Death of an Old Guard


The "scourge of liberalism", as the American historian Arthur M Schlesinger Jr once called him, is dead. According to accounts, William F Buckley Jr died in his study in Stamford, Connecticut on 27 February. As one of America’s best known conservative commentators, Buckley was prolific: an editor for almost half a century and a writer of both political tracts and novels.

Buckley’s writings had greatest effect in the political field. He ruminated over a style of conservatism that fed into the presidential candidacy of Barry Goldwater in 1964. Goldwater’s defeat to Lyndon Johnson did little to deter Buckley. The National Review magazine, which he founded in 1955, became the avenue of assault on liberalism in America. His column ‘On the Right’ offered readers a punchy, polemical style which led to its national syndication in 1962. In 1966, he stepped further into the national limelight with Firing Line, a television program featuring gladiatorial contests between conservatives and liberals.

Buckley never quite departed from the anti-liberal manifesto that became God and Man at Yale. A fresh but angry graduate of Yale University, he penned a philosophy on the assassination of the institution at the mercy of liberal, secular ideologues. The roots of his matricide lay in a faith he had nourished since his days in a Jesuit-run boarding school in Old Windsor in the 1930. His sense of elitism and moral outrage were further developed as a member of Yale’s Skull and Bones Society, to which he was admitted in 1950.

Yale might as well have been his template for what America was becoming, in his eyes: a country of eroding liberties and declining faith. Growing government, with rising public expenditure, and the brooding shadow of President Franklin D Roosevelt’s New Deal, did much to excite his anger. Conversations with the economist Milton Friedman over skiing ventures in Alta, Utah would have reinforced his core beliefs: social welfare is ill-fare; God is a political minimalist; and grand international schemes such as the United Nations were corrupt ventures doomed to failure.

Exiling God from society was a tendency he shunned, and he spent most of his life bringing faith and small government back from political exile. The Reagan coalition of the 1980s, with its noisy evangelicals, trenchant individualists, and bellicose nationalists, did much to satisfy Buckley’s vision. Reagan, in turn, had many a good thing to say about Buckley, calling him a "clipboard-bearing Galahad". President George Bush Jr could do little to improve on that, suggesting that Buckley had been one of the "finest writers and thinkers" in the US.

A stint in the Central Intelligence Service, working directly under Howard Hunt, did much to engender the character of Blackford Oakes, the protagonist of Buckley’s spy novel series. Oakes was a poor man’s James Bond – an Ivy-League response to Oxbridge espionage prowess. Buckley himself was something of a downsized Ian Fleming. Still, a novel such as Stained Glass, featuring the drama between the German politician Count Alex Wintergrin and Oakes, offers readers more than just a passing thrill.

His politics tended to be the politics of meanness, a pugilistic approach that emphasised the individual valour of the chequebook. His criticism of the toiling poor came from a luxury measured by five boats, an extensive wine cellar and regular ski trips to Switzerland. The growing poor of America were deaf to his taunts, even as the New Deal’s programs were being dismantled like a child’s Lego set. Welfare recipients, as he suggested in his policy platform for the 1965 mayoral elections in New York, would be banished from the city’s environs.

Some fellow conservatives did not have the luxury of being deaf to his politics. The Russian born émigré Ayn Rand was abused and hounded after the publication her weighty Atlas Shrugged. Buckley joined such observers as Whittaker Chambers in giving the book a pasting through the conduit of the National Review. (Chamber’s review was re-run on 5 January 2005 in a 50th anniversary issue of the magazine.)

Despite excoriating Rand and savaging his long-time rival of the left, the novelist and critic Gore Vidal, Buckley could be generous. He fostered an army of protégés, not all of the same political inclination. One of them, Joan Didion, would, once leaving National Review, contribute to the New York Review of Books – a publication usually less than sympathetic with the belligerent crankiness of Buckley’s.

He could also surprise commentators with the odd swerve on policy: he would one day defend Jim Crow segregation in the South as justifiable, but drop it a decade later. He also supported the decriminalistion of marijuana during the Reagan Administration’s ‘war on drugs’; smoking it may have been harmful, he surmised, but it hardly deserved a jail sentence.

To see Buckley in action was to see a very distinct American at work: making money in an environment freed of government constraint, achieving power and worshipping God were all fine, even patriotic, attributes.

The ‘Sermon on the Mount’ (Matthew 6:24) makes the case that it is impossible to serve two masters – God and Mammon tend to deserve an exclusive flock. Buckley managed both pursuits rather well. As, for that matter, does America.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.