It was customary practice in my family to gather at my grandparents’ house for Sunday dinner after church. Loyal to our Southern traditions, we would, after eating, divide company: men into the living room, women into the kitchen or den. My brother and I, still children, would sit silently, for the most part, while my grandfather, father and uncles bandied about the names of politicians and discussed the day’s sermon or newspaper headlines.
I first learned of William F. Buckley Jr. during these Sunday afternoons, as he was often the topic of conversation. I was too young to know much, but young enough to learn a lot quickly, so I began to follow this man, this Buckley, to the extent that I could, from those days until the day that he died in February 2008.
Overcommitted to supposedly universal political ideals and to the spread of American liberal democracy throughout the world, Buckley was not my kind of conservative. He could be tactless and cruel, as when he violated the ancient maxim de mortuis nil nisi bonum (“Of the dead, speak no evil”) in an obituary to Murray Rothbard wherein he wrote that “Rothbard had defective judgment” and “couldn’t handle moral priorities.” Buckley then trumpeted some unflattering anecdotes about Rothbard before likening Rothbard to David Koresh.
Despite such tantrums and vendettas, I always liked Buckley. Something in the way he conducted himself—his showy decorum, flaunted manners and sophisticated rhetoric—appealed to me.
Carl T. Bogus, an American law professor and author of the biography Buckley, seems to share my qualified respect for Buckley, despite disagreeing with Buckley on important political and theoretical issues. “I should tell the reader up front,” Bogus warns, “that I am a liberal and thus critical—in some instances, highly critical—of Buckley’s ideology.” Yet, adds Bogus, “I admire William F. Buckley Jr. enormously.”
Unlike bobble-headed television personalities and think tank sycophants, Bogus does justice to his subject, treating Buckley’s ideas evenhandedly on the grounds that he (Bogus) is “disheartened by the present state of partisan animosity,” one solution to which, he says, “is to take opposing ideas seriously.” Bogus not only takes Buckley’s ideas seriously, but credits them for changing America’s political realities.
The book focuses on what Bogus deems the “creation of the modern conservative movement”—namely, the years between 1955 and 1968—but attends as well to events before 1955 that served as formative influences upon Buckley. On that score, Bogus spends a great deal of time explaining the characteristics of the conservative movement before the rise of the National Review in order to suggest that Buckley transformed the movement into something new and dynamic.
We read, then, several synoptic accounts about William Howard Taft and Senator Robert Taft, about publications such as The American Mercury, and about rabblerousing wordsmiths such as H.L. Mencken. All of this is good by way of introduction, if a little tiresome for those already familiar with it.
At points Bogus recites clichés, as when he declares, “Conservatism today is a three-legged stool…based upon libertarianism, religious conservatism, and neoconservatism.” This worn take on fusionism, though accurate in a very broad sense, lacks both nuance and precision even as it begs tremendous questions about definitions: what exactly is meant by “libertarian,” “religious conservative,” and “neoconservative”? The average American, educated by the likes of Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, will, as a matter of course, have odd notions about who represents which category in this triad. In other words, Bogus does little to clarify terms whose meanings are fraught and highly contested—he simply tosses around multifaceted words as if their signification were abundantly clear.
Bogus’s claim that “Buckley was himself a libertarian, a religious conservative, and a neoconservative” will come as news to libertarians and Buckleyites alike. And how can one man be all three at once? If it were possible, there would be a word to represent this union. But there is no such word, because there is no such union. These terms may overlap, but the political beliefs they represent consist in too many ideas that are mutually exclusive.
Conservatives with an historical sense will be surprised and perhaps annoyed by Bogus’s frequent grandiose claims—for example, that James Burnham was “the first neoconservative.” The first, really? Or that the “conservative movement was born on November 19, 1955.” That remark, besides being silly, would seem to undermine the very meaning of the word “conservative,” for the genesis of a political philosophy does not entail preservation or restoration.
To make matters worse, Bogus overstates the friction between Buckley and Russell Kirk. “Though Buckley admired Kirk,” explains Bogus, “Kirk surely understood that he could never prevail within the councils of National Review for the simple reason that Buckley was a libertarian.” This opinion is repeated elsewhere: “Kirk championed a form of conservatism that Buckley quite distinctly did not favor. Buckley was himself a libertarian, even if he had not yet so described himself.”
Buckley was hardly a libertarian, however liberally that word is defined. He most certainly was not, as Bogus submits, an advocate for “hard-edged libertarianism.” It turns out that Bogus bases his claim upon the title of Buckley’s recklessly named book Happy Days Were Here Again: Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist (1993).
Buckley did, it’s true, have trouble recruiting Kirk to National Review, in part because, as Bogus points out, Buckley wrote an unfavorable review of Kirk’s Academic Freedom. Buckley and Kirk also disagreed, often vehemently, about matters of public policy. Yet these men got along not just because their relationship was “symbiotic,” the adjective Bogus uses to suggest that these men benefited financially from an association with the other. In fact, these men respected each other; they appreciated a cultivated intellect: something they both possessed. Whatever differences these men had were not so extreme as to harden into insurmountable disdain or contempt.
Without Kirk, no conservative canon, no intellectual inheritance for the conservative movement; without Buckley, no animated spokesman for conservatism. Without the threat of communism and the Cold War, no motive for collective action for any who might have considered themselves champions or defenders of conservatism.
That’s the standard narrative of the so-called modern conservative movement, and that’s the one that Bogus more or less sticks to. The notable exception is the attention paid to Buckley’s obsessive purges, his relentless attempts to narrow the scope of conservatism to fit his own constricted definition. Bogus discusses at length the concerted efforts of National Review editors to stigmatize Ayn Rand and the Objectivists, Robert Welch and the Birchers, and, of course, Rothbard and other libertarian purists. Bogus ignores the paleoconservatives altogether.
Although fair in its treatment of an ideological rival, Buckley is neither original nor instructive. It could have readers wondering when a better biography of Buckley will come out. What ultimately saves the book is Buckley himself.
Buckley is a delightful and intriguing figure—sometimes a blowhard, sometimes a dandy—who makes up in charisma what Bogus lacks in meticulousness. As one of the first books to synthesize a wealth of material about Buckley into a book-length project, Buckley no doubt ushers in a coming trend.
In anticipation of this trend, readers ought to declare: we want more Buckley, less biographer; more anecdotes and facts, less opinion. Indeed, this book is best when Bogus steps aside to let Buckley be Buckley.
Be that as it may, the book deserves an audience; the uninitiated—those whose understanding of conservatism comes from Republican politicians and the media—require simple biographies. This book is for them.