A Moderately Happy Birthday, Bill Buckley!


November 23, 2006


[Recently by Paul Gottfried:

The Neoconservative Vision)

Parallel Lives: William F. Buckley vs. Samuel T. Francis
]

William F. Buckley, the

former conservative pundit,
celebrates his 81st
birthday today (November 24). His eightieth birthday
last fall provided liberal journalists with an
opportunity to praise someone who, according to
Washington Post
columnist E.J. Dionne, had saved the
Right from extremism. According to Dionne (Buckley:
The Right`s Practical Intellectual
Washington Post, October 11,
2005, A17), echoed a few days later

by a Goldberg variation
in NRO (Golden
Days,
October 27, 2005), Buckley had made heroic
efforts throughout his career "to rid the right of
the wing nuts."
In fact, according to Dionne,
Buckley became " 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, contrary to this puff piece,
Buckley had vented much of his youthful bile on Murray
Rothbard,

Ronald Hamowy
, and other predominantly Jewish
libertarians. These figures had disagreed with Buckley`s

stated willingness
to support an ever-growing public
administration designed to prosecute the Cold War.

Although in the 1950s, Buckley had
put on its feet an anti-Communist, energetically
internationalist conservative movement, his polemics
then hardly touched on such later journalistic demons as

racism
and

anti-Semitism
. A longtime contributor to National
Review
, who was part of Buckley`s wedding party,

Revilo Oliver,
was a self-described Nazi sympathizer
and an exuberant anti-Semite.

National Review`s
widely-read attacks on the

John Birch Society
(October 19, 1965) stressed the
Society`s

isolationism
and its misgivings about the Vietnam
War. Buckley and his circle excommunicated the Birchers
for their insufficient Cold War interventionism—and only
secondarily for their fixation on Communist
conspirators. (Although Oliver was a member, the JBS
itself never took anti-Semitic stands.)

While researching a book for on the
conservative movement (to be called Baseless
Conservatism: Making Sense of the American Right
,
due early 2007) I was astonished to discover the gulf
between Buckley`s current reputation as a sensitive
moderate, who saved the intellectual Right from

"extremists,"
and his true,

less-than-PC
record as a controversialist. What can
be said about that record is that it has undergone
cosmetic surgery. Buckley`s fellow-journalists from
across the political spectrum have accepted and even
collaborated in this ongoing work.

But given Buckley`s published
statements in 1961about the spirit of Jewish vengeance
motivating the trial of Nazi criminal Albert Eichmann,
his

onetime blasts in National Review against the
civil rights movement,
and his published invectives
against the later neoconservative living deity

Martin Luther King
, it is hard to think of the
reinvented Buckley as the only one that has existed.
[Vdare.com note: All of
Buckley`s writings from the 1950`s on are available for
inspection at


Hillsdale College
,
but it`s apparently impossible to link to individual
files.You can search for, E.G
., The New Estate Of
Martin Luther December 22, 1964]

I personally

can indulge
some of Buckley`s youthful comments. But
it must be asked why he has fared so well among
left-liberals. Why have they not bestirred themselves to
bring up his bulky dossier of past indiscretions? Could
it be that Buckley became the bridge between

the postwar Right
and its neoconservative-led
successor movement?

Indeed, the term "bridge"
may be too mild a description for the role that Buckley
assumed in cooperating with the New Order. After all, he
spent at least three decades

accommodating
his New York-Washington acquaintances,
apparently leading to his social acceptance among
non-rightwing journalists. Whether

expelling staff
or nixing contributors in the
nineties who were not sufficiently sensitive on
immigration, denouncing longtime friends who did not
turn around fast enough on certain social and other
litmus test issues, particularly when those changes
suited Buckley`s networking purposes, or surreptitiously
warning the newly elected

President Reagan
(according to Mark Gerson`s
The Neoconservative Vision
)
against appointing Buckley`s longtime friend, Southern
conservative literary critic

M.E. Bradford,
to the NEH directorship, Buckley
could be counted on to go with the flow.

Equally apparent, Buckley`s value
as a friend for those who were no longer of any use to
him ranged from unreliable to shockingly bad.

It is because of this record of bad
faith that I am puzzled to see those who should know
better giving Bill the benefit of the doubt in his
developing spat with some of his handpicked successors
at National Review. This quarrel broke out
earlier this year between Buckley and his epigones,
represented by NR editor-in-chief

Rich Lowry
, about the merits of the American
occupation of Iraq. On February 24, 2006 Buckley opined
in NRO that

"the American objective in Iraq has failed."

Whereupon his once-favored acolytes let him have it for

having broken ranks
with

President Bush
and Bush`s neoconservative advisors.

To my utter surprise, some of those
whom Buckley had slighted or wronged over the years
lined up against his detractors. Led by

Joe Sobran
and

The American Conservative,

these men of the right expressed sympathy for the
elderly sage, who had

suffered
at the hands of his ungrateful disciples.

But Buckley`s apparent change of
heart has not caused him to reconsider his relations
with the

Old Right
, whose members he has generally ignored or
defamed. Nor has he started to hang out with the
anti-war Right, which represents that part of

the Right that had opposed the war in Iraq
even
before Buckley had arrived at his second thoughts about
Bush`s "failure."

My first reaction to this imbroglio
was to root for the

adolescents at NR
against the fool who
had put them in power. My next response was to wonder
what advantage Buckley might have perceived for changing
his position on the war. Over the years he has responded
to social interest; and one is led to wonder: what
exactly is he going after by lamenting the war in Iraq?

Perhaps Buckley is tilting toward
the Left, even at this late date in his career, for
social reasons. Perhaps like

George Will,
who combines sneers at patriotic
immigration reformers with complaints against the war,
Buckley may be trying to broaden his public appeal,
which might have shrunk from his many years of public
exposure.

The fact that Buckley bolted
shortly before his eightieth birthday celebration last
November, a gala event that took place at the Mayflower
Hotel in Washington, may lend plausibility to my
surmise. The soon-to-be octogenarian might have been
trying to show an independent spirit, one that
incidentally could not have displeased the journalistic
Left. Such a move would not have kept his movement
conservative friends from attending his bash but it
would have appealed to those on the left who might have
considered him over the hill. Buckley is apparently back
doing what Dionne likes best about him:

outing
the extremists and enthusiasts in his
movement.

Despite these unkind thoughts, I do
hope that Buckley has changed his mind about the course
that his career has taken since the 1970s. While I
cannot claim to feel the personal fondness for him
exhibited by my friend Joe Sobran, years after Buckley
had betrayed his onetime protégé, I would like to think
of my boyhood hero in a more positive way than I have
been able to do in the last several decades.

As I enter my sixty-fifth year, I
can recall a time when I respected Buckley as a daring
polemicist. It is painful to think that I may have
misjudged him, as when I met him in the company of Joe,
at

Hillsdale College
in 1974, and told him with utter
sincerity that he was "my favorite living writer."
It would be nice to believe that there was at least
some small basis for what turned out to be a hyperbolic
assessment.

And though Buckley strayed from the
straight and narrow, I do still hope that he is finding
his way back to being something more than a neocon echo
given in
convoluted syntax
. Despite his prolonged lapses, I
want to believe there may still be something left in
this once-sparkling wit—something more that Dionne
praised in Buckley: the "moderate conservative,"
also known as the leader of a toothless opposition.  


Paul Gottfried
is Professor of
Humanities at Elizabethtown College, PA. He is the
author of


After Liberalism
,

Multiculturalism and the Politics of Guilt

and


The Strange Death of Marxism
.