WASHINGTON — There was a grand event in New York City last week. One of the most consequential figures of the last half of the twentieth century observed his 80th birthday in the glamorous Pierre Hotel with several hundred of the most influential members of the political movement that he helped to found, the modern conservative movement. The consequential figure was, of course, William F. Buckley, Jr. Close students of the American scene will thus understand why no organs of major media covered the event. Major media used to cover what were called “public intellectuals.” They stopped covering them when conservatives joined the ranks of public intellectuals and then overwhelmed the ranks.
What claims the attention of major media today is a phenomenon called Kultursmog. It is the popular culture of the United States, polluted utterly by a weird politics, a politics that is often called liberal but is actually simply leftish and adolescent. It has no fixed values or ideas other than to disturb the peace, which the legally attuned will recognize as a misdemeanor in most jurisdictions of the civilized world. Kultursmog is a culture that mixes rock stars in with fashion models and the ideas of Al Gore. Occasionally the smog actually includes the Hon. Gore, along with those other “rock star” personalities, the Clintons. The Kultursmog is always politically correct, ever sensitive to the whims of the Democratic National Committee, and increasingly anti-intellectual.
What makes it anti-intellectual is that the ideas behind public policy today are almost completely derived from Buckley, Milton Friedman, Irving Kristol, and other less well-known conservatives and neoconservatives. In fact I think I can argue successfully, if ironically, that Buckley is personally responsible for the anti-intellectualism that has spread throughout major media over the past 25 years. There once was a time when the late night television shows, the morning chat shows, and the personality sections of print journalism would occasionally feature the likes of Buckley and his most frequent liberal opponents, John Kenneth Galbraith and Gore Vidal. The time is long past. Buckley finished off his opponents years ago, and no young egghead was up to taking on his wit or erudition.
The wit has been quick and lethal. The other night at the Pierre episodes of Buckley from his television show Firing Line and from interviews on major media, most memorably 60 Minutes, demonstrated his debating skills and reminded me that no one in the many decades of Buckley’s career ever got the best of him, at least not for more than a few minutes.
Buckley in his 80 years founded one of the most important intellectual magazines in American history, National Review. He was there at the founding of New York’s influential Conservative Party, which utterly transformed New York politics, leaving a one-party state with two very competitive parties, the old minority party now on top. He was friend and advisor to Barry Goldwater, modern conservatism’s first presidential contender, and Ronald Reagan, the man who brought modern conservatism to Washington where it has pretty much dominated since 1980. Forget not Bill Clinton’s line “The era of big government is over.” Buckley also ran for office, lectured and debated weekly, and wrote scores of books and thousands of newspaper columns, all so stylishly that the left came to reject stylish writing. Writers on the left seem to think stylish writing is the mark of the “elitist” conservative. That is another mark against Buckley. He encouraged anti-intellectualism on the left and bad writing.
The Kultursmog may be anti-intellectual, vulgar, and politically out of touch, but it remains very influential. To a vast degree, it decides what the members of the chattering class talk about and are aware of. Its most effective instrument in influencing them is omission. It simply omits what it does not want to acknowledge. When Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan died a few years ago nowhere was it reported in major media that in the 1960s and early 1970s he was associated with neoconservatives such as Kristol and Jeane Kirkpatrick. At the Pierre the other night Henry Kissinger, Mike Wallace, Tom Wolfe, and scores of other notables paused to celebrate Buckley. In the Kultursmog the event never took place and eventually Bill Buckley will never have existed. But Buckley helped create what in politics has become the winning side, and in time the Kultursmog will not exist at all.