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Right at the End

William F. Buckley’s last gift to conservatism may have been his opposition to the Iraq War.

Soon after Bill Buckley died, William Kristol published a column called “The Indispensable Man” in the New York Times. He celebrated Buckley as the founder of the conservative movement, and his tone was not only celebratory but affectionate. And surely Kristol was right: Buckley was indispensable. Without his leadership there would have been no conservative movement. Yet at the end of his life, Buckley believed the movement he made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.

The central foreign policy initiative of the Bush administration had two rationales: eliminating Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction and, by establishing democracy in Iraq, turning the country into a beacon of liberty in the Middle East. Both National Review and Kristol’s Weekly Standard followed Bush on Iraq and continue to do so. But Kristol must have known that Buckley had grave doubts about the war.

Buckley published three syndicated columns about Iraq, all of which were reprinted in National Review. The first argued that it is doubtful that an effort “hugely greater in scale and more refined in conception” would produce the desired result. When no weapons of mass destruction were found, Buckley speculated that this rationale for the invasion, now discredited, would not matter if all ended well. But as the 2004 presidential election approached, he compared the evident quagmire to the French defeat by a brutal insurgency in Algeria.

In these pieces, Buckley diverged sharply from the generally optimistic view of Iraq taken by National Review. Kristol must have read these columns at the time but had perhaps forgotten them when he wrote his column about Buckley—or else dismissed them since the Weekly Standard still believes that the Iraq effort has been a success.

But the conviction hinted in the columns only hardened during the last year of Buckley’s life, when he arrived at a tragic view of the Iraq War. He saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement he had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide by failing to maintain critical distance from the Bush administration.

His entire life as a conservative leader lends authority to this judgment, which should stand as the final word of Mr. Conservative, so allow me to provide some impressions of Bill Buckley as I knew him.

* * *

Matthew Hart, the youngest of my four children, is Buckley’s godson and now lives near Lake Tahoe in California. When he heard that Buckley had died he sent me an e-mail:

I just wanted to send you my condolences about Mr. Buckley. I know you two have been friends for a really long time. He was always nice to me as a kid, and still wrote to me on my birthday up to my 20s. He didn’t have to but he did. It really shows class when someone like him takes time to engage us kids. He could have spent the time talking with adults who were around (and who probably wanted more of his time) but he didn’t. For some reason he seems like the type of person who doesn’t exist much any more. I’ll always have the memories of Switzerland and skiing with the A-team and being reminded not to pass the leader but [being] led off into some sort of gulch that we had to hike out of in three feet of snow. Well, what can you do? We did make it out after all. That’s what happens when you leave the trail I guess. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere…

Matthew was in Gstaad only once. I went several times beginning in the 1970s—I had been a senior editor at National Review since 1969—and a glimpse of life there provides a sense of the joi de vivre that was characteristic of Buckley’s life.

At Gstaad, the Buckley schedule ruled our social life, and it was always the same. We all skied in the morning while Buckley worked in his chalet on his latest literary project. Then all the skiers met for lunch at one bistro or another at the bottom of one of the mountains. After lunch, fortified by plenty of wine, we followed the leader to another mountain and skied there until the end of the day.

At the top of one mountain was a restaurant called the Sky Club, members only. One morning Buckley and I were skiing together, and he decided that we would have lunch at the club. As we were putting our skis on the rack outside, Buckley indicated an elderly man wearing a one-piece ski outfit a short distance away and whispered that he would tell me about him when we found a table.

Over lunch he said that he had stayed with this man, the Count von Something, in his castle in Germany to do some research for a novel he was writing. The first night they sat down in front of the fireplace and there, above the mantle, were life-size oil portraits of Josef Goebbels and Hermann Goering. Came the obvious question: Why were they there? “Because they were my godfathers,” said the Count. Oh.

Buckley’s chalet, which he leased annually, was an enormous place, located at the base of one of the mountains. You could finish a day by skiing right to the back door. On my first visit, I entered the front door of the chalet, which seemed the normal way to get in, but found myself in a large kitchen with a stone fireplace suitable for cooking meat on a spit. All it needed was a cook in a leather apron, preferably a dwarf.

On the second floor, the chalet had a large living room, also Buckley’s office, where he worked mornings, and his studio. He painted in oils when the spirit moved him—mountains, sailboats, unrecognizable portraits. Buckley had many talents in addition to being perhaps the most important journalist of his time, but to put it bluntly in the interest of truth, his paintings were awful.

I heard that once, before I had begun to ski at Gstaad, David Niven had told Buckley that Marc Chagall was coming, admired Buckley’s spy novels, and would like to see him. “Fine, love to meet him,” said Bill. “Wait a minute, Bill,” said Niven. “Chagall is a real artist. World famous. You wouldn’t take him to your studio, would you?” “Of course not,” replied Buckley. Niven and Chagall arrived at the chalet and Buckley took him right to the studio. Chagall looked around at Buckley’s paintings and said in French, “The poor paint.”

Social life at the chalet resembled that at Buckley’s 73rd Street apartment in New York: interesting people, usually accomplished in a variety of ways, seldom political and not all conservatives or even many conservatives. Kitty and Ken Galbraith; David Niven; Taki Theodoracopulos, a glamorous millionaire, a great skier and good enough tennis player to have played at Wimbledon; an actor who was playing James Bond in a movie; “Swifty” Lazar the agent and Arthur Schlesinger, neither of whom skied. Once I asked Arthur about Kennedy’s womanizing, really to see how he would handle that question, aware as everyone was that Kennedy pushed the envelope and would have made the then unknown Bill Clinton look like a monk. Arthur professed to know nothing about it. Polite.

Nicholas Nabokov, son of the novelist, was a popular guest. I heard that he had become exasperated by people tailgating him as he drove around the hairpin turns on the Alps, so he got even. He had the rear of his Jaguar rigged with a powerful spotlight, which he flicked on when a tailgater got too close. I never heard of anyone going through the guardrail and disappearing into a crevasse, but Nabokov made his statement.

David Niven was one of the pleasantest people you could meet—witty, debonair, civilized. One year, when he was ill with Lou Gehrig’s disease, we were instructed not to say anything funny because if he tried to laugh it would be dangerous. Since at the Buckley gatherings wit was in generous supply, this inhibition tended to produce near silence. “Good skiing today” and “Looks like snow tomorrow” and “I hear Ali Khan is in town.”

* * *

I had an early indication of how Buckley would transform American conservatism. A few months before National Review appeared in November 1955, I was a lieutenant in naval intelligence stationed at the ONI office in Boston, working mostly on security clearances though living in Cambridge about a block from Harvard Square. One day I noticed an announcement that Buckley was going to debate James Wechsler, the liberal editor of the New York Post. Buckley was famous, or infamous, as the author of God and Man at Yale, a polemic that depicted his alma mater as relentlessly secularist and liberal. This rattled a complacent establishment not accustomed to being attacked. I decided to attend the debate.

The large auditorium in Lamont Library was packed with Harvard students and faculty. All heads turned when the Buckleys walked down the center aisle. Pat, very tall, carried a large leopard-skin bag and wore a huge hat to match. Obviously not at all intimidated by Harvard, she monopolized attention until Buckley’s first observation after being introduced. Looking over the audience, he said, with his later famous mischievous grin, “I’m glad to see Professor Schlesinger here tonight, in the third row. His books would be dangerous if they weren’t so boring.” The Harvard students laughed uproariously at this impudence, but Schlesinger, sitting there in his bow tie and looking Arthurish, was not amused. At Harvard, every red brick and crack in the pavement knew that Arthur was a great man.

Wechsler didn’t have a chance in the debate. He was too predictable to be interesting. Buckley later said that Wechsler was so perfect a liberal that he should be on exhibition in the Smithsonian for tourists to gawk at, a sort of Piltdown Man. And Buckley, after all, had been a champion debater at Yale.

Buckley clearly was something new in American conservatism. This was no green-eyeshade Scrooge. The representative of American conservatism then was Sen. Robert Taft, son of President William Howard Taft. Robert Taft was an admirable man no doubt, like Buckley a Yale man, and known to possess a formidable intellect. Not only was he intelligent, he was renowned as a man of integrity. But Bob Taft kept losing the Republican nomination for president, losing to Wendell Willkie, to Tom Dewey, to Dwight Eisenhower. Maybe Ohio was the problem. A gray presence, Taft’s total absence of charisma made Herbert Hoover look like Rudolph Valentino. Buckley made conservatism fun, glamorous even, and soon he would launch his historic career.

* * *

At Yale, Buckley had been famous not only as a debater but also as president of the Yale Daily News and a member of the prestigious and influential Skull and Bones. He was an apt student, working with Professor Willmoore Kendall, a brilliant political philosopher and disciple of Leo Strauss. Buckley’s father urged him to continue at the university and do graduate work with Kendall, but he wanted to have an immediate impact, which an academic career did not promise. He considered writing a book to be called The Revolt Against the Masses, alluding to Ortega’s Nietzschean Revolt of the Masses. He abandoned this, however, because asking to be compared with Ortega would require serious work over an extended period, for which he was disinclined. Again, he wanted more imminent influence.

I pause over this for a moment because it indicates something important: The Revolt Against the Masses would no doubt have urged an aristocracy of intellect and spirit. The poetry of Yeats has the same thing in mind. Although Buckley famously said that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 members of the Harvard faculty, he was no populist.

But to have influence, direct influence of the kind Buckley wanted, he would have to associate to some extent with quite a few popular yahoos. I recall, at one of Buckley’s Monday night dinners for National Review senior editors, a sort of salon, seeing Rush Limbaugh enter the room and squeeze his considerable bulk into one of Pat Buckley’s fragile-looking 18th-century French chairs. Would he reduce this antique to splinters? What Pat would have done if Limbaugh collapsed the thing boggles the mind. Revolt against the masses? Limbaugh was the masses. To have influence, to be a player in practical politics, Buckley would have to deal with the likes of Limbaugh, a radio blowhard, a type that has proliferated in the conservative movement.

Twice a month, on the Monday of the morning meeting that planned the editorials for the forthcoming issue, Buckley had the senior editors to dinner at his apartment: drinks in the living room, dinner at two tables for ten in the dining room, fine food and wine, talk about politics and much else. Buckley invited well-known guests to meet the senior editors and to have the editors meet them. The guests usually were not conservatives, though sometimes there were Republican functionaries like Ken Mehlman or a man who was challenging Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania and had the support of the Club for Growth. (Specter survived.) Henry Kissinger was a frequent guest, though he had been the target of severe criticism because his management of the “containment” policy did not push forward enough. Kissinger had great charm, Germanic, almost affectionate, gemütlich. A surprising number of liberals showed up: Mario Cuomo, Ed Koch, Mark Green. Ed Koch told some of the funniest anecdotes I’ve ever heard. I think Buckley wanted to show them that the editors were not fools and show the younger editors that civility with liberals was desirable.

* * *

If Buckley did not want to devote years of work to such arduous projects as The Revolt Against the Masses, he did need serious thinkers to bring into existence a coherent alternative to the liberalism that was dominant in 1955. His vehicle would be a magazine comparable to The Nation and The New Republic, a publication that would appeal to an educated audience, not a mass audience but one that would be receptive to ideas and help to promote them. For the new National Review, Buckley brought together a remarkable group of talented men (and a few women) who were often in serious disagreement intellectually but despite that, or in part because of it, together made a successful magazine. It was Buckley’s magnanimity, and also his own pleasure in being the impresario who assembled this brilliant, often incompatible, and always colorful crew, that made National Review exciting and successful.

They did not evolve a doctrine, but testing their philosophies in debate—often in the pages of the magazine—they put together a constellation of ideas that, used flexibly and with good judgment, constituted a viable conservatism.

Buckley more than once called James Burnham “indispensable,” and this was accurate. Burnham was a realist and an analyst of power in politics. He aspired to a disinterested approach to reality: fact and analysis. He had been first in his class at Princeton and after that went to Balliol College, Oxford. He had also been a Trotskyite during the Depression, a professor of philosophy at NYU, a policy analyst at the CIA, and a member of the editorial board of Partisan Review. When I became a National Review senior editor and regularly flew to New York from Dartmouth, I learned a great deal from Burnham, most importantly to resist ideology, reflexive partisanship, wishful thinking, emotion. Fact and analysis.

Burnham became ill in 1980 and retired. His loss to National Review has been a major one. His realism was indispensable. That cannot be emphasized enough.

Russell Kirk had published The Conservative Mind in 1953, and contributed a very useful column informed by his traditionalist conservatism, “From the Academy.” He refused to become a senior editor and remained out in Mecosta, Michigan, because he and the libertarian Frank Meyer loathed one another. Meyer had reviewed The Conservative Mind, condemning it as socialism in Burkean disguise. Kirk had reviewed Meyer’s libertarian What Is Conservatism? in the Sewanee Review, dismissing it in three or four sentences as ideological junk.

Meyer’s libertarianism came as a reaction against his years as a theoretician in the American Communist Party, and he published an important book, The Moulding of Communists. His column presented an informed analysis of developments in the Communist world, and he was also National Review’s books editor, immensely successful because he sought quality in reviewers whatever their politics. He discovered Joan Didion, for example. Meyer lived near Woodstock, New York, and came to NYC only for the quarterly senior editors’ meetings. He lived surrounded by books, floor to ceiling, and was immensely learned. If you wanted to discuss Hegel’s Phenomenology of Mind, Meyer was your man.

Willmoore Kendall commuted from Yale until the university, in an unprecedented move, bought out his tenure for a large sum of money. Kendall was such a contentious personality that members of his political science department had to take regular leaves to pull themselves together. He was valuable in contributing reviews in the general area of political philosophy to the magazine. But his relationship with Buckley was difficult. I discovered why in 1965, when he visited me at Oxford, where I was working on Burke. Kendall told me right out that he wanted to be the theoretician of American conservatism—to shape the movement. Buckley thought he was doing that. So Kendall left the magazine. In the week Kendall visited with me, we had extensive discussions, and I learned a great deal about issues in political philosophy, centrally about American constitutional theory. Although on prolonged reflection I think some of his answers were wrong, Kendall was immensely valuable in raising the important questions.

Whittaker Chambers was a good friend of Buckley’s and, of course, a major figure in the development of American anticommunism, a friend of Richard Nixon from the days of the Hiss case. In 1968, when I was in Sacramento working as a speechwriter for Governor Reagan, I found that he knew by heart passages from Chambers’s Witness. Chambers contributed occasionally to National Review and maintained an office at the magazine, which he used when traveling from Maryland. When I began commuting to the magazine in 1969, I used Chambers’s cubbyhole, and it seemed remarkable to me that the portly gent had managed to squeeze into it. Chambers, however, did not become integral to the magazine. His Republicanism was of the moderate sort: he early warned Buckley that Senator McCarthy was careless and a danger to anticommunism. National Review, with Burnham dissenting, remained solidly pro-McCarthy, so there was a serious divergence with Chambers. In his novel about McCarthy, Redhunter, Buckley concedes that Chambers was right about the demagogue and reprints the important letter Chambers wrote warning him about McCarthy.

Not long after National Review began publishing, William Rusher joined as what amounted to business manager, vital in keeping the fiscal side of the magazine in decent order. Rusher’s background was Princeton, Harvard Law School, and experience with a congressional committee investigating communism. He was an active participant in the editorial discussions at the magazine, and, in 1963, was one of the architects of the successful Draft Goldwater movement. Goldwater’s victory over Nelson Rockefeller at the 1964 Republican convention in San Francisco marked the end of moderate Republicanism and beginning of the modified “southern strategy” that gave us two Nixon elections, Reagan, George W. Bush … and Iraq.

* * *

Buckley had expressed doubts about the Iraq War from the beginning. He allowed that if the U.S. failed to find any weapons of mass destruction it wouldn’t matter if things went well, but things have not gone well. If the “surge” is working, why do we still have 140,000 troops in Iraq? During the last two years of his life, Bill Buckley understood the facts about Iraq and their implications.

In March 2007, he wrote a syndicated column called “A Republic If You Can Keep It,” its title quoting Benjamin Franklin at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Keeping our Republic, Buckley concluded, “requires that our government recognize that the people have rejected the Iraq war” and are demanding that Congress get us out of this disastrous situation:

…there comes a time when the rearward legions of a republic feel the need to assert their residual dominance, and we’re getting very close to the moment when the people, surveying the policy, weighing its prospects, considering its benefits, step forward with their ultimate supremacy—we are a republic. Scorning revolution, they do so gradually, but definitively.

The voters express themselves in manifold ways. Their representatives are taking small steps toward dissociation from the war, but warning of major steps. We have seen one-half of U.S. senators disposed to say that in their judgment the time is up. The only quarrel now is jurisdictional, not popular. The authority of the republic needs from time to time to be asserted. Not with the consent of everyone, but with the consent of everyone who accepts the rule of the people.

I sent Buckley an e-mail saying that in my opinion the most important pressure on Bush would come from Republicans up for re-election in 2008. I had in mind the fact that Democrats were recruiting Iraq veterans to run against them. Buckley replied that he doubted Bush could be budged.

At about the same time this column appeared, an article about Buckley by Sam Tanenhaus ran in The New Republic. Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, had long been a friend of Buckley, has written a good biography of Whittaker Chambers, and is said to be finishing a biography of Buckley. At the conclusion of Tanenhaus’s article, Buckley said more or less explicitly that support for Bush had destroyed the conservative movement. Tanenhaus observed, “Buckley has criticized Bush for trying to go it alone and chided neoconservatives who vastly overstate the reach of U.S. power and influence.” He continued:

Beyond this, Buckley recognizes, as Bush’s defenders have not, that the trouble originates with the Iraq war, not with its opponents. When I asked him recently if Iraq is the Republicans’ Vietnam, he said, ‘Absolutely.’ It is a serious admission for one who knows that Vietnam destroyed cold war liberalism and, with it, the Democratic Party’s control of national politics. Iraq now threatens the right and the GOP, Buckley says, with the ‘identical’ fate. No wonder, then, that in a July interview with CBS News, he said that if Bush were the leader of a parliamentary government ‘it would be expected that he would retire or resign.’

History will remember William F. Buckley’s founding of the American conservative movement, but it should also credit him for this: by the end, he had the honesty to say publicly that it was probably finished.   

Jeffrey Hart is a senior editor of National Review and author, most recently, of The Making of the American Conservative Mind.