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Conservatism’s First Family

The Buckleys are best known for Bill—William F. Buckley Jr., founder of National Review, author of 56 books, and one-time quixotic New York City mayoral candidate. But there is more to this family beyond its most famous son. He was sixth of a brood of ten: preceding him were Aloïse, author of short stories and considered “maybe the most talented literarily” by her siblings; John, the firstborn son who followed his father into the oil business; Priscilla, a journalist for the United Press and long-time managing editor of National Review; James, who became a United States senator and recently published a memoir, Gleanings from an Unplanned Life; and Jane, the rebellious one who refused to write, save for one article on quitting smoking. After Bill came Patricia, collaborator with her husband L. Brent Bozell in the Catholic magazine Triumph; Reid, founder of the Buckley School of Public Speaking and writer of novels as well as this family history; Maureen, who imposed order on NR’s subscriptions department; and Carol, the youngest by five years—20 years younger than Aloïse—and author of the memoir At the Still Point. Between them they produced some 50 grandchildren for William F. Buckley Sr. and his wife Aloïse Steiner Buckley.

These children and their achievements testify to the character of Will and Aloïse. The parents were not writers, so the task falls to Reid—borrowing here and there from works by his siblings—to tell the story of the patriarch who established conservatism’s first family and the wife and mother whose faith sustained them all. “Mother’s and Father’s imprint on their children,” writes Reid, “… reveal their personalities more comprehensively than is possible in straightforward biography, which (a straightforward anything) I am incapable of writing.” The clan’s credo is summed up in a phrase Reid cites on several occasions: “that ‘God, family, and country,’ in that order, demanded our unswerving loyalty…”

Will Buckley was born in 1881, in the small Texas town of Washington de los Brazos. His father, John Buckley, was a sheriff and close acquaintance of Pat Garrett. Will became a lawman of a different sort: after studying law at “the university”—the University of Texas at Austin—he struck out for Mexico to seek his fortune, first as an attorney, then as an oilman. He prospered, though the country was in the midst of a long, tortuous revolution. Mexico was the last frontier of the Wild West, with enough bandits, ruthless businessmen, and political tumult to populate a dozen Sergio Leone films. And Will was in the thick of things. While entrusted “to deliver the payroll of a big U.S. company” by train, Will encountered the bandit-revolutionary Pancho Villa, who threatened to shoot the conductor unless the hapless railway official turned over the gold. Will came forward to say that he, not the conductor, had hidden the money. Villa admired courage and was sufficiently impressed with Will to let them live. He invited Ojos Azules—blue-eyed “Guillermo” Buckley—to come see him some time.

Will did just that. In December 1914, as Villa and Emiliano Zapata celebrated the fall of Mexico City with a banquet for their troops, Will burst into the celebration, furious. “I have no idea what incident had occurred,” Reid reports, “but Father was mad, truly angry, and, I surmise, to a self-imperiling degree, out of control.” What did Will Buckley want? “You can keep your men off of my property,” he told Villa, “Because the next time one of your men puts his foot on my property, he will be shot.” With all the revolutionary firepower in the room, Will was more likely to be gunned down himself. But once again, Villa saluted his courage and granted his wish.

Pancho Villa was not the only Mexican with abiding respect for Will Buckley. The American had a reputation for fairness and incorruptibility, so much so that after he refused to take part in Woodrow Wilson’s occupation of Veracruz—the U.S. president had offered to make Will the city’s civil governor—Mexican leader Victoriano Huerta appointed him counsel for Mexico’s delegation at the ensuing peace conference. Five years later, in 1919, Will testified before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Mexican Affairs, “delivering a scathing denunciation of Wilsonian interference in the business of other nations, of Wilsonian ignorance, provincialism, and bias, and self-righteousness.” As Reid relates, Will told the senators that the U.S. diplomat who convinced Wilson to send Marines to Veracruz was “typical of the provincial American, who in need of civilization himself, seeks to civilize the rest of the world.”

Will was a staunch noninterventionist. “Father most likely would have opposed both the Afghanistan and Iraq adventures unless he was convinced that they were necessary for national defense,” Reid believes. “Our sire would have been inclined to this attitude from Washington’s Farewell Address, too, but it was in Mexico that he was confirmed in his isolationism.” The senior Buckley thought, in his son’s words, that “Americans tend to be well-meaning democratic ideologues who wish to impose their principles of self-government on nations whose societies either are not ready for self-government or are outright hostile to it.” Reid sympathizes with his father’s philosophy up to a point: “Just as Americans should have been suspicious of, and should have opposed, the utopianism of Woodrow Wilson, so should Americans be wary and skeptical of the goodhearted Christian simplicity of George Bush II, who is as provincial as Wilson before him.”

But Reid does not fully agree with his father. The son says of his generation, “Pearl Harbor and the Soviet Union made us interventionists,” and Reid disagrees with his brother Bill’s 2006 characterization of the Iraq War as a “failed enterprise.” Even so, an echo of Will’s noninterventionism and antistatism resounds when Reid refers to “our gruesome war in Vietnam” and writes, “though … we may not be able to resist or avoid government encroachment on the private sphere in all respects, especially concerning national security, we must never not resent it, and we must remember to despise it.” Will went further, forthrightly opposing U.S. militarism. “He acted always according to his principles,” says his son, “which were deeply American, deeply independent, isolationist, self-reliant, distrustful of all government, and profoundly Catholic.”

An American living in Mexico cannot properly be called an isolationist, of course, and as an individual, Buckley lent support to one of Mexico’s political factions—the Cristeros, who opposed the murderous anticlericalist elments of the revolution. For this, Will Buckley was declared persona non grata in 1921 and forced to leave the country at once. He lost nearly everything—his property, his oil concessions, but thankfully not his young and growing family.

Will had married Aloïse Steiner of New Orleans, a devout Catholic of Swiss descent, in 1917. The family lived in London and Paris for a few years, while Will sought financing for new ventures, before settling in Sharon, Connecticut, where they purchased a “huge pre-Revolutionary farmhouse called Great Elm.” These were comparatively lean years for the Buckleys. Will bought such an impressive home because he knew that it would reassure investors, or at least create the impression that he was a man of independent means. But money was tight, and Will had yet to find oil in new concessions in Venezuela when the Great Depression struck. His prospecting had been so unfruitful that on Wall Street he earned the nickname “Dry Hole Buckley.”

The children loved Great Elm, with its rolling lawns on which they could lie and daydream endlessly. But Aloïse Steiner Buckley was lonely. Her husband worked in New York City throughout the week, and as a Southerner and a Catholic she was doubly a stranger in WASP New England. She entertained marvelously at Great Elm, but to the town bluenoses there was something suspect about the Buckley family, with its “excessive … number of rambunctious children,” its “exotic houseguests ranging from Mexican statesmen to revolutionary ex-governors resembling the Hollywood stereotype of Pancho Villa bandits with their brown skins and thick black mustachios,” and “Will Buckley’s shocking contempt for Wall Street, for Wilson, for Roosevelt … and for all those other respectable totems of those days…”

Rescue for Aloïse came in the form of a summer home called Kamschatka in Camden, South Carolina. The Buckleys bought the house after Will struck oil again, at long last, in 1939. Camden was and is, according to Reid, a place of archetypal Southern charm: “among its important characteristics are reverence for tradition, a prickly sense of honor, pride of family, disdain for riches, and a tolerance for—a glorying in—eccentricity. This must have particularly attracted my father, as it did me.” Catholics may not have been plentiful, but the religious and social climate was welcoming. “The people of Camden were churchgoing,” Reid recalls, “but their attitude toward religion might be described as an easy familiarity in contrast to the strict censoriousness of New England.” For Aloïse, Camden was “the end of exile and a coming home.” For the children, however, “Camden was awful.” Lying on the grass there was an invitation to be “bitten by ants, pricked by cactus, lanced by scorpions, stung by spiders, infested by fleas, or hooked by those incredibly sharp sandspurs that were everywhere.” But in time the Buckley sons and daughters came to love Kamschatka.

The vignettes of life at Great Elm and Kamschatka that occupy the latter half of An American Family are no less delightful, if inevitably less dramatic, than the tales of Will Buckley’s adventures in Mexico. The final third of the book strikes a bittersweet chord, juxtaposing these happy days and the maturation of the Buckley children with the aging and death of their parents. Will Buckley died in 1958, aged 77. Aloïse, 14 years younger than her husband, survived him by 27 years, outliving two of her daughters: “she endured with unshakable faith the terrible blows of the deaths of Maureen, at age thirty-one … and then five years later of Allie, at age forty-eight, her firstborn child.” Son John also died a year before her. Buoying Aloïse’s spirits in these late years was her sister Inez, not just kin but a kindred spirit. Reid relates a charming story of the time he unthinkingly invited the two of them to lunch with a dangerous man—Norman Mailer. But the literary bad boy was a model of courtliness with Mrs. Buckley and her sister, even escorting them home from the restaurant where they had met. Afterwards, a disarmed Mailer exclaimed to Reid, “You conservatives always have a f—–g ace in the hole, don’t you!” Reid regarded Mailer fondly ever after.

These are twilight years for the children of Will and Aloïse, and a tone of elegy overtakes An American Family in its last pages. In the past two years, death has taken Bill, Patricia, and Jane Buckley, and James’s wife Ann was paralyzed in an automobile accident. Reid not only laments the toll mortality has taken on his family but the inexorable decline of the principles for which the family fought. He refers to “the conservative (now lost) cause” and writes, “Our parents were the product of a nation that has vanished, and we, their children, have manned the ramparts in defense of that ghost. From this standpoint, our existences have been futile, our works folly.”

Offsetting the gloom somewhat are Reid’s closing lines: “We loved and did our best to honor our parents. We love one another. Our children are a joy to us. And for the rest, we trust in Christ and Christ’s promises. How lucky we have been!” An American Family gives proof of that enduring bond. It also supplies greater cause for hope than Reid might realize. Will Buckley’s America may be no more, but his character sets an example every bit as compelling today as when he lived. Should even a few Americans take the ethos of Will Buckley to heart after reading this book, the old Republic may yet have a chance.

The American Conservative welcomes letters to the editor.
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about the author

Daniel McCarthy is the editor of Modern Age: A Conservative Review, and Editor-at-Large of The American Conservative. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, USA Today, The Spectator, The National Interest, Reason, and many other publications. Outside of journalism he has worked as internet communications coordinator for the Ron Paul 2008 presidential campaign and as senior editor of ISI Books. He is a graduate of Washington University in St. Louis, where he studied classics. Follow him on Twitter.

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