Athwart History

by Sam Tanenhaus | March 19, 2007

Although he remains the most eminent conservative in the United States, his face and voice recognized by millions, William F. Buckley, Jr. has all but retired from public life. At the apex of his influence, when Richard Nixon and, later, Ronald Reagan occupied the White House, Buckley received flattering notes on presidential letterhead and importuning phone calls from Cabinet members worried about their standing in the conservative movement. Since those heady times, Buckley has, piece by piece, dismantled the formidable apparatus through which he tirelessly promulgated conservative doctrine over the course of half a century. In 1998, he ended his frenetic schedule of public speeches (some 70 a year over the course of 40 years, he once estimated). In 1999, he taped the last segment of "Firing Line," the debate program begun in 1966 that invented TV punditry. And, in 2004, he relinquished his controlling stock ownership of National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955 and had continued to direct from behind the scenes even after yielding his place atop the masthead in 1988.

Buckley made these serial "divestitures" contentedly, even cheerfully. It left more time for other pursuits--writing novels, weekend sailing (he sold his 36-foot sloop, Patito, but sometimes traverses the Long Island Sound with its new owner, Roger Kimball,who co-edits The New Criterion), and music (he still plays Bach on the piano in his study and invites friends to his rambling weekend home in Stamford, Connecticut, to hear professional recitals on the harpsichord in his music room). In truth, Buckley has never been a wholeheartedly political creature and doesn't quite approve of politicians--not even his favorites. Of his disciples Barry Goldwater and Reagan, Buckley emphasizes, "They came to me." He once told me he discusses politics only when someone's paying him to do it.

Still, Buckley, now 81, likes to have his say and, for this reason, has held onto one outlet for regular political commentary: his syndicated column, "On the Right," which he has been writing since 1962. At its peak, the column ran in 300 dailies. Today, Buckley's most dedicated readers are the friends who receive e-mailed versions in advance, though even they, in some cases, may read him less avidly than before or wait to catch up with the selected columns reprinted in the back pages of National Review.

Or so it was, until George W. Bush invaded Iraq. The war that has unhinged so many has curiously revitalized Buckley, not as the administration's most eloquent defender but as perhaps its most forceful in-house critic. Untethered to the Bush team--the only insider he knew was Donald Rumsfeld, whom Buckley suggested should consider resigning following the Abu Ghraib scandal--he is also detached from its outer ring of ideologues and flacks. He is, instead, a party of one, who thinks and writes with newfound freedom. While others, left and right, have staked out positions and then fortified them, week after week, Buckley has been thinking his way through events as they have unfolded, looking for new angles of approach, new ways of understanding, drawing on his matchless knowledge of modern conservatism and on his 50-year immersion in the American political scene. It is one of those late-period efflorescences that major figures sometimes enjoy--and, in Buckley's case, it is marked by an unexpected austerity. Like Wallace Stevens's snow man, he has developed a "mind of winter"and, as he scans the bleak vista of the Iraq disaster, "beholds nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." And it has been instructive to observe.

One evening in late August 2002, I was at Buckley's home in Manhattan for one of the biweekly dinners he still holds for top National Review staff and occasional outsiders. At this point, it was clear to Buckley, and everyone else, that an invasion of Iraq was impending. As Buckley relaxed in his library during pre-dinner cocktails, he talked about the speech Dick Cheney had given that morning at the annual national convention of the VFW in Nashville. Cheney had warned of Saddam Hussein's pursuit of chemical, biological, and nuclear weapons and declared that, "the risks of inaction are far greater than the risk of action." Like most of the National Review contingent gathered that evening (and, indeed, much of the nation), Buckley was impressed. But, as others spoke confidently about victory, he was quiet--not disagreeing, but listening. He was also quiet, as I recall, when one guest, a National Review contributor, dismissed the perils of the postwar occupation, since the Middle East was already a mess and couldn't possibly get worse.

Over the next months, Buckley continued to watch and listen--and, ultimately, to succumb to the same doubts felt by so many others as the war spun along its disastrous parabola. A year into the campaign, Buckley wrote that we had gone to Iraq "in order to eliminate any capacity to make weapons of mass destruction, and in order to export the blessings of democracy. But we have not succeeded." Later, he was appalled by the injustice of Guantanamo and shocked by the revelations about Abu Ghraib, an episode whose "sheer sadism, pleasure taken from torture" Buckley deemed worse than the My Lai massacre of civilians. By July 2004, Buckley had had enough and issued a John Edwards-like mea culpa: If "I had known back then in February 2003 what we know now I would not have counseled war against Iraq." He shrugged off the knowledge that somewould consider him "disloyal" and that he had provided fodder for the Democrats in the November election. Two months ago, Buckley wrote that, if he held a seat in the House of Representatives, he would vote against Bush's proposed troop surge.

In one sense, there is nothing extraordinary about Buckley's opinions on Iraq: They echo, after all, what most Americans have come to believe. But this is in itself remarkable, for Buckley has been identified for most of his long career with the ideological right, at times with its most strident factions. Yet he has also been a pragmatist and has often recalculated his thinking as events have required. His first taste of politics came almost seven decades ago, during the prelude to World War II. The Buckleys, like their counterparts the Kennedys, were stoutly isolationist: Buckley's mother wore an America First Committee (AFC) pin, and his older brother James, later an American senator, belonged to the AFC chapter at Yale. The 15-year-old Buckley was in the audience at Madison Square Garden on the night his first political hero, Charles Lindbergh, made his final major antiwar speech before Pearl Harbor.

After the attack six weeks later the AFC disbanded instantly; Buckley, like his two older brothers, served in the military. Still, he remained skeptical of Franklin Roosevelt and of the war's aims. In his first appearance in a national publication, a letter printed in Time magazine just after V-J day, Buckley, then a 19-year-old Army lieutenant, wrote, "Few Quixotes still proclaim that this war is being fought for ideals." He had in mind the alliance, corrupt in his view, with the Soviet Union. "Christianity and Communism are irreconcilable in the same way that as Americans we believe that totalitarianism and democracy are incompatible," he continued. Nonetheless, he added that he, and all Catholics, could "heartily ratify the action of our Government in joining hands with a state, no matter what color its banner, if such a union will further our aim of beating Japan." Sixty years later, that ideological flexibility is intact, as Buckley has faulted Bush for trying to go it alone in Iraq and chided neoconservatives who"simply overate the reach of U.S. power and influence."

To some extent, this is merely the judgment of a "realist hawk." But Buckley's caution is also rooted in cosmopolitanism. (So was Lindbergh's: He was, after all, the man who bound the continents together with his historic flight and was greeted as a hero when he landed in Paris.) And, for all his patriotism, Buckley is indifferent to American exceptionalism. Indeed, he is probably the most worldly American conservative since George Santayana and has a similar attachment to Spanish culture. "Bill's not a conservative," his onetime ally Karl Hess once said. "He's a Spanish A-ristocrat!" This exaggerates only a little. Buckley's father, Will, a Texas entrepreneur, made a fortune in the oil fields of Mexico's "gold coast" and planned to raise the family there until he was expelled following the revolutionary spasms of 1913 -1921. But the allure remained. Buckley and his siblings visited Mexico for months at a time and also lived for periods in Paris and London. Buckley's first language was Spanish, which he learned from household servants. He did not speak English easily until he was seven or eight. His famous prose style, with its ornate syntax and rococo vocabulary, conveys, at times, a subtle hint of "foreignness," like that of his friend Vladimir Nabokov.

To this day, Buckley's politics are grounded less in democratic values--"Democracy just doesn't work, much of the time," he observed in a 2004 column--than in the twin virtues of Catholicism and capitalism, in that order. Broadly tolerant, Buckley extirpated anti-Semitism from the postwar conservative movement in the 1950s and has since jokingly proposed that Israel be made the fifty-first state. But he closely guards his faith and its doctrinal purity. In its first years, National Review had so many Catholic staff and contributors that it was widely assumed to be a semi-official religious publication, a conservative counterpart to Commonweal. Gradually, it became less Catholic than "Christian." But that was the limit of Buckley's ecumenicalism. In 1997, when he was scouring the ranks of talented younger conservatives to find a new editor for National Review, Buckley eliminated one prospect, his one time protege David Brooks, a rising star at The Weekly Standard. In a memo to board members, Buckley reported that he had discussed Brooks with NR alum George Will: "I said that I thought it would be wrong for the next editor to be other than a believing Christian. He agreed and added that the next editor should not be a Canadian"--a possible reference to conservative writer David Frum.

All this adds up to a conservatism premised on firm principle and opportune adjustment alike, a dialectic impressed upon Buckley by two of his early mentors, James Burnham and Whittaker Chambers, both ex-Communists with well-developed aversions to strict party lines. When conservatism emerged from the wilderness in the 1960s, it was Buckley who insisted its elected tribunes be given room to operate outside the strictures of "the movement." In 1967, he defended the right's brightest star, Ronald Reagan, who, as governor of California, had enlarged, rather than slashed, the state's budget. Buckley calmly spelled out the reasons and concluded his case by quoting Chambers: "A conservatism that cannot find room in its folds for the actualities is a conservatism that is not a political force, or even a twitch: it has become a literary whimsy." The next year, when Richard Nixon was in need of a strong foreign policy brain, Buckley found for him not the ideologue one would have expected, but the realist Henry Kissinger. This despite the fact that Kissinger's first patron, Nelson Rockefeller, was loathed by the Republican right and by Buckley in particular. Why Kissinger? Because Buckley admired his intellect.

This calm reckoning of political reality informs Buckley's critique of the current administration, particularly its unwise revival, after September 11, of the "rollback" strategy formulated in the 1950s by conservatives who thought the Soviet "containment"policies of Harry S Truman too timid. Buckley knows everything about rollback. Its first theorist was Burnham, who espoused its principles in National Review. President Eisenhower's secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, practiced a version of it called "brinkmanship." But, ultimately, it was dropped amid the wreckage of Vietnam. By 1969, Buckley was already referring, in antiquarian terms, to the "evangelistic" anti-communism of "the old conservatives," with their "talk, even, of rolling back the Iron Curtain--the liberation rhetoric of the early fifties." This liberation rhetoric was dusted off by neoconservatives and formed the basis of the "Bush doctrine," with its emphasis on preemptive war and its mandate to "take the battle to the enemy, disrupt his plans, and confront the worst threats before they emerge," as Bush explained at West Point in 2002. Today, Buckley says, Bush "should have taken an early opportunity to pull away from rollback."

But Buckley recognizes that cold war analogies of any kind are dubious. For one thing, in the age of terrorism, the "enemy" is not so easily classified or even identified. "Individual terrorists were, only yesterday, engaged in ordinary occupations, shocking friends and family when they struck as terrorists," Buckley wrote in August 2005. By this time, he had already uncovered another, more useful parallel. In October 2004, a week before Election Day, he presciently exhumed in his column a half-forgotten 1978 book, A Savage War of Peace, the classic account of the Algerian war written by Alistair Horne, the British historian who is one of Buckley's oldest friends (the two were boarding school roommates in the early '40s). What made the book "hideously relevant to our present problems in Iraq," Buckley explained, was its description of how the French, trapped in a bloody debacle that dragged on for eight years, were losing to "a factionalist-nationalist movement using terrorism as a means of expressing contempt and hatred for modern forms." At last, in 1962, President Charles de Gaulle "surveyed that mess" and "unconditionally surrendered" rather than risk the only, and unthinkable, alternative--a massive military attack. The United States now faced the identical problem and was similarly hamstrung, because, as Buckley warned both Bush and John Kerry,"the insurrectionists can't be defeated by any means we would consent to use." Six months later, Bush's inner circle, and Bush himself, would claim to be studying Horne's book--though, earlier this year, Horne told Maureen Dowd that, when he had given a copy of his book to Rumsfeld with passages on torture underlined, he had received a "savage letter" in return.

Buckley perhaps differs most strikingly from others on the right in what he hasn't said: Specifically, he has not denounced Bush's liberal critics. Commentary has seriously proposed that the editors of The New York Times committed treason by publishing reports on the Bush administration's domestic surveillance program; Dinesh D'Souza, in his new reductio ad absurdum, The Enemy at Home, consciously summons up the ghost of Joe McCarthy by proffering lists of "domestic insurgents"--they include Hillary Clinton, Edward Kennedy, and Martha Nussbaum--who "want bin Laden to win and Bush to lose the war" on terrorism. But Buckley, with his memories of the AFC, knows the difference between dissent and disloyalty. (He is succinct on D'Souza's book: "I haven't read it and I reject its thesis.")

Beyond this, Buckley recognizes, as Bush's defenders have not, that the trouble originates with the Iraq war, not with its opponents. When I asked him recently if Iraq is the Republicans' Vietnam, he said, "Absolutely." It is a serious admission for one who knows that Vietnam destroyed cold war liberalism and, with it, the Democratic Party's control of national politics. Iraq now threatens the right and the GOP, Buckley says, with the "identical" fate. No wonder, then, that in a July interview with CBS News, he said that if Bush were the leader of a parliamentary government "it would be expected that he would retire or resign." He has been somewhat kinder to Dick Cheney, whom he characterized in an interview last year not as a liar but as a dupe, who had "believed the business about the weapons of mass destruction" and then thundered forth so confidently on it. If, by contrast, Cheney knowingly misrepresented the facts, Buckley has privately acknowledged, Bush would be a candidate for impeachment.

In 2004, when I had lunch with Buckley at a French restaurant a few miles from his house in Stamford, I asked him what exactly made Bush a conservative. He pondered for a moment, then said, "Well, he's a patriot and he believes in God." By this definition, of course, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton would qualify as conservatives, too. Then again, it's never been entirely clear to Buckley just what constitutes an American conservative. "I confess that I know who is a conservative less surely than I know who is a liberal," he wrote in 1970. "Blindfold me, spin me about like a top, and I will walk up to the single liberal in the room without zig or zag and find him even if he is hiding behind a flower pot. I am tempted to try to develop an equally sure nose for the conservative, but I am deterred by the knowledge that conservatives, under the stress of our times, have had to invite all kinds of people into their ranks to help with the job at hand."

Buckley, a paragon of courtesy, will not say so, but I suspect he questions today the wisdom of having opened the gates quite so wide. For now, in the winter of his discontent, and from his perch above the partisan fray, he is watching the disintegration of the movement that has dominated U.S. politics for the past quarter-century--the movement Buckley did so much, perhaps more than anyone else, to create.

Sam Tanenhaus is the editor of The New York Times Book Review. He is the author of An Un-American Life: The Case of Whittaker Chambers.

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