Maybe it is the overcast and overly warm February Saturday here in Arkansas. Maybe it is the weariness of the past week of school and the head cold that keeps threatening. Maybe it is the on-going news: the death of Antonin Scalia, the deaths of Umberto Eco and Harper Lee, the competing socialist visions of Bernie and Hillary, the weird acclaim of Donald Trump, and fears of what might happen in the South Carolina Republican Primary going on today.
I am missing William F. Buckley, Jr. I am missing him here just a week or so before the eighth anniversary of his death on March 27, 2008. Saying that, I have to add that I have enjoyed spending time with him over the past week. No, I don’t practice or believe in seances. Rather, I have read Buckley’s delightful book Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. This was one of his last books and one of the many Buckley books I have acquired over the years, including one that was signed.
The conservative movement and the Republican Party are both still suffering from Buckley’s death. At the same time, it should be noted that the conservative movement and the Republican Party are still living off the great wealth accumulated by Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and others. Several factors need to be noted in assessing both the still-available gold and silver and the rapidly diminishing political money supply.
First, when Buckley published his first book, God and Man at Yale, and later began National Review, the flagship of conservative thought, there was no conservative movement. There were, to be sure, conservatives, and there had been conservative books and ideas. Politically, however, the Roosevelt New Deal had captured the culture. From the standpoint of the 1940s and 1950s, creating a conservative movement was about as unlikely as creating laptop computers at that time.
The conservative movement, after being seeded by Buckley and others, sprung up among the college youth of that day. Buckley said, “The straw poll at Yale registered two faculty members favoring Goldwater for President. Two out of sixteen hundred. The academy had been suffering for two decades under the weight of intensive indoctrination in state welfarism, anti-anti-Communism, moral libertinage, skepticism, anti-Americanism.” Yet thousands of these students showed up at rallies to cheer for Goldwater.
Second, Buckley knew the power of words. He has sometimes been faulted for not being a deep or profound thinker (and I envy Buckley’s shallowness). But he was prolific and fast at writing. Also, he could spot, cultivate, and promote other good writers. Along with his own magazine, he promoted Goldwater’s short, somewhat libertarian book Conscience of a Conservative. In truth, the book was ghost-written by Brent Bozell, Buckley’s brother-in-law. I read that book in the 1980s at least twice and found it outstanding. It was a manifesto of conservative thinking, and just the right kind of primer to prepare young readers to be politically saavy and conservative.
Third, Buckley knew that the conservative movement was not going to be a sudden race to success, but a slow march. It was a surprise to many conservatives when they succeeded in getting Goldwater nominated at the Republican convention in 1964. Both political parties contained conservatives, but neither was dominated by them. A great source for this story is Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Concensus, written by the very liberal Rick Perlstein. (I read, loved, and reviewed this book some years back, and I corresponded a time or two with the author.)
The results of the 1964 election should have deflated the conservative movement. Goldwater’s loss was one of the greatest in American Presidential election history. His campaign, by the way, was one of the worst handled in American history. Polls at that time showed that Americans wanted less government and were concerned about corruption in the government. At that time when Communism was the central threat, most Americans believed the country had been lax in security, and 50 percent thought Goldwater would do better than Lyndon Johnson upholding morality and removing corruption in government. Yet Goldwater was trounced, and the newspapers were quick to heap on the obituaries of the conservative movement.
Buckley pressed on with the books, the magazine, conservative youth groups like the Young Americans for Freedom, and other efforts to build the movement. Like many, he noticed a rising star on the horizon, a man with superb communicatin skills and a heart for conservative principles. In time, conservatives would laughingly say that Goldwater won in 1964, but it just took 16 years to count the votes. When those votes were counted in 1980, the standard bearer for the Republican Party was that rising star of 1964 and Buckley’s close friend Ronald Reagan.
This brings us to the fourth point: The Reagan years were the high triumph of conservatism. Yet writing it that way makes it sound like a golden age that came and went. So, let’s state it differently: The Reagan years redefined conservatism and the Republican Party. The Republican Party became the conservative party in America. Conversely, the Democrat Party, which had long been sustained by a coalition of liberal northerners and conservative southerners, became the liberal party. (Remember that up through 1976, Democrats like Henry Jackson were forces within the party. The short campaign of Senator James Webb for the Democrat nomination this past year was a reminder of what used to be a powerful faction in that party.)
Every nominee for the Presidency and Vice Presidency in the Republican Party since 1980 has been to the political right of every nominee before that time–Goldwater excepted–going all the way back to 1928 when Calvin Coolidge released a statement saying he would not seek re-election. (I will know that someone is reading this post when I begin getting objections to that statement.) Yes, I am saying that Bush-Quayle, Dole-Kemp, Bush-Cheney, McCain-Palin, and Romney-Ryan were all as conservative or more so than Reagan-Bush in 1980. This is not to say that there were not losing candidates for the nomination who were more conservative or that the nominees were as committed or consistent as we might wish. But the Buckley and Reagan Revolutions changed the Republican Party.
Fifth, Buckley understood the wide varieties of conservative, libertarian, traditional, neo-conservative, and slightly conservative thought. He made friends across the political spectrum (with Gore Vidal being an exception) and allies among all who were fellow travelers. National Review was a balancing act, with a heavy weight on the cerebral side of conservative thought. Compare one hour of Buckley’s long running Firing Line television show with an hour of conservative talk radio. (Or should I say you can’t compare the two?)
At the same time that Buckley could bring varieties of conservative ideas and people together, he could draw the line on a particular, re-occuring type within the conservative movement. I am referring to the kook fringe. (The left has its own variety as well.) Buckley dug his heels in when it came to the conspiratorially minded John Birchers. We overlook the influence of the John Birch society in the 1950s-60s. The height, or rather, the low point of Birch thought was their belief that the Communist conspiracy even included Pres. Eisenhower, as a willing participant. Buckley basically excommunicated Birchers from the conservative movement.
Sixth, we need Buckley’s wisdom today. He saw Communism as the threat it was in his day, and he would see Islamic Jihadism as the threat today. He would have understood the cultural, moral, and social problems of the time. He would have located and promoted the writers whose ideas supported conservatism. And he would have labored on behalf of winning conservative candidates.
The Republican Party is currently in danger of squandering its conservative heritage with the Trump revolt. Some conservative candidates are Hades-bent on proclaiming that other conservatives aren’t conservatives. Some are more willing to wreck the party than to yield to wisdom. Some invoke Reagan’s name to promote a scorched-earth political policy that will never win the states that Reagan carried twice.
It is now getting dark outside. It is still overcast. Reagan is gone. Buckley is gone. And I am hoping and praying that the country will survive.