Bill Buckley’s Conservatism

Jacob Heilbrunn | Huff Post | Posted February 28, 2008 | 01:18 PM (EST)

With the death of William F. Buckley, Jr., conservatives have been eulogizing him as a pivotal figure in the history of their movement. President Bush declared, “His legacy lives on in the ideas he championed and in the magazine he founded — National Review.”

Not exactly. As Buckley headed into his final years, he became vehemently opposed to the crusading, neoconservative stance that the younger generation at National Review adopted in championing the Iraq War. Indeed, both Buckleys, William F. and his brilliantly talented son Christopher, became acidulous critics of President Bush and vice-president Dick Cheney. The elder Buckley declared that if Bush were serving in a parliamentary democracy, he would have to resign, if not impeached. And Christopher, writing recently in the Washington Monthly, noted that he hopes the GOP loses in 2008: “Who knew, in 2000, that “compassionate conservatism” meant bigger government, unrestricted government spending, government intrusion in personal matters, government ineptitude, and cronyism in disaster relief?”

What lies behind this disenchantment? A book that has not received the attention it deserves, and that goes a long way toward explaining why conservatism has become shipwrecked, is Jeffrey Hart’s recent history of the National Review, The Making of the American Conservative Mind. Hart, a longtime contributor to the magazine, makes two important points. The first point is that Buckley wasn’t a radical conservative. He didn’t believe in trying to destroy the Eastern Establishment; instead, he wanted to reform it. Hart’s second, and related, point was that Buckley’s devout Catholicism meant that he shunned evangelical Christianity. Buckley believed in hierarchy and tradition and authority, not in personal revelation. He was no fan of the southern evangelicals who wanted to carry on their own little crusade to renew America. Hence the distaste among older, Catholic conservatives such as Buckley and Hart for George W. Bush. According to Hart, Bush “a southern evangelical and moral authoritarian,” has championed policies based on a belief that “many moral issues [are] within the sphere of government.” Unconservative, in other words.

But what Buckley hated most of all was the rise of neoconservatism within the GOP. (something I also touch upon in today’s Los Angeles Times). Buckley didn’t believe in a Wilsonian crusade that consisted of fighting wars to create peace. Instead, he viewed such bellicosity as a recipe for another Vietnam, which is what Iraq has become. As Buckley fell out of step with the movement he had helped create, he himself was treated as though had lost it, as the British writer Johann Hari has shown, on a National Review cruise last summer. Buckley’s sin was to chastise Norman Podhoretz for clinging to the delusion that the Iraq War was about weapons of mass destruction.

No, Buckley never became a (gasp!) liberal. On the contrary, I suspect that his politics are, in many ways, most closely carried on by the American Conservative, which is published by Patrick J. Buchanan–and whom Buckley essentially expelled from the mainstream conservative movement on grounds of anti-Semitism. But that’s another story for a different day.

For now, it’s enough to note that Buckley deserves laurels not simply for his elegant flair and tolerant temperament, but also his contempt for radical ideologues on the right–the unhinged types who are now whining that John McCain isn’t conservative enough because he has the temerity to recognize that global warming is actually taking place and needs to be stopped. Or who, as the indispensable Spencer Ackerman shows in the Washington Independent, are using an organization called the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies to sponsor a spinoff called Defense of Democracies to lambaste Democrats for not supporting Bush on spying wiretaps. In other words, a neoconservative organization supposedly devoted to supporting democracy is subverting it in America itself.

These are the kinds of zany ideological excesses that Buckley ultimately recoiled at. He didn’t try to edit reality. He lived in it. It’s something that conservatives of whatever stripe might want to think about emulating before they charge off on another misbegotten crusade.

Jacob Heilbrunn, a senior editor at the National Interest, is the author of They Knew They Were Right: the Rise of the Neocons.


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