Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus (and Reagan and Goldwater) understood and appreciated the hurly-burly of American democracy. Buckley famously insisted he'd rather be governed by 2,000 random names in the Boston phone book than the faculty of Harvard. He passionately defended Joseph McCarthy, and he admired J. Bracken Lee, the 1950s Utah governor who makes Sarah Palin look like Sandra Day O'Connor on Ambien. Oh, and he was a Rush Limbaugh dittohead. Kristol was an admirer of the Christian right and a supporter of the populist tax revolts of the 1970s. Neuhaus was a leading champion of the religious revival on the right.
Nostalgia, wrote the great sociologist Robert Nisbet, "is even at best a rust of memory, often a disease." Nostalgia causes us to exaggerate what we liked about the past while editing out what we didn't. Indeed, Klinghoffer is doing precisely that when he says that Buckley, Kristol and Neuhaus were "iconic." Buckley, sure; he was a true media celebrity. But Kristol and Neuhaus? Kristol famously thought that having anything more than a few thousand subscribers to his magazine, the Public Interest, was a sign of failure. Both could walk through most airports unrecognized.
These men are my heroes, too, and their influence was staggering. But those who pine for the good old days fail to grasp that the good old days were, in the ways that matter, often quite bad. The heyday of the "institution builders" was a low-water mark for conservatism's political success. (That's why they built institutions!) Conservatism hardly lacks for top-flight intellectuals these days, but the intellectuals aren't the avant-garde anymore. Thanks to their success at building institutions and spreading ideas, the battle has been joined. And now is not the time to wax nostalgic for the planning sessions.