February 29, 2008
Bill Buckley was many things, but centrally he was one of the great American journalists, whose historic achievement was the creation of National Review. Historians will look to his magazine when they seek to explain much that has happened to the America of our time. During the 1930s, Walter Lippman was an important journalist, and like Buckley wrote many useful books. But whereas Lippman explained and defended something that already existed, the reformist Progressive movement and the New Deal, Buckley brought into being something new, something that had no existence before”the modern conservative movement.
Through his public personality, and his distinctive prose style, he also gave conservatism a new public face”no longer Sen. Robert Taft, a man of integrity and intellect but someone who made Herbert Hoover look like Rudolph Valentino.
Buckley saw that the weekly New Republic and Nation were explaining and defending liberalism for an educated and influential public and that conservatism needed something comparable. Beginning in late 1955, he put together a remarkably heterogeneous senior staff at his new National Review. James Burnham, a professional philosopher and analytical realist, was “indispensable,” as Buckley put it, not at all exaggerating. Burnham had been for a while a Trotskyist, had taught philosophy at NYU, and served in the CIA. He was a strategist of power, Realpolitik, the world as it is, analysis not emotion. “Fact-and-analysis” was his mantra. At NR, he mostly seemed above the storm, a ghost of a smile expressing his opinion of foolishness.
“The storm” because the senior people were often personally and intellectually at swords” point. Buckley as the impresario enjoyed their arguments, which indeed enlivened the magazine, and in fact constituted the various elements of conservatism as it then existed. Russell Kirk had published the influential Conservative Mind in 1952 and brought a traditionalism based on Burke into the mixture. Frank Meyer, reacting against years as a Marxist theoretician, was a libertarian. Meyer had reviewed The Conservative Mind dismissively as crypto-socialism. Kirk had reviewed Meyer’s libertarian What Is Conservatism? contemptuously as nothing but an ideological tract. To put it mildly, they hated each other. But both contributed valuably to NR, and Buckley kept them aboard as contributors with his magnanimity and his pleasure at being the impresario of a good show.
Willmoore Kendall, a brilliant political philosopher, interpreter of our constitutional tradition, and disciple of Leo Strauss, had been an influential professor for Buckley at Yale. He was so difficult a personality that the Yale administration”an amazing fact”had bought out his tenure contract for thousands of dollars.
James Burnham quarreled politically with William Rusher. In domestic politics, Burnham saw Nelson Rockefeller as compatible with conservative anticommunism. Rockefeller was strong on national defense, and certainly anticommunist. Burnham did not loathe, as Rusher did, the Eastern Republican establishment (Rockefeller-Eisenhower) and would have been content to be on its conservative edge. Rusher, on the other hand, wanted to displace the Eastern establishment and in 1963-4 was a principal architect of the Goldwater movement. When Goldwater defeated Rockefeller in California in 1964 and became the nominee, the fate of the Republican Party was set. Goldwater carried only six states”all in the Deep South”and ever since the party has looked southward for its core support. Rusher had prevailed over Burnham for the foreseeable future. And the GOP would be a different party entirely without, for example, its libertarian leaven and evangelical base south of the Mason-Dixon. Goldwater had accomplished this in 1964, ironically to be sure, because Goldwater himself was a Western individualist who leaned libertarian and later spoke of the Rev. Jerry Falwell in terms suitable to a barracks.
Without Buckley it never could have happened. As Boswell said at the end of his Life of Johnson, he has left a gap which nothing can fill up.
Jeffrey Hart is a long-time senior editor at National Review and Professor Emeritus of English at Dartmouth University. He is the author of 10 books, including The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.