In the first three parts of this tribute, it should be clear that William F. Buckley is a hero around here. Like all heroes, though, Buckley often failed to live up to the often unrealistic expectations created by hero-worship.
The most common critique directed at Buckley is that he made his "deal with the devil" early on – deciding that international communism was such a threat that America would just have to accept the expansion of a huge federal government bureaucracy and heavy taxation in order to maintain the military strength necessary to the prosecution of the Cold War. That Leviathan state made the pursuit of more libertarian economics almost impossible and over the decades has had an attritional effect on the traditional building blocks of American society.
Could another answer have been found – one that would have left us with a smaller government, while still keeping communism at bay? If Buckley and the other leading conservative lights of their time couldn’t figure out how to do it, perhaps not, and those of us who weren't around having to make those decisions in the 1950's should be careful in second-guessing them. But Buckley himself indicated throughout the years that he wasn't himself comfortable with the size of government that resulted from the Cold War.
And perhaps most disappointing, Buckley somewhere along the way lost control of National Review itself, allowing a split between “neo-conservatives” and “paleo-conservatives” to play out in the ranks of its editorial board where in the past he had managed to keep libertarians, defense hawks, and traditionalists more or less on the same page – even if that same page had editors blasting broadsides at each other.
He ultimately sided (albeit with obvious reluctance at having to make the choice) with the neo-conservative wing, even though his own personal approach to conservative thought through the years were in many ways more in line with paleo-conservatism in the sense that he was a firm believer in the indispensable role of cultural traditionalism in the entire conservative enterprise. Put another way, while someone like Bill Bennett was certainly a WFB ally, Russell Kirk was more like a brother to him.
While many might disagree with this assertion, the real problem with what happened at National Review was not so much philosophical or ideological as it was rhetorical. The editor he chose to replace himself – British journalist John O’Sullivan – was, in retrospect, the closest that anyone got to being cut from the Buckley mold of traditional conservative catholicity. O’Sullivan didn’t last long, in no small part because the job of following Buckley was just so impossible. And yet, following his writing in subsequent years, one wonders if he chose to step aside in part because he was more “paleo” than anyone at the time realized, and if he, too, found the tone at the new National Review unbearable.
For the big problem at NR was the change in tone – it became more shrill, more ruthless in internecine disputes, more vicious in attacking the opposition, more devoid of the good humor that had so long marked its pages, more inclined to deal in enemies lists and talking points, more wedded to rigid ideology, and less in touch with the cultural, literary, historical, and theological roots of conservatism. There was less diversity in its pages, less room for the kinds of root-and-branch critiques of modern culture and government that had characterized the earlier days. Even its cover art became more crude, even cruel, in its caricatures. With the loss of rhetorical equilibrium, National Review was dealt a blow from which it is only in recent years beginning to recover.
And yet, even in these disappointments, time has been kind to Buckley. After all, the fundamental flaw of the paleo-conservatives was that they lacked Buckley’s endless store of good manners and endless patience every bit as much as did their neo-conservative opponents. Some were accused of bigotry when it seemed to them that their politically incorrect rhetoric hadn’t changed in many years – while what had changed was that they were old Cold Warriors who opposed the first post-Cold War military conflict.
But instead of responding to those accusations with grace and good humor, resolving to find a way to adapt their rhetoric to the changing face of a kinder, gentler American conservatism, some responded with even more injudicious words that as far as the public observer was concerned, proved the original accusations that had been leveled against them. Could Buckley have prevented the melt-down? Maybe. Was he obligated to move heaven and earth to do so? Absolutely not.
One imagines that no-one was as disappointed as Buckley at how that episode at National Review turned out -- with the loss of close friends, brilliant disciples, and faithful allies. It doubtless had a lot to do with his decision that it was time for him to step down as editor.
All of that is long behind us, though, and while the new guard at NR isn’t what the old guard was, well – isn't that just the sort of thing that a conservative would say? Come to think of it, back when I was devouring NR and loving every word, I seem to recall old-timers saying that the rag just wasn’t what it used to be back in the glory days.
I recall having a pleasant extended e-mail exchange nearly a decade ago with one of the few NR writers who I liked during those darker days at that magazine. The conversation took a turn to the olden days at NR, and he remarked that he had indeed been astonished by how bracing it was to peruse the set of NR archives there at the offices. A bit later I figured out, though, that he was talking about the issues from the 1960’s, whereas I was talking about ones from the 1980’s. Conservatives will be conservatives.
Buckley's death, like that of Reagan (another source of disappointment to conservatives at many points back when he was actually President,) gives all conservatives a chance for reflection. Now that he is gone, his "failings" pale when compared to all he did and was. His greatness of soul, his extensive private charity in which he took care not to let "the left hand know what the right hand was doing," the way that he fostered the conservative movement as much through how hard he worked at his friendships as through how hard he worked at his writing -- all leave a legacy that should make us proud to acknowledge him as one of the founding fathers of conservatism.
It is nice to think of Buckley as reveling in the celestial company of some of those who preceded him in death – most importantly his devoted wife Pat, who passed on just within the last year. His long-time close friend and fellow-laborer Russell Kirk, who died some years ago, is another. The man whose epoch-changing Presidency would be unthinkable without the groundwork WFB laid – Ronald Reagan – makes for yet a third. The list could go on endlessly.
And it would be hard to end any discussion of Buckley and his career without mentioning the great British journalist and convert from atheism to Christianity, Malcolm Muggeridge, whose lengthy Firing Line discussions with Buckley on faith and transcendence were redone or replayed every Christmas for more than two decades. It isn’t hard to imagine Buckley and Muggeridge, subsumed in light perpetual shining on them from their mutual Friend, leaning back in chairs up in heaven, Buckley still chewing on the nub of a pencil, discussing it all one more time.
It is perhaps no coincidence that this Montana Headlines retrospective concludes by touching on Buckley's devout Catholic faith. He never wore it on his sleeve, but neither did he hide it -- and the fact that he took no pains to hide it had a profound effect. It was mentioned earlier in this essay that a lot of Buckley's fans just wanted to be like him -- and his quiet, unapologetic Christian beliefs probably did more to shore up the wavering faith of many conservatives than a busload of clergymen ever could have. The seamless robe of his faith and life and politics was perhaps more a result of his powerful personality than it was of any intrinsic characteristics of Catholicism (his would-be imitators just don't quite pull it off) -- but nonetheless, his example led to a surprising number of conversions to Catholicism amongst conservative journalists and intellectuals.
Attentive readers may have noted that this series on Buckley is the first time in nearly 500 posts here on Montana Headlines in which I have referred to myself in the first person in the body of a post. Part of the MH habit of avoiding the first person is to reflect the unsigned editorials of the newspapers we sometimes critique. Part of it is to indicate that political disagreement doesn’t have to get personal, in the bad sense. And part of it is to acknowledge that this site is not the work of just one person – since crucial input and assistance comes from a very small but devoted circle of family and friends who wish this enterprise well.
But in writing about Buckley, it is impossible to do so without being personal, because he had a way of making us all his friends. Even though most of us knew him only through his writing and speaking, Buckley had a way of inviting us all inside his life – into the inner life of a great man. In spite of the fact that he himself was larger than life, there was always room for one more person, one more member in that vast circle of friendship and camaraderie.
It is hard -- impossible, perhaps -- to write about a departed friend without saying how that person has affected one's life. Having done that, I would like simply to say: “goodbye old friend – rest in peace.”