February 28, 2008
William F. Buckley Jr. might have allowed the neoconservative tendency in through the gates at NR, but he never quite surrendered to its charms”opposing, eventually, the war in Iraq and never evincing any kind of “democratist” sentiments. This is worth remembering while reading the gushing eulogies coming from the old and new guard of the neocon brain trust.
Norman Podhoretz, for instance, reminisces of his days as an assistant editor at Commentary in the 50s when he scored a big coup hiring Dwight MacDonald, the Trotskyist/cold warrior/theorist of the “68ers, to write a hit piece on Buckley and NR. Podhoretz remembers being displeased with the piece, entitled “Scrambled Eggheads on the Right,” not because he saw much of intellectual value in NR, but because MacDonald had failed to appreciate that Buckley was a great prose stylist.
Podhoretz admits that he’s still at odds with Buckley, only now, in his mind, the tables have turned:
Amazingly, [Buckley] is nowadays in the position of trying to forgive me for holding views to the right of his own on what some of us call World War IV. Conversely, I keep trying to open his eyes to the truths of the Bush Doctrine, now that those eyes have been dimmed, though thankfully not altogether blinded, by certain ideas stemming from the so-called realist school of thought. Mirabile dictu, as he might say of this bizarre reversal of roles. [emphasis in the original]
Ah yes, dedication to “ending tyranny in our time” while struggling against “Islamofascism” and bringing democracy to Babylon are truly the regalia of a real right-winger. When I mentioned this passage to my friend Paul Gottfried, he noted that it’s probably more accurate to say that Podhoretz is now to the left of Leon Trotsky.
Furthermore, it’s difficult to know to whom exactly Podhoretz is referring in his “realist school of thought” comment. Burnham? whose geopolitics were based on cold-hearted “facts and analysis,” but who actually sought “roll back” in the Cold War and the liberation of central and Eastern Europe? Perhaps Kissinger? even though Buckley and NR were hardly supportive of his dÃ©tente policy, with Kissinger’s acceptance of the Soviet sphere of influence and his cozying up to Mao.
I imagine that, in the end, “the so-called realist school of thought” is simply a place holder for anyone not thoroughly obsessed with the Middle East and who doesn’t view endless wars there as inherently in the national interest.
Of course, Norman should be commended for pointing out the actual differences he has with Buckley and the NR tradition. His own progeny, and much of the neocon 2nd generation, usually make due with simply mouthing some conservative-movement bromides. And so we learn from John Podhoretz that one of Buckley’s great virtues was his “commitment to the notion that social experiments are very dangerous things indeed.”
I wonder how Podhoretz fils thinks our wonderful social experiment on the Euphrates is going? Dangerous? A bit costly perhaps?
Contra Podhoretz pÃ¨re, Buckley was never blinded by a surfeit of realism.
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In this classic clip, Buckley pokes fun at the very notion of an “ideal president”””we don”t live in Camelot but in the good ol” USA and that’s all right, Jack, at least all right by me.” He praises Switzerland as the “best run country in world””right in the heart of Europe with a proud federalist tradition, a model for a USA in which people are allowed “to dream dreams without any reference at all to the man that occupies the White House.”
These are not the words of the author of Bush Country about the American heartland’s love affair with their great visionary leader.
Buckely might have overseen the neocons ascendancy at NR, but he shared none of their instincts.