In a moving description on The American Conservative website of the influence exercised on his young life by WFB, Michael Warren Davis points out the strengths and weaknesses of someone whom he once idolized. Although Davis in retrospect does not consider Buckley to have been more than a “middling journalist,” as a young man he was carried away by his wit and style. Davis watched and enjoyed Firing Line and eagerly read National Review, the venue in which the words of Buckley and Russell Kirk were featured. His commentary is a poignant lament for a Right that was shaped by Buckley and his circle; and I resonated to this stroll down memory lane. But unlike Davis, I continue to think that Buckley wrote with grace as well as remarkable facility, and even now I stand in awe of the elegantly constructed prose produced by him and his friend Russell Kirk. (The cluttered prose of Frank Meyer and other contributors to the old NR is of course another matter.
Having said that, I would note that Davis leaves us with two short paragraphs that cry for commentaries:
“Originally, National Review’s contributors were united only by their opposition to communism, progressivism, and everything to the left of William F. Buckley. Which is all fine. Then in the 1960s, the John Birch Society accused President Dwight D. Eisenhower of being a communist himself. Buckley declared the Birchers anathema, and National Review was now united by its opposition to everyone on WFB’s right as well.
That’s all fine, too, as far as I’m [Warren Davis is] concerned. Buckley proved himself a capable gatekeeper for respectable right-of-center opinion. But then he bungled the infamous neoconservative-paleoconservative split of the late 1980s and early 1990s, siding with the come-lately neos against his longtime paleo allies.”
The first sentence of the first paragraph is self-evident and requires no discussion. But was it “fine” that Buckley went around declaring individuals and groups beyond the pale, once they were judged to be on “WFB’s right”? Buckley and his editorial board devoted most of an entire issue of their magazine in July 1965 to denouncing the John Birch Society and its members. They went after the Birchers for something very different from Robert Welch’s well-documented analysis of Dwight Eisenhower. To the contrary, they attacked the JBS for its reasonable position in opposition to American involvement in Vietnam. Bringing up Eisenhower was peripheral to the main complaint that NR leveled against them, when the ban of excommunication came. Moreover, Buckley had already been going around in the 1950s denouncing libertarians who did not share his belligerently anti-Soviet politics. The Birchers were neither the first group nor the last to fall under his judgment.
According to Davis, Buckley didn’t handle the “infamous neoconservative-paleoconservative split of the 1980s and early 1990s” as well as he could have. He might have reacted more honorably by not “siding with the come-lately neos against his longtime paleo allies.” That statement is perfectly correct and underscores a truly disastrous strategic decision made by Buckley that he could have avoided. If he and his wife chose to become close friends with the Kristols and Podhoretzes (de gustibus non disputandum), then that hardly justified turning on stalwart Old Right supporters. Buckley bestowed on his new pals, with whom he became thick in the 1970s, what Germans call “Nibelungentreue,” that is, total and even self-destructive devotion. (The term by the way goes back to a medieval German epic, compiled about seven hundred years before Wagner composed his music drama Ring der Nibelungen.)
Already in February 1981, according to Mark Gerson’s book The Neoconservative Vision (Lanham: Madison Books, 1996), WFB asked the then newly inaugurated President Reagan not to appoint the Southern conservative literary scholar, M.E. Bradford, to the directorship of the NEH. Instead Reagan was urged to bestow that position on the Kristol’s client William Bennett, a liberal Democrat who was well connected to neoconservative circles. This was nothing less than a glaring betrayal. Bradford had been Buckley’s loyal retainer for decades, and this fine gentleman (whom I also knew) could never accept the horrifying idea that “Bill would do anything like that.”
Bill did not have to be an enabler of neoconservatives who turned on other friends in order to remain what he was, a brilliant polemicist and an intriguing public figure. Why he acted as he did is the big question. Part of the answer may be that he began moving toward the Left in the 1970s. He became an ardent fan of Harry Jaffa and the West Coast Straussians (who were certainly to the left of where Buckley had previously stood on the question of equality). He also expressed regret that his magazine had not supported the civil rights movement more vigorously in the 1960s, and he became an outspoken advocate for making Martin Luther King’s birthday into a national holiday. But one might ask whether these second thoughts were anything other than accommodations to a changing political culture. Buckley may have been performing a higher public service when he warned against the Zeitgeist instead of trying to fit in with it.
And even if he had changed his mind on certain subjects, this did not require him, Davis observes, to put those who thought like his new companions in charge of his magazine. Buckley had already surrendered much of his social life to this circle. Why should he have given it more? Davis then tells us how this Nibelungentreue worked out: “What remains in the Conservative Movement of the old Buckley, before he made it big and lost his way? Nothing, alas, but the excommunications.” These and other mistakes were hardly inevitable, and quite possibly Buckley’s onetime publication would be more lively and more open to controversy today if its founder had not thrown his own loyalists under the bus. Unfortunately this is not how it was.