Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement,Richard Brookhiser, Basic Books, 277 pages
By Jeffrey Hart
This book, beautifully written and a delight to read, represents an important contribution to the history of National Review and of the modern American conservative movement of which Bill Buckley was the architect and National Review the inspiration and the guide.
Of course, I read this book with particular interest, especially the gossip, as I was a participant in the magazine. My involvement with National Review began in 1963 with book reviews. I became a senior editor in 1969, after being a speechwriter in 1968 first for Reagan in Sacramento and then for Nixon in his successful race for the presidency. While I worked for Nixon at his Manhattan headquarters, Buckley put me up at the New York Yacht Club.
Richard (Rick) Brookhiser contributed his first article to National Review the same year I became a senior editor. In 1969, he was still a high-school freshman in upstate New York. The article dealt with the imitative character of anti-Vietnam war protesters at his high school. (“The moratorium’s supporters at Irondequoit High,” he recalls, “presented themselves as dissidents, but they were tagging along with a national movement, mimicking their elders.”) Not only was the piece published, it was the magazine’s cover story, and Rick received a check for $180. His career was launched—first as a journalist, later also as the author of several books on 18th-century American statesmen, including Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington, Alexander Hamilton: American, America’s First Dynasty: The Adamses, and Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouvernor Morris.
In 1955, when Buckley put together the senior editorial staff of National Review, he sought people of independent achievement and reputation. James Burnham (Princeton, Balliol, CIA, professor of philosophy at NYU, editorial board of Partisan Review) was the most important intellectual force on the magazine. Others included Russell Kirk, who had published The Conservative Mind in 1953, and Willmoore Kendall, a Yale professor who was an important Straussian political philosopher and a “majority rule” conservative. Frank Meyer, who would become the magazine’s literary editor, had been a leading Communist theoretician before his break with the party. Serious disagreements, even personal hostilities, existed among these senior people. Meyer and Kirk hated each other—Kirk declined to be a senior editor because Meyer was on the masthead, but did contribute a valuable column on education. Buckley was an impresario who enjoyed orchestrating them all, as long as they were civil, more or less.
Rick Brookhiser, still a senior editor of National Review, is the only senior figure at the magazine to maintain that tradition of achievement beyond the magazine itself.
I was surprised to learn from this book that when Buckley planned a long ocean voyage on his yacht Cyrano, as he later told Rick, “he had arranged that Jeff would take over [the magazine] in the event that he sank. But that would not apply to the future.” If I had become editor of National Review that might have meant moving to New York. I certainly would not have left my tenured professorship at Dartmouth to edit the magazine. The idea was impossible. Yet it was characteristic of Buckley that this apparently did not occur to him. In such matters he tended to have tunnel vision.
He told Rick that this “would not apply to the future” because he intended to designate Rick himself, then only 23, as his successor. An excellent idea. But Buckley later rescinded that, observing that Rick lacked the administrative ability to oversee the operation of the magazine. I strongly disagree.
The complex relationship between Brookhiser and Buckley animates Right Time, Right Place. But there is one area where I disagree with Rick’s interpretation of his mentor. He criticizes Buckley for maintaining toward the end of his life that the Iraq War had been a disaster. But Buckley was right, and his judgment was in line with the best conservative thought. Consider Burke, whose analysis can be applied to Iraq. What is the core of Burke’s understanding of politics? In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Burke demonstrates two important things:
1. A large percentage of human activity is performed by habit. If you tried to tie your shoes every morning by reason you would never get out of the house. And,
2. Social institutions are the habits of society.
In Iraq, with the goal of nation-building and democratization, President Bush attempted to revolutionize the institutions of society. He failed. As then Secretary of State Colin Powell (with reference to the rules of the Pottery Barn) told President Bush as he prepared to invade Iraq, “You break it, you own it.” Yes, Bush broke Iraq, and now we own it.
During the Cold War, the old National Review never subscribed to nation-building. As Rick recalls, “One of the easiest ways to raise a laugh in our editorial section was to refer to democracy in Africa or South America (the Buckley family’s experience of Mexico disposed Bill to expect little there).” Buckley applied this stance to Iraq. But Rick has adopted a different view: in today’s world “we could not play defense, and the offensive would have to be more than military. It would have to involve … transforming the world.”
Rick argues that the Iraq adventure has been a success—got rid of Saddam, we had the purple-finger voting. Oddly, he thinks Saddam had something to do with the 1993 bomb that went off in the World Trade Center. Rick does not address the mountain of lies about WMD that were used to sell the war. Nor does Rick—in fact this is not widely known—address the fact that Bush had decided to invade Iraq long before 9/11, as David Frum reveals in The Right Man.
It is unlikely that Iraq will be any kind of democracy. All indications are that the majority Shia will dominate the government, with a Shi’ite strongman attempting to establish and maintain order. Already Sunnis in Anbar province are threatening war in Baghdad. Iraq is still Iraq. Why would we expect it to have been transformed? Maybe we can hope. But we have exchanged Saddam, an enemy of Iran, for a likely Shi’ite autocrat allied with Iran—a strategic minus for the United States. During the 1980s we had supported Saddam in his long and costly war with Iran.
The cost of our Iraq war has been more than 4000 Americans dead, 25000 wounded, perhaps 200,000 Iraqis dead. In expenses, $1 trillion up front, in the future probably $3 trillion, as, for example, many of the wounded require permanent hospitalization and military equipment has to be replaced. Some success. When you add free-market fundamentalism and deregulation at home, the sound you hear is CRASH.
The star of National Review rose with the success of the conservative movement, which it had helped to shape from the beginning. Anti-communism was the glue that held the whole thing together, and the presidency of Ronald Reagan proved to be the apogee of the conservative movement. Now the movement has gone into eclipse. Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and author of the definitive biography of Whittaker Chambers, is working on a biography of Buckley. In the February 18, 2009 New Republic he wrote an important article titled “Conservatism is Dead.” The “conservatism” he refers to is not the analytical conservatism of Burke, which is permanently and comprehensively valid, but rather the ideology of the conservative movement. As Tanenhaus says:
After George W. Bush’s two terms, conservatives must reckon with the consequences of a presidency that has failed, in large part because of its fervent commitment to movement ideology: the aggressively unilateral foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive “culture war” waged against liberal “elites.” That these precepts should have found their final hapless defender in John McCain, who had resisted them for most of his long career, only confirms that movement doctrine retains an inflexible and suffocating grip on the GOP.
But both genuine conservatism and the Republican Party are bound to recover. The incumbent Democratic administration is still new and opportunities for effective opposition are almost certain to emerge, probably among Republican governors, who might offer effective solutions to real problems. Meanwhile, it is worth reflecting on contemporary conservatism as it was at its zenith. Rick Brookhiser is an excellent writer, and his new book provides an invaluable source of information about Bill Buckley’s National Review.
Jeffrey Hart is the author, most recently, of The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.