After the walloping Republicans took in the 2012 elections, my first printable thought was, “Man, where is William F. Buckley when you need him?” The likely answer to that question is “in Heaven” or at least well on his way through Purgatory.
If he were still with us, he would turn eighty-seven today.
In life, Buckley’s political adversaries regularly slandered the man about as readily as they use his name now to bash conservatives. (Sample title, from just this week in the Politico newspaper: “Conservatives at a Crossroads: Harold Hill vs. William F. Buckley.”) Yet to those people who knew him, Buckley’s work on behalf of countless others added up to a kind of rough and tumble, vulgar saintliness.
We could use his wit and his perspective now. With the founding of several organizations and campaigns and the magazine National Review, Bill Buckley did more to create the conservative movement than any other man. Without Buckley, it’s hard to conceive of a Goldwater campaign, a Reagan presidency, a Giuliani mayoralty, or many other historical benchmarks that proved there was a real alternative to liberalism.
There were conservative currents in America before Buckley. Starting with the publication of his breakout book God and Man at Yale, Buckley’s vision turned about half the country into Conservative America. Conservatives shared a suspicion of elite opinion and a faith in America’s founding that could rival the twentieth century’s default progressive politics.
Even for those of us who are not movementarians (as I am not, for Marxian reasons – Groucho, that is), his was an achievement worth toasting. American conservatives, radically different fish from their continental European counterparts, insisted that certain hard truths need be proclaimed loudly.
These conservative truths were: 1) that the Soviet Union was monstrous and aggressive; 2) that the United States was heroic to oppose the spread of world Communism; 3) that government is necessary but dangerous; 4) that peaceful exchanges of goods – markets – make us better off and this result ought to be celebrated, not deplored; 5) that Original Sin is the only empirically verifiable dogma; and, latterly, 6) that we ought to follow “the heresy of your own eyes,” as Tom Wolfe has rightly called it, and ban the organized barbarity that is abortion-on-demand.
If most of those truths sound consistent with Catholic teaching, this is no accident. An interviewer for Playboy once asked him how he could be so sure that his deepest convictions would stand the test of time. Buckley replied by simply quoting the book of Job: “I know that my Redeemer liveth.”
He was both small c and large C Catholic. He did not think it absolutely necessary for one to believe in God to be a conservative, but it sure helped. Outright mockers of religion were effectively excommunicating themselves from his movement. Occasionally, he added a good shove.
Great political conflicts, Buckley argued in his bestselling first book, are really spiritual conflicts. “I believe the duel between Christianity and atheism” – opposites manifest in the free West and the Soviet bloc – “is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.”
Liberal Catholic anti-Communist critics got after Buckley for his likening of the struggle against an obvious menace to the less obvious one of liberal improvements. He later confessed it was not his idea at the first. Buckley wrote that his Yale mentor Willmoore Kendall, “was responsible for the provocative arrangement of a pair of sentences that got me into more trouble than any others in the book.” Yet it was his call to run and take abuse for those words, because he saw in them a truth worth defending.
In hindsight, Buckley looks simply way ahead of the curve. As we have seen most recently with Obamacare’s HHS mandate and European courts’ assault on Jewish ritual through banning circumcision, progressive polities prove ultimately quite intolerant of religious difference. They might not pound their shoes on the table and threaten to bury those of us who are religious dissidents, but sometimes it sure feels that way.
It would be good to have Buckley back with us now because of his accumulated wisdom that political change is a long struggle with brutal, heartbreaking setbacks. The Goldwater campaign lost in a Camelot-fueled landslide, but Reagan eventually took the White House. Buckley’s mayoral candidacy for New York City didn’t even manage to keep Rockefeller Republican John Lindsay from being elected, yet notice that Rockefeller Republicans are pretty scarce on the ground these days.
The chief lesson of Buckley’s life – if we are to reduce it to that – is that one ought to stand up and tell the truth with as much intelligence, wit and passion as he can muster. Eventually, somebody will have to listen.