The most important lesson of his career is that there are limits to accommodation.
By RICHARD BROOKHISER
The Wall Street Journal
JUNE 1, 2009
In times of perplexity evangelical Christians ask themselves, "What would Jesus do?" Conservatives trying to regroup in the age of Obama might ask themselves, "What would William F. Buckley Jr. do?"
Buckley died in 2008 after almost 60 years as a public intellectual and celebrity. His quirky and hyperarticulate defense of his ideas, in books and columns and on television, gained him celebrity, and he used his stardom to propagate his ideas. He fought in great victories -- he helped create the climate of opinion in which Ronald Reagan was elected president -- and he saw great debacles, from the fall of South Vietnam to the travails of George W. Bush.
I wrote for him and worked with him for almost 40 years, and I believe conservatives might turn to him now, not for salvation, but for a little mental clarity and temperamental reinforcement.
William F. Buckley Jr.
The most important lesson of his career is that there are limits to accommodation. Buckley came to fame in the early 1950s after two decades of liberal Democratic dominance, the Fair Deal of Harry Truman having followed the New Deal of FDR. When Republicans finally recaptured Congress and the White House in 1952, it was a case of new men and old measures. The new president, Dwight Eisenhower, despite his conservative instincts, was unwilling to pick ideological fights. On the sidelines of politics, the poet Peter Viereck called for a New Conservatism dedicated to managing change gracefully and recognizing liberal Democrats like Adlai Stevenson as its natural leaders. Germany, Japan and (it seemed) the Depression had been beaten by great collective efforts. The world had moved into a new era, and conservatives should recognize the fact.
Buckley would have none of it. He wanted a conservatism that stood for capitalism and freedom. The Cold War required another great mobilization, which Buckley supported wholeheartedly, but he would not lose sight of his individualistic goals. In 1955, when he founded National Review as the journal of opinion for his kind of conservatism, he declared its purpose to be "to stand athwart history, yelling 'Stop!'" He yelled because he hoped to be heard. Liberalism had been ascendant for years, but that didn't mean it always would be.
The political vehicle of a late 20th century conservative movement was bound to be the Republican Party. Buckley recognized this, but he was never a party loyalist -- another lesson for today's conservatives. Practically speaking he was married to the GOP, but he never expected it to be faithful to his ideas, and he fought it when it strayed. The election laws of New York, where he worked, allow politicians to run on more than one line, which encourages a proliferation of third parties. He supported the Conservative Party, a right-wing pressure group, from its inception, and ran as its candidate for mayor of New York City in 1965, hoping to defeat the liberal Republican hotshot John Lindsay. (He didn't.)
In 1988, in his home state of Connecticut, Buckley went even further in party disloyalty, backing a liberal Democrat, Joseph Lieberman, against an even more liberal Republican incumbent, Lowell Weicker. This time he won. The party should, as much as possible, support the movement, not the other way around.
For all his feistiness, Buckley knew that counsels of perfection are not for this world. The journalist, poet and ex-Communist spy Whittaker Chambers was one of Buckley's most-admired colleagues. "To live is to maneuver," Chambers told him, and Buckley quoted the line often. It was important for a political movement to establish paradigms -- he called it "keeping the tablets" -- but then one had to make choices.
Though he thought it was possible to change climates of opinion, he knew it was futile to try to change certain facts about human nature. Large institutions are of slow growth and cannot be created or supplanted easily. Buckley was a Roman Catholic traditionalist, unhappy with the vernacular mass and pacifist Vatican diplomacy, but he always opposed schismatics who hectored the church from the right. Despite his turbulent relationship with the Republican Party, he never believed in trying to replace it with a new national party. National Review opposed George Wallace in 1968 and thought that Ronald Reagan's best shot (in 1976 when he failed, and in 1980 when he succeeded) was to work within the GOP.
Another Buckley lesson is always think for yourself. No one was more deferential to the wisdom of his betters. He loved Edmund Burke's purple passage about "the great principles of government . . . which were understood long before we were born" and will continue to be understood "after the grave has heaped its mould upon our presumption, and the silent tomb shall have imposed its law on our pert loquacity."
But Buckley was always trying to apply those great principles to the problems of the day, and he could be very pert when they took him in new directions. The problem of drug addiction preoccupied him as early as his mayoral run, and he kept thinking about it for years. In 1972 he ran an article in National Review by Richard Cowan, later executive director of The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, calling for the decriminalization of marijuana. By 1996 he edited a symposium in the magazine concluding, bluntly, "The War on Drugs is Lost." This made him the pet of liberals and pot-heads. He didn't care: The drug laws, he decided, were capricious and unenforceable and ought to be changed. That was the proper conservative position, and he would uphold it even if he was almost alone in doing so.
He made some wild suggestions over the years. He decided that Barry Goldwater might win the 1964 election if he tapped former President Eisenhower as his running mate, an idea that was both crazy -- Ike would not have played second fiddle to Abraham Lincoln -- and possibly unconstitutional. Early in his career he justified obstacles to black suffrage in the South -- "the white community," he wrote in 1959, "is entitled . . . to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white." He ended his career in despair over the Iraq War, concluding as early as 2005 that we should bug out -- "our part of the job is done as well as it can be done, given limitations on our will and our strength."
He changed his mind on both issues, embracing the civil-rights historiography of the political scientist Harry V. Jaffa and supporting the surge in Iraq when it began in 2007. Being wrong is the risk you run by thinking and acting. The only people who are never wrong are hermits -- unless withdrawing from the arena is itself wrong. For Buckley quietism was never an option.
He was an activist, but he was always also a man. His final lesson, as important as any of the others, was to take the time to have a blast and honor his creator. It is one of the conservative insights, even of conservative political figures, that there is always more to life than politics. The complete ideologue, by demanding of himself more than flesh can bear, becomes less than human.
So Bill Buckley sailed, skied, played his harpsichord, and worshipped, preferably in Latin if the traditional mass was available. It's tough going out there, and the tough always know when to take a break.
Mr. Brookhiser is the author, most recently, of "Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement," out next week by Basic Books.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A19