William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP—Sort Of

"There are no second acts in American lives", F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said. No-one exemplified this better than his fellow Irish-American social climber William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, who died early in the morning of February 27 at the age of 82.

This might seem an ungallant note to strike at a moment when Buckley is enjoying the posthumous plaudits of friend and (avidly courted) foe. But not the least evidence of Buckley's unmistakable effeminate streak was a viciousness that showed in his flouting of such comforting conventions—for example in his 1995 obituary of the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, which the Mises Review's David Gordon fairly described as "malicious spite." Buckley's rationale (presumably) was that those of us who live by opinion must be prepared to die by opinion. If so, in this area at least, I agree with him.

Just as the gangsters in The Godfather reassured each other that their bloody clashes were just business, not personal, I'd say that my disagreement with Buckley was fundamentally political, although I do consider his character to have been among the most contemptible I have encountered in public life. However, in Buckley's case, the political was personal and vice versa. It was his personal failings that ultimately accounted for the four-decade fizzle of his once-brilliant career—and for the fact that, regularly credited with the making of the modern conservative movement, he must also be indicted for its breaking.

Above all, he must also be indicted for the breaking, through out-of-control post-1965 mass immigration, of the nation that some of us thought the conservative movement was sworn to defend.

However, I must also note that Buckley himself was extraordinarily, almost hysterically, sensitive to criticism. My own relationship with National Review in the mid-1990s was fatally impaired by that fact that he believed and kept insisting to associates that I had once criticized him in print, although he characteristically declined to raise the matter with me man (so to speak) to man.

I had no recollection of ever criticizing Buckley in print. In fact, I recalled the direct opposite: unheroically maneuvering to avoid an assignment from the late Bob Bleiberg, then Editor of Barron's, where I was then employed in the decent obscurity of financial journalism, to write an expose of the Buckley family's controversial dealings in its public oil exploration companies. (In 1979, Buckley himself signed a consent decree with the Securities and Exchange Commission after allegedly attempting to avoid personal bankruptcy by unloading bad investments on a public company he controlled. "Bill isn't as wealthy as he wants us to think," the Wall Street Journal's Bob Bartley, himself all too culpable in the conservative movement's failure to grapple with immigration, gloated to me at the time. He was right, as I realized later when I saw the extent to which National Review subsidized Buckley's plutocratic life style.)

The point here: astonishingly, Buckley was deeply insecure. I believe he was all too aware that he exemplified Fitzgerald's celebrated maxim. From the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951, through the founding of National Review in 1955, to his brilliant New York mayoralty race in 1965, rallying the conservative movement after the Goldwater disaster and discovering the crucial Reagan Democrats, he rode the wave of history. After that, despite the potboilers and the celebrity, he achieved nothing.

Buckley's insecurity was brought home to me with particular force on Election Night 1996. My wife, Maggy, well known to the National Review circle, was in surgery eight hours that day for the breast cancer that ultimately killed her. I went straight from the recovery room to Buckley's party. When I arrived, a Buckley courtier whom I will not name started across the room towards me. Buckley intercepted him and told him to go fawn on the talk show host Rush Limbaugh, whom Buckley apparently regarded as the guest of honor.

"I just want to ask Peter how Maggy is," said the courtier.

"She's fine, talk to Rush," said Buckley.

Buckley, of course, did not know at that point whether my wife was alive or dead. But, clearly, he had more important things to worry about.

And that is the point of this story. Selfish sycophancy is not particularly shocking in American politics—it's balanced, after all, by the fact that we don't shoot each other over policy disagreements—but why did Buckley feel the need to flatter Limbaugh at all? Buckley was, when all is said and done, Bill Buckley, architect of the modern conservative movement (as we are now incessantly told). Rush Limbaugh was just—Rush Limbaugh. It was like comparing Moses to Jeremiah.

But Buckley didn't see it that way. He yearned for Limbaugh's approbation—and, no doubt, for his support in promoting whatever potboiler Buckley was currently emitting.

People I respect tell me that Bill Buckley was capable of great kindness. I never saw that side of him. I first met Buckley in the summer of 1978. I was invited to one of the regular dinners he and his noble wife Pat held at 73 East 73rd Street ("at 7:30!" his secretary Frances Bronson used to say) along with my friend and colleague from Canada's Maclean's Magazine, Barbara Amiel, then in the full flower of her extraordinary Sephardic beauty. (Subsequently, as the wife of media tycoon Conrad Black, Barbara became an intimate of the Buckleys and I gather Bill was recently at the Palm Beach wake held before Black's imminent imprisonment for securities fraud. But Black was not the first to find that Buckley would not support him when it counted.)

What really surprised me then, and in subsequent years, was Buckley's complete lack of interest in political debate. (I see Sam Tanenhaus, whom Buckley chose, completely inappropriately, as the biographer (Whittaker Chambers: A Biography) of his mentor Whittaker Chambers, and, significantly, as his own official biographer, has the same perception.) Then, and as long as I was invited to his table (which abruptly ceased after John O'Sullivan's firing as editor in 1997), his conversation remained stunningly trivial. 

In fact, I can see absolutely no relationship between the scintillating Buckley I had read about (my twin brother and I forced our English university library to resubscribe to National Review in the late 1960s) and the spaced-out Buckley I knew after 1976.

My joking theory:  sometime after his New York City mayoralty race against John Lindsay in 1965 and his brother James' victory in the New York Senate race in 1970, Bill Buckley was taken over by an alien from outer space. He simply ceased to function in a political sense, although his ego remained insatiable. (I suppose a more conventional explanation for this eclipse would be alcohol and prescription drugs.)

I do know that Buckley's political ambitions were not merely symbolic. After his race against Lindsay, he convened a private meeting including F. Clifton White and long-time National Review Publisher Bill Rusher, both veterans of the Draft Goldwater movement, to discuss the question of how he could run for president. They assured him, very unimaginatively I believe, that it was unthinkable. So Buckley stepped aside. But had he and not James won the Senate race in 1970, he would have been a contender. It was a fatal mistake. Conceivably, it could have broken his heart.

Unquestionably, in my view, it explains the fratricidal savagery of Buckley's 1992 attack on Pat Buchanan, a fellow Irish Catholic conservative who had dared to make the jump from pundit to presidential candidate. As a much-celebrated Catholic, Buckley must have known that Envy is one of the Seven Deadly Sins. But that does not mean he was immune.

After last year's defeat of the Kennedy-Bush-McCain Amnesty/ Immigration Surge bill, John O'Sullivan's published a cover story in American Conservative magazine entitled Getting Immigration Right: How conservatives blocked the open-borders establishment. (Read Steve Sailer's comments here.) It opened with an amusing account of how O'Sullivan, in his then-role of editor of National Review, maneuvered my own 1992 Time To Rethink Immigration? NR cover story, which he (perhaps too generously) said " launched the modern American debate on immigration", past the magazine's proprietor, Bill Buckley. This whole opening passage was a salutary reminder of the extreme inhibitions that had prevented even established conservative intellectuals from addressing immigration policy up to that point.

And, alas, subsequently. The glaring omission from O'Sullivan's article was the fact that after 1998 National Review "stopped stridently claiming opposition to immigration as a conservative cause", as Wall Street Journal Editor Robert L. Bartley accurately gloated (July 3, 2000), and did not return to the issue until some time in 2002. The reason for this, of course, is that Buckley fired O'Sullivan without warning and purged the magazine of immigration reformers (e.g. me).

In an embarrassing aside that he would have been better advised to omit, O'Sullivan implicitly denied these developments, although they were widely known. Of course, public silence was enjoined upon him by the terms of his severance agreement, which I am happy to say was negotiated by my lawyer.

Those of us who were personally injured by Buckley's betrayal were obviously vitally interested in this story. We took enormous professional risks to broach the immigration issue. We were left, not merely without defense, but subject to poisonous abuse by the very opportunists and Republican publicists whom Buckley appointed to run the magazine in O'Sullivan's stead.

But Buckley's betrayal was not without wider significance. It raises the question of whether the current National Review editors' belated opposition to the Kennedy-Bush-McCain Amnesty/Immigration Surge bill was anything more than an opportunistic effort to insert themselves at the head of a parade, which they will abandon when their assessment of their career requirements shifts. After all, the amnesty they now congratulate themselves on opposing was the monomaniacal obsession of a president they slavishly supported, although his views were obvious.

Indeed, O'Sullivan himself provided an example of this opportunism. He writes:

"Bill Kristol, representing many neoconservatives disposed to favor the bill, came out against it. He did so in part because it had serious drafting defects but, more importantly, because it was creating a bitter gulf between rank-and-file Republicans and the party leadership. That in turn was imperiling Republican objectives in other areas, notably Iraq."

I predict that Kristol will return to immigration enthusiasm once he has helped persuade Bush (or McCain) to attack Iran.

Why did Buckley fire O'Sullivan? Why did he let his magazine, founded to oppose the (Eisenhower!) Republican Establishment of its day, and which he claimed in its 1955 Mission Statement "stands athwart History, yelling Stop", be so completely captured by a combination of Republican publicists, Israel-First Likudniks and the cultural establishment?

Because the fate of National Review matters (mattered). And not just on immigration reform. As long-time NR Board member Neal Freeman wrote in the American Spectator, explaining his resignation:

"I thought then and I think today that if NR had opposed the [Iraq] invasion it could have made a decisive difference within the conservative movement and, radiating its influence outward, across the larger political community."

For the plain fact, politely unmentioned in most Buckley obituaries, is that Buckley and National Review have been complicit in leading the conservative movement, the Republican Party and the country into utter disaster. Conservatives have essentially nothing to show for their moment in power except two completely unexpected colonial wars in the Middle East. And this year's elections are widely expected to be a generational catastrophe.

The current editors of National Review have tried to claim that premature opposition to immigration was "racism" and thus legitimately subject to one of Buckley's celebrated purges. But of course this is impossible to square with their recent opposition to amnesty (and legal mass immigration, although they don't like to emphasize that).

A paranoid Wall Street friend has speculated that the completeness of the post-O'Sullivan takeover at National Review, which for example saw this once solidly Catholic magazine abandoning without explanation the War Against Christmas competition I had started there to such an extent that reference to the feast was completely expunged in 2000, was due to the arrival of a Goldman Sachs alumnus on the board and possible financial arrangements.

Ultimately, however, I believe the answer is personal. In late 1997, I had the job of telling Nobel Laureate economist Milton Friedman and his wife Rose that Buckley had fired O'Sullivan. (Even National Review insiders were briefly deceived by the cover story that O'Sullivan had "resigned to write a book".)

Rose Friedman came to the point immediately. "It's the Alaska cruise", she said. The Friedmans were regular attractions on National Review conference cruises, major money-makers for the magazine. And they had noticed that Buckley had been embarrassingly upstaged by O'Sullivan, who—whatever his other faults—is a wonderful extemporaneous speaker.

(Despite his reputation as an orator, Buckley in my experience was painfully poor—the only good speech I ever heard him give was on Bull Rusher's 65th birthday, which, as Rusher pointed out sarcastically, was exactly the same as the speech Buckley had given on Rusher's 60th birthday, and had in fact been fished out of Rusher's own files that morning.)

Buckley had had no particular second thoughts about patriotic immigration reform—National Review had after all opposed the flood-unleashing 1965 Immigration Act, although it then fell silent. He was not particularly committed to war in Iraq, which he abandoned before his death, embarrassing his own editors. He was not, at least in the thirty years I knew him, particularly interested in ideas at all, and certainly not capable of the focused effort to required to master new ones.

What really motivated Buckley was ego and vanity. The current editors of National Review say: "If ever an institution were the lengthened shadow of one man, this publication is his."

I agree.

Peter Brimelow is editor of VDARE.COM and author of the much-denounced Alien Nation: Common Sense About America's Immigration Disaster, (Random House - 1995) and The Worm in the Apple (HarperCollins - 2003)