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The Making of the American Conservative Mind
National Review and Its Times
By Jeffrey Hart
ISI BooksCopyright © 2007 ISI Books
All rights reserved.
William F. Buckley Jr.: Present at the Creation
"To a very considerable degree," writes George Nash, "the history of reflective conservatism in America after 1955 is the history of individuals who collaborated in — or were discovered by — the magazine William F. Buckley founded." A similar observation was made recently by Niels Bjerre-Poulsen in Right Face: Organizing the American Conservative Movement, 1945–65. Buckley, "more than any single figure, made conservatism a respectable force in American life." Before the New Deal, conservative assumptions were not felt to need much articulation or defense. Then, during the Depression and Franklin Roosevelt's ascendancy, the defeat of conservative assumptions seemed complete, their spokesmen few, and the universities captured by liberalism. A profound creative work needed to be undertaken, though scattered recent materials were beginning to become visible again after the war. To quote Bjerre-Poulsen, Buckley "personally seemed to be able to embody most of the apparent contradictions and incoherence of American conservatism.... Despite Buckley's considerable diplomatic skills and firm intent to defuse the various ideological controversies, the relationship between the various factions in the magazine was not always one of 'peaceful coexistence.'"
John Leonard, at the time of the following interview (July 6, 1973) the liberal editor of the New York Times Book Review, talks with Neal Freeman, a longtime National Review contributor, and describes the atmosphere that made collegiality possible:
FREEMAN: Garry Wills has referred to the "open secret" that the [Times Book Review] owes a large debt to National Review. Could you describe that debt, if there is one?
LEONARD: Not exactly a secret: I wrote a letter that NR uses as a promotional piece talking about the writers Bill Buckley discovered in NR that I've begged, borrowed, or stolen. On a deeper level, I'm indebted to the atmosphere Bill created at NR while I was there. The pick-up picnics that substituted for staff meetings; the encouraging of the staff to enter into the decision-making at every level of assignment and production; the sense that everybody working for you knows why you are doing something, and feels free to argue against it; the blending of office life into social life — I've adapted all these aspects to TBR procedure as it is now, with happy results. It wasn't that way before I became editor; and it wouldn't be that way now if I hadn't enjoyed the NR stint.
One of Buckley's strengths as an editor was a remarkable magnanimity. He enjoyed disputations involving principle, as between libertarian and traditionalist, enjoyed them for their own sake, and because he had both positions in his own makeup. He was also an impresario, orchestrating a magazine for an audience containing many variations within the conservative spectrum: which in turn meant that he would have to define what was outside that spectrum, or beyond the pale altogether.
National Review would prove the foundation for a career that was to make Buckley the most important journalist since Walter Lippmann. In fact, Buckley's career was more impressive. Lippmann had been the ultimate insider, an explainer of things already in process. To a considerable degree, Buckley, coming from the outside, played a central role in creating the politics of which he would also be the principal interpreter.
No entirely satisfactory biography of Buckley has yet been written, and while the odds against one appearing are steep, surprise is always possible. To succeed, a writer would have to combine political and historical acumen with a visual and auditory imagination, psychological insight, and literary skill. Gibbon with Henry James. A biographer of Buckley would have to communicate so many things, and in particular the relationship between Buckley and James Burnham, a key to the whole enterprise, and through it to American conservatism. As Alexander Pope said of Bolingbroke, Burnham was Buckley's "guide, philosopher and friend." He and Buckley undertook the journey together, and both were shaped by the experience.
What I can offer here are only a few notes toward a portrait of, and understanding of, Buckley, such as might contribute to an understanding of the creation of National Review. In conversation, and publicly on the speaker's platform or on television, Buckley's voice was so distinctive that it amounted to a dramatic event in itself. Willmoore Kendall once said that Buckley could do as much with his voice as Laurence Olivier. Perhaps the effect was produced by the multiple linguistic environments in which he grew up. His first language was Spanish. His father, William Sr., was a successful oil entrepreneur in Mexico, Venezuela, and Canada, and he surrounded his family with Spanish-speaking nannies. (He still has Spanish-speaking servants.) Buckley also had a French governess. His education was also unusual. The ten children were taught at home by tutors. The family lived extensively in Europe, where the children either attended schools or were tutored. Surprisingly, Buckley learned to speak English at a day school in England when he was seven years old. His first regular grade school was in Paris, where he picked up workable French. Reaching prep school age, he attended an English Catholic boarding school, St. John's Beaumont, and British English became part of his linguistic mix. He found his Catholicism deepened by the experience.
The Buckleys had a large estate in Camden, South Carolina, located in the middle of that most southern of states. Charleston, social and spiritual capital of the old Confederacy, had the harbor where Confederate artillery opened up on Fort Sumter. Camden, famed for horses and hunting, also was the site of the estate of Mary Chesnut, whose luminous diary recounted the life of Charleston in the days of Jefferson Davis and the Confederate aristocracy. A Southern drawl hides somewhere in Bill Buckley's voice, reflecting also his mother's Louisiana background. The South became part of the amalgam that constituted the early National Review, with such contributors as Richard Weaver and James Jackson Kilpatrick, and, through the Agrarians, was part of Russell Kirk's self-creation.
I record here an anecdote about Camden, a brief moment after the 1972 Democratic convention in Miami that nominated George McGovern, a wild happening surrounded outside the Convention Center by beards, beads, bongos, and, as young women nursed infants, the sweet smells of the counter-culture at play. Late in the convention, Buckley, Garry Wills, a few of Bill's old friends, and I left Miami and sailed from Coral Gables headed for Connecticut on Buckley's yacht "Cyrano."
On the Gulf Stream, pausing to swim, admiring the colorful, sinister Portuguese Men of War with their gelatin sails and poisonous tentacles, we eventually reached Charleston; with supplies running low, we docked. Bill proposed we rent a plane and fly to Camden for lunch, and at once the decision was made.
On the Buckley estate, near the main house, there stood a classical structure, which had been the elder William Buckley's office when in residence. He had lived in Sharon, Connecticut, during the summer and fall, until he died of a stroke in 1958. At the door of the main house, Negro servants greeted us, immensely dignified, slow of speech and movement. These were among the sounds with which Buckley grew up, the Carolina drawls of both whites and blacks. By the time he reached the last three years of prep school — at the Millbrook School, in Millbrook, New York, not far from Sharon — his combination of American English, Carolina English, and British English, with possible tinctures of Spanish and French, produced what now everyone knows: a diction American and, not surprisingly, not quite American.
I mentioned Sharon, the site of the main Buckley home, Great Elm, on a large tract of land. Its venerable Elm, the tallest in the state of Connecticut, was there until it succumbed to Dutch Elm Disease in 1954. On the weekend of September 9, 1960, about ninety students showed up at Great Elm for the founding of Young Americans for Freedom, an offshoot of the multiple Buckley operations. A student there is said to have observed: "Now I know what Russell Kirk means by 'the permanent things.'" To express things of even more permanence, Buckley in 1955 founded National Review and made it into the arbiter and educator of the American conservative mind.
Buckley in so many ways stood apart from mainstream American culture, stood apart when he graduated from the Millbrook School and, after two uncomfortable years in the Army, stood apart when he entered Yale in 1946. As an undergraduate, he only irregularly saw football games. Once, at a National Review editorial meeting, he had to be gently corrected when using the baseball term "stealing a base" to mean something crooked. Similarly, when his brother Senator James Buckley was asked at a press conference what the death of coach Vince Lombardi meant to America, he answered, "New Year's Eve will never be the same again." It took the reporters a while to figure out that he was confusing coach Lombardi with Guy Lombardo, of "Auld Lange Syne" fame. To some extent, the brothers were separated from mainstream America by their unusual childhoods.
Throughout Buckley's adult life there persisted a tension in his politics. On the one hand was an aristocratic conservatism, influenced by his early admiration for family friend and prose stylist Alfred Jay Nock, author of Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, a conservatism that was pessimistic and felt doom to be near at hand. But that kind of conservatism collided with a rival pull, toward the necessities of practical reform under American democratic conditions. Buckley once expressed his intermittent populism when he said that he would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the faculty of Harvard University. But he contradictorily admired Ortega y Gasset's Nietzschean-aristocratic Revolt of the Masses, and at one point contemplated a book to be titled Revolt Against the Masses.
At Yale, his institutional social life centered on the Fence fraternity, the Whiffenpoofs, and Skull and Bones. At that time, the names of those annually selected as Bonesmen were listed in the New York Herald-Tribune. One can see many things in his Yale experience that were important for Buckley: experience in journalism, for example, as editor of the Yale Daily News, and his assessment of the Yale curriculum, about which he wrote his first book, God and Man at Yale (1951). Indeed, Buckley's particular experience of undergraduate life, which included teaching Spanish, was a period about which he remains cheerful and anecdotal.
Especially important was Professor of Political Science Willmoore Kendall, a man of penetrating and original intelligence, who later followed Buckley to the new National Review as a senior editor. Kendall had come to Yale with an enormous reputation in political theory, based on his published work and especially his 1941 study John Locke and the Doctrine of Majority Rule. A tall man with blue eyes and graying hair parted in the middle, speaking sometimes with an Oklahoma accent and sometimes in clipped British tones left over from his Rhodes Scholarship and Pembroke College, Oxford, Kendall was a charismatic teacher. But at Yale, and almost everywhere else, he could be the most difficult personality either Buckley or I have ever met. Though a conservative and a patriot, his temperament was that of a revolutionary, which in a sense he was, against the then-dominant liberalism.
At Yale Buckley also became notable for his talents as a debater, afterwards to be displayed on public platforms and on TV's Firing Line. He and his best friend Brent Bozell, a tall, red-haired Merchant Marine veteran from Omaha, were the stars of the undefeated Yale Debating Team.
It is said famously that Bozell began at Yale a Protestant and liberal World Federalist, but soon became a conservative and zealous Roman Catholic, one who got into trouble in Spain by questioning Franco's orthodoxy. He married Buckley's sister Patricia. After a productive senior editorship at National Review, he left to found his own rival magazine. In Triumph, Bozell broke with National Review philosophically and politically, becoming theocratic, indeed anti-American. This was a losing proposition for a magazine hoping to find a readership among American Catholics, a conspicuously patriotic group. Triumph was useful to me, since it published several of my longer essays, later to appear in my volume Acts of Recovery (1989). Several of these were written in Sacramento, when I was there as a writer for Governor Reagan. In 1968, however, I ceased publishing in Triumph after it editorially endorsed the black riots in Washington, D.C., as a rebellion against "materialism." Strange, on TV the rioters I saw were shattering store windows and stealing all they could carry away. The absence in Buckley of any temptation toward theocracy and political dogmatism and his embrace of constitutional "deliberate sense" politics made him a pariah to Triumph: Buckley was heretically American.
An immediate result of Buckley's college experience, God and Man at Yale became a best-selling scandal. People outside an Ivy League university always want to know what is going on inside it. This early work still commands an interest of various kinds. Yale's religion had become a liberalized Protestantism tending toward secularism, its politics liberal, and its economics Keynesian–New Deal. There was poignancy in the fact that Buckley, a firm Catholic, tried in this book to recall the elite of Protestant Yale to their roots in Christianity and to their institutional debt to capitalism. The Yale administration was scandalized, however, and had the book denounced wherever its influence reached.
When Buckley graduated with the Class of 1950, he had been admitted to Yale Law School and also to Yale's Graduate School for further work in political science. His father advised the latter and more study with Kendall, but that was not the path Buckley chose to take. His mind was acute, very quick to grasp an argument, but disinclined to work patiently at theory. The Korean War had broken out in June; Kendall recommended the CIA and referred his student to James Burnham, then a consultant to the Office of Policy Coordination, the CIA covert action wing. At Burnham's Washington apartment Buckley met E. Howard Hunt, a Brown graduate, author of popular espionage novels, and about to take over covert action in Mexico City. Buckley's fluent Spanish, obvious intelligence, and anticommunist convictions impressed Hunt, and so Buckley went to Mexico City. Hunt had yet to star in the best real-life espionage novel of all, the Watergate break-in, coauthored with G. Gordon Liddy, and ending with the destruction of a presidency.
Buckley wanted to have a more direct impact than academic life offered, and he had his Yale experience in journalism to draw upon. In the phrase of Richard Weaver, he believed that ideas have consequences, and when he surveyed the magazine field it was clear that a gap existed for a new conservative journal. He considered that the success of New Deal liberalism as a collection of ideas had been greatly fostered by the New Republic and the Nation, magazines which reached the educated classes, especially through the 1930s and the 1940s, and which had published important journalists and literary figures. These magazines were read in the academy, in Washington, and by a wider literate audience.
There existed no comparable conservative outlet. The existing conservative magazines were variously inadequate, including the American Mercury, the monthly once made famous by H. L. Mencken. Buckley worked for it, but only for a few months, and withdrew to write a book with L. Brent Bozell, now his brother-in-law, McCarthy and His Enemies (1954), a mildly critical defense of the anticommunist muckraker. Here again we see one of the contradictions in Buckley, and derivatively in National Review: the contradiction between elite sensibility and populist power, now represented by McCarthy. Dwight Macdonald hit off the contradiction vividly when he wrote in Partisan Review that McCarthy and His Enemies defended "a coarse demagogue in an elegantly academic style replete with nice discriminations and pedantic hair-splittings, giving the general effect of a brief by Cadwalader, Wickersham and Taft on behalf of a pickpocket arrested in a subway men's room."
Excerpted from The Making of the American Conservative Mind by Jeffrey Hart. Copyright © 2007 ISI Books. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
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