It was not so long ago that George W. Bush seemed to embody the future of conservatism. He had entered office amid doubts about his rightful place there, but pressed ahead nonetheless with grand ambitions, conducting an ideologically potent foreign war while also promising much at home. Which led some to wonder: Was this lavish spender really a conservative? Bush’s champions rushed in to explain.
Crisis and Command: A History of Executive Power from George Washington to George W. Bush By John Yoo (Kaplan, 544 pp., $29.95) Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State By Garry Wills (Penguin, 288 pp., $27.95) I. In December 2008, Chris Wallace asked Vice President Cheney, “If the president, during war, decides to do something to protect the country, is it legal?” Cheney’s answer included a reference to a military authority that President Bush did not exercise.
One of the best lines in Sam Tanenhaus’s wonderful little book on The Death of Conservatism comes in its opening chapter. Surveying intellectual life on the right in the opening months of the Obama administration, Tanenhaus concludes that too many conservative intellectuals “recognize no distinction between analysis and advocacy, or between the competition of ideas and the naked struggle for power.” Quite so, as one can see from the response (or non-response) of the right to Tanenhaus’s own book. Tanenhaus is a tough critic of the conservative movement, but he is also a deeply informed one.
In the last years of his life, William F. Buckley Jr., who died on February 27 at the age of 82, broke with many of his fellow conservatives by pronouncing the Iraq war a failure and calling for an end to the embargo on Cuba. He even expressed doubt as to whether George W. Bush is really a conservative—and he asked the same about neoconservatives. To Buckley's liberal admirers, these sentiments suggested that the godfather of the Right had, like Barry Goldwater, crept toward the center in his old age.
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.