Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus
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.”
Half the pieces in this collection, writes Kimball, appear between hard covers for the first time; many others are from books now out of print. “A large portion of the pieces deal with matters of urgent public concern. Not a few tackle basic questions of political philosophy.” Given the mid-Victorian volume of Buckley’s output, and the great variety of subjects, Athwart History is a book of some bulk — although, Kimball assures us, considerably trimmed down from the first working draft, which competed “in girth with the Calcutta phone book.”
Bulky, but attractively produced and well structured. There are 178 pieces by Bill (the reviewer, being somewhat compulsive, counted them twice), arranged under 13 headings such as “Politics in Principle,” “Politics in Practice,” “The Raging Sixties.” Each of the 178 pieces is titled, and each has its own brief descriptive annotation: “Liberal Presumption — On the notion that a ‘central intelligence’ in Washington, D.C., can dispose of American citizens’ money far better than they can”; “Black Thought, Black Talk — On Senator Edward Kennedy’s description, ‘withered in distortion and malice,’ of Robert Bork’s America“; “Duty, Honor, Country — Looking at Iraq 2007 through the lens of Vietnam 1973, with a reflection on the people we abandoned back then“; “A Special Odium — On the extraordinary ferocity displayed by critics of Bush, and its possible effects on the democratic culture“; “Inside Obama — On the candidate’s soaring rhetoric-but underlying dishonesty-about what the government can do for America’s children.” By themselves, these annotations are well worth reading.
IN ALL, the selections and the finished product are a tribute to the editors, both of whom were close friends and colleagues of Buckley. Roger Kimball, co-editor and publisher of the New Criterion, is author of several books, among them Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. Bridges, who like this reviewer was hired personally by Bill Buckley, came straight from the University of Southern California to National Review, where she has worked since, including 10 years as managing editor, a job for which she was trained by Priscilla Buckley.
In 2003 she moved to Bill Buckley’s personal staff as his literary assistant, a position she held through the last years of his life — one of those strong, trusted, highly intelligent women such as Frances Bronson and Dorothy McCartney who helped keep his life organized and his prose clean and flowing. In 2007, with this reviewer, she co-authored Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement, a book that Bill’s sister Priscilla pronounced “the best thing ever written about Bill.” Bill Rusher agreed, as did Bill Buckley himself.
The next full biography of Bill, we’re told, will be by Sam Tanenhaus, the liberal editor of the New York Times Book Review. The deadline has been extraordinarily elastic, and some believe the elastic may have snapped, as it did with Edmund Morris’s incoherent biography of Ronald Reagan. Last year, Tanenhaus, whose biography of Whittaker Chambers had given him standing with conservatives, published a mini-book — a padded-out version of an earlier New Republic article — entitled The Death of Conservatism, yet another premature obituary for what Bob Tyrrell, in After the Hangover, called “America’s longest dying political movement.”
Hardly the logical candidate to write Bill Buckley’s life. But if and when he does, and, as seems likely, his book bombs, let’s hope the pieces are quickly picked up and reassembled by Linda Bridges, who in the end is the writer best equipped to write the full and definitive biography of Bill Buckley. There’s no doubt he’d approve.
But whatever the final disposition of that assignment, the editors have done a splendid job with this volume. In all, Athwart History admirably achieves its purpose, allowing us, to borrow a phrase from Mona Charen, to “rediscover whence conservatism got its élan — and its spine.”
Thanks to Roger Kimball and Linda Bridges, in these pages Bill Buckley rides up through the lists again, Ronald Reagan’s clipboard-bearing knight errant, shaming the pedants and pretenders, unhorsing the collectivists and statists, and smiting the ungodly.