Even now that he’s dead, I would not presume to debate William F. Buckley Jr. His intellectual training was much superior to my own. My daddy wasn’t a depression-era multi-millionaire who sent me to some of the finest schools – although, notably, not to American public schools.
Neither would I presume to attempt authoritative commentary on the man’s life. But his passing does bring occasion for me to share some personal opinions about some of Bill Buckley’s political thinking, and the modern conservative movement that he helped shape.
First, let me set the record straight: I am a conservative in remission. After 30 years fancying my own politics as those of an ‘Eisenhower Republican’, I have given up on the Grand Old Party. In a way, Buckley’s movement to eliminate Eisenhower’s brand of moderate politics from the Republican establishment is responsible for this. If the Bush years – with their rampant corruption, moral relativism, arrogant elitism, boundless administrative incompetence and complete disregard for the American Constitution – are the highest expression of Modern Republicanism, then I want nothing to do with it.
So, with that out of the way I’d like to examine an issue or two.
In the finest traditions of intellectualism, Buckley and his publication National Review had the luxury of not having to be ‘right’. Lawmakers and government institutions have a burden to get things ‘right’ – else the people will suffer unnecessarily – but intellectuals do not. Which is probably why intellectuals (of every political stripe) so often get things wrong.
Buckley was erudite, clever and charming. And, often, wrong. Some of his opinions were, in fact, not just wrong (as proven by history), but wrong-headed and mean-spirited. That he in later years subsequently reversed many of his ‘wrong’ opinions is of little consequence. It’s easy to switch opinions once history has written its judgements. It is much, much more difficult to be ‘right’ on the first pass.
I believe getting it ‘right’ is indicative of the central moral premise and the intellectual honesty of any given political philosophy. By this I do not mean the morality they purport to espouse; I mean the real morality of which their actions speak most loudly. Just off the top of my head:
Bill Buckley supported Joe McCarthy and his witch-hunts.
He opposed desegregation in the South.
He opposed civil rights legislation.
He supported Barry Goldwater for president. Twice.
He supported the Strategic Defense Initiative
He supported Pat Buchanan for president.
He supported the invasion of
While it’s laudable that he had the wherewithal to come around (at a later date) to the ‘right’ opinion on most of those issues (save the SDI and Goldwater), in the moment when the opinion counted most – at history’s tipping point in each case – Buckley’s conservatism was wrong.
(Now, I realize that many conservatives will argue that support for the invasion of
Granted, as the years passed Buckley and his National Review were wrong less often – but this is largely due to a reduction in hard-core stands on matters of national policy. He supported individuals (notably Ronald Reagan), anything that opposed the
Truthfully, I haven’t kept up with Buckley’s writings to the degree that I can assess his influence on the current state of affairs. In many instances, I fail to see how he could reconcile his brand of almost libertarian conservatism with the Big Brother brand of quasi-fascism engineered by the Bush administration.
And that, I believe, points to the central fallacy of the conservative movement that Buckley helped shape. He purported to act upon the direction of a strong, personal moral compass. Modern conservatism purports the same moral values. In both cases, however, it appears to me that the true motivation was more in the nature of self-serving expediency. The results appear to me, largely, the product of de facto moral bankruptcy.
Of course, your mileage may vary.