In 1950, the year before William F. Buckley burst into the national conversation, the literary critic Lionel Trilling revealed why the nation was ripe for Buckley’s high-spirited romp through its political and cultural controversies. Liberalism, Trilling declared, was “not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition” in mid-century America because conservatism was expressed merely in “irritable mental gestures.” Buckley would change that by infusing conservatism with brio, bringing elegance to its advocacy and altering the nation’s trajectory while having a grand time.
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. Both are in Alvin S. Felzenberg’s “A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.” Yale University Press publishes this biography of the man who first challenged the liberal consensus in 1951 with an excoriation of his alma mater, “God and Man at Yale.”
Influenced by his isolationist father, Buckley was precociously opinionated. He named his first sailboat “Sweet Isolation.” While at school in England in September 1938, the 12-year-old Buckley saw Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain deplane from the Munich Conference proclaiming “peace for our time.” On May 23, 1941, Buckley, then 15, attended an America First rally in Madison Square Garden addressed by Charles Lindbergh.
In the Yale Daily News, Buckley inveighed against the 1948 presidential campaign of leftist Henry Wallace because, Felzenberg writes, Buckley’s “reading of history persuaded him that ideas advanced in the course of elections could outlast losing campaigns, capture the imagination of budding intellectuals and, under the right circumstances, gain acceptance over time.” So, National Review, founded by Buckley in 1955, functioned, Felzenberg says, as Barry Goldwater’s “unofficial headquarters and policy shop” during the 1964 presidential campaign. Goldwater lost 44 states but put the Republican Party on the path to Ronald Reagan.
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Some Buckley judgments were dotty (Goldwater should offer the vice presidential nomination to the retired Dwight Eisenhower), puerile (Eisenhower was “a miserable president”; Douglas MacArthur was “the last of the great Americans”) or worse (the name of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People conceded that its constituents were “less advanced”). But Buckley’s ebullience, decency and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.
He had the courage of his convictions that were costly. Although one of National Review’s staunchest benefactors was Roger Milliken, a protectionist textile magnate, Buckley supported the North American Free Trade Agreement, urging conservatives “to stand steady, joyful in our faith in the basic propositions of a free society.”
Buckley, with his talent for friendship, had an extraordinarily extended family that included Democrat Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who in the 1970s wrote that something momentous had happened: The GOP had become the party of ideas. Some, however, were incompatible, producing the dissonance that currently is crippling conservatism.
Buckley famously said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by Harvard’s faculty, but he briskly defended the Council on Foreign Relations from “those American right-wingers who specialize in ignorance.”
“All his life,” Felzenberg writes, “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism,” never resolving the tension between them. If only he had.
He, to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography “Witness” became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.
“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.