Standing Athwart History | William F. Buckley, Jr.

“I am obliged to confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”

— William F. Buckley, National Review Mission Statement, November 19, 1955 —

As we discussed in last week’s episode, the Great Depression led to a fundamental transformation of one of America’s two political parties and a revolution in the American political order. The Democratic Party under Franklin Roosevelt embraced the concept of a “welfare state” that sought to protect Americans from the ups and downs of market capitalism using the power of government. As has been said before, Fifteen-Minute History takes no position when it comes to political questions, and this must be restated here. Today, in the second series on American political philosophy, we will discuss the man who led the charge to define modern American conservatism, the political opposite to progressive liberalism.

William F. Buckley is not a well-known figure to most Americans today, but his impact is felt everywhere, from the halls of Congress and the White House to talk radio and the Fox News Channel. It was Buckley who saw the need to unite various factions within the conservative movement into a coherent social and political force to, as he put it, “stand athwart history yelling ‘Stop.’” Buckley was born in New York City in 1925 and educated in Paris and London.

He came late to the English language, first learning both French and Spanish, and this contributed to both his idiosyncratic accent and vast vocabulary. He attended Yale University, where he learned the art of debate and became a master of argument (a skill he put to great use in his many public and television appearances). In 1951 he joined the Central Intelligence Agency, and he began his writing career that same year. His first book quickly defined his image with the American public.

God and Man at Yale

As a student at Yale, William F. Buckley was concerned that the school was imposing what he called a “collectivist, Keynesian, and secularist ideology” upon its students. Rather than embracing the traditional role of the university and encouraging open dialogue and free thought, Buckley asserted that modern American education was an exercise in forcing students to adopt progressive beliefs regardless of how they had been raised. Having grown up in a conservative Catholic family, Buckley resented how his professors had tried to break down his religious faith and questioned the existence of God rather than encouraging individual intellectual growth by asking questions—as had been common in Western education since the time of Socrates.

God and Man at Yale landed in the American academic world like a bombshell. When it was first published, most intellectuals believed its initial popularity would fade, but it touched a nerve within middle America, especially among parents who listened to their children’s talks around the Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner tables when on holiday from university. They saw how their offspring had drifted away from the traditions of their youth, and God and Man at Yale helped these parents understand why.

Buckley continued to provoke strong reactions in his writings. His second book, McCarthy and His Enemies, defended the controversial Wisconsin senator as he pursued communist infiltrators within the American government during the so-called “Red Scare.” Throughout the 1960s, his books attacked the liberal order and the welfare state, and while they seldom earned favorable reviews from his East Coast peers or the academic world, they sold hundreds of thousands of copies and demonstrated that Buckley’s views were shared by more than just a handful of archaic conservatives in the segregated South and rural West.

National Review

Buckley was not the only conservative intellectual writing in the 1950s. A professor at Michigan State, Russell Kirk, published The Conservative Mind in 1953, in which he outlined the history of American conservatism and traced its modern principles to what he believed were their roots in the American founding. The Conservative Mind provided a detailed, academic description of conservatism, but amidst the storm of criticism it sparked from academia, the message was lost to average Americans, who found Kirk’s emphasis on wordy quotations from long-dead statesmen like Edmund Burke and John Adams difficult to apply to the modern world. There remained a vacuum in American society for conservative opinions, and William F. Buckley was determined to fill it.

National Review “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” These words, written by Buckley in the Mission Statement for National Review magazine in 1955, were the opening volley in the literary movement to define conservatism for average Americans. As founder and editor of the magazine, Buckley brought together a group of contributors to write for him, many of whom disagreed with each other (and with their employer). Buckley looked for men and women who could express the principles of conservatism in clear, unambiguous terms and translate them into applicable precepts for their readers. Some writers, like Russell Kirk and the Catholic intellectual Brent Bozell (Buckley’s brother-in-law), pushed the traditional conservative message of faith and family; libertarians such as Frank Meyer argued for a limited government which acted only under the Constitution; and the anti-Communist Whittaker Chambers translated his experiences with American communism into a warning that, in his opinion, liberals were drifting toward socialism with their policies.

Buckley used his magazine to explain how conservative principles could be put into action in the United States. He also set limits on how one would define an American conservative: “It is the job of centralized government (in peacetime) to protect its citizens' lives, liberty and property. All other activities of government tend to diminish freedom and hamper progress.” His call back to the principles in the Declaration of Independence meant that, in Buckley’s view, certain people and groups who called themselves “conservative” actually were not. For example, Buckley explicitly denounced anti-Semitism and racism, as well as white supremacists like George Wallace, the segregationist Alabama governor who ran for president four times during Buckley’s lifetime. He also opposed the John Birch Society, a collection of authoritarian rightwingers who supported fascism in their efforts to slow the spread of communism around the world, and he rejected the ultra-libertarian philosophy of Objectivism and its patron saint, Ayn Rand (author of, among other works, Atlas Shrugged).

However, Buckley’s strong stance on the Constitution and its endorsement of states’ rights led to a great deal of controversy during the Civil Rights Era. Buckley and National Review supported segregationists and defended their views as consistent with the Constitution—though the magazine did urge southern states to permit African-Americans to vote without paying poll taxes or taking literacy tests. In 1957, Buckley wrote that whites in the South “had the right to impose superior mores for whatever period it takes to effect a genuine cultural equality between the races.” In effect, he was saying that temporary segregation was beneficial because black

Americans lacked the cultural and educational sophistication of whites. Buckley’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell broke with National Review on this issue, and during the 1960s the magazine softened its tone on civil rights as white supremacists brutalized African-Americans who were seeking equality. Buckley admitted later in life that he wished he had been more sympathetic to the civil rights movement, and he encouraged his readers to write to Congress in support of the creation of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day as a national holiday. Nevertheless, he still remains a controversial figure when it comes to questions of race in America.

National Review has endorsed many presidential candidates since its founding, always the “most rightward viable candidate” (what is now known as the “Buckley Rule”). Most famously, National Review supported Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona in his challenge to President Lyndon Johnson in 1964, which Goldwater lost in a landslide. Many at the magazine were drawn to the actor Ronald Reagan, who gave a televised speech in support of Goldwater during the campaign, and Reagan (a National Review subscriber) soon came to embody the conservative philosophy it espoused. When Reagan challenged Gerald Ford in 1976, Buckley and National Review supported his insurgency, and they were overjoyed four years later when Reagan was elected president. The Reagan years saw National Review reach its peak in subscribers and influence. It supported much of Reagan’s agenda, was regularly cited in the president’s speeches, and its contributors often came to the White House for both policy briefings and public events. In the years since 1988, National Review has continued to promote traditional conservative positions, criticizing Bill Clinton’s welfare programs, supporting George W. Bush’s War on Terror and tax cuts, and opposing Barack Obama’s national healthcare plans. The magazine opposed Donald Trump in 2016, endorsing Senator Ted Cruz in the Republican primary, and it continues to hold President Trump’s feet to the fire whenever his actions stray from traditional conservative ideology.

Firing Line

William F. Buckley’s conservative voice earned him occasional spots on television throughout the 1950s and early 1960s as a commentator on world events. His relaxed posture, elegant accent and overpowering vocabulary were very popular with news consumers, and by 1966 he was a regular on CBS and NBC’s nightly news programs. In 1968, ABC hired Buckley to offer commentary on that year’s national conventions for the two political parties. As Buckley’s foil, ABC chose Gore Vidal, the controversial author and liberal intellectual. Buckley had once commented that he would never share a stage with Vidal, whose open homosexuality and liberal politics offended Buckley, but the two met and discussed the conventions in a (mostly) civilized manner. However, during an exchange on the violence of the Chicago police during the Democratic convention on August 28, 1968, Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi.” Visibly angered, Buckley lost his usual calm demeanor. He rose from his chair several inches and retorted, “Now listen, you (beep), stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your (beep) face, and you’ll stay plastered.” Vidal had told his friends he hoped to anger Buckley on national television and thus disgrace him before his conservative fans, and he had gotten his wish. Historians point to this moment, which saw a massive audience reaction both for and against Buckley, as the beginning of modern political debate shows on television. Buckley was ashamed of his actions, but his feud with Vidal continued, and the two men traded barbs in print and interviews for the rest of their lives.

In 1966, Buckley began to host his own TV talk show called Firing Line. Broadcast first on a local New York television station and then nationally on PBS, Firing Line ran for 34 seasons with more than fifteen hundred episodes in all. The show typically brought liberal academics or politicians on to debate Buckley, who always remained calm—he had learned his lesson with Vidal. When he did jab his opponents, he was always polite, for example when he asked his liberal friend Mark Green during their 100th appearance together on the show, “Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything yet?” Firing Line occasionally had non-political figures on to discuss American culture or current events. Two of the most memorable shows featured the boxing champion Muhammad Ali discussing black nationalism and the poet Alan Ginsburg giving his views on hippie and drug culture. Firing Line also hosted formal debates between presidential candidates moderated by Buckley, as well as political or cultural debates in which Buckley always led the affirmative team. Firing Line showed America that its political and intellectual leaders could engage in civil debate with the other side rather than shouting talking points at each other.

As cable television grew in popularity in the 1980s and Firing Line began to compete with CNN’s Crossfire, its ratings began to decline. When the Fox News Channel debuted in 1996, America found newer, louder voices for conservative talk on television from the likes of Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity. Buckley and his producer Warren Steibel ultimately canceled Firing Line in December 1999, ending the longest-running television series with a single host in history. Nineteen years later, as the Trump era brought new rancor to political debate in America, PBS revived Firing Line with a new host, the Republican activist Margaret Hoover (great-granddaughter of President Herbert Hoover), and the show has maintained its founder’s format and characteristic of civilized debate.

Miles Gone By

In addition to his political works, William F. Buckley also published a series of spy novels featuring the fictional CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Drawing on his experiences with the CIA in the 1950s, he wrote eleven novels and a companion reader from 1976 to 2005. Buckley also wrote other fictional works as well as an autobiography, Miles Gone By, published in 2004. Buckley grew wary of the conservative movement’s embrace of nation-building and domestic spying in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and The American Conservative magazine wrote that “at the end of his life, Buckley believed that the movement he had made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.” (Of course, Buckley’s criticism of Republican orthodoxy was nothing new—he had broken with the party in the 1990s by writing a book advocating for an end to the drug war and the legalization of marijuana.)

In March 2000, as the year’s presidential campaign was heating up, Buckley published an article in Cigar Aficionado titled “Politics—The Demagogues are Running.” In it he criticized several candidates for appealing not to political ideology to earn votes but rather giving the people whatever they wanted, regardless of the benefit to the country. He blasted Bill Bradley for his borderline-socialist policies (the New Jersey senator was running to the left of Al Gore in the Democratic primary) and Republican Steve Forbes for trying to buy the nomination from George W. Bush. Interestingly, he also shared his thoughts on a man who was considering running on the Reform Party ticket: “What about the aspirant who has a private vision to offer to the public and has the means, personal or contrived, to finance a campaign? In some cases, the vision isn't merely a program to be adopted. It is a program that includes the visionary's serving as President. Look for the narcissist. The most obvious target in today's lineup is, of course, Donald Trump. When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America. But whatever the depths of self-enchantment, the demagogue has to say something. So what does Trump say? That he is a successful businessman and that that is what America needs in the Oval Office. There is some plausibility in this, though not much. The greatest deeds of American Presidents—midwifing the new republic; freeing the slaves; harnessing the energies and vision needed to win the Cold War—had little to do with a bottom line. So what else can Trump offer us?”

On February 27, 2008, William F. Buckley was found dead in his study. He had died of a heart attack while suffering from emphysema and diabetes. His wife Patricia had predeceased him, and he was survived by his son Christopher. Tributes to his leadership of the conservative movement poured out across the airwaves, and a man who had shaped his country’s intellectual climate for half a century was laid to rest in a simple plot of earth in Sharon, CT, next to his wife.