures.”
In Athwart History, the editors set out “to reintroduce the public to the serious, sinewy, occasionally pugnacious side of Bill Buckley” and, by providing a companion volume to Miles Gone By, to show us Buckley whole. Kimball credits this approach to Charles Kesler, editor of the Claremont Review, who had observed that much of Bill’s “more trenchant work” was out of print. “What was needed, he said, was a collection that represented the intellectual Bill Buckley, Buckley the polemicist, controversialist, and thinker.”