A Conservative For All Seasons

Posted: Mar 03, 2008 12:01 AM
A Conservative For All Seasons

Today's America has quite a different political climate from the one into which William Frank Buckley was born November 24, 1925, mainly because he made the difference.

It was an America in which the conservative philosophy could scarcely be called a philosophy; it was more like a relic under glass, its skeletal remains rolled out now and then for an occasional autopsy by Walter Lippmann or a funeral mass under the direction of George Santayana. Any distinction between conservative thought and right-wing nuttism, the holy and profane, had long ago blurred into inconsequentiality. Those bones had about as much chance of living again as Robert A. Taft had of being elected president of the United States.

By 1950, the cultivated Lionel Trilling, one of the few members of the professoriate who had some reverence for the old ways, could observe: "In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation."

Professor Trilling's diagnosis was all too accurate. Oh, there was still a conservative impulse in American politics after the second Great War - "perhaps even stronger than some of us know," the professor admitted. But there was no extant conservative thought, he opined, only "irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas." That comment was more than a diagnosis; it could have been an epitaph.

That was the valley of dry bones into which strode a young student at Yale - Buckley, Wm. F. Jr., of the Connecticut and oil Buckleys - and which he proceeded to bring to life despite the best efforts of academe to discourage him. It's not that Bill Buckley was present at the creation of the conservative revival; he pretty much created it, beginning at Yale.

This obstreperous young Edwardian, complete with the manners and accent of his rarefied class, outpointed Yale's stultified bureaucracy at every opportunity. This snooty caricature of all that Yale was solemnly dedicated to extirpating reacted to its solemn efforts by compiling a best-selling catalogue of its dull gray sins. Instead of being cowed like a proper undergraduate eager for the system's approval, young Buckley fought back with surprising zest. The result was his "God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of ŒAcademic Freedom.' "

The title said it all, but Buckley being Buckley even then, he expounded on his theme at a sesquipedalian length. Which was enough to reduce Yale's McGeorge Bundy, who would go on to become the architect of the Vietnam War and other disasters, to the sputtering rage of all capital-L Liberals when they're pinned like butterflies to a board, or rather like drab moths. It was just the sort of reaction Buckley thrived on throughout his career. (Years later, he would orchestrate the excommunication of the John Birch Society from the respectable right with the same touch.)

Buckley would go on to many another triumph, from his founding of National Review to his innumerable columns, essays, novels, books, travels, grand adventures and grander spoofs. My favorite among his book titles was the one he gave his history of the National Review. It's enough to warm the heart, and gut, of any editorial page editor: "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription." As one of his critics noted, he had a talent unusual in someone of deep political convictions; he was unlikely to "ruin a dinner party." Quite the contrary. Where Buckley was, there was festivity.

If you seek his monument today, just look around. Conservatism is now the dominant American political philosophy, and liberalism the series of irritable mental gestures. But nothing disorganizes an army or cause like victory. Conservatism's intellectual dominance now shows in its smug self-satisfaction, its various cracks and fault lines, its slow subsidence from fighting idea to just reflex, its progression from courage to hubris. And there is no new Buckley in sight, someone who could both mobilize and re-invigorate the old true ideas, even while entertaining us all. But the sea change i American ideas that he presided over is unmistakable.

Between them, William F. Buckley in "God and Man at Yale," and his friend, mentor and conscience, Whittaker Chambers in "Witness," made a revolution in American political thought and action even if few could see it coming. It was Buckley's National Review that midwifed the intellectual revolution that preceded the popular one, as intellectual revolutions do. His wit, promise and general lilt overlay a steely mind and will that was Roman in the sense of both the Republic and the Church. What a rarity he was, unfortunately. Something tells me we have only begun to miss William F. Buckley Jr.