Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Political Odyssey Of William F. Buckley Jr: 'One Cannot Exaggerate Infinity.'

June 17, 2017

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Comes now Alvin Felzenberg, with whom I am socially acquainted, with a marvelous biography of the man who perhaps more than any other public intellectual shaped the modern conservative movement and, thereby, modern politics: A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.
This beautifully rendered book is making waves, drawing highest profile reviews. Deservedly so.
Coming from a different wing and a different generation of the conservative movement I met Bill Buckley in person exactly once. It was at a soirée, if memory serves, staged by Dr. Arthur Laffer in Washington, DC.
I was struck by how, in person, WFB was as suave as Roger Moore's James Bond. On TV, during his several decades as host of Firing Line, Buckley’s face presented a panoply of nonstop tics and odd mannerisms, almost a signature of his public persona. This anomaly is perhaps the only mystery that Felzenberg fails to probe.
For most of the youth who Occupy Conservatism today Buckley is a remote figure. He perhaps is mostly remembered as the most erudite of conservatives, from Firing Line and for the National Review, which he founded and for which he coined a suitably whimsical, borderline flamboyant, Mission Statement: “It 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.”
Buckley went on, in a way that remains as true today as it was in 1955:
It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. … Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.
Buckley, in ways large and small, whimsical and earnest, made an impact. He arguably played a material role in stopping history by providing a critical assist to the defeat of the USSR, thus earning a place in The Pantheon.
And although even Buckley could not prevent the subsidence of world culture and politics into “radical social experimentation,” something still very much besetting Western culture, perhaps he slowed it somewhat. And his legacy, foremost the National Review, remains one of the great ramparts of civilization.
Felzenberg lucidly tells the story of precisely how Buckley stood athwart history, yelling Stop. It’s a charming, consistently fascinating, story. Buckley's persona and life shaped and helps explain the circumstances of both the conservative movement (if something so still still can be called a movement) and our larger political culture today.
For me the highlight of the book is the recounting of Buckley’s 1965 Conservative Party mayoral candidacy against nominal Republican John Lindsay (who won) and machine Democrat Abe Beame (who succeeded Lindsay). Buckley's candidacy was, of course, a symbolic one. A reporter asked him what he would do if he won. Buckley answered: “Demand a recount.”
Still, this jeu d’esprit of a race did wonders for conservative morale after the setback of Barry Goldwater's presidential loss. Buckley, perhaps more than anyone, provided the "secret sauce" that powers movements: a narrative.
Buckley more than wove a narrative. He lived one. His life was an adventure. Felzenberg astutely calls it an odyssey. Be prepared to be immersed in an epic tale.
Felzenberg’s book has drawn handsome notice. It was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and, almost simultaneously, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal wherein reviewer Lee Edwards recounts how President Reagan, at a public dinner, called Buckley "perhaps the most influential intellectual and journalist in our era." This is an important book about an important man.  And it has drawn due praise:
“A gracefully written and richly informative book.”—Damon Linker, New York Times 
“Deeply researched and smoothly written . . . a superb political biography… [a] fresh account of a much-chronicled figure.”—Lee Edwards, Wall Street Journal 
“A magisterial biography . . . . Felzenberg captures the toute ensemble, telling the story of modern America’s most vital conservative force in prose that is as enlivening as it is illuminating.  No one with an interest in the past six decades of American history will want to miss this wonderful and irreplaceable book.”—The New Criterion
There seems, however, something mischievous in the prominence given to it by the liberal New York Times. There, reviewer Damon Linker observes:
Reading the book in light of events since Buckley’s death — including the Sarah Palin sensation of 2008, the Anybody but Romney procession during the Republican primaries of 2012, but most of all Donald Trump’s shockingly successful populist insurrection in 2016 — one realizes the passages that provide the most illumination are those in which Felzenberg highlights what Buckley himself described as his greatest achievement: purging the conservative movement of “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists.”
Nor is such use of this book as a bludgeon against what Buckley called "radical conservatives" -- among whom he properly counted himself --  limited to the left.
In Buckley’s own National Review -- itself a bastion of #NeverTrumpism -- prominent #NeverTrumper George Will (who resigned his membership in the Republican Party upon realization of the inevitability of Trump’s nomination) published a meditation on Felzenberg’s book under the headline Buckley Captained Conservatism Before It Was Hijacked:
“Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.” … “His true ideal,” Felzenberg writes, “was governance by a new conservative elite in which he played a prominent role.” And for which he would play the harpsichord.”
Using this book as a bludgeon against some of the more vivid Republican Party populist figures does not do the book, or such figures, justice. Felzenberg, especially in writing about Buckley’s 1965 mayoral race, makes it very clear that WFB appealed to many of the same kind of of blue collar voters who elected Trump. Felzenberg trenchantly quotes James Q. Wilson’s distinction between Democrats who championed the cause of workers, especially ethnic blue collars, and those who he called “amateurs,” the progressives who had, and have, hijacked my father’s (and, long ago, my very own) Democratic Party.

Buckley’s erudition, Ivy League pedigree, and personal wealth did not estrange working class voters. Workers sensed his respect for their values and dignity. They sensed the same in Trump, despite his foibles. This is no small thing.

There have long been tensions and rivalries, some more friendly than others, within the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to which I belong. Damon Linker:
Those were the factions of the right that Buckley aimed to exclude from the conservative movement: proudly plutocratic libertarians; conspiracy theorists; angry, race-baiting populists; and paleocons dabbling in ethnic demonization.
Sound familiar?
Well, no. We paleocons do expect to be caricatured as very deplorable indeed. The picture drawn of us represents a rather grotesque caricature, relying on the amplification of tiny, immaterial, factions of a school of thought that is firmly rooted in classical liberal republican thought. Mischievous, sometimes malicious, journalists can always find, and exaggerate, an outlier. Few, virtually none, of us “dabble in ethnic demonization.” Those are opportunistic hangers-on.

But yes, By George!  Many of us outer borough bridge-and-tunnel Morlocks are vulgarians. Perhaps we, made irate that our jobs and economic security have been so eviscerated by the ruling elites, our values mocked, might at times justly be called “scowling primitives.” That said, the vast majority of us are not tools of plutocratic libertarians, nor conspiracy theorists, nor race-baiters, nor ethnic demonizers.  Few of us are “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists” and those few unwelcome in our midst.

It’s sad that the Pretty People do not like us. But in a way that works to our political advantage. As the New York Times’s own Frank Bruni -- an honest and rigorous liberal -- wrote recently in Can Democrats Save Themselves:
They’re still not sure how much of Trump’s victory had to do with Hillary Clinton’s flaws versus the party’s poor grasp of America, and the more they focus on the former, tattling for the tell-all book “Shattered” and then tittering over its revelations, the less they own up to the latter. 
They’re still searching for a concise, coherent message. They’re still feuding: the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing versus the moderates. And they’re still indulging in elitist optics at odds with the lessons of 2016. Although new research commissioned by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, concluded that many Obama-to-Trump voters believed that Democrats are out of touch with less affluent Americans, a recent, high-profile Democratic brainstorming session in Washington was held at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel.
 Somewhere in a dresser drawer I may still have my “Eat An Eloi” t-shirt. Time to take it out of mothballs.

Buckley considered Eisenhower a miserable president and had ticklish relations with nominally conservative Republican leaders throughout most of his career. The signal exception, of course, was the truly conservative Ronald Reagan, with whom Buckley was on close terms and served, somewhat, as a mentor. The Buckley political rule, as recorded by Barry Popik, was “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.”

It’s not quite Kristol Clear to this reader what William F. Buckley would have made of Donald J. Trump. He is not around to say. But in his day, Buckley served as a provocateur who aligned more with populists and with "radical conservatives" than with Establishment Republicans or "the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity."

It is highly likely that Buckley, at very least, would have been in full sympathy with Kellyanne Conway's observation that “I thank God every day. I click my heels three times and say ‘[Hillary Clinton] is not the president, she is not the president, she is not the president.” Those who present WFB's life and work as an indictment of contemporary conservatism clearly have misread this book.

WFB, may he rest in peace, is no longer with us to tell us what he thinks in his invariably witty, erudite, way. That said, thanks be to Alvin Felzenberg for bringing to life the epic story -- the political odyssey -- of a radical conservative overflowing with wit and elan. Felzenberg distills the essence of Buckley's life and thought in ways thoroughly enjoyable and magnificently helpful for understanding the architecture of contemporary conservatism and national politics. It's an indispensable work.

Friday, June 23, 2017

They Brushed Off Kamala Harris. Then She Brushed Us Off.
June 22, 2017

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Democratic California senator Kamala Harris. (Zach Gibson/Getty Images)

Last week, Senator Kamala Harris, a Democrat from California, made headlines when Republican senators interrupted her at a hearing of the Senate Intelligence Committee while she interrogated Attorney General Jeff Sessions. The clip of the exchange went viral; journalists, politicians and everyday Americans debated what the shushing signified about our still sexist culture.

The very next day, Senator Harris took her seat in front of us as a member of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. We were there to testify about the ideology of political Islam, or Islamism.

Both of us were on edge. Earlier that day, across the Potomac River, a man had shot a Republican lawmaker and others on a baseball diamond in Alexandria, Va. And just moments before the hearing began, a man wearing a Muslim prayer cap had stood up and heckled us, putting Capitol police officers on high alert. We were girding ourselves for tough questions.

But they never came. The Democrats on the panel, including Senator Harris and three other Democratic female senators — North Dakota’s Heidi Heitkamp, New Hampshire’s Maggie Hassan and Missouri’s Claire McCaskill — did not ask either of us a single question.

This wasn’t a case of benign neglect. At one point, Senator McCaskill said that she took issue with the theme of the hearing itself. “Anyone who twists or distorts religion to a place of evil is an exception to the rule,” she said. “We should not focus on religion,” she said, adding that she was “worried” that the hearing, organized by Senator Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin, would “underline that.” In the end, the only questions asked of us about Islamist ideologies came from Senator Johnson and his Republican colleague, Senator Steve Daines from Montana.

Just as we are invisible to the mullahs at the mosque, we were invisible to the Democratic women in the Senate.

How to explain this experience? Perhaps Senators Heitkamp, Harris, Hassan and McCaskill are simply uninterested in sexism and misogyny. But obviously, given their outspoken support of critical women’s issues, such as the kidnapping of girls in Nigeria and campus sexual assault, that’s far from the case.

No, what happened that day was emblematic of a deeply troubling trend among progressives when it comes to confronting the brutal reality of Islamist extremism and what it means for women in many Muslim communities here at home and around the world. When it comes to the pay gap, abortion access and workplace discrimination, progressives have much to say. But we’re still waiting for a march against honor killings, child marriages, polygamy, sex slavery or female genital mutilation.

Sitting before the senators that day were two women of color: Ayaan is from Somalia; Asra is from India. Both of us were born into deeply conservative Muslim families. Ayaan is a survivor of female genital mutilation and forced marriage. Asra defied Shariah by having a baby while unmarried. And we have both been threatened with death by jihadists for things we have said and done. Ayaan cannot appear in public without armed guards.

In other words, when we speak about Islamist oppression, we bring personal experience to the table in addition to our scholarly expertise. Yet the feminist mantra so popular when it comes to victims of sexual assault — believe women first — isn’t extended to us. Neither is the notion that the personal is political. Our political conclusions are dismissed as personal; our personal experiences dismissed as political.

That’s because in the rubric of identity politics, our status as women of color is canceled out by our ideas, which are labeled “conservative” — as if opposition to violent jihad, sex slavery, genital mutilation or child marriage were a matter of left or right. This not only silences us, it also puts beyond the pale of liberalism a basic concern for human rights and the individual rights of women abused in the name of Islam.

There is a real discomfort among progressives on the left with calling out Islamic extremism. Partly they fear offending members of a “minority” religion and being labeled racist, bigoted or Islamophobic. There is also the idea, which has tremendous strength on the left, that non-Western women don’t need “saving” — and that the suggestion that they do is patronizing at best. After all, the thinking goes, if women in America still earn less than men for equivalent work, who are we to criticize other cultures?

This is extreme moral relativism disguised as cultural sensitivity. And it leads good people to make excuses for the inexcusable. The silence of the Democratic senators is a reflection of contemporary cultural pressures. Call it identity politics, moral relativism or political correctness — it is shortsighted, dangerous and, ultimately, a betrayal of liberal values.

The hard truth is that there are fundamental conflicts between universal human rights and the principle of Shariah, or Islamic law, which holds that a woman’s testimony is worth half that of a man’s; between freedom of religion and the Islamist idea that artists, writers, poets and bloggers should be subject to blasphemy laws; between secular governance and the Islamist goal of a caliphate; between United States law and Islamist promotion of polygamy, child marriage and marital rape; and between freedom of thought and the methods of indoctrination, or dawa, with which Islamists propagate their ideas.

Defending universal principles against Islamist ideology, not denying that these conflicts exist, is surely the first step in a fight whose natural leaders in Washington should be women like Kamala Harris and Claire McCaskill — both outspoken advocates for American women.

We believe feminism is for everyone. Our goals — not least the equality of the sexes — are deeply liberal. We know these are values that the Democratic senators at our hearing share. Will they find their voices and join us in opposing Islamist extremism and its war on women?

Ayaan Hirsi Ali (@ayaan) is a research fellow at the Hoover Institution and founder of the AHA Foundation. Asra Q. Nomani (@asranomani), an author and former Wall Street Journal reporter, is a co-founder of the Muslim Reform Movement.


Ibn Warraq takes on the apologists' lies.

June 23, 2017

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Douglas Murray, whose book The Strange Death of Europe applauded here the other day, has called him “one of the great heroes of our time.” I fully agree. His name – or, at least, his pen name – is Ibn Warraq, and he's the author of such important and eloquent works as Why I Am Not a Muslim (which I wrote about here eleven years ago), Why the West Is Best (which I reviewed here five years ago), and What the Koran Really Says. Born in India and educated in Britain, Warraq began criticizing Islam in print during the 1988-89 Satanic Verses controversy, when he was appalled by the failure of celebrated writers and intellectuals to defend Salman Rushdie's freedom of speech. Warraq, who was then based in France and now lives in the U.S., has been publishing books on Islam ever since, and is one of the essential contemporary authors on the subject, courageously telling ugly truths about a religion – an ideology – that has been swathed in pretty lies.
His new book, The Islam in Islamic Terrorism: The Importance of Beliefs, Ideas, and Ideology, is (if it doesn't sound a bit odd to put it this way) a godsend – a comprehensive answer to every one of those duplicitous politicians, lily-livered journalists, and slimy professional “experts” and “consultants” who tirelessly insist that Muslim terrorists have hijacked a peaceful faith. Some of us don't need to be told that this “Religion of Peace” stuff is arrant nonsense; but innumerable apologists continue to absolve Islam itself of guilt for violent terror, and tens of millions of people in the West continue to buy their bull – some because they are themselves so pure of heart that they simply can't believe any religion would actually preach violence, and others because admitting the facts would make them feel like bigots.
Many apologists insist that violence in the name of Islam is a relatively recent development; Warraq makes it crystal clear that it's prescribed in the Koran and has been practiced from the outset. Since 9/11, apologists have attributed Islamic terrorism to such “root causes” as poverty, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. foreign policy, Western imperialism, and the Crusades – anything but Islam itself. About this determination to formulate sophisticated answers to a question that the terrorists themselves have already answered repeatedly and definitively, Warraq observes that “[t]he centrality of religion in the Islamic world is something that Western liberals fail to understand or take seriously.” This isn't just true; it's one of the tragic realities of our time.
One by one, Warraq expertly shreds every one of the apologists' fake “explanations” for terror. Imperialism? Warraq reminds us that Muslims, too, have been imperialists, destroying “thousands of churches, synagogues, and a most brutal fashion” and exterminating “whole civilizations such as the Pre-Islamic cultures of Iran (Zoroastrians) and the Assyrians.” Saudi Arabia, homeland of fifteen of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers, “was never colonized by the West” but was, rather, part of an Islamic empire – namely the Ottoman Empire, governed by Turks from Constantinople. If those Saudis were spurred by a rage at empire, why not fly a plane into the Hagia Sophia?
No, as Warraq demonstrates, there's no way around it: Islamic terrorism is jihad. And jihad is a founding Islamic concept. The apologists, of course, have their own line on this one, too: under true Islam, they say, the word jihaddenotes an inner spiritual process, and has nothing to do with violence; when terrorists use the word to describe their depredations, they're distorting the word and the faith. Warraq, citing a wide range of scholarly sources – both Western and Islamic, some recent and some dating back to the eighth century – puts that fulsome falsehood firmly in its place: yes, jihad can be used to mean an inner struggle, but in the Koran and Hadith, and in key texts ever since, italways refers, above all, to the sacred obligation to advance Islam by means of armed action against unbelievers.
Warraq also gives us a sweeping – but succinct – lesson in the history of jihad, beginning with Muhammed's own conquests, then moving on to ninth- through eleventh-century Baghdad, seventeenth-century Constantinople, eighteenth-century Saudi Arabia, and so on, right up to today's Muslim Brotherhood. Of course the apologists (Barack Obama among them) would have us believe that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate and non-violent; Warraq establishes that throughout its existence, to the contrary, the Brotherhood has preached Holy War, period. Then there's the Nazis. Some apologists argue that Islam was just peachy until some of its leaders got chummy with Hitler and were infected by his love of violent world conquest and Jew-hatred; Warraq establishes that if Islamic higher-ups cozied up to the Nazis, it was because their totalitarian, exterminationist doctrines were already extremely similar.
Warraq also introduces us to a 1979 book that has been called “the most influential treatise on why Jihad is necessary and how it must be fought.” Written by one Brigadier S. K. Malik, The Qur'anic Concept of War won the endorsement of no less a jihad enthusiast than the late Pakistani president Zia al-Haq. A brief sample: “The Quranic military strategy...enjoins us to prepare ourselves for war to the utmost in order to strike terror into the hearts of the enemies....[The Koran] gives us a distinctive concept of total war. It wants both the nation and the individual to be at war 'in toto,' that is, with all their spiritual moral and physical resources.” In addition to Malik's tome, Warraq reads (so we don't have to) several other vile works that have also inspired the suicide-vest set – a veritable library of holy hate.
Warraq sums up his book's point as follows: “jihad is essential for the spread of Islam, and it is a duty incumbent on all Muslims until Islam covers the whole surface of the earth.” And what's essential for the West's survival is for us infidels to face up to the fact that nothing is more integral to Islam than that monstrous duty. If Islamic terror is, as apologists assert, a reaction to some action by the West, that action is, as Warraq points out, nothing more or less than our failure to “accept the Koran as a blueprint for a model society.” However much the talking heads may insist otherwise, it was Islam's explicit call for jihadist conquest, and nothing else, that motivated 9/11 and 7/7, Atocha and Nice, Bataclan and Ariana Grande. If we insist on clinging to lies about these atrocities – and thereby lose our freedom – it won't be because Ibn Warraq hasn't nobly and bravely shouted the truth from the rooftops.

Giving Terrorists a Heads-up

A proposed law would force the NYPD to publicize the details of its surveillance technology.

Heather Mac Donald
June 18, 2017

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A bill in New York’s city council would require the New York Police Department to reveal crucial details about every surveillance technology that the department uses to detect terrorism and crime. Ninety days before the NYPD intends to implement a new surveillance technology, it would have to post on the Internet a technical description of how the new tool works, and how the department plans to use it. The public would have 45 days to comment on the proposed technology; the police commissioner would then have 45 days to respond to the public comments before he could actually start using the new capacity.  Existing technologies would also have to be retroactively submitted to public review. 

Perhaps aware that this moment may not be ideal for promoting what would be, in effect, a terrorists’ manual on how to evade discovery in New York City, the bill’s supporters have hilariously taken to casting it as a pro-illegal alien, anti-Trump gesture. New York is a “sanctuary city, now in open resistance to the Trump administration,” two members of the Brennan Center for Justice wrote in an op-ed advocating for the so-called Public Oversight of Surveillance Technology (POST) Act.  (The Brennan Center wrote the POST Act for council members; the center has pushed similar bills across the country, including in Seattle and Oakland, two cities that have been particularly vulnerable to “anti-fascist” violence.) The city council press release claims that the bill “strengthens New York City’s commitment as a sanctuary city . . . as the Trump administration seeks to increase surveillance across America.”

In fact, the proposed law has nothing to do with New York’s deplorable status as a sanctuary city. Criminal illegal aliens avoid lawful deportation in New York because city and police officials release them back to the streets in defiance of Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainer requests, not because of sophisticated surveillance technologies. But though the bill would have no effect on the city’s campaign to thwart immigration enforcement, it would impede the city’s ability to stay one step ahead of terrorist planning. Memo to the council: counterterrorism is not a leisurely activity compatible with lengthy public review and administrative red tape. It requires nimbleness and speed in the face of a rapidly evolving threat. And disclosing to the enemy the extent of, and details about, your surveillance capacities provides an invaluable blueprint for foiling those capacities. 

Supporters of the bill are playing the race card as well, claiming that the bill is necessary to counter the NYPD’s historic tendency to oppress minorities. The managing director of the Bronx Defenders claims, without evidence, that the NYPD has illegally surveilled Black Lives Matter activists. Council members Dan Garodnick and Vanessa Gibson argue that “Surveillance technology often has a disproportionate, harmful impact on communities of color.” This claim is ludicrous. The radiation detectors that ring the city looking for nuclear threats, say, or the network of public cameras that protect critical infrastructure and sensitive buildings, have no disproportionate impact on minorities or any other group, other than on someone looking to do the city harm. 

As for privacy concerns, the anti-surveillance Left has never grasped the constitutional principle that the Fourth Amendment has no bearing on activities conducted in the open. A police officer does not need a warrant to observe a suspicious individual on a street casing a target; the police department does not need a warrant to erect a camera in a public space capturing activities visible to other members of the public. The NYPD does need to persuade a court that it has probable cause to surveil any activity involving a legitimate expectation of privacy, such as a cell-phone conversation, and the department complies with those warrant requirements. Any surveillance that could implicate political activity already is subject to extensive judicial and civilian oversight.  

Pretending to have expertise on terror tactics, the Brennan Center declares that none of the information disclosed through the POST Act will be of value to a potential terrorist or criminal. The chance that Brennan Center lawyers understand better than the NYPD’s counterterrorist experts how terrorists leverage information is zero. 

The council press release frankly acknowledges that the bill is just a “first step” toward “limiting the unchecked use of surveillance technologies that . . . feed into a broader national surveillance state.”  In other words: If we get this bill, we’re coming for more.  Many of the law’s supporters, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, oppose all government secrecy, no matter how essential to public safety. But the agenda of the POST Act is broader even than shutting down lawful surveillance. It is the latest outgrowth of the movement to eviscerate all policing, a movement that encompasses the council’s ongoing effort to end public-order enforcement (also known as broken-windows policing). That movement now drapes itself in anti-Trump fervor. If it succeeds, the public will have much more to fear than the fictitious “national surveillance state.” 

Heather Mac Donald is the Thomas W. Smith Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor of City Journal, and the author of the New York Times bestseller The War on Cops.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

A Hollywood Legend’s Life in the Country

Robert Duvall talks about his favorite roles, his worst review and (up to a point) politics.

Robert Duvall on his farm in The Plains, Va.(Coburn Dukehart/NPR)
Robert Duvall is happy out here among the softly rolling hills of Northern Virginia’s Fauquier County. In spirit if not in distance, this is about as far as a guy can get from the bang and clatter of the film business. For more than 25 years the Academy Award-winning actor has visited New York and Los Angeles only when necessity demands. “I like a good Hollywood party,” he says. “I have a lot of friends there. But I like living here.”
Mr. Duvall, 86, and his Argentina-born wife, Luciana, live in a 270-year-old Georgian farmhouse nestled among wood-fenced horse paddocks, picturesque grazing pastures and turtle ponds on the 360 acres of Byrnley Farm. Still as trim and squared away as he was 45 years ago when he played Tom Hagen in “The Godfather,” Mr. Duvall greets visitors in his elegantly appointed foyer looking fit enough to run a mile.
Of average height and modest build, Mr. Duvall has never been what you’d call movie-star handsome, yet he’s played the lead as often as supporting roles. His hairline has been in retreat since his debut as the mysterious Boo Radley in Robert Mulligan’s 1962 adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” but he’s never resorted to toupees, wigs or transplants, except when the character required it.
From rhapsodizing about “the smell of napalm in the morning” as the surf-loving Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore in Francis Ford Coppola’s 1979 Vietnam epic “Apocalypse Now” to calling forth the healing power of the Holy Ghost as a foot-stomping Pentecostal preacher in his 1997 directorial effort “The Apostle,” Mr. Duvall has cemented his legacy as a versatile film star. He won the Academy Award for Best Actor in 1984 for his note-perfect performance as the washed-out Nashville singer Mac Sledge in Bruce Beresford’s “Tender Mercies.” He has earned six other Oscar nominations. Yet Mr. Duvall says his favorite role was for the small screen: Augustus “Gus” McCrae, the grizzled Texas Ranger he played in the 1989 TV miniseries adaptation of Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.”
Like most actors of his generation, Mr. Duvall idolized Marlon Brando : “When I first saw him I said, ‘What is this? What’s he even doing?’ ” Unlike most of his peers, Mr. Duvall had multiple opportunities to act alongside Brando, beginning in Arthur Penn’s largely forgotten 1966 film, “The Chase.” In Brando’s dressing room, master and apprentice broke the ice with a friendly conversation. Then things shifted. “For like eight weeks he wouldn’t even look at you,” recalls Mr. Duvall. “You thought, ‘Ooh, boy, we’re going to be friends now.’ But he knew you wanted that. He’d just walk by. You’d say ‘Good morning.’ He’d just keep walking.” Brando, he is quick to add, loosened up a bit during the filming of “The Godfather.”


The son of a naval officer, Mr. Duvall spent most of his childhood in Annapolis, Md. His family tree, however, has deep roots in Northern Virginia. They were Union sympathizers who had to survive the chaos of the Civil War while somewhat stranded behind enemy lines. The actor’s paternal grandfather, born in 1861, was christened Abraham Lincoln Duvall.
Twenty feet from Mr. Duvall’s front door stands a shagbark hickory with a trunk as wide as a train car. He doesn’t know exactly how old the tree is, but it “goes back to the 19th century, easy.” It almost certainly gave shade to the Union and Confederate soldiers who passed through en route to successive bloody battles at nearby Manassas Junction. “We thought it would come down during the last hurricane,” Mr. Duvall says, “but it didn’t.”
With Confederate monuments and memorials being toppled across the South, a Northerner like me can’t help but note that the street names in this pleasant village are heavy with historical freight—Lee, Pickett, Stuart, Forrest. “Stonewall Jackson marched right through,” says Mr. Duvall. “Bull Run is just down the road.”
Today the Old Dominion is a different kind of battleground. Hillary Clinton carried Virginia with 49.9% of the vote in 2016, but Fauquier County went 59.6% for her opponent. This is Trump country, not the kind of place you might expect to find Hollywood royalty.
The mention of the president’s name causes Mr. Duvall to stiffen. Ask him about football, showjumping or Brando, and he lights up. Ask him about politics, and his eyes narrow: “I’m not interested in making any statements.”
Mr. Duvall’s reticence is understandable. As one of the more famous Republicans in the motion-picture business, he is aware that certain political opinions can crimp a film career. Being an outspoken conservative “can be a very limiting thing,” he admits. That’s why he’s always careful around the topic—especially, it appears, with strangers from New York City.
“Nothing has hurt my career,” he insists. “I don’t talk politics, but nothing has hurt my career.”
In 2008 Mr. Duvall campaigned for John McCain and narrated a video for the GOP convention. In 2012 he hosted a party at Byrnley Farm that reportedly raised $800,000 for Mitt Romney. Lately he has shied away from candidates and campaigns, but he agrees that actors who cling to the coasts may have trouble appreciating that there are two sides—at least—to every political argument.
If you scratch beneath the surface in liberal Hollywood, “you can find some hypocrisy,” he says. Such as the tendency of highly paid actors to sound off at award shows? “Yeah. I mean, how informed are they? How informed is anybody, really?” he asks, his face turning hard. Have Hollywood liberals read Thomas Sowell ? Mr. Duvall has. Have they read Ayaan Hirsi Ali? “I’ve got a lot of respect for that woman,” he says.
When movie stars pontificate about politics, “I get a little like this,” he says, cringing. “I want to tell them to take it easy.” Heeding his own advice, that’s as much as he’ll say on the record. He hasn’t survived a half-century in the film business by speaking freely with journalists.
Mr. Duvall used his own Oscar acceptance speech in 1984 to thank the country-music superstars who inspired his “Tender Mercies” performance. The validation of his friends Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Billy Joe Shaver and Willie Nelson, he says now, meant more to him than any review—though some of the criticism still stings: “There were people who really loved that movie, but there was a strain of people in Washington and New York who hated it.” Anyone in particular? “Yeah,” he says without hesitation. “ Pauline Kael. ”
Kael, the New Yorker’s longtime movie critic, penned a review dripping with condescension of the sort lately called elitism. “The film is said to be honest and about real people,” she wrote. “Mostly the picture consists of silences; long shots of bleak, flat land, showing the horizon line (it gives the film integrity); and Duvall’s determination to make you see that he’s keeping his emotions to himself.”
Thirty-four years later, Mr. Duvall doesn’t hold anything back when it comes to Kael, who died in 1991. “She was a fraud,” he says, in a way that suggests he didn’t mourn her passing—or the passing of the time when a big-name critic at a major magazine could make or break a film on opening weekend.
What else did Kael get wrong? “She put ‘Raging Bull’ down, which was a beautiful movie—De Niro and Scorsese were at their height—but then she lauded ‘Bonnie and Clyde.’ ” Though the latter movie is considered a counterculture classic, Mr. Duvall wasn’t a fan. “My friends in the Texas Rangers said it was not accurate at all.”


In the twilight of his long career, Mr. Duvall’s regrets are few—and specific. “They offered me the lead in ‘Jaws,’ but I wanted to play the other part, the fisherman played by Robert Shaw, ” Mr. Duvall says. Steven Spielberg told him he was too young. Mr. Duvall took one or two jobs solely for the money. “I did a lot of crap,” he admits. “Television stuff. But I had to make a living. And like my wife said, ‘It’s amazing how you survived all these years.’ ”
Mr. Duvall may be secluded here beneath the shagbark hickory, but he knows what’s going on in the wider world. He reads history and is eager to discuss topics ranging from Ireland’s neutrality during World War II to the relative horsemanship of the Boers vis-à-vis the Comanche. He watches cable news sometimes—Mika and Joe.
And he’s still acting and developing projects. If he can get it off the ground, Mr. Duvall will star in the film version of Western novelist Elizabeth Crook’s forthcoming book, “The Which Way Tree.” He recently noticed that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates had pledged $100 million to a World Bank fund backed by the president’s daughter Ivanka. “I thought to myself, ‘Please give us $25 [million] to do this movie.’ ”
Let’s say a Saudi prince called with an offer along those lines. Would he entertain it? “Maybe,” he says. “I don’t gravitate toward those guys.”
Mr. Duvall visited the kingdom once—with Wilford Brimley to watch falconry. “It was strange—strangest place I’ve ever been. We were there four days and no one came to get us,” he says. The trip was sponsored by “American Sportsman,” an ABC program. “It was weird. You’d drive through [the desert] to go to the camel races and they’d give you the wrong directions. You’d see cars upside down with the wheels still going. You’d come back and it’d be the same, two hours later—wrecked cars all over the highway.” He and Mr. Brimley high-tailed it to London lest they, too, find themselves upside down in the desert.
Mr. Duvall knows where he doesn’t belong—and where he does. Byrnley Farm is undeniably charming, “choice land,” as a satisfied Mr. Duvall calls it. The air is clean, which he appreciates. Mostly what he likes about it, though, is that it’s not the city. “The great Texas playwright Horton Foote once said a lot of people in New York don’t know what goes on beyond the south Jersey Shore, which is true,” Mr. Duvall says. “I mean, New York is a wonderful place. But it’s not the beginning and end of America. Nor is L.A.”
At Byrnley Farm, the problems of the world can seem very far away. Does he worry at all about the country’s future? “No,” he says. “We’ll survive.”
Mr. Hennessey is an associate editorial features editor at the Journal.
Appeared in the June 17, 2017, print edition.

Robert Duvall's Cinematic Take On Faith-