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Buckley: The Right's Practical Intellectual

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By E. J. Dionne Jr.
Tuesday, October 11, 2005

It is time that I confess to an illicit love. I am now, and have been almost all my life, an admirer of William F. Buckley Jr.

The skeptical conservative might say it's easy for a liberal to like this elitist Yale grad who uses big words, hangs with the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith and has led a rather glamorous life. I'll admit to admiring Buckley's love of life, to enjoying his novels and to sharing his respect for Galbraith. But I'm not a fan of big words, Yale grads, glamour or elitism.

And it's not easy for any liberal to agree with Buckley's support long ago for Joe McCarthy. (His novel about McCarthy was better). It's hard to credit his views in the civil rights era or to identify with his many knocks on that courageous liberal Republican, former senator Lowell Weicker.

Still, I will always respect this columnist, editor, novelist, lecturer and organizer because he undertook a mission and carried it out with real genius. He knew conservatism needed a serious intellectual life if conservative ideas were to be considered by those outside the right's faithful remnant. That's why he founded National Review magazine, which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He knew cranks were bad for the movement. He knew that deep splits among conservatives -- between internationalists and isolationists, libertarians and traditionalists -- had to be resolved.

Buckley felt no compunction about challenging liberal elites on their own ground. He fired plenty of shots at liberal dominance of academe, beginning with his first book, "God and Man at Yale." In the process, he pioneered the most effective form of conservative jujitsu: a movement devoted to the interests of the wealthy and powerful casting itself as a collection of populists challenging liberal snobbery.

Buckley was determined to rid the right of the wing nuts. He was, to his everlasting credit, the scourge of an anti-Semitism that once had a hold on significant parts of the right. He also blasted the strange conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society. But most important were Buckley's efforts during the 1950s to resolve conservatism's contradictions. These exertions made it possible for Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan to turn the remnant into a mighty political force.

Buckley dumped isolationism, not so hard since many former isolationists were happy with an aggressive American foreign policy as long as the enemy was Soviet communism. More difficult was resolving the contradiction between anti-government libertarians -- their primary love was individual freedom -- and the traditionalists who believed in government's role as a promoter of virtue and community.

One of National Review's primary tasks was dealing with this doctrinal conundrum. Frank Meyer, Buckley's friend and magazine colleague, came up with what is known as "fusionism." It was an attempt to fuse the two forms of conservatism into one.

Libertarians needed to learn that the freedom they revered was insecure absent the cultivation of personal virtue and a moral order hospitable to liberty. Traditionalists were not to confuse the legitimate authority of tradition with the illegitimate power of big government. The United States was fundamentally a conservative society, the theory went, so our country was a place in which liberty was conducive to a reverence for tradition.

Fusionism, brilliant though it was, never fully cohered. Contemporary conservatism always threatens to fly apart, as it seems to be doing now. Conservatism's goals are a combustible mix: an expansive and expensive foreign policy, low taxes, support for government intervention in the personal sphere (to promote a conservative vision of virtue) but not in the economic sphere. For some of us, the mix makes little sense.

But if liberals are to exercise power again, they need to come to terms with Buckley's genius in understanding how ideas interact with the day-to-day needs of politics. Buckley was more intellectual than most practical politicians, and more practical than most intellectuals.

Last week, in the middle of the conservative meltdown over President Bush's nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, a White House event in honor of Buckley's coming 80th birthday and his magazine's anniversary created a brief moment of civility between Bush and the harshest critics of the Miers pick. That every kind of conservative showed up for Buckley was a momentary triumph of fusionism.

My main criticism of Buckley is that he was far too effective on behalf of a movement that I think should be driven from power. And if you read that as a compliment, you're right.

postchat@aol.com


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