An Adrmirer of William F. Buckley Jr.
J. Dionne Jr.
-- It is time that I confess to an illicit love. I am now, and
have been almost all my life, an admirer of William F. Buckley
The skeptical conservative might say it’s easy for a liberal
to like this elitist Yale grad who uses big words, hangs with
the likes of John Kenneth Galbraith, and has led a rather glamorous
I’ll admit to admiring Buckley's love of life, to enjoying
his novels and to sharing his respect for Galbraith. But I’m
not a fan of big words, Yale grads, glamour or elitism.
it’s not easy for any liberal to agree with Buckley’s
support long ago for Joe McCarthy. (His novel about McCarthy was
better). It’s hard to credit his views in the civil rights
era or to identify with his many knocks on that courageous liberal
Republican, former Sen. Lowell Weicker.
I will always respect this columnist, editor, novelist, lecturer
and organizer because he undertook a mission and carried it out
with real genius.
He knew conservatism needed a serious intellectual life if conservative
ideas were to be considered by those outside the right’s
faithful remnant. That's why he founded National Review magazine,
which is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. He knew cranks
were bad for the movement. He knew that deep splits among conservatives
-- between internationalists and isolationists, libertarians and
traditionalists -- had to be resolved.
Buckley felt no compunction about challenging liberal elites on
their own ground. He fired plenty of shots at liberal dominance
of academe, beginning with his first book, ``God & Man at
Yale.'' In the process, he pioneered the most effective form of
conservative jujitsu: a movement devoted to the interests of the
wealthy and powerful casting itself as a collection of populists
challenging liberal snobbery.
Buckley was determined to rid the right of the wing nuts. He was,
to his everlasting credit, the scourge of an anti-Semitism that
once had a hold on significant parts of the right. He also blasted
the strange conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society.
But most important were Buckley’s efforts during the 1950s
to resolve conservatism’s contradictions. These exertions
made it possible for Barry Goldwater and then Ronald Reagan to
turn the remnant into a mighty political force.
Buckley dumped isolationism, not so hard since many former isolationists
were happy with an aggressive American foreign policy as long
as the enemy was Soviet communism.
More difficult was resolving the contradiction between anti government
libertarians -- their primary love was individual freedom -- and
the traditionalists who believed in government’s role as
a promoter of virtue and community.
of National Review's primary tasks was dealing with this
doctrinal conundrum. Frank Meyer, Buckley’s friend and magazine
colleague, came up with what is known as ``fusionism.'' It was
an attempt to fuse the two forms of conservatism into one.
Libertarians needed to learn that the freedom they revered was
insecure absent the cultivation of personal virtue and a moral
order hospitable to liberty. Traditionalists were not to confuse
the legitimate authority of tradition with the illegitimate power
of big government. The United States was fundamentally a conservative
society, the theory went, so our country was a place in which
liberty was conducive to a reverence for tradition.
Fusionism, brilliant though it was, never fully cohered. Contemporary
conservatism always threatens to fly apart, as it seems to be
doing now. Conservatism’s goals are a combustible mix: an
expansive and expensive foreign policy, low taxes, support for
government intervention in the personal sphere (to promote a conservative
vision of virtue) but not in the economic sphere. For some of
us, the mix makes little sense.
But if liberals are to exercise power again, they need to come
to terms with Buckley’s genius in understanding how ideas
interact with the day-to-day needs of politics. Buckley was more
intellectual than most practical politicians, and more practical
than most intellectuals.
Last week, in the middle of the conservative meltdown over President
Bush’s nomination of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court,
a White House event in honor of Buckley’s coming 80th birthday
and his magazine's anniversary created a brief moment of civility
between Bush and the harshest critics of the Miers pick. That
every kind of conservative showed up for Buckley was a momentary
triumph of fusionism.
My main criticism of Buckley is that he was far too effective
on behalf of a movement that I think should be driven from power.
And if you read that as a compliment, you’re right.
2005, Washington Post Writers Group
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