William Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives by John Judis

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Privilege and Its Discontents

A specter is haunting conservatism, and always has. “All we can do,” wrote Burke, “and that human wisdom can do, is to provide that change shall proceed by insensible degrees.” In The Conservative Mind, Russell Kirk expounded Burke's deepest fear: “Men's appetites are voracious and sanguinary, Burke knew; they are restrained by this collective and immemorial wisdom we call prejudice, tradition, customary morality....Whenever the crust of prejudice and prescription is perforated at any point, flames shoot up from beneath, and terrible danger impends that the crack may widen, even to the annihilation of civilization. If men are discharged of reverence for ancient usage, they will treat this world, almost certainly, as if it were their private property, to be consumed for their sensual gratification; and thus they will destroy in their lust for enjoyment the property of future generations, of their own contemporaries, and indeed their very own ....”
In the generation after Burke's, the “crust of prejudice” was shattered, a process described in The Communist Manifesto in language whose rhetorical power equals – and whose tropes strikingly parallel – Burke's own. That capitalism is subversive of “prejudice, tradition, customary morality” is something thoughtful conservatives have generally understood and honest conservatives generally admitted. William F. Buckley has done neither, a failure that is at the center of gravity of his career and an important part of John Judis's new biography (William F. Buckley: Patron Saint of the Conservatives, Simon & Schuster).
That the center of gravity of a life and the narrative core of a biography should coincide is more or less the definition of a successful biography. Judis just misses. Buckley's life has been so crowded, so colorful, that to do justice to the details while keeping the center properly central would have required exceptional mastery. Judis at least does justice to the details. Buckley's unusual childhood is fully, often amusingly, rendered, and the sources of his famously ferocious argumentativeness (for instance, that he adored his parent, but was sixth among ten children and so had to compete for their attention) are shrewdly though not heavy-handedly suggested. The internal life of National Review over the decades, including continual skirmishing, principled and merely personal, among Willmoore Kendall, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Brent Bozell, Garry Wills, George Will, and William Rusher, is a dependably interesting motif. And Buckley's gradual transformation from voice in the wilderness to celebrity generates some piquant quotes and anecdotes, live Kevin Phillip's attack on “Squire Willy and his Companions of the Oxford Unabridged Dictionary” and several episodes in his friendship with David Niven.
From the mid-1950s through the early 1970s, Buckley was not only the most visible conservative public intellectual in America, he was founder and editor of our only halfway respectable conservative journal of opinion and creator of television's most successful political talk show. He has had nearly unlimited access to, and in some cases longstanding friendships with, Goldwater, Nixon, Kissinger, Reagan, and Bush. His brother was a United States senator, and his brother's successor, Daniel Moynihan, is a friend. He launched the Young Americans for Freedom and the American Conservative Union. He ran for Mayor of New York in 1965 and got more than 13 percent of the vote. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the ultra-élite Bohemian Grove. He served briefly in the CIA and became friendly with Howard Hunt, who told him the full truth about Watergate before it was known to anyone except the co-conspirators and their lawyers. He has carried on public friendships with Norman Mailer and John Kenneth Galbraith and public feuds with Gore Vidal and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. He's written several best-selling novels whose here (a CIA agent) seems to be modeled on himself; and his sailing memoirs are frequently excerpted in the New Yorker. Even a minimally competent biography could hardly be dull, and Patron Saint is more than competent.
Judis devotes a chapter and several passages to the “big book” that Buckley long projected but never finished, a theoretical work that would reformulate and extend the insights of his intellectual heroes: Oakeshott, Ortega, Voegelin. This crucial failure was surely overdetermined – by Buckley's temperament and by the contradictions of contemporary conservatism. Although Judis mentions both, only his discussion of the former is satisfactory. It was by no means merely the pleasures of celebrity that distracted Buckley (as some reviewers have understood Judis to imply); it was also, and chiefly, the demands of an extraordinarily full and fruitful life, “a life, as he saw it,” Judis writes, “of steady, unremitting good works”: three columns a week, seventy speeches and a novel each year, much occasional writing, National Review and Firing Line, fund-raising, an enormous correspondence, and a fair amount of private charity. It begs the question to suppose (as Judis does not) that all this activity served mainly to insulate Buckley from a devastating recognition of his own philosophical inadequacy. That recognition came, and was acknowledged with admirable, even affecting, grace, in Cruising Speed:

....the theoretical depth is there, and if I have not myself dug deep the foundations of American conservatives, at least I have advertised their profundity. How can I hope to do better against positivism than Voegelin has done? Improve on Oakeshott's analysis of rationalism?...What does it take to satisfy, to satisfy truly, wholly?...A sense of social usefulness...How will I satisfy those who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying … myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?

He appears to have had (to coin a Buckleyesque phrase) a vocation for the quotidian. And, in all humility, to have accepted it.
But the larger project was futile, anyway. In its “theoretical depths,” modern conservatism affirms values that cannot be reconciled: on the one hand, social stability, sustained by an immutable moral order and religious orthodoxy; on the other, the minimal state and the unregulated market. Competition creates new needs, which undermine old solidarities and deferences. Buckley celebrates capitalist abundance but frets over the lack of popular militancy in America vis-à-vis the welfare state and the Communist threat. It seems not to have occurred to him, or to many of his ideological comrades, to consider seriously whether these two phenomena are related. (This is perhaps the specific difference between traditionalist conservatives and neoconservatives.)
Curiously, the National Review colleague whom Buckley loved and admired most came very near to rubbing his nose in this insight. In December 1958, Whittaker Chambers wrote in a letter to Buckley: “I claim that capitalism is not, and by its essential nature cannot conceivably be, conservative....Conservatism is alien to the very nature of capitalism whose love of life and growth is perpetual change...Capitalism, whenever it seeks to become conservative in any quarter, at once settles into mere reaction....” And in May 1959, in Odyssey of a Friend:

As I have said ad nauseam, I hold capitalism to be profoundly anticonservative. I have met capitalists who thought otherwise; would, in fact, be outraged by such a statement. I have concluded that they knew their craft extremely well, but not its implications; and that what they supposed to be a Conservative Position was chiefly a rationalization rooted in worry. The result is the oddest contradiction in terms. But, then, the world is full of august contradictions.

Unlike Buckley's writings, which, for all their wit and rigor, are, as Chambers gently hinted in another letter, utterly undialectical.
Buckley might have learned a similar lesson from an essay in his anthology of twentieth-century conservatism. Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?, despite its odd title, was a splendid achievement, certainly no less useful than Buckley's projected treatise would have been. One of the cardinal essays in this collection is Michael Oakeshott's “The Masses in Representative Democracy.” (Buckley's “big book” had been tentatively entitled The Revolt Against the Masses.) Introducing this essay, Buckley praised Oakeshott's writings as “trenchant ... exhilarating ... sublime ...the finest distillate I know of traditional conservatism” and endorsed his argument in “The Masses in Representative Democracy”: “The discovery of the individual was the pre-eminent fact of modern European history” and “Conservatism is ...the politics of the individual.”
It's remarkable that Buckley failed to notice the implications of Oakeshotts's argument. According to Oakeshott, European individuality began to emerge in the fourteenth century “as a consequence of the collapse of a closely integrated manner of living.” for the first time, “Men examined themselves and were not dismayed by their own lack of perfection.” Gradually but inexorably, “The old certainties of belief, of occupation and of status were being dissolved.” By the middle of the sixteenth century, “Not all the severity of the Calvinist régime in Geneva was sufficient to quell the impulse to think and behave as an independent individual. The disposition to regard a high degree of individuality in conduct and belief as the condition proper to mankind and as the main ingredient of human 'happiness' ” had established itself: a “moral revolution” that appears in retrospect as “the event of supreme and seminal importance in modern European history.”
Buckley's fervent and wholly orthodox Catholicism is his deepest commitment, his essential identity, as he has often made clear. Did he really not understand that Oakeshott is describing the decline of religious orthodoxy as a precondition for the emergence of individuality? In its terms and stages, Oakeshott's account virtually is the classical liberal account of modernity: emancipation from communal faith and customary morality, defiance of temporal and spiritual authority, the desacralization or “disenchantment” of the world. What could Buckley have supposed was meant by “the old certainties of belief” that were being “dissolved,” or by Oakeshott's reference to the new individualism's “conflict with [sixteenth-century] moral sentiment, still fixed in its loyalty to the morality of communal ties”? Individualism and secularism are inseparable, are aspects of the same historical development, as orthodox churchmen from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century have recognized (and deplored), even if Buckley does not. “The Church did well to mistrust Roger Bacon,” Chambers once reminded him. What did Buckley make of that?
Another former National Review colleague—Buckley's college debating partner and brother-in-law, Brent Bozell—recently argued forcefully (in the theologically conservative but politically radical Catholic journal New Oxford Review) that “unmitigated capitalism” means “war against the development of virtue as the goal of public life,” that is, against the Catholic ideal of society. (There's currently a lively debate in conservative Catholic circles on this question, of interest even to unbelievers. Soon after Bozell's article, an editor of New Oxford Review chimed in: “How can the [conservative] defend tradition while ignoring one of its prime destroyers? Industrial capitalism simply cannot be squared with the values he cherishes.”) The relationship between Buckley and Bozell has apparently been a complicated and poignant one, as Bozell's emotional instability drove him from conservatism to monarchism to theocracy to mental illness. Although they started out as acknowledged intellectual equals, and from virtually identical premises, Buckley's temperament and his opportunities—to perform all those “steady, unremitting good works”--have kept him clear of the various personal hells into which Bozell's unchecked dogmatism has led him. But Bozell has evidently not returned from Hell with empty hands.

Commenting in 1970 on his ambivalence toward then-President Nixon, Buckley admitted: “It's always...more difficult to be rhetorically ruthless with somebody with whom you spend time.” The same goes for the subject of a biography. It is difficult to loathe someone whose press conferences, during his campaign for Mayor of New York, contained exchanges like this:

Q.: Do you want to be Mayor, sir?
A.: I have never considered it.

Q.: Do you think you have any chance of winning?
A.: No.

Q.: How many votes do you expect to get, conservatively speaking?
A.: Conservatively speaking, one.

Or whose column on Election Day, 1970, was a good-natured but quite persuasive defense of the early Beethoven against an intemperate critique in the previous issue of National Review. Or who can unexpectedly end a lengthy and bitter account of his feud with Gore Vidal with a qualified but genuine apology.
On the other hand, it is difficult not to loathe someone who can write, in Up from Liberalism, his most substantial philosophical defense of conservatism:

It is a part of the conservative intuition that economic freedom is the most precious temporal freedom, for the reason that it alone gives to each one of us, in our comings and goings in our complex society, sovereignty ...
– this in bland disregard of the familiar and extensive literature on the economic hardships, in both the United States and Europe, of industrialization under capitalist auspices, hardships mitigated only (apart from the prosperity induced by the self-destruction of America's international competitors in two world wars) by the social-welfare legislation that Buckley has devoted his career to disparaging. Or who can remark, in an interview with Playboy (May 1970):

I can't think of any country that we've “dominated” or “imperialized” ... that is worse off as a result of its experience with America than it would have been had we not entered into a temporary relationship with [i.e., invaded or subverted] it.

By 1970, the United States bore substantial responsibility for large-scale massacres in Indonesia, Guatemala, and El Salvador; for intense repression, often accompanied by torture, in Iran, Paraguay, Nicaragua, and Brazil; and for horrifying poverty in Honduras, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and the Philippines. Buckley's apparent assumption is that preventing a government not hospitable to American economic penetration (the operative definition of Third World “communism”) justifies any quantity of suffering inflicted on a country's population. This is a common enough assumption among American intellectuals, but usually implicit. It's the explicitness, the relentlessness, the enthusiasm with which Buckley has enforced this assumption that is hard to forgive.

Judis's portrait, for all its historical and psychological acuity, is not a critical biography; it does not explore the question: what, ultimately, do conservatives like Buckley seek to conserve? If one disbelieves their own answer--”traditional morality and individual freedoms”--the most plausible remaining answer is “privilege.” And although that is a less restrictive, and even a less discreditable, purpose than it may sound, it is unworthy of the decent, intelligent man with whom we spend time in Patron Saint of the Conservatives.


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George Scialabba