MARCH 12, 2007
In addition to editing The New York Times Book Review, Sam Tanenhaus is an an expert on American conservatism. I talked with him last week--after his long essay about William F. Buckley went to press--about Buckley's particular style of conservatism, the future of the Republican Party, and whether the recent election actually presents a chance for the right to regroup.
Hi, I'm Isaac Chotiner of The New Republic and I'm talking to Sam Tanenhaus who is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. Sam, Welcome.
Hi, Isaac. Happy to be here.
Sam has a piece in our new issue about William F. Buckley and the war in Iraq which is on the website today, and my first question for him is: Sam can you tell us what is it about William F. Buckley--particularly his history, the way he views conservatism--that has led him to oppose the war?
Well, there are a few things. First is he comes out of a conservative tradition that's always been suspicious of "foreign entanglements," in the old phrase. Buckley himself came of age as a very young guy to the American First Committee which opposed American intervention in World War II. Now, Buckley changed those politics dramatically and led the conservative movement to change it during the cold war when the struggle against the Soviet Union and against what was called world communism overrode all other considerations. But he and other classic conservatives have retained real suspicion of foreign intervention, in addition to which they're very skeptical about the notion of exporting democracy. For Buckley and company, democracy is a virtue but it is not necessarily the sole virtue of conservatism or even the American tradition, so the notion that it can be exported to other very different cultures is one that he is skeptical about.
Right, well, Buckley's often thought of as the intellectual godfather of modern conservatism. And you sort of laid out in your piece the ways in which he has come oppose the war. It's also interesting the way in which most of the conservative movement which he is considered the godfather of supports the war, and many of them still support the war. How do you think it is that he's gone off on one track and the movement which he sort of helped create has gone off on the other track? Is there something about the movement that is different than him? What do you think of the distinction?
Well some of it has to do with the position Buckley now occupies in American cultural, intellectual, and political life in general, and also within the conservative movement. Buckley has a long career of loyalty, even fealty, to the conservative cause, which has often been the conservative, Republican cause. But now he does not have that attachment, to the party, to the Bush administration in particular, and to the people surrounding it, so he looks at it with more detachment. Whereas I think much of the conservative movement--including a fair number of contributors and editors at National Review, the publication Buckley formed in 1955--are still closely allied with the Republican Party and the Bush administration. So for them, any alternative is worse, the most important thing is for Bush to succeed, for the policy to succeed, for the movement to succeed. The irony is that the Iraq expedition, or adventure as Buckley sometimes calls it, has actually undermined the movement. That has weakened it politically and as a kind of cultural force. So Buckley, viewing all of this with detachment, sees the danger, the real peril--and in the piece I say he is very clear about this being the Republican version of Vietnam. Buckley was on the scene watching closely when the Vietnam war unraveled. When the liberal consensus that dominated politics then unraveled, he was the leader of the movement that led conservatism into the center, and now he sees the opposite happening. And because he has no particular allegiance to anyone in office or in power now he can say this more directly than others do. Now I think another facet of this is the rise of neoconservatism, and there's an irony there as well, there wasn't room in my story to get into this, but it was really Buckley who, among the classic or "old right" as it's called, welcomed the neoconservatives into the camp back in the 1970s when neoconservatives were breaking away from the Democratic Party. So he has a kind of affection for them, he realizes the were useful allies, but now he sees that they've become so besotted with certain ideology that it's damaging the movement itself, and again from his lonely perch, he's surveying all this and he sees the dangers.
Do you think--you've written a lot on the history of American conservatism, you wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers--do you think that the danger from Iraq is greater to the Republican Party or to conservatism? Or is there a distinction at this point?
Well, that's a very good question, because it comes down to this last point you've raised. Where does conservatism end and the Republican Party begin? In their early phases, the neo-conservatives, even when I was writing for them in the 1980s--the late '80s and early '90s--were very careful to distance themselves from the Republican Party. I remember writing pieces for Norman Podhoretz in which he said "we are not a partisan operation," which was fine with me because I am not a partisan character myself. That has changed. And I think what we've seen--and, by the way, the first writer to identify this in a really impressive way is Michael Lind, who, like so many others who have shifted to the left--and an entire essay could be written about this--was a protégé of Bill Buckley's and moved away, like Buckely himself is moving away. But I think the distinction between the Republican Party and conservatism was an important distinction which has since been obliterated. It happened really, oddly, during the Clinton years. And so conservative shills, the really passionate defenders of Bush and Iraq--thinking of Norman Podhoretz, Bill Kristol, The Weekly Standard, Commentary people--do not allow any daylight as far as I can see at least in practical terms, between the party and the movement. But Buckley and company were very different, Buckley founded National Review, making the famous assertion--not in its pages but in notes and conversations--that he would read the "liberal" Dwight Eisenhower out of the conservative movement. It was not tied to a party; they were suspicious of the Republican Party. So that introduced a nuance and subtlety that, as far as I can tell, vanished from the conservative movement, and it's become very much a partisan operation.
You have a really wonderful anecdote here about David Brooks being rejected as editor of National Review because he's Jewish. But one thing I'm really curious about is, if you read David Brooks's columns he, what he espouses could be called conservative but is certainly very different than what William F. Buckley has espoused. And Buckley has written that if the Republicans want to be a governing party they need to adjust, that it can't just be an ideological movement, that Republicanism and conservatism need to fuse in some sense. So my question to you is, given that the Republican Party is now in power, in much of Washington, and given that they will probably be in power more in the future, do you think that Buckley's sort of conservatism is functionable in a governing sense, or do you think it needs to make some of the adjustments we've seen the Bush administration make?
Well, there are a few things to go through here. First of all, as far as the incident I described involving David Brooks, it's important to remember a couple of things. First of all, that Buckley helped discover David Brooks, when he was at the University of Chicago, and was I think a socialist at that point. Buckley was much impressed by his writing, which shows you the kind of flexibility Buckley had. Remember, some of his earliest contributors at National Review--including Garry Wills and John Leonard--two men, Wills at the time was an ideological conservativism, Leonard never was. Buckley liked their prose style. Same with Joan Didion, another contributor. And the case of Brooks as a possible editor of National Review, it's important to remember too that Brooks didn't just apply for the job; Buckley was scanning the horizon looking at promising people. And the operative phrase in the memo I quote is "believing Christian" which means that had Buckley found a promising Christian he didn't think was religious enough, he wouldn't have wanted him as an editor, too.
Right, that's a good distinction.
Now, as far as the styles of conservatism, yes they're very interesting and different. Not to categorize too rigidly, or in a procrustean way, either Buckley's conservatism or David Brooks'. Generally, you can distinguish them in this way: Buckley comes out of the old individualist tradition. That is to say, libertarian, or what we think of as libertarian. Remember the first great elected tribune of that movement was Barry Goldwater, and who liberals want to reclaim, as they kind of want to reclaim Ronald Reagan. David Brooks really comes out of the early Irving Kristol-Public Interest approach to government and ideology, which is to say you keep in place some degree of the welfare state, which Buckley and company wanted to roll back at the very beginning--they wanted it eliminated, it was creeping socialism. So Brooks has always been a latter-day New Deal Republican, if there's such an expression. And that gives us, of course, the now celebrated, notorious, infamous, or absurd big government conservatism, which Bush is aligned with. So in a sense, Brooks fits into this earlier notion we described of someone who is invested more in the Republican Party that in the conservative movement. So in that way they're very different.
But do you think it's possible to have, given the size of the American government now and a country of 300 million people, the preeminent economic power in the world, and an ageing population with needs in terms of health care and so on. Do you think it's possible for an individualist, or libertarian as you say, party to attain electoral success? Or do you think you need to sign prescription drug bills and so forth if you want to obtain political power in 2007 Washington?
Yes, I think you're right, and I think every serious conservative knows this. The important thing to keep in mind about American conservatism is much of it--and this is not said in a denegrative way, as it goes to the essence of modern conservatism--is as much about rhetoric as it is about policy. There's a fascinating piece--I just glancingly refer to it in my little story for you all for TNR--in which Buckley defended the new governor of California in 1967, Ronald Reagan, because he had submitted his first budget and shocked many on the right and on the left by increasing taxes and actually just growing entitlements which is of course was what Reagan also did when he was elected president. So the essence there is a kind of maneuverability. And what Buckley says in the piece is that rhetoric precedes policy; so to be a kind of card-carrying, acceptable, ideological conservatism is often just about certain things you say, certain cultural values, religious values, political values. This is why Reagan was able to oppose a lot of what we now think of as the ideological agenda of the right, and hardly ever be criticized for it, even from the activists, or what Garry Wills calls the hard workers, the ones who actually get win primaries and get people elected and drive the agenda of the party. So as long as someone talks the talk they really don't have to walk the walk so much, and they can constantly make the sorts of real-world adjustments that any real-world political figure does. And there's another component to this, too. When Buckley and company started out in the 1950s and began to attain some real visability partly through Buckley's own fascinating campaign for mayor in New York in 1965, they were very much on the margins. They'd never governed, so it was very easy for them to criticize on these purist ideological grounds what was happening in government. Well now they've been in power for, what, a quarter of a century? Not exclusively, but for much of that period starting with Reagan's election. So someone like Buckley, a movement elder, understands very well that once you control the reins of power, that policy gets enacted in a very different way, so of course you have to win votes, and of course you have to present entitlements and all the rest. Nixon saw this too in his presidency, so slack will be cut, adjustments will be made, as long as the so-called core values remain in place. And there will always be a struggle about the sort of balance between the two; of the values on one hand and the practical politics on the other.
This is my last question for you. Do you think or do you know if Buckley thinks that the sort of disaster for the Republicans in the 2006 elections and their involvement in Iraq, presents an opportunity for conservatism to actually gain some of the intellectual vigor that it was seen as having 20 years ago or even 40 years ago when it was more in the wilderness?
Buckley was able to build this movement because he was an optimist. Interesting because conservatism, at least sociologically, is pessimistic. So yes, he looks ahead. And this seems, to him, to be the sort of moment for conservatism to regroup, ideologically. He said very clearly, he said it in a television interview, that George Bush will have no ideological legacy. He said "There will be no legacy from Mr. Bush." So it's just wiping the slate clean, and it's a matter of course of political figures and thinkers coming forward who can articulate a compelling and new-sounding conservative ideology. There's not another Bill Buckley on the scene right now to do that, so I have no idea who it's going to be.