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OK, William F. Buckley Helped Create The Modern Conservative Movement—But What Did It Conserve?
The New York Times' obituary [February 27, 2008] of William F. Buckley notes that that the late founder of National Review had written a book in defense of Joseph McCarthy, had supported the segregationist south, and once wrote: "Everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm to prevent common needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals."
Despite this matter-of-fact cataloging of some of his politically incorrect moments, the Times obituarist had nothing but good things to say about Buckley:
"Mr. Buckley's greatest achievement was making conservatism—not just electoral Republicanism, but conservatism as a system of ideas—respectable in liberal post-World War II America. He mobilized the young enthusiasts who helped nominate Barry Goldwater in 1964, and saw his dreams fulfilled when Reagan and the Bushes captured the Oval Office."
How did Buckley do this? English professor and literary critic Hugh Kenner is cited as crediting Buckley for "rejecting the John Birch Society and the other kooks who passed off anti-Semitism or some such as conservatism", saying that were it not for Buckley, there "would probably be no respectable conservative movement in this country."
Thus, this past November, National Review ran a book review by neoconservative Ron Radosh that trashed longtime conservative journalist Stan Evans' Blacklisted By History:The Untold Story of Senator Joe McCarthy and His Fight against America's Enemies for defending the late Senator. [See Stan Evans' reply, courtesy of Ann Coulter, who has been attacked herself for defending Senator McCarthy.]
And alleged support for segregation was one of David Frum's reasons for purging the "unpatriotic conservatives" out of the respectable conservative movement. But Frum did not cite a single paleoconservative who said anything like this 1957 NR editorial (unsigned but listed in Buckley's archives as his):
"The central question that emerges … is whether the White community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas in which it does not prevail numerically? The sobering answer is Yes – the White community is so entitled because, for the time being, it is the advanced race. It is not easy, and it is unpleasant, to adduce statistics evidencing the cultural superiority of White over Negro: but it is a fact that obtrudes, one that cannot be hidden by ever-so-busy egalitarians and anthropologists."[Why The South Must Prevail, August 24, 1957]
Even George Wallace was not making this frank argument by the time he ran for president in 1968. Yet, just a decade after Buckley defended segregation, he attacked Wallace as a bigot.
Today, even the slightest praise for the pre-Civil Rights South is a big no-no for National Review. The magazine even took credit for creating the debacle around Senator Trent Lott's few nice words about the 100-year old Strom Thurmond. A simple google search of National Review will find dozens of articles attacking Lott for his even more tenuous support for segregation. Buckley himself said he had no sympathy for Lott's predicament because
"…whatever else is to be said about the old South, segregation was an ugly feature of it, and that to think back poignantly about how it was in those golden days requires, if you are a public figure doing the nostalgia, the reiterated expulsion of features of that life."
In the process, the principled (and even libertarian) opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Act voiced by 1964 GOP Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, and more recently by Richard Epstein, was apparently forgotten, even though NR's editors had only to consult their own archives.
As for homosexuality and AIDS, in 2004, Ramesh Ponnuru wrote a long and twisted attempt to support giving "benefits" to homosexual couples. The magazine has editorialized about the triumph of "compassionate conservatism" in the shape of Bush's African AIDS Funding giveaways. Buckley famously called Gore Vidal a "queer" on national television in 1968 and continued to defend his slur decades afterwards. But when Ann Coulter was pilloried for using a similar slur against John Edwards—though in a much less vitriolic way than Buckley—Jonah Goldberg called it "dumb and distasteful."
There are many other view points, such as defending the national-origins principle in immigration policy, criticizing Martin Luther King, supporting white rule in Rhodesia and South Africa, discussing racial differences in intelligence, repealing the New Deal, supporting anti-sodomy laws, opposing nation building, calling for the abolition of the Federal Reserve, etc, that were once welcome or even editorial policy in the magazine—some as recent as a decade ago—but would now put one on the other side of what Buckley called "exercises of exclusion."
As the Times piece noted, the magazine was "founded in part to oppose" Dwight D. Eisenhower from the right. But Eisenhower instituted "Operation Wetback", attacked the "Military-Industrial Complex", and said that granting blacks some political rights did not mean they should have social equality or "that a Negro should court my daughter". Concepts like "woman's liberation" or "gay rights" were then unthinkable even to liberals.
My point is not that we must embrace these positions, but merely that what Buckley called "the prevailing structure of taboos" has moved far to the Left from what it was when he founded National Review.
If the conservative movement is considered successful, it is not because it has moved the debate to the Right. Instead of standing "athwart history yelling stop", Buckley and National Review were the first to attack those who had not got the memo about history moving on. Even on issues like Social Security, Buckley made it clear that there we must acquiesce,
"What conservatives are going to have to get used to is that certain fights we have waged are, quite simply, lost. It is fine, in our little seminars, to make the case against a federal Social Security program, but it pays to remind ourselves that nobody outside the walls of that classroom is going to pay much attention to our Platonic exercises."[ God Bless Godlessness, NRO, January 30, 2001]
How did this happen? Like many right wingers of his generation, Buckley accepted that the threat posed by the Soviet Union was so great that all other domestic concerns needed to be subordinated to it. In 1952, before he founded National Review, a young Bill Buckley wrote in the Catholic Magazine The Commonweal
We have got to accept Big Government for the duration--for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged, given our present government skills, except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores . . . . And if they deem Soviet power a menace to our freedom (as I happen to), they will have to support large armies and air forces, atomic energy, central intelligence, war production boards, and the attendant centralization of power in Washington--even with Truman at the reins of it all.[PDF]
From the very beginning, Buckley and the conservative movement as a whole were willing to accept Liberalism if Liberalism was willing to support a militaristic defense of Cold War. When the New Left started attacking the "Establishment", conservatives instinctively defended it, and in the process welcomed in the more hawkish Cold War Liberals—the neoconservatives—who eventually took over the movement.
By the time the Cold War had reached its "duration", there was nothing left to conserve.
William F. Buckley does deserve credit for helping create the modern conservative movement. But the conservative movement does not deserve credit for conserving America.
Marcus Epstein [send him mail] is the founder of the Robert A Taft Club and the executive director of the The American Cause and Team America PAC. A selection of his articles can be seen here. The views he expresses are his own.