Two years after his death, William F. Buckley, Jr., the ultimate conservative man of letters, still has a lot to teach the young and the rightward. In turn, there is no better person to pass on these lessons than the man who has become the preeminent historian of the conservative movement—Lee Edwards.
Edwards, a senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, relays the insights that can be gleaned from the National Review founder’s life and work in his invaluable new book, William F. Buckley, Jr.: The Maker Of A Movement. For one thing, the much-noted current disarray of the Conservative movement is nothing new.
“But after twenty often frustrating years of building a conservative alternative to the liberal establishment, Buckley could not help wondering what there was to lead,” Edwards writes of his subject in the 1970s. “In a November 1975 interview, a saturnine Buckley said: ‘As of this moment [the movement] is going nowhere.’”
“Buckley described in detail the leftward tilt of Western civilization, led by American capitalists ‘fleeing into the protective arms of the government at the least hint of commercial difficulty.’” The eerie parallels to today’s economy also jump off the page at you.
When the sage of Sharon passed away, liberal pundits rushed into print to proclaim Buckley as a model of civility that modern-day conservatives should emulate. To be sure, by all accounts, Buckley’s innate graciousness and decency was apparent in all he said and did.
Nonetheless, Buckley pulled no punches in making political points. “Henry Wallace’s third-party 1948 campaign for the presidency inspired him to take direct political action,” Edwards informs us. “Although Wallace had little chance of winning the election, he was pro-Soviet and anti-anti-Communist, sufficient reason for Buckley to lead a protest against Wallace’s appearance in the New Haven area.”
“Buckley, his sisters Patricia and Jane, and several of his friends dressed up as ultraleftists—the girls wore dark suits and no makeup, the boys dark suits, loud ties, and greased hair—and carried signs saying, ‘Let’s Prove We Want Peace—Give Russia the Atom Bomb.’”
To be sure, Buckley was a mere lad of 23 at the time, yet, as Edwards shows, turning 30 and even passing it did not make him any the more sanguine towards the Soviets when the Soviet premier visited the United States. “Buckley was so outraged by the Krushchev invitation that, with the help of conservative impresario Marvin Liebman, he formed the Committee Against Summit Entanglements (CASE),” Edwards relates. “He threatened to dye the Hudson River red so that when the Soviet dictator entered New York in 1960 to visit the United Nations, it would be on a ‘river of blood.’”
As well, Edwards brings to life the conflict between the committed Catholic Buckley and the adamantly atheist Ayn Rand. “When Buckley first met Rand, her first words to him, heavily accented by her native Russian tongue, were, ‘You ahrr too intelligent to believe in Gott,’” Edwards writes. “For the next two to three years, Buckley sent the Russian-born writer postcards in liturgical Latin.”
“But levity with Miss Rand was not an effective weapon,” Buckley later wrote. Edwards is the author or editor of 20 books including biographies of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan.
His latest is published by ISI books, a project of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. ISI, in turn, is one of many groups that Buckley helped start.
Edwards, a veteran writer, published his first article in National Review. Buckley’s first published article appeared in Human Events, the venerable national conservative weekly newspaper now published by Phillips Publishing.
Malcolm A. Kline is the Executive Director of Accuracy in Academia.