A Buckley obituary that won’t be published anywhere

William F. Buckley, who founded National Review in 1955 and played the key role in creating the modern conservative movement, and who handed the reins of National Review to the intellectually callow boy reporter Richard Lowry in 1997 and so destroyed National Review and much of the modern conservative movement with it, passed away this morning at age 82. Long before the disastrous hiring of Lowry, Buckley’ had dropped the principled confrontation with the dominant liberal ideology and culture of our age (“standing athwart history yelling Stop”) that he had announced as the mission of NR in its first issue, and instead accommodated himself to that culture. This accommodation was tragic, first, because modern liberalism is much more leftist and destructive than the 1950s liberalism that impelled Buckley to create NR, and, second, because it allowed conservatism to be invaded and colonized—not least at NR—by the conservative-leaning liberals called neocons. NR’s change of direction, the silence of NR about it, and its at least partial takeover by neocons, have been profoundly damaging to the conservative movement. And this, alas, is as much a part of his legacy as the founding of NR.

Also, after taking the affirmative side of the question, “Should immigration be drastically reduced?”, at a Firing Line debate in 1995, Buckley never said anything about the subject again. Then in 1997 he fired editor John O’Sullivan because of pressure from leading neocons over O’Sullivan’s support for immigration restriction. Buckley thereby greatly weakened conservative opposition to the immigration disaster that spells the end of America as we know it. This was the worst example of Buckley accommodating himself to the opponents of true conservatism.

So excuse me if I decline to join the obligatory chorus of praise for the great man. Indeed, since Buckley’s political writings for the last 25 years have consisted of an endless series of mostly totally unreadable, incoherent columns that, with rare exceptions, said absolutely nothing about anything, least of all about conservatism, a cause to which he had long since lost any commitment while he pursued liberal mainstream approval in his main career, which was that of a celebrity, and since during that time he kept receiving extravagant encomia from conservatives for his considerable achievements of 30 and 40 and 50 years ago, all of which ignored the fact that he had not only stopped representing the movement he had founded but had betrayed it, he doesn’t need any plaudits from me. The man has basically been the recipient of a rolling memorial service for the last 20 years, even while he was alive. Now we’ll be subjected to a solid month of it. American conservatism is not an intellectual and political movement aimed at recovering the damaged tradition of our civilization; it’s a flattery factory. Just as Buckley is endlessly worshipped for standing for something that he long ago stopped standing for, the so-called conservative movement endlessly congratulates itself for being something that it long ago ceased being.

So it is up those who still believe in true conservatism, or, as I call it, traditionalism, who are not celebrity seekers but are devoted to certain eternal truths and to America as a unique expression of those truths, to take up the conservative calling that Buckley long ago dropped. Which is to understand liberalism as an all-encompassing belief system that dominates our age and has profoundly harmed our civilization, and to oppose it as such, even if that means being unpopular and out of step with the mainstream. And we can begin such resistance by resisting the follies of the conservatives themselves, including their tendency to groupie-like hero-worship.

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From: Paul Nachman
Subject: My Buckley epitaph

I couldn’t stand to read him.

He was a fathead.

Alan Roebuck writes:

I wish I could say that your judgment of Buckley is too harsh, but I can’t. Without a “principled confrontation with the dominant liberal ideology and culture of our age,” mainstream conservatism became just another, slightly more clear-headed, denomination within the church of liberalism. Like liberal Christianity, it may do some good by being a gateway for some into the real religion, but for most members, it only provides the illusion of fighting liberalism. Your concluding paragraph, urging true conservatives to avoid Buckley’s error, is a fitting, properly positive way to end the obit.

John Hagan writes:

Somewhere, somehow, William F. Buckley lost his way. It may have been in the seeking of celebrity, or seeking approval from the dominant culture, I do not know. The only thing I know is that the man was lost. His writing went from insipid to incoherent. He handed over a once magnificent political magazine to a bunch of children who did to it what children will do … they destroyed it.

To say he did not age well is an understatement. In his long march to old age he betrayed almost every thing he once held dear. It’s not uncommon, but still quite jarring, to see a man start out in life with such promise only to see it all end in dust and disarray. Such was the fate of William F. Buckley. These failings in a private man would be sad, and depressing. In a public man such as Buckley they are tragic, and unforgivable.

Ken H. writes:

Your eulogy for Mr. Buckley fills me with sadness. Not because it’s not true, but because it is. It’s sad to me because, between 1972 and 1978, Mr. Buckley changed my life. He led me out (as the cliche runs) of the darkness of thinking with my heart and into the light of thinking with my head. In that he had the help of National Review writers such as Russell Kirk, Whitaker Chambers, James Burnham, John Simon, Erik von Kuhnelt-Ledihn, and many others.

Even more important were the other men to whom these writers led: Burke, the Founding Fathers, and all the others who understand the permanent things. In those days, the magazine was a jumping off place to explore the whole great watershed of traditional and conservative thought. Please forgive me if I choose to remember Mr. Buckley and respect his achievements from that time. The man was an intellectual father for me and, like an aging father, my affection is not diminished by the failures of his dotage.

Anthony D. writes:

The posters in this thread, are almost all in complete agreement on the greatness of Buckley.


None have taken the time to notice that he was almost non-existent in the fight that has been raging for many years now. Can anyone say, that he has been an effective voice at all for conservatives in decades?

I don’t recall myself anything he has actually said or done, period, since about the ‘80’s.

Yet, he is among the honored dead, felled at his desk, while fighting the good fight against the liberals, he himself appeared to embrace.

R. Davis writes:

Few conservatives will mention that Buckley was a privileged elite, a product of the wealthy class, not a populist conservative. He was certainly not a voice of the common man, though like Bush he fashioned himself such publicly. Given his education in elite private schools in Paris, London and New England, his ultimate transformation from old conservatism to the neoconservative liberalism of his fellow Ivy Leaguers isn’t such a mystery. He rejected both the ’60s riff-raff, which he saw as beneath him, and—it shouldn’t be forgotten—the civil rights movement (guilt for which, or simply a desire to be accepted by the mainstream, would impel him to leftist positions on race and immigration). Most of the wealthy class held the same views, though few had Buckley’s rhetorical skills or the inclination to go public. In so doing he almost inadvertently founded modern American conservatism. The personal is political, as they say, and that explains both his seeming turn to the right and his obvious recapitulation to the elitism of his class.

LA replies:

It’s hard to credit the idea that Buckley founded the modern conservative movement “inadvertently.” It was a most conscious and deliberate process, involving a synthesis of different types of conservatism. To say that Buckley’s conservatism was simply that of his class is not correct.

David B. writes:

I first read William F. Buckley in the 1960s. In my opinion, he was never the same after Reagan was elected in 1980. He was never as effective as a conservative in defending a Republican administration that sometimes needed criticism from the right, as he was ins criticizing Democratic presidents. Buckley only got worse in this respect after Reagan left office.

I recall a biography (written by a Nation magazine writer) that stated that WFB “loved” the 1960’s. Buckley also cultivated friendships with prominent liberals to the extent that he seemed to see things their way. This is in addition to one alliance with a “former” leftist after another. Norman Podhoretz, for instance.

LA replies:

Infinitely more objectionable than his friendship with Podhoretz, which in itself was not objectionable at all given that Podhoretz was a leading neoconservative, was his friendship with such leftist figures as Ira Glasser, the head of the ACLU. Buckley even took him sailing. On the Firing Line debate on immigration in 1995, Buckley’s personal friend Glasser, on the “anti” side, viciously smeared Peter Brimelow, on the “pro” side along with Buckley, without any objections from Buckley.

Steve Burton, who posts at What’s Wrong with the World, writes:

It’s interesting that the one and only criticism of Buckley that most commenters make is his support for segregation in the 1950s and opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights Bill.

At “The Volokh Conspiracy,” for example, Ilya Somin devotes almost half of his obituary to this issue:

“Unfortunately, Buckley’s far-sighted rejection of conspiracy theory and anti-Semitism was for a long time not matched by similar enlightenment on racial issues. Not only did the early National Review claim that federal intervention to protect black civil rights violated constitutional federalism principles; it also contended that Jim Crow segregation was actually a good and justifiable policy (see, for example, this 1957 editorial defending southern states’ denial of black voting rights). In fairness, several of the early National Review writers were opposed to segregation and favored efforts to change it (especially at the state level). But the magazine’s editorial line—set by Buckley—was generally segregationist. Buckley and some of his NR associates were far from the only 1950s conservatives with a blind spot on black civil rights; but they were particularly important because of their status as founders of the modern conservative intellectual movement.

“By the late 1960s, Buckley and NR stopped defending segregation and embraced official color-blindness. However, their failure to fully repudiate and apologize for their earlier stance made the later embrace of color-blindness seem strategic rather than principled and fed liberal suspicions that conservative color-blindess is just a pretext for promoting white privilege under another name. Eventually, Buckley did—to his credit—acknowledge that he had been wrong and that federal intervention to protect black rights against state governments had been necessary; but by that time it was very difficult to reverse the harm caused by his earlier stance. Although later generations of conservative intellectuals had no part in NR’s early embrace of segregationism and many are probably unaware that it ever happened, the issue continues to stain conservatism’s reputation in the intellectual world. By all accounts, Buckley was personally tolerant in his attitude toward racial minorities; but his public record on racial issues for a long time failed to reflect that.”

Later, in comments, Somin adds that Buckley’s “position on race was not merely a minor mistake he made 51 years ago. It was a huge one on the most important moral issue of the day and one that affected not just him but also the entire conservative movement he helped create.”

I mean, “the most important moral issue of the day?” Even at the height of the international struggle against Communism? So I guess that for some libertarians, just as for modern liberals, non-discrimination is pretty much the heart and soul of morality.

Deborah A. writes:

While I don’t have a comment on the late Mr. Buckley’s political beliefs, I very fondly remember an essay that appeared in his book, The Governor Listeth, published around 1975. A young California high school student had made the comment that J.S. Bach was an “old, dead punk”. Although I don’t remember the specific details, there was a connection between the student’s remark and the controversy surrounding the establishment of a “Black Student Union” at the school. Apparently the music of Bach was irrelevant to the curriculum.

Buckley called the remark “the all time champion effrontery” and stated (I think I’m quoting here) that the “least of Bach’s cantatas will do more to elevate mankind than all the Black Student Unions born and unborn.”

Matthew H. writes:

It is sad that so many of your criticisms of William F. Buckley are true. However, let us not allow the mellowing and distraction of his later years to obscure the achievements of his youth, which were very great indeed. Without rehearsing them all right here, I think it is at least plausible to posit the following:

Without Buckley, National Review and the conservative movement he did so much to shape, there would be no Reagan Administration, no fall of the Berlin Wall, no collapse of the Soviet Union, no retreat from the precipice of Carter-era national decline, no recovery from “post-Vietnam syndrome”, and no intellectually credible conservative movement (however badly it has been mismanaged and infiltrated since Buckley’s heyday).

That movement conservatism seems to be going the way that all things under the sun eventually do can only partially be laid at Buckley’s feet. That it ever got started at all on a sound intellectual footing from which it could achieve the glorious and previously unthinkable successes it did, was largely his work.

He deserves better than your obit.

LA replies

I think Matthew’s summary of the things that would not have happened without NR is reasonable. But the whole world is applauding Buckley for those things, and has been applauding him for them for years and years and years and years and years. World without end, amen. The world doesn’t need ME to be repeating what the whole world is already saying.

Matthew replies:

You might have said both. The former arch-conservative Buckley’s gradual mainstreaming over the years was perhaps based on three things. One was his patrician impulse to move with ease among the powerful and notable of his day. Another would be his weakening, with age and success, before the dominant culture against which he and men like Kendall, Chambers, et al, had stood for so long. But maybe the most significant factor would be the new respectability of conservative ideas which he himself did so much to burnish.

In the Fifties and Sixties, he stood his ground and demanded that liberals give account for their shoddy ideas. He forced them, and America, to confront the lies in which the minds of our ascendant classes had for so long been steeped. That he ended up being respected by many of his adversaries is to his credit. The same can be said of Ronald Reagan, too. It is hard to imagine two better examples of the successful Christian gentleman.

Let us learn from his failings and recognize that the foe is far nastier than even Buckley imagined. I disagreed with his views on many things, not least of all drug legalization. But credit where credit is due.

LA replies:

“That he ended up being respected by many of his adversaries is to his credit. The same can be said of Ronald Reagan, too. It is hard to imagine two better examples of the successful Christian gentleman.”

There is some truth to what you’re saying. But the bulk of the “respect” that Buckley got, he got from downplaying his opposition to liberalism and becoming an unthreatening celebrity. As for Reagan, during most of his presidency he was most certainly not treated with respect by liberals. Only after his presidency, when his undeniable achievements were there for all to see and he was no longer in the arena, did it become fashionable to say respectful things about him.

James P. writes:

Having grown up out West, I always had a certain contempt for Buckley as a typically effete and pretentious northeasterner. It has always been my view that if you want to convey important ideas to the largest number of people, you should speak simply and clearly, and Buckley seemed to enjoy using difficult language for its own sake. From a larger perspective, it is clear that Buckley was one of the instruments liberalism used to make sure that conservatism stayed within certain acceptable (to liberals) bounds and to channel their energies in certain acceptable (to liberals) directions. For all that WFB said that his role was to stand athwart history yelling stop, his actual role was, over the decades, to move “the center” further and further to the Left. One need only compare issues of National Review from the 1950s and 1960s to issues of the magazine from today to see how this process unfolded.

LA replies:

I get your point about Buckley helping create a conservatism that did not threaten the reign of liberalism. But there was nothing “typically Northeastern” about William Buckley!! If James thinks Buckley was a typical Northeasterner he has some very strange notions about that part of the country.

James replies:

Such was the ignorant prejudice in Arizona back when I was a youngster. Northeasterners were pictured as snooty, yacht-owning elitists in cravats with languid airs and funny accents, and Mr. Groton and Yale Buckley fit that picture perfectly. =)

LA replies:

That’s funny. Except for a decade in Colorado, I’ve spent my entire life in the Northeast, and I can’t think of single Northeasterner I’ve ever seen, including well-to-do people from old money, who was remotely like William Buckley! Yes, here and there, there are Northeasterners who have odd patrician accents, like former Gov. Kean of New Jersey. But to say that the typical Northeasterner is an upper crust type is like thinking that WASPs are the upper crust, when in reality WASPs are all Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

I think Buckley was sui generis.

Spencer Warren writes:

That’s a good response to Matthew H. You did write that Buckley was the key conservative in his day. And Matthew does not address your points about the conservative movement and its sycophancy toward Buckley. Why didn’t they criticize him at all for the past 10-15 years, when he was helping, inexplicably, undoing all the good he did before, starting with the firing of O’Sullivan for his promotion of the National Question and his insane hiring of the totally unqualified Lowry as editor? Has Lowry’s NR ever made the point—and repeated it as necessary—that George W. Bush, with McCain behind him—has taken away from the GOP its best issue, immigration control? Lowry has also dismissed the issue of reducing the size of government. This is the “conservative” NR bequeathed by Buckley.

Caryl Johnston writes:

Thank you for your remark about the “flattery factory” of modern conservatism. It’s brilliant. The true conservative was the late Russell Kirk, whose loss created a real void in American intellect (what there was of it). Agree with you—WFB was just mainly a celebrity—except for his brief moment at Yale. I think de Tocqueville said something about this American pattern—there is a fling of daring in youth, then a settling down into conformity and unimaginativeness. In contrast to societies with an aristocratic tradition—where youth is characterized by conservatism, and in maturity there is often real daring and originality.

America’s tragedy is the lack of matured imagination.

LA replies:

Thank you very much, but I fear you’re misunderstanding me. I certainly did not say that “WFB was just mainly a celebrity—except for his brief moment at Yale.”

Gintas writes:

Buckley became a catatonic Theoden, king of Rohan, and Rich Lowry, his Grima Wormtongue. The conservative movement is overrun by pillaging orcs, and traditionalists are expelled from the city.

LA replies:

That’s good, except that it’s impossible to see Lowry as at all sinister. He’s just empty and believes in nothing except following current opinion.

Posted by Lawrence Auster at February 27, 2008 08:58 PM | Send

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