A graceful treatment of the one conservative we forever miss.
A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.
By Alvin S. Felzenberg
(Yale University Press, 456 pages, $35)
From the earliest days, writes Dr. Alvin S Felzenberg, a noted presidential historian and principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, “William F. Buckley Jr. presumed to tell heads of state what to do.”
Depending on whether you accept his mother’s or father’s version, when Bill Buckley was either six or seven, he wrote King George V of England, demanding the United Kingdom immediately repay the debt owed to the United States after World War I.
As an adolescent, he joined the America First Committee, protesting Franklin D. Roosevelt’s plans to provide assistance to England and involve us in what would become World War II. Later, in 1945, as Second Lieutenant Buckley, USA, he antagonized his commanding officer by writing a letter outlining “how the War Department, with the war over, could speed up the demobilization process.”
Upon discharge, he enrolled at Yale, where, as Chairman of the Yale Daily News, “he hectored Harry Truman on economics, labor unions, and corruption,” instructed the faculty and administration on morality and values, and upon graduation wrote his first book, God and Man at Yale, published in Chicago by Henry Regnery (one of the great men of the conservative movement), which “took as its mission nothing less than revising the curricula and restructuring the governance of the university from which he had recently graduated.”
The next task was to command history to pause for long enough to build a genuine conservative movement able to appeal to intelligent Americans. For this he founded National Review, with the ultimate goal, Dr. Felzenberg writes, of transforming “the GOP into a party that presented a genuine alternative to the liberalism that was dominant within both major parties.”
One of Buckley’s first orders of business was to attempt to read Dwight D. Eisenhower out of the conservative movement. But there was no coherent movement for Ike to be read out of. And the General of the Armies who had won the war in Europe was unlikely to pay much attention to a shavetail second lieutenant talking political mumbo-jumbo with an accent vaguely reminiscent of Field Marshall Montgomery’s, a man he detested.
Nor were the anti-Eisenhower allies available at that time all that savory — or even sane, for that matter, as witness Robert Welch, head of the John Birch Society, a rapidly growing anti-communist group, who insisted that Eisenhower was “a conscious agent of the international Communist conspiracy.” (Buckley may have failed with Eisenhower; but he would later succeed in reading Welch out of the movement.)
Conservative Taft Republicans, who had long made up the heart of the party, had steadily lost influence since WWII, while more liberal eastern Rockefeller Republicans like John Lindsay, the New York City mayor with leading-man looks, through whose ears the wind reportedly whistled, became media favorites.
(Buckley would later run as a conservative against Lindsay for mayor, losing the election, as he intended — asked what he’d do if he won, he said “Demand a recount.” But he left Lindsay exposed as vacant and vapid, insuring that he’d rise no farther in the GOP, and wrote a book about it, The Unmaking of the Mayor, now a campaign classic.)
In 1964, to end liberal national political dominance, he and a new breed of articulate conservatives had settled on Barry Goldwater as conservatism’s public face. With Goldwater as candidate, “Buckley’s National Review functioned as the candidate’s unofficial headquarters and policy shop.”
But with the assassination of John Kennedy, it imploded. Although national polls showed Goldwater running a tight race against JFK, LBJ opened a wide lead by successfully painting Goldwater as an extremist.
“In your heart, you know he’s right,” was one of the best Goldwater slogans. LBJ countered with, “In your guts, you know he’s nuts.”
In the end, Goldwater ran against a ghost and lost in a landslide.
But in Republican politics, Bill Buckley had made himself a force, and people like Richard Nixon realized it.
I first met Bill Buckley in 1968 in San Francisco, when he took me to dinner at Trader Vic’s (one of Nixon’s favorite restaurants) and asked me to come to work for him at NR. We drank Navy Grog’s and talked for four hours. Much of the conversation was about Richard Nixon, not as a conservative, but as a man who had earned the respect of conservatives for his courageous and principled defense of Whittaker Chambers against the Soviet spy Alger Hiss, and by so doing also earning the undying enmity of the liberal establishment.
In general, as Dr. Felzenberg writes, he’d supported Richard Nixon as the most conservative of the electable candidates, rallying right-wing doubters. But while Buckley backed Nixon in 1968, he had longer thoughts about the governor of California, who’d made the journey from Liberal to Conservative, and among other virtues had become a regular reader of National Review. (Later he’d also become an enthusiastic reader of The American Spectator, whose editor he held in high personal and professional esteem, , as did Bill Buckley, who viewed Bob Tyrrell as one of the country’s most able and eloquent conservative spokesmen.)
As Dr. Felzenberg points out, the Nixon-Buckley relationship was never smooth, although there were many of us in the Nixon White House with ties to National Review, where I’d worked as an editor and feature writer. Nixon referred to us as Buckleyites, and was never quite comfortable with Bill Buckley himself. The feeling was mutual, and with Watergate it all exploded.
It was, for Richard Nixon and his family, a personal tragedy of great proportions, and there are many of us who still believe he was treated unjustly — my comrade Ben Stein, for instance, who should be asked to write the real story of the Nixon administration. But injustice and the politics of personal destruction aside, his fall cleared the way for the conservative ascendancy of the 1980s.
After the Gerald Ford/Jimmy Carter interludes, Ronald Reagan captured the White House with an all-out assist from Bill Buckley. And with Reagan’s election, “Buckley’s role changed from that of political commentator, go-between, and even political broker to that of unofficial participant in the administration’s inner sanctum.”
Dr. Feltzenberg notes: “He also proved a constant source of emotional support to Ronald and Nancy Reagan. On the few occasions when Buckley and Reagan disagreed on policy, sometimes strongly, their friendship never frayed.”
With later presidents, the relationships were not especially significant. Buckley admired the older Bush for his sterling personal qualities, but would fall out with Bush the younger over Iraq. And Bill Clinton’s problems with morality precluded any relationship.
But no matter. “For Buckley, Reagan’s presidency represented the culmination of what he had hoped the conservative movement would attain and achieve.” And for himself, not quite “telling heads of state what to do.” But close enough.
Dr. Felzenberg writes with grace and good humor, and with genuine affection and respect for his subjects. True, there are several noticeable omissions, among them any discussion of the central role played by this journal and its editor in the growth of the conservative movement, often working with Bill Buckley to find and develop now-prominent conservative writers. George Will and David Brooks, for instance, both took their basic training at TAS, as for that matter did Andy Ferguson, Christopher Caldwell, and Bill Kristol, to name a few.
But sins of omissions aside, of the good Buckley books available treating the Reagan/Buckley relationship, this is one of the best, running just south of Strictly Right: the book I helped the late Linda Bridges write.
Linda, a National Review colleague from the Burnham-Rusher-Meyer-Priscilla Buckley days and a friend since, left us on March 26. During our collaborating days, her title was Comrade Managing Editor. RIP, CME.