Buck­ley and the col­lapse of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - RE­VIEW BY JULIUS KREIN Julius Krein is the ed­i­tor of Amer­i­can Af­fairs.

Alvin S. Felzen­berg’s bi­og­ra­phy of Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr. ar­rives just af­ter the po­lit­i­cal and in­tel­lec­tual col­lapse of Buck­ley’s con­ser­va­tive project. Although Felzen­berg does not specif­i­cally ad­dress the 2016 cam­paign, it is im­pos­si­ble to read his book with­out look­ing for clues that might ex­plain Don­ald Trump’s hos­tile takeover of the Repub­li­can Party. In­deed, “A Man and His Pres­i­dents” is a rather poor bi­og­ra­phy of Buck­ley, con­sis­tently pre­oc­cu­pied with the triv­ial at the ex­pense of the sig­nif­i­cant. Yet the book of­fers some im­por­tant and per­haps un­in­tended in­sights into the un­rav­el­ing of the con­ser­va­tive move­ment.

The prin­ci­pal weak­ness of Felzen­berg’s bi­og­ra­phy is that it con­tains lit­tle in the way of se­ri­ous in­tel­lec­tual his­tory. A reader oth­er­wise un­ac­quainted with Buck­ley’s work would come away with the im­pres­sion that he never wrote any­thing be­yond acer­bic one-lin­ers and for­get­table nov­els. And if Felzen­berg’s Buck­ley wrote lit­tle, he read al­most noth­ing. Im­por­tant de­bates be­tween tra­di­tion­al­ists and lib­er­tar­i­ans — and Buck­ley’s role in se­cur­ing their tem­po­rary res­o­lu­tion un­der the ban­ner of “fu­sion­ist” con­ser­vatism — re­ceive shock­ingly scant at­ten­tion. The in­flu­ence of neo­con­ser­vatism is to­tally ig­nored. And aside from brief ac­counts of in­ter­ac­tions with fel­low Na­tional Re­view ed­i­tors, there is lit­tle mean­ing­ful dis­cus­sion of Buck­ley’s re­la­tion­ships with other lead­ing con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tu­als.

With­out any co­her­ent treat­ment of the deeper in­tel­lec­tual cur­rents shap­ing Buck­ley’s po­si­tions, there is noth­ing to hold the nar­ra­tive to­gether. The book is less a bi­og­ra­phy than a breezy his­tory of the ma­jor po­lit­i­cal events that oc­curred dur­ing Buck­ley’s life­time. And since Buck­ley’s ca­reer spanned a pe­riod from be­fore World War II to the Iraq War, no sin­gle episode can be ex­am­ined in any depth.

This prob­lem is com­pounded by the fact that — the book’s grandiose ti­tle not­with­stand­ing — Buck­ley ex­erted a sig­nif­i­cant de­gree of in­flu­ence on only one pres­i­dent, Ron­ald Rea­gan. He loathed Dwight Eisen­hower; was con­sid­ered a nui­sance by Richard Nixon, Ger­ald Ford and both Ge­orge Bushes; and was shut out of Barry Gold­wa­ter’s cam­paign. Even in his dis­cus­sion of the Rea­gan ad­min­is­tra­tion, how­ever, Felzen­berg in­ex­pli­ca­bly fo­cuses on the least im­por­tant ma­te­rial. He spends more time dis­cussing Buck­ley’s bizarrely flir­ta­tious cor­re­spon­dence with Nancy Rea­gan than on the ad­min­is­tra­tion’s trade pol­icy or Iran-con­tra. He de­votes pages to Buck­ley’s mo­men­tary con­tretemps with Rea­gan over whether the pres­i­dent would at­tend a Na­tional Re­view an­niver­sary din­ner — as if it mat­tered then, much less now. Like­wise, the decades-long friend­ship be­tween Buck­ley and Henry Kissinger is men­tioned fre­quently, but if the two ever had a sub­stan­tive con­ver­sa­tion about de­tente, or any­thing else, Felzen­berg is ap­par­ently un­aware of it.

Those gen­uinely in­ter­ested in Buck­ley’s life and his in­flu­ence on con­ser­va­tive in­tel­lec­tual de­bates would prob­a­bly pre­fer John B. Judis’s “Wil­liam F. Buck­ley, Jr.: Pa­tron Saint of the Con­ser­va­tives.” Nev­er­the­less, “A Man and His Pres­i­dents” of­fers some in­sight into the col­lapse of Buck­ley’s con­ser­va­tive move­ment pre­cisely be­cause its weak­nesses as a bi­og­ra­phy co­in­cide with the weak­nesses of move­ment con­ser­vatism.

It is un­likely that Felzen­berg sought to di­min­ish the rep­u­ta­tion of his sub­ject, but that is the ef­fect of his work. The “po­lit­i­cal odyssey” of the sub­ti­tle is a fairly sim­ple one: In Felzen­berg’s ac­count, Buck­ley in­her­ited a con­stel­la­tion of at­ti­tudes from his fa­ther, in­clud­ing to­tal op­po­si­tion to the New Deal, stri­dent anti-com­mu­nism and staunch Ro­man Catholi­cism. The young Buck­ley also shared his fa­ther’s racism, anti-Semitism and iso­la­tion­ism (Buck­ley joined the Amer­ica First Com­mit­tee be­fore World War II, though Felzen­berg is quick to point out that John F. Kennedy was a mem­ber, too). Over time, Buck­ley ei­ther shed or mod­er­ated all of th­ese views. He be­gan his ca­reer at Na­tional Re­view by rant­ing against Eisen­hower and de­fend­ing seg­re­ga­tion. By the end, he had be­come a re­spected el­der states­man will­ing to crit­i­cize McCarthy­ism and ac­cept the New Deal. Felzen­berg de­scribes this process as one of in­tel­lec­tual and po­lit­i­cal mat­u­ra­tion, by which the pru­dent coun­sels of fig­ures such as Whit­taker Cham­bers slowly im­pressed them­selves upon the brash rad­i­cal.

But there is an­other in­ter­pre­ta­tion Felzen­berg does not con­sider: that 20th-cen­tury Amer­i­can con­ser­vatism sim­ply never made any sense. Far from a co­her­ent pro­gram of high prin­ci­ple, it was al­ways a largely ac­ci­den­tal com­bi­na­tion of in­her­ited re­flexes and po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunism. There is cer­tainly much more to con­ser­va­tive thought than what is treated in Felzen­berg’s bi­og­ra­phy. None of it, how­ever, changes the fact that con­ser­vatism’s po­lit­i­cal tra­jec­tory par­al­lels Buck­ley’s rather em­bar­rass­ing in­tel­lec­tual jour­ney: One by one, its tenets are ad­mit­ted to be lit­tle more than “ir­ri­ta­ble men­tal ges­tures,” to use Lionel Trilling’s fa­mous phrase, un­til it is re­duced to the most sim­plis­tic form of Reaganomics. The one ex­cep­tion is anti-com­mu­nism, which dis­ap­peared with the Soviet Union. It is telling that Buck­ley’s writ­ing ca­reer be­gins with “God and Man at Yale,” a rousing and ide­al­is­tic — if not par­tic­u­larly thought­ful or ef­fec­tive — de­fense of tra­di­tion, and ends with grum­bling about deficits.

The his­tory pre­ferred by con­ser­va­tives, in­clud­ing Buck­ley, is a ver­sion of Felzen­berg’s mat­u­ra­tion the­sis, a purg­ing of crack­pots and fringe prej­u­dices to al­low the light of “true con­ser­vatism” to shine more brightly. Yet that is true only if there is some­thing il­lu­mi­nat­ing at the core. Buck­ley’s con­ser­vatism, as por­trayed by Felzen­berg, how­ever, rather re­sem­bles Gertrude Stein’s Oak­land: Cranks of di­verse kinds pass in and out of it, but there’s no there there. And while the purg­ing of crack­pots ought to be cel­e­brated, what if all that re­mains are talk show hosts, syco­phants and second-rate econ­o­mists?

Some move­ment grog­nards who still hope for a restora­tion of Buck­ley’s con­ser­vatism have ap­pealed to his ex­am­ple to re­proach Pres­i­dent Trump. But such com­par­isons are un­likely to im­press any­one who reads Felzen­berg’s book. What­ever one might think of the cur­rent ad­min­is­tra­tion, Buck­ley was, at times, all the im­moral things that Trump is ac­cused of be­ing. Felzen­berg even un­der­cuts the leg­end of Buck­ley’s great­est purge, not­ing that he went to con­sid­er­able lengths in pri­vate to re­pair re­la­tions with the John Birch So­ci­ety’s leader, Robert Welch, even af­ter de­nounc­ing him in pub­lic.

“A Man and His Pres­i­dents” is most suc­cess­ful as a re­minder that Amer­i­can pol­i­tics has not changed as much as it some­times seems — po­lit­i­cal dis­course in the 1950s was rather ridicu­lous, too, with Welch ac­cus­ing the pres­i­dent of se­cret col­lab­o­ra­tion with Rus­sia, for ex­am­ple. In cer­tain ways, Buck­ley even pre­fig­ured some of the worst ten­den­cies of to­day’s pol­i­tics. He was one of the first cam­pus provo­ca­teurs, for in­stance, and his fre­quent use of bit­ing per­sonal in­sults would fit well in an ob­nox­ious Twit­ter feed. One no­tice­able dif­fer­ence, how­ever, is that Buck­ley re­peat­edly sued peo­ple who called him a Nazi, and oc­ca­sion­ally he won.

Buck­ley was also able to main­tain mean­ing­ful friend­ships and dis­cus­sions with ide­o­log­i­cal op­po­nents, some­thing that oc­curs rarely to­day. He crit­i­cized ev­ery pres­i­dent of his own party and even broke with many Na­tional Re­view ed­i­tors on the Iraq War.

Per­haps Buck­ley suc­ceeded be­cause his per­son­al­ity was al­ways larger than his ide­ol­ogy. At a cer­tain level, he seems to have un­der­stood that pol­i­tics was more than ide­ol­ogy, too. Felzen­berg does an ad­mirable job cap­tur­ing th­ese as­pects of Buck­ley’s ca­reer, which de­serve to be re­called more often to­day.

By Alvin S. Felzen­berg Yale. 448 pp. $35

A MAN AND HIS PRES­I­DENTS The Po­lit­i­cal Odyssey of Wil­liam F. Buck­ley Jr.

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