Defending Buckley: A Response to Michael Anton - The American Spectator | USA News and Politics
Defending Buckley: A Response to Michael Anton
William F. Buckley, Jr. attends the second inauguration of President Ronald Reagan on ​​January 21, 1985 (SPC 5 Bert Goulait, U.S. Military)

Thank you, Michael, for responding so quickly and so candidly. My thoughts are these:

Let’s agree to disagree about what constitutes a belittling comment. When you call National Review, the centerpiece of William F. Buckley’s legacy, “a joke,” I would think that might qualify. But I may be playing by pre-Trump rules.

During the decades Buckley ran the magazine, it conducted business as a for-profit corporation, frequently threadbare and closely directed by an engaged and outspoken board. Buckley esteemed the validation, if only intermittent in NR’s case, of the marketplace.

The magazine itself was quite consciously intended to be the central organ of a fighting political faith. That faith was called by the media, usually with attendant alarm, the New Right. We called it conservatism. Whatever the terminology, it was the new-new thing and being part of it was exciting and improvisational and dangerous — always to one’s reputation and more than occasionally to one’s person. Before NR, the only stirrings on the American Right had been, in literary critic Lionel Trilling’s memorable phrase, “irritable mental gestures.”

It is important to remember that Buckley was creating something new and not reforming something old. As all of us would-be managers have learned from painful experiences, it is more difficult by orders of magnitude to start something than it is to maintain something.

I left the board the same day Buckley did — the day when he signed over his stock to the new regime. I think it was 2004, but don’t sue me if I’m off by a year. For Buckley, it was a day of sadness and resignation. His life’s work was complete. (Already in decline, he would die a few years later.) For me, it was a day of relief, as I related in an anguished piece for The American Spectator. I was relieved to be stepping aside because NR had gone full neocon, with trigger fingers itchy and demanding to be scratched.

Since Buckley’s death, the magazine has made a strategic shift. It has repositioned itself as a well-edited, right-leaning journalistic observer of the political scene. (I should note that I was not privy to the discussions which produced that decision and thus cannot give you the rationale.) To your point, Michael, NR does seem to spend a fair amount of ink policing the Right. It justifies these efforts by summoning the memory of Buckley’s early efforts to expel first the John Birchers and then the Ayn Randians from his emerging coalition. But that’s comparing apples to tangerines. The Birchers were insisting that President Dwight Eisenhower, the most quintessential American that God ever made, was a conscious agent of the international communist conspiracy. Theirs was a full-blown whackoism. And Ayn Rand was insisting that the new coalition be godless. With Buckley, for obvious reasons, both of those positions were non-negotiable.

I concede the point that the current NR picks fights more often with the stylistically offensive than with the philosophically unacceptable.

Another less visible but possibly more significant change was introduced shortly after Buckley’s departure. NR converted to a nonprofit, tax-advantaged form of governance and there can be no gainsaying its financial success in doing so. NR has excelled in recent years at monetizing the Buckley legacy: It has brought in by my guesstimate several tens of millions of dollars.

The tax-sheltered living has been easy, but times change. A mindless, rightish mob has now formed and it seems to be coming for Buckley in full, monument-toppling mode. I know that I’m not the only donor counting on NR to mount a full-throated defense of Buckley and his legacy.

He was a great man. Wouldn’t you agree, Michael?

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