Half a century ago, when he was only 35 — already one of the country’s foremost debaters and brimming with elan, but long before he started his syndicated column, mounted his (presciently virtual) campaign for mayor of New York City, began hosting “Firing Line,” threatened to sock Gore Vidal in the face, sailed across the Atlantic or published a dozen spy thrillers — William F. Buckley Jr. could not have imagined that he, or his ideas, would actually prevail.
So deeply ingrained in the America of his formative years was the philosophy of liberalism that Buckley, as a conservative, was resigned to an eternity of frustration in the minority. Of this despair he made no secret. On the fifth anniversary of his upstart right-wing journal, National Review, Buckley congratulated the ballroom audience in New York’s Plaza Hotel, in November 1960, for not succumbing to the era’s “modish” intellectual fashions. Most notable among them, in Buckley’s eyes, was “the notion that all points of view are equally valid, except perhaps that point of view which says they are not.”
“It is precisely the deepest roots of our civilization that are out of fashion,” Buckley lamented. “The sponsors of this dinner — and I speak here now not only of those whose names adorn this program, but of every one of you — know that we are destined to live out our lives in something less than a totally harmonious relationship with our times.”
How the next decade, with its wars, assassinations, riots and excesses, would prove him wrong! The American lurch rightward — unthinkable in 1964 but unmistakable after the Nixon landslide of 1972, and reaffirmed by the Reagan rout of 1980 — represented a counterrevolution against the upheavals of the 1960s.
And as many noted even before his death, in February 2008, Buckley planted the seeds of that counterrevolution: Using his family fortune, his disheveled good looks, his theatrical flair and his organizational and rhetorical genius, he single-handedly made conservatism palatable in the electronic age. Ronald Reagan, a former Democrat converted by National Review, regarded Buckley as “the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era.”
And yet, even as the counterrevolution was in full swing and nearing its ultimate triumph, Buckley himself, working tirelessly to advance it, remained resigned about its prospects. “Is there going to be a continued leftward movement over the next thirty years?” Martin L. Gross asked him in the spring of 1975. “It appears that way,” Buckley answered tersely.
There is, then, some irony in the growing number of books chronicling Buckley’s role in this counterrevolution he simultaneously midwifed and missed. And there is irony, too, in the growing number of liberals writing them. Many still regard John B. Judis’s “William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives” (1988), the first full-scale biography of Buckley, as the best, and it looms large in the footnotes of this latest liberal entry, Carl T. Bogus’s “Buckley.”
In theory — and, as Judis demonstrated, in practice — a philosophical divide between biographer and subject need not foreordain the final work to failure. But “Buckley” fails on numerous counts, and it is impossible to separate the political allegiances of Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams University, from this unfortunate result.
For one thing, Bogus professes to end his narrative in 1968, by which time, he tells us, Buckley’s goals “had largely been accomplished.” Yet the author frequently skips forward in time when it serves his polemical purposes. He quotes the elderly Buckley, in 2004, regretting his and National Review’s opposition to the civil rights movement. And the author spends several pages lambasting George W. Bush and the Iraq war — not to mention such minor Bush-era figures as FEMA Director Michael Brown and Justice Department official Monica Goodling — all in response to a question Bogus himself poses, and casts as dispositive, 11 pages from the end of his book: “William F. Buckley, Jr. and National Review were good for the conservative movement, but was the conservatism they fashioned good for America?”
This amounts, methodologically speaking, to coloring outside the lines. It makes no sense for Bogus to tell us that Buckley’s relevance peaked in 1968, that if in that year Buckley “had been struck down by a bolt of lightning, the conservative movement would have continued unabated,” only to saddle the subject, seven pages later, with ultimate responsibility for the failures of a foreign invasion that commenced in 2003. Only the kind of tendentiousness born of philosophical antipathy would lead a biographer, purportedly focused on a prominent conservative in the period 1955-68, to bring up the Iraq war or Hurricane Katrina at all.
Careful readers will further note how Bogus’s narrative exhumes no Democratic or liberal analogs to Brown and Goodling, figures equally flawed, trivial and extraneous — Bobby Baker, say, or Bert Lance.
Nor is “Buckley,” properly speaking, a biography. Rather it is a series of case studies designed to show how Buckley, ostensibly to the country’s detriment, nurtured the conservative movement to maturity. Separate chapters tackle, in rough chronological order, the stable of irascible writers Buckley assembled at National Review, and their often clashing assessments and animadversions (a favorite Buckleyism) with respect to the newsworthy people and issues of their day: the civil rights movement; the Cold War; Vietnam; and selected right-wing “loonies” such as Robert Welch and Ayn Rand, whom Buckley diligently excommunicated from the conservative church.
At his best, Bogus makes skillful use of unpublished letters and other contemporaneous literature to evoke the postwar furors that informed Buckley’s early career and that prompted his famous battle cry, in National Review’s inaugural issue, to stand athwart history, yelling “Stop!”
The chief problem with “Buckley,” however, is that in his zeal to show off his third-layer knowledge of these ancient episodes, the author often loses sight of, well, Buckley. Thus an unconvincing attempt to establish that Buckley’s entire worldview was borrowed wholesale from his father, an American oilman operating in Mexico a century ago, brings 12 pages, complete with GDP statistics, on the Mexican civil wars of 1910-20.
Likewise, Bogus’s scene-setting on Vietnam consumes 17 pages, dating to colonial times and culminating in several more pages tracing the views of James Burnham, National Review’s foreign policy columnist. Only then, 29 pages into this chapter, does it occur to Bogus to return to his subject, with this telling paragraph opener: “William F. Buckley Jr. also addressed American bombing of Vietnam.”
Readers who want to know what made Buckley tick, how he operated in public and in private, are better directed to Judis’s book, however outdated; to “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” by Buckley’s longtime NR colleague Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne Jr. (2007); and to “William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement” (2010), by conservative historian Lee Edwards.
More books about Buckley are in the works, and though he was a consummate showman, and an incurable craver of attention and acclaim, one senses that he would recoil from this wellspring of literature about him. In a lengthy interview with Fox News at his Manhattan maisonette in October 2000, conducted shortly before his 75th birthday, Buckley dismissed as “hyperbole” Reagan’s description of him as the most influential intellectual of our times. When I pressed on this, asking if only modesty prevented him from agreeing, the great man replied: “No, because there’s no sense in which I was the incarnation of conservative thought. Sure, National Review influenced tons of people — I don’t deny that — and was formative in the [movement]. But if I had never existed, who knows? The amalgamation might have taken place in different forms. Somebody else would have founded a magazine. . . . It’s just simply objective reality.”
James Rosen is chief Washington correspondent for Fox News and the author of “The Strong Man: John Mitchell and the Secrets of Watergate.”
William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism
By Carl T. Bogus
Bloomsbury. 405 pp. $30