William F. Buckley was a public intellectual, commentator, and founder of National Review, the magazine that arguably launched the modern conservative movement as we know it today. Would there even be a conservative movement without Buckley’s leadership?
And if so, is he responsible for the Trumpist turn Republican Party has taken? Does Buckley bear some blame for the direction in which conservatism has developed?
Journalist and historian Sam Tanenhaus has spent years studying the life and legacy of William F. Buckley. He joins Vital Center host Geoffrey Kabaservice for a deep dive into how Buckley became the force that shaped American politics as we know it today.
Sam Tanenhaus: Willmoore Kendall said Bill Buckley was the greatest conversationalist alive. What he meant was he was the greatest listener alive. Willmoore Kendall did all the talking but Bill was a great listener — and Wills says this, too, in his memoirs. He would listen to everything that you said.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m Geoff Kabaservice from the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the mighty muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events.
And I’m especially delighted to be talking with Sam Tanenhaus today. Sam is a well-known journalist, historian, and author of several books, including his 1997 biography of Whitaker Chambers, which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist, and 2009’s The Death of Conservatism.
He’s also been an editor at the New York Times and Vanity Fair, and was editor of the New York Times Book Review. He is working on an authorized biography of conservative leader William F. Buckley, Jr. And Sam hired me as an assistant on that project, doing research way back in the 1990s when I was a grad student at Yale. And now here we are in a pandemic, talking through some kind of computer app. So welcome, Sam!
Sam Tanenhaus: Great to be with you, Geoff. All my research assistants have far surpassed me. You’re only the first of them. I’ve seen all your bylines in the newspaper all the time, beginning with yours.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’m proud to be your first, Sam. So you’ve been a politically engaged commentator as well as a historian and biographer. And one benefit of the biographer’s work of extended reflection on figures like Buckley — you notice how artfully I don’t mention how long you’ve been working on this — is that you have a kind of perspective that other people lack.
And the questions that we ask about Buckley now, given our knowledge of what has happened since he died nearly a dozen years ago in 2008, those are different questions from what they would have been years ago. So I think part of what we would like to know now is: How did he manage to keep together the often conflicting strains of traditionalist and libertarian style conservatism? And whether a conservative movement would have happened without Buckley’s leadership, whether conservatism would have succeeded in taking over the Republican Party?
But I think we’d also like to know now what is Buckley’s responsibility for the conservative movement leading to Donald Trump’s presidency? And given that Buckley’s grand-nephew L. Brent Bozell IV was one of those arrested in the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, were the darker traits of conservatism encoded in it from the beginning and destined to be dominant someday?
Was conservatism wrong from the beginning? Does Buckley bear some blame for the direction in which conservatism has developed? And given that the Q Anon movement bears some real similarities to bygone extremist movements on the right such as the John Birch Society, are there lessons to be drawn from Buckley’s attempt to marginalize the Birchers and to excommunicate them from the conservative movement?
So that’s a bunch of big questions that I hope we’ll get to in the course of this conversation. But I guess right now, for those readers who are not familiar with William F. Buckley Jr., what kind of overview of him would you give? And what was his significance, not just for conservatism, but really for American politics and history?
Sam Tanenhaus: Well, those are the questions. Those are questions I’m wrestling with in the book. And as I mentioned to you, two-thirds of the manuscript are now in with a publisher. I’ll get the next third in, which is all revision because I’m now in a draft where I’m turning an inchoate mass of material into what I hope is choate, but it’s still a mass of material.
And what I found, Geoff, is there were several Buckleys, as there often are with complex figures who are larger than life, and who are brilliant the way he was. So let me touch on a few points. And I hope your audience doesn’t object if I call him Bill, for two reasons. One, I knew him quite well. My wife and I became quite close to him. He was instrumental in the writing of the first biography I did of Whittaker Chambers all those years ago.
And second, because people who were close to him… And I’ll give you two examples to show how wide his range was, because that’s what we get to, how big the orbit of Buckley was. Two exceptionally brilliant figures who are very much with us still: the political thinker and analyst Michael Lind, and — in many ways, an adversary of his — the giant of thought, and criticism, and history, and religion, and many other things, Garry Wills, who was really the most important defector from National Review and from the Buckley world. [They] always call him Bill. It’s always Bill.
And I think one reason they do that is they don’t like the WFB, which is what is out there so often. When I’m in touch with Christopher Buckley — my subject’s son, the very prominent writer, the brilliant humorist — it’s always WFB, that’s what we call him. He even calls him that.
But Bill is what people who were close to him called him. So that’s what I’m going to call him now and again. Because there are a lot of Buckleys out there now, and it’s hard to keep them all straight. So there are just a few things to think about that have been on my mind a lot the past, let’s say, year or so, or in the Trump years even.
One is the book changed a little bit, and it became, as you kind of suggested I think pretty directly, it became a “How we got here” book. And if it’s a “how we got here” book, then the question is: Are we here because of Bill Buckley, in spite of Bill Buckley, or are we here partly because of and partly in spite of Bill Buckley?
And those are some of the complications, because he was really a protean figure. So you can look at different aspects of the conservative movement, of American political life, of American cultural life and see Bill Buckley’s imprint. Without Bill Buckley there’s no Rush Limbaugh. And you think, well, how can that be? Well, Bill invented, really, the modern media presence for a major conservative figure, in the most literal sense, through his program “Firing Line.” But he was also a mentor and sponsor of Rush Limbaugh, which is really surprising to many people.
So for instance, I was going back and forth with Garry Wills, who knows everything about the early Buckley because he was the first genius they discovered in the 1950s when he was very young — and he really was a genius. Willmoore Kendall, one of Buckley’s mentors, said “This is a genius” when he saw some of the early work.
And so Garry’s a little surprised about the Bill Buckley and Rush Limbaugh connection. And he said, “Limbaugh — that’s just the kind of vulgarian Bill hated.”
And I reminded him, “Well, Joe McCarthy was just the kind of vulgarian Bill hated until he took him up.” And Bill became Joe McCarthy’s most articulate defender, in collaboration with Bill’s brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell. So there’s that aspect of Buckley.
There is also the Buckley who was the peerless discoverer of talent. Garry Wills is one. George Will is another. My predecessor at the New York Times Book Review, John Leonard, was a third — who was a superb literary journalist and really the best editor by far in the history of the New York Times Book Review. And I feel I’m qualified to say that because I had the same job. But a brilliant writer and critic. And when Bill hired him, he was 19 years old. He was a Harvard dropout.
Bill was a mentor to Joan Didion — who never talks about it any longer, whom many think just kind of wrote occasionally for National Review. No, she didn’t. Go on Unz.com under National Review and you’ll see the 20 essays she wrote on J.D. Salinger, on Norman Mailer… No, she learned a lot at National Review.
So you have this range of figures as intellectuals whom Bill discovered, nurtured, and groomed. And they come up to the present, Geoff, as you know — David Brooks and Rick Brookhiser, they’re somewhat older now, but we remember when they were young, they were all discoveries of Bill Buckley.
But you also had Bill Buckley who was the early champion of Strom Thurmond and the Dixiecrats in National Review — go back and look at it. This is the subject that’s come up the most, I would say, in the past year or two, is Bill Buckley and National Review‘s relationship to race and civil rights.
What many don’t realize is the unsigned weekly editorials in National Review can be identified. There’s a master list at the magazine, which I’ve seen, but there are other ways of identifying them as well. Bill wrote most of them.
So when people wonder, “Well, did Buckley write that editorial defending the South, when it said black people shouldn’t vote?” Yeah, the answer is yes. Not only that, and here’s an interesting thing… Probably the most controversial thing Bill Buckley ever wrote was an editorial in National Review at the time the first modern Civil Rights Act was passed, the 1957 act, which as you know all about, the one that… the watered-down bill that made possible the great bill that came in the 1960s. And Bill wrote the notorious editorial that said, the headline is: “Why the South Must Prevail.”
And so today we look at that and we think, “How could he possibly have written such a thing?” Well, you probably know he reiterated it word for word two years later in his book Up from Liberalism. So why would Bill Buckley do that? Because in those days it was not so unusual a thing for a sympathizer with the white segregationist South to say.
Today we’re appalled and aghast by it. We are right to be appalled and aghast by this. But in those years, that’s what people were saying. So then you can ask a question: “Should Bill Buckley have known better? Should Bill Buckley have been more generous? Should he have been more available and more open to civil rights arguments?”
And we would say, “Yeah, he should have been.” And then we leaf through National Review, and we can hardly find anybody else, any of his colleagues, who was more generous. Wills became so a few years later, and Wills really opened up civil rights and youth politics as a new dimension of National Review.
So here’s another way of putting it. The simplest way of looking at Bill Buckley is to say he was the most articulate and protean and connected media promoter of whatever the most conservative line in the Republican Party was in his time. And he was not a philosopher. There’s this idea kicking around — including at Yale now, which has a program at Yale which you know so well, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program — that pretends, or they have deluded themselves, that he was some kind of political philosopher. He would be the first one to tell you he was not. He couldn’t be bothered reading most of the books the philosophers wrote, much less to write one himself.
No, he was a journalist. He was an activist. He was a great connector of people. And you knew him… He was absolutely enchanting as a person. You never met a person you liked more. Among famous people, of the famous people I’ve met… I haven’t met all that many, but of the great people I’ve met, he was by far the kindest, the most generous, the best listener, the one who was interested in you rather than himself. He had those extraordinary qualities.
So, for instance, one of his very best friends, the writer he most admired among journalists, was the columnist Murray Kempton, who was very far on the left compared to Bill. Kempton wrote a book defending the Black Panthers and all that. Bill paid for Kempton’s columns to be collected and published, because the publisher was not going to take the financial hit.
Bill paid for an editor at the New York Review of Books to publish them. And he said, “Murray, there’s so many great columns here. If you can’t decide how many, let’s do two volumes instead of one. Because you are the greatest craftsman among journalists of this time and your work should be preserved.”
So when you see that book, it’s called, I think Perversities and something else — there’s another P in there, you probably know what it is — you’ll see the dedication, and it says, “To Bill Buckley, whose genius for friendship surpasses understanding.” So that’s the Bill Buckley we look at and we think, “Why couldn’t there have been more of those around now?”
Why couldn’t we have someone who would invite an adversary onto his great program, Firing Line? — which people now watch just for kicks. They go on YouTube to watch these interviews of Norman Mailer and others. And you think, “Well, why can’t somebody else just be like him?” And the answer is there was never anyone like him before, and there’s unlikely to be anyone similar afterward.
You can find people who were smart, who were smarter than he was, who wrote better books than he did, who thought better. Some of his mentors were far better thinkers than he was. Willmoore Kendall, and James Burnham in particular, were far better theorists and spellers-out of principles and arguments than Bill was. But they didn’t have Bill’s genius for living.
It’s like the Yeats line: genius goes into the life or the work. Well, for Bill, the life and the work intersected; they were one. He exuded a kind of generosity of spirit, no matter where he happened to come down on some political issue. And that’s the thing we miss. That’s what elevated the conversation.
So when Bill publicly is writing about someone like Mailer — Norman Mailer, the great writer — he calls him every name you can imagine. And then he has him on Firing Line, and it almost looks as if he’s trying to seduce him, because he admires his talent, his gift, so much. And that’s Bill. So there was a largeness, a capaciousness to him that we don’t see elsewhere. Those are personal traits, they’re not political or ideological traits. They don’t get passed through a movement the same way.
Geoff Kabaservice: You get lost in reminisces about the personal qualities of Bill Buckley. But I think maybe the political point to put on that is first, yes, Buckley did admire quality from whatever quarter it emerged. But I think he also believed that high culture, for example, was the common property of conservatives as well as people on the left. That was why he hired John Leonard to maintain a culture section, which was actually a pretty good culture section of a magazine. Even though Leonard, when he quit, said that National Review‘s readers were the stupidest people he’d ever encountered in his entire life.
And it was why Buckley criticized the New York Times, as every conservative has, but he really thought the solution to the problem of the New York Times’ dominance was not its demolition but creating a conservative New York Times which was just as good. And so in many ways, Buckley is that kind of path just not followed by the conservative movement.
And on some level he could never decide whether he was a conservative in the sense of being a traditionalist or libertarian. He did call one of his volumes of memoir Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist. But I think he attached to the Russell Kirk idea that the correct meter is not left versus right, but civilization versus barbarism. And he wanted to be on the side of civilization.
So these are all things that make him an interesting figure. But you’re almost talking about him as sort of anomalous. And I think that in many ways he, as the creator of the conservative movement, bred a lot of his DNA into that movement as well.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yes he did. And it’s interesting too, because if you look at his own history in particular, his father’s ambitions… His father was from South Texas. Many people think Buckley descended from New England gentry. He did not. He was the son of two Southerners, one from Duval County, Texas (South Texas) — that was his father. His mother was from New Orleans.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was always taken by the fact that one of Buckley’s ancestors on his father’s side died in a bar brawl in Texas.
Sam Tanenhaus: Well, yeah, there are questions about that. There were a lot of tall tales told about the Buckleys. The most interesting aspect — this gets into material that’s far afield… But his grandfather was a remarkable figure. What I found was that he wanted to set the family on a course they didn’t follow politically. He was going to be a kind of Grover Cleveland, Mugwump reformer as a sheriff in Duval County, Texas. And he was actually indicted by the U.S. government for being involved in a revolution led by a Mexican Tejano. It’s a very interesting story…
But all that aside, there was something about Buckley that was set apart from the normal run of the Republican Party in the United States. Now, his father… And his father was enormously influential, a commanding presence and figure in his life — and in some ways the real progenitor, not just of a brilliant son, but of the movement. His father was involved in counter-revolutionary politics.
As Bill later did, his father was secretly working for a Senate investigative committee, in this case looking at the Mexican Revolution in the Woodrow Wilson years. The Buckleys crossed a lot of lines. The Buckleys broke a lot of rules, broke a lot of laws.
Sam Tanenhaus: Bill Buckley was almost indicted for his pursuit of Adam Clayton Powell in the late 1950s. He came very close to getting indicted for jury tampering, and in fact was guilty of it; the judge let him off.
So there’s an interesting thing one of Buckley’s prep school tutors wrote about him… I saw the file. It’s not in the Yale archive, the massive Yale archive, it’s in the Millbrook Prep School archive, which I saw a number of years ago. It’s a line that I have in the book and really stayed with me. So he’s writing about the 15- or 16-year-old Bill Buckley, and he says, “He has to be made to understand that the rules don’t exist just to be invoked in his favor.”
And if you keep that in mind, you see a lot of how the conservative movement works today. When black people in the South were asking as American citizens for the right to vote, he and others at National Review dismissed that as “democratism.” When the white backlash came, Bill Buckley wrote a column and he said, “Well, the majority has its rights too. They shouldn’t be pushed around by these minorities,” meaning blacks. And the majority in that case was the white South. And you will see this time and time again.
Bill Buckley was a libertarian, absolutely. One of the original founding principles of National Review was opposition to the imperial presidency — what one of Bill’s mentors, James Burnham, called the “Caesarist presidency.” Bizarrely enough, they thought that Caesar was Dwight Eisenhower. But that was their view.
And National Review was founded as a vehicle in support of Joe McCarthy. And I’ll get back to that point in a moment. And it was understood to be that; it was not a secret, it was not hidden from anyone. It was McCarthyite intellectuals who founded National Review. That’s how they were perceived in the broader culture of that time, the journalistic culture.
And so one founding principle – it’s in their original prospectus for the magazine — was opposition to the strong presidency. When Richard Nixon was elected and got in trouble for Watergate, Bill Buckley wrote a column saying, “Well, American presidents are essentially monarchs. Why are we telling this guy what to do, what laws he can’t break?”
Right? We see this time and time again. So as far as the philosophical consistency goes, it doesn’t exist; it simply doesn’t exist. There are different strands. And then Bill the musician — he was a pretty good pianist — hits the chord he needs at that time. If it’s somebody he doesn’t like, if it’s an Adam Clayton Powell, then he’s shocked that the system of jurisprudence is not working so Powell will be indicted and sent to jail for tax evasion.
If it’s black people and civil rights activists who say, “Well, maybe the problem in the South is all-white juries which keep turning down every black person who puts in a complaint about not being allowed to vote,” then Buckley says, “Well, what do we need these jury systems for? There are higher values than jurisprudence when it comes to protecting the superior civilization.” It happens over and over and over again.
So you think, “Well, how then does this influence what we have now?” And the answer is: it’s everywhere. That’s essentially what our conservative movement is. It’s a war against liberalism.
So we have not mentioned the first great mentor, the most underrated figure on the right, because he has been kind of ridiculed in recent years — and he was a kind of a ridiculous figure. But he also saw everything. And that was Bill’s first mentor, Albert Jay Nock, the writer, who’s often called a libertarian. He’s called… In his book, the comprehensive history of the intellectual movement, George Nash says that had he lived longer — he died in 1945 — Albert Nock would have been the godfather, the great old man of libertarianism.
But that’s not really what he was. He was a social Darwinist. His famous book, Our Enemy the State, is a rewriting of Herbert Spencer’s book on the predatory state. And if you read enough of Nock, you’ll see he’s a social Darwinist. What I would propose to you is that we come back to ideology — forget libertarians, forget traditionalists. Russell Kirk has 15 pages [in The Conservative Mind] on John Calhoun, who was the philosophical hero for many at National Review. And Harry Jaffa wrote about this very directly and talked to me about it before he died in 2010.
Russell Kirk has 15 pages defending the great John C. Calhoun. He says he’s one of the two outstanding, two preeminent conservatives in American history, conservative thinkers. John Adams was the first. And of course John Adams was the only one of the early presidents who didn’t own slaves. And the second was John Calhoun.
And what he said was, “Calhoun was the great defender of American minorities.” And the only minority that does not get mentioned in those 15 pages is African Americans, whom he wanted to enslave. And this is the contradiction. This is the problem we have with that conservatism. Here’s something for the real geeks out there… I recommend you read an exchange in National Review from the summer of 1965. The first is by Frank S. Meyer — another one of the ideologues and mentors at National Review, very much involved in the Goldwater movement — called “Lincoln without Rhetoric.”
And it essentially makes the argument you hear from the ultra-libertarians today that the great villain in American history is Abraham Lincoln — because he brought in the centralized state. He couldn’t just make a nice bargain with the Southern states; instead he had to defeat them. And he goes on to say, Frank Meyer does, that this brought on the evils of the New Deal and the evils of his own moment — which happened to be the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Then you’ll see a reply that came a month later. Frank’s piece ran, I believe, August 24th, 1965. And you’ll see Harry Jaffa’s reply from September 21st, 1965. And Jaffa says, this is — I’m paraphrasing, but it’s pretty close to accurate… Harry leads the piece: “Frank Meyer has succeeded in doing something I have never in all my years” — Jaffa, who some years before had completed one of the masterworks on Lincoln, Crisis of the House Divided, on the Lincoln-Douglas debates. Harry Jaffa says, “Frank Meyer has succeeded in doing something I don’t think I’ve ever seen before. He has written an extended essay on Abraham Lincoln and his legacy and the Civil War, and has not once mentioned or even alluded to slavery. I don’t think I’ve seen that before.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Is there a racial or at least ethnic component to Nock’s idea of the Remnant?
Sam Tanenhaus: Yes. I don’t think there was initially, but I think there later was, after he began to be nervous at all the Turks and Jews he saw rubbing shoulders in the reading rooms of the New York Public Library. Yes, I think so.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something interesting about Buckley, though, and the conservative movement, is that Buckley first comes to public prominence with the publication in 1951 of God and Man at Yale. It’s this kind of slashing attack on his alma mater for insufficiently defending capitalism and Christianity — which is ironic given how conservative Yale really was at that point.
Sam Tanenhaus: And he knew that too, by the way.
Geoff Kabaservice: And he knew that. But Buckley then makes various thwarted attempts to get a conservative magazine going before he starts National Review as the flagship of this new intellectual conservatism in 1955. And he is well aware that the conservative movement is a difficult proposition because of the bad image that most Americans have of the right, which comes from having fought Nazi-ism in World War II and being well aware that there’s still a considerable amount of antisemitism on the right. And Buckley takes pains to oppose antisemitism. He hires many Jewish (or at least formerly Jewish) people onto his staff and claims at least to have no truck with antisemitism. And he certainly breaks with people who he had worked for and with, for that reason. And yet this logic does not carry over to black people or other groups who are minorities in this country.
Sam Tanenhaus: You’ve touched on a really interesting point there, because here’s something… If there are any master’s students, MA students or Ph.D. students out there who might listen to us, looking for a topic, one I would suggest is the anti-black feeling racially — fairly intense biological racism — of the Jews in the National Review circle and in libertarian circles.
Murray Rothbard was one. Frank Chodorov. Frank Meyer. Ayn Rand was a defender of segregation; she opposed the Civil Rights Act. The interesting thing is, all of those libertarians were Jews — right after Nazi-ism. I’m allowed to say this because I’m a Jew. Here you have a group of Jewish intellectuals who think the problem is the state trying to intervene to protect a minority. It really boggles the mind. But you’ll remember it gave us, at the end, Murray Rothbard siding with the police who beat up Rodney King in Los Angeles. There was an odd thing that happened there.
So, I’m going to do a little sideline again, because here we’re talking about this… One of the most famous early pieces — as you know very well, and some of our listeners will know too — published in National Review was Whitaker Chambers’ very strong critique of Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s novel. This was in the winter of 1957. And there’s a whole joke that works through it which most people will miss, and that is that Atlas seemed a very maladroit title because Atlas was the name of one of the American missile systems that kept fizzling on the launch pad.
So this idea of Atlas shrugging, it looks like the pictures of the missiles that would fall. And Chambers had some fun with that. He talks about these materialist systems that come crashing down to earth when they go up in the sky, and all the rest. Chambers was, by the way, the only person at National Review who thought Sputnik was a great breakthrough. The others either thought it was a hoax or pretended that it didn’t make any difference.
So in his attack on Atlas Shrugged, Chambers has a very famous line… He said, “Her message seems to be, ‘Go to the gas chamber.'” And that was really upsetting to Rand and her circle because almost every single one of them was Jewish. And they thought, “Who is Chambers” — the “Christian communist,” they called him — “to be telling Jews that they seem to promote gas chambers?” And of course the famous letter was published in National Review by the very young Alan Greenspan, who was a Randian at the time.
But I realized now, all these years later, coming back to Chambers and Buckley and all the rest, Chambers saw something. He saw there was a paradox here. Remember, Chambers was married to a Jewish woman and many of his closest friends when he was coming up through the intellectual world in New York were Jews at Columbia. So it’s not a question of the country club guy who says, “Well, I won’t let them into my club, but some of my best friends are Jews.”
No, Chambers grew up among Jewish intellectuals. That was his world. And he saw something. He saw there was something profoundly disturbing in this, in somebody… Because remember, Rand, she was an immigrant from St. Petersburg who’d come over earlier than the others. She came over in the 1920s and had gone out to Hollywood; she had a different career from the other immigrants. But he saw something there that I think is really important. And it’s surprising, Geoff, if you go through National Review all the way through the 1970s, in their book pages edited by Frank Meyer, they are publishing surprisingly indulgent analyses of tracts on biological racism by writers like Nathaniel Weyl and Ernest van den Haag.
There’s an interesting moment in ’64, I think it is… Bill Buckley was very impressed by an essay that van den Haag (who taught at Columbia) had written defending bigotry, racial prejudice, and segregation. And so Bill sent it to two (at that time) liberal journalists he really admired, Irving Kristol and Daniel Bell. And they both told him, “This stuff was discredited decades ago. This guy is doing the old racial arguments nobody believes anymore.”
And Bill didn’t believe them. You can see it in the correspondence. You’ll remember he told the real racists, “There aren’t biological differences. There may be mild cultural differences.” But Bill himself thought Jews were smarter than Gentiles. So he was willing to accept that maybe pure intellect is not that important. But he was surprisingly indulgent… And as you yourself have noted — I don’t know whether you’ve done it in print, certainly you and I have discussed this as we’ve teamed up on the research we’ve done — Bill kept up pretty friendly relations with some quite notable antisemites for a really long time.
Geoff Kabaservice: Gerald L. K. Smith, for example.
Sam Tanenhaus: Gerald L. K. Smith. Merwin K. Hart was a really important figure — someone’s writing a book on Hart. Let me throw something else in here too, Geoff, and I know we’re going far afield, but here we are… Bill’s first political movement, remember, that he was involved in — and all his siblings were — was the America First Movement.
I have a lot of pages in my book on America First. Bill’s first idol was Lindbergh — also Gore Vidal’s idol, which is kind of fun. If you look at Bill’s first novel, his first Blackford Oakes novel, you’ll see he calls him “the great advocate for peace.” He’ll never changed his mind about Lindbergh.
And there’s a biography of Bill that came out a few years ago that mistakes which of the Lindbergh rallies Bill Buckley attended. There were two in New York. One was in May of ’41 and one was the very last rally before Pearl Harbor. That was the one Bill Buckley was at, which is notorious today for the Bellamy salutes that you’ve seen in photographs. Now, Bill Buckley did not do that. He was a Lindbergh idolater. But from internal evidence, documentary evidence, it’s very clear that’s the rally he attended.
And Lindbergh, as we know… I recommend Sarah Churchwell’s book to people who are interested in the whole idea of America First and also the American dream; she very cleverly shows how they’re complementary ideas. Lindbergh was very much a race theorist, a subscriber to racial theories. Absolutely no doubt about it. The first magazine Bill read closely was one that was essentially banned by the government for being pro-Nazi. It was called Scribner’s Commentator and was published for just a few years, from ’39 to ’41 or ’42. That was the first magazine Bill Buckley ever subscribed to. And Albert Jay Nock wrote for it after he was banned from other publications.
So there’s a very strong America First component in that ideology. And we tend to think it went away because the anticommunists were internationalists. But there’s a key word, there’s a key linking word, that Arthur Schlesinger and Richard Rovere thought they were coining. The word actually was already in the vocabulary, and they kind of knew it but they didn’t bother tracing the genealogy. But they reintroduced it as a joke, as a satirical term, which they called “unilateralist.” Because if you think about it, the word unilateralist is almost a contradiction in terms. But that’s what connects… That concept is what connects America First to the extreme anti-communism of the ‘50s, because they’re both about America going it alone. So you’ll see a lot of praise in National Review for people like Curtis LeMay and the Wings For Peace people, the ones who thought that if you strapped enough megatonnage onto B-52 bombers they could circle the globe — the Doctor Strangelove thesis. National Review was very much behind that. So that’s the America First carryover. It’s the Fortress America argument.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course Buckley and his brother-in-law L. Brent Bozell co-authored a book called McCarthy and His Enemies, which was really a defense of McCarthy or at least McCarthyism.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yes. And it’s interesting you say that, because what they tried to do was to set McCarthy himself aside, even though Bill really liked McCarthy. Bill had this personal loyalty; it’s one of the things I like about him. If you were his friend, you were going to stay his friend. And McCarthy was quite a genial person for those who got to know him, if you drank with him or you went to the racetrack with him. Joe McCarthy would call Bill at home and trade stock market tips with Pat Buckley, Bill’s wife, that sort of thing. McCarthy as we know dated some of the Kennedy sisters and all these other things.
In that book, what people noticed at the time — reviewers like Richard Rovere, the great journalist of the New Yorker — is there’s not a word in that very long book about McCarthy’s own biography. They say nothing about him, because they weren’t interested in him. They wanted to create around him an honorable McCarthyism. And that’s another one of their really notorious statements, right? McCarthyism is a movement that men of stern moral discipline can gather behind.
See, now we’re getting close to Trump and Trumpism. So you have defenders, champions of Trump on the American Greatness blog, and they’re intellectuals, they’re very smart. They’re good writers and they’re well-read and they know languages, just the way the National Review crowd did — multilingual, remarkable figures. When John Leonard, the young John Leonard, first met them — I’ve seen his letters, they’re in an archive at Columbia University, he wrote letters home — he describes his first meeting with Bill Buckley. And he said, “You have no idea what these people are like. They’re called every name in the book, but you can’t believe how brilliant they are. They quote reams of poetry. They’re incredibly sophisticated.”
William Rusher, Bill Rusher, with his wine collection and his eidetic memory for verse, he could do —hundreds of lines of poetry he could recite. And Burnham and Kendall and Meyer and Whitaker Chambers — some of them spoke three and four languages. Chambers was going to translate Proust at one point when he was young, even while he was a communist. So they have all these qualities about them. And Bill, too— English, you know, was his third language.
So the idea, by the way, that he wrote a letter to the King of England about the war debt when he was six — if he did it, he wrote it in Spanish. And he couldn’t write Spanish because he learned Spanish from his nursemaids, and they were not writers. That’s one of these myths that surrounds Buckley. It’s kind of fun to poke little holes in those. You just think it through logically: of course he didn’t write a letter to the King of Spain when he was six. You have seen the letters he wrote when he was seven and eight years old.
At any rate, what they wanted to do was to create an idea of McCarthyism that had nothing to do with Joe himself. And this is part of the problem. Garry Wills was telling me the other day… He remembered a conversation he had with Frank Meyer, who had been his mentor after they discovered him at this incredibly young age — he was 23 when they discovered him, had just left the Jesuit seminary. And Meyer asked him a question about Aristotle, and he said, “Now, is this argument in Aristotle?” And Garry Wills said, “No, it’s not.” And in his note, Gary actually gives me the Greek terms. And Meyer says, “Well, it ought to be. It should be in Aristotle.” And Garry said, “That’s it. Yeah, that’s it: if it’s not in Aristotle, it should be in Aristotle. If Joe McCarthy isn’t a great guy, well, he ought to be a great guy — because we agree with him. He’s going off to fight liberals.”
Geoff Kabaservice: Buckley and Bozell had studied at the feet of Willmoore Kendall at Yale. And Kendall opposed the Bill of Rights; he didn’t think the founders actually intended to pass the Bill of Rights. But he wanted society to be ruled by an extremely coercive mentality and morality and standards. And in that sense there’s kind of an anti-democratic element encoded in conservatism from the beginning as well.
Sam Tanenhaus: At the same time, Kendall called himself a “majority-rule Democrat.” He had the famous formulation: 50% of the population plus one equals a majority. And it’s funny, Geoff, because he made that argument about McCarthy. McCarthy never really got to that 50%. Maybe for about… It’s the argument you hear about Trump now: “Everybody loves Trump.” Well, they don’t. 74 million people is still 7 million less than voted for the other guy. It is interesting.
Well, you may remember there’s a paper Bill wrote when he took the seminar with Kendall, and at the bottom Willmoore wrote: “I think the First Amendment is going to have to go.” Remember he says that? And it’s about McCarthyism. It’s defending McCarthy. I have a lot on that.
The text people should read to really understand Kendall, who was an extraordinary figure — he was hugely influential on Garry Wills too. The text they should read is Saul Bellow’s short story, “Mosby’s Memoirs.” Wills was the first one to point out in his book, Confessions of a Conservative, that it’s clearly a portrait of Kendall. And he said to me, “I think Frank Meyer told me that.” Because Meyer knew all the literary gossip.
Then you know there’s a scholar, a young scholar at North Carolina named Joshua Tait, who went through the Kendall papers (which are not cataloged) and found the letter Saul Bellow wrote to Kendall’s widow explaining exactly when and how he’d known Willmoore Kendall. He’d known him in Minneapolis when they were part of the Hubert Humphrey circle. He’d known him again in Paris, he’d known him in Chicago, and he wrote one of his most famous short stories about him. “Mosby’s Memoirs” is the title of the first collection of short stories that Bellow published. It was published in the New Yorker not long after Kendall died. And if you were part of the very small circle, you knew that. You can read James Atlas’ very good biography of Saul Bellow, which discusses that short story, and not see Kendall’s name mentioned. There was a kind of inner circle that this group inhabited. Let me say…
Now I’m going to get to one of Bill’s great sides, because we’ve talked about some of the questionable things with his politics. He made people feel that they belonged to an exclusive club when they came to National Review. You know this, you are the expert on this in these United States, about how the elite operated at Yale. And part of Bill’s genius was… He was welcomed into the club. He was the last man tapped for Bones. And here’s the thing to think about… If the great [African-American] football player, Levi Jackson, had not turned Bones down, we might’ve gotten a different picture of race from Bill Buckley. You’ve probably thought about that, right?
Geoff Kabaservice: Sure.
Sam Tanenhaus: Because Bill was all about personal relationships. I can see Bill saying, “How can I oppose the Civil Rights Act and look at Levi across the table when we have dinner next?” That’s what he would have done. That’s the best to Bill Buckley. That’s what he would have done — at any rate, that’s what I’d like to think.
But Bill was really good at getting inside the club. So, right, he’s the editor-in-chief (or chairman) of the Yale Daily News. He’s the last man tapped for Skull and Bones. He’s in the CIA — and Garry Wells has that line about him, “Once a Bonesman, always a Bonesman.” And Frank Meyer thought National Review was a CIA front. You remember that, right? There were people at National Review… And if I were Bill, I would have said, “If we’re a CIA front, how come they don’t give us any money?” They were broke all the time.
But he was very good at making you feel, when he brought you inside, that you’d left the wilderness and joined an elite club. He’d take you on his yacht. He takes you to the yacht club, the New York Yacht Club. He’d do all these… He did it with Henry Kissinger. Kissinger told me when he first had lunch with Buckley, he said, “This guy was way out of my league. You know, he takes me to lunch at the New York Yacht Club.” And you know, Henry’s this immigrant Jew with this very gentlemanly, courtly guy, and he doesn’t know what to make of it. And they were about the same age; Henry’s two years older.
So Bill had that. That’s what he brought to it. And John Leonard said, “When you entered Bill Buckley’s world, you felt you were in this charmed, golden circle.” The great dance critic Arlene Croce told me that. She remained a conservative. People don’t realize she was at National Review for quite a while; Bill said she wrote the most inflammatory editorials. And then she became America’s first truly great dance critic in the New Yorker.
Geoff Kabaservice: So here’s the big question then… Buckley comes dragging this incredible baggage with him and the conservative movement: anti-democratic themes, the America First Committee’s isolationism and nativism and racism, McCarthyism… He says he wants to be an intellectual counter-revolutionary. You would think this would be somebody destined to occupy an extremely niche position in American life. And yet he drags conservatism into the center of one of its two major parties. And without Buckley, there is no Reagan, as you’ve said. So how did this happen? Is it that the dark side of conservatism went recessive? Is it that Americans tended to overlook these things? Did Buckley whitewash this background? Or did he moderate in any significant sense?
Sam Tanenhaus: I think a couple of things happened — and this has become a central theme of my book. I’m not the first one to say it or think it. Someone who’s been very big on this point for quite a while is Mike Lind, another one of the brilliant discoveries Bill Buckley made. It is… If you look at civil rights and race as being so central to the American story, as we all do… And this something… Bill was culturally a Southerner. And listeners should understand that growing up, Bill spent a lot of time… The family had a second home, they had a winter home in South Carolina, and Bill spent a lot of time there in Camden, South Carolina, which is upcountry. It’s near Columbia; it’s not near Charleston. It’s not on the shore there.
But at any rate, what he and other Southerners saw was that we were only getting the first half of the civil rights story. The second half would come when it migrated to the North. And once that came, then all the arguments shifted. I was just writing about this the other day… At the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, you could say, “Well, they’re bigots down there. They won’t let people vote, they won’t let citizens send their kids to the same schools as the rest of us.” And then the Southerners would say, “What do you think actually happens up north?” They would always say that: “Look at your own cities.”
As the great migration continued — because we’re still looking at those years — and the Civil Rights movement moved up to the North and the conflicts arose… It’s no longer in Sunflower County, the Mississippi Delta, or Alabama. Now it’s New York and Boston and Baltimore and Washington and Philadelphia and Los Angeles. Then the argument Buckley and others are making seems less extreme and more pragmatic, realistic. Now, I’m not saying that’s what I would necessarily call it; that’s what it began to look like.
So the same point of view that seemed bigoted, racist, supremacist (the term we now use) gets reformulated into middle-class anxiety, middle Americans who feel tribal concerns about their neighborhoods, patterns of conduct and life and moraes and all these other things. It becomes much more acceptable.
And here’s the thing I believe, Geoff… I don’t think Bill Buckley made Barry Goldwater, as many people say. I think Goldwater made Bill Buckley. Goldwater was the key, because Goldwater’s another example… And you have written very brilliantly about Goldwater and I’ve quoted you, as you know, on Goldwater and into my own writings.
Goldwater was one of the very first to realize, one of the very first people not in the South — although the Southwest and those Southwestern states often had Jim Crow segregation, I think Arizona did — he was one of the first to say, “Go to the South. Go to South Carolina.” And South Carolina is important because South Carolina is really where the Confederacy originated, and it’s where the Second Reconstruction was being fought.
All those decisions that we think of as coming through the Supreme Court, many of them began in South Carolina. The Browndecision originated in a decision made in Charleston. One famous judge who’s been getting written about these days, Waties Waring — his nephew was the editor of the very segregationist Charleston newspaper and was a friend of Bill Buckley’s, Tom Waring.
Well at any rate, when that argument shifted to people just defending their property, defending their families, defending their schools, it began to sound very different. And it’s similar to what we saw this past summer. What people have to do — it’s hard to do. I tell students to try to do this. Try to imagine the reasoning behind the person you disagree with most. See if you can project yourself into it. If you go back to that key year, 1965, when the great Voting Rights Act was passed… Well, we know that within weeks of that bill being signed by Lyndon Johnson, that’s when the Watts riots happened and Los Angeles went up in flames.
And it’s not surprising that many would say in their minds — I’m going to speak in the voice of that contingent — “We give them the vote, they burn down cities.” Think how close that takes us now to what happened to George Floyd and thereafter. People forget what you know very well, and what that fine new scholar Nicole Hemmer understands really well, is the way that the alternative media works is not by saying, “No, Biden is wrong about that,” or “Biden is giving you numbers that don’t add up in his budget.” No, the way it works is they say, “Here’s the story they’re not telling you. Here’s the real story going on. It’s going on in Kenosha. It’s going on in Portland, Oregon. It’s going on in Seattle, Washington. The mainstream media is not talking about. It’s going on with those” — what do they call it? — “MS-13 is invading the country.”
It’s an alternative narrative. And that’s what the right has been really good at for a really long time. And I do think that originates… You can take that back to McCarthy and His Enemies. The book is not — there’s no McCarthy in it because it’s not about McCarthy; it’s about McCarthy’s enemies. It’s about the liberals. It’s about the crimes and sins and hypocrisies of liberals. The two important words for that style of argument — and Bill was the best at it and he himself said he used it — is the Latin term tu quoque, which is whataboutism.
And Bill was very clear that that’s what a lot of his argument was based on: “You’re going to come after us and call us names. Now we’re going to talk about the things you keep secret.” So that’s why National Review found its way early on by exposing liberal hypocrisies that were not being covered in the media, various obscure cases like the Paul Hughes case. Remember, he was the con man who was going to expose McCarthy, and the Washington Post almost did a big series of articles on him, and then at the last minute the very good reporter whom I knew, Murrey Marder, who covered the Hiss trials, told them, “No, there’s no evidence in that.” So the stories never got printed. But Buckley learned about it through a friend, a lawyer, Tom Bolan, who later became Roy Cohn’s law partner. And that became National Review‘s first exposé.
So it’s really about making a case against the liberals. So you make a case against the civil rights leaders… That was Bill’s breakthrough on civil rights: “Stop talking about how honorable Dixiecrats are and go after Martin Luther King and Adam Clayton Powell instead. Go after Adam Clayton Powell’s tax evasion and the deals he’s cutting. And why is all this slack being cut for Adam Clayton Powell?” That was the exposé that landed Bill on the cover of the New York Times — you can see it — when he was almost indicted for the information he provided to a grand jury that was about to disband.
I hope I’m not shocking you with this stuff. It’s pretty interesting to me. To me, what you said about commentary… I don’t think of it as commentary, I think of it as observation. To me, this is material. I try to tell the stories of all of these things because they’re very interesting.
And so that’s what a lot of the right came out of, I think. And Bill was a maestro of controversy. He called himself a controversialist. I call him an aesthete of controversy. He was very artful about it. He would make mistakes; Gore Vidal caught him out. But he was very good at it most of the time.
And so he was able to create — another historical term you’ll know very well — pseudo-events. He was able to say, “Well, you know there’s a professor at Yale, a sociologist, who’s getting up in front of students and he is ridiculing the Eucharist. He’s saying it’s no different from what tribal chieftains do in Africa.” And students were enjoying the course. There was no controversy about these lectures. People got it, right? You know what I’m talking about: Professor Raymond Kennedy. He was kind of exposing them to ideas they hadn’t thought about before. They were not all leaving the church because Raymond Kennedy said this. But Bill Buckley turned it into a controversy. It was commented on in the Catholic press, his attack on Kennedy.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was a piece I saw recently by Rush Limbaugh; it actually might’ve just been a riff by Limbaugh at some point. But he said, “You know, there really isn’t a sizeable majority in this country for conservative policies. But there is a majority for people who just don’t like liberals, don’t like what liberals are telling them to do, don’t like all of these liberal pieties and undermining of our basic truths and faiths.” And I think that was a lesson that connected Limbaugh to Buckley.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yeah. That’s really well put. And I think it’s basically true. That’s not to say I think they’re right. I think there’s a good argument to be made. I mean, if we want to get into media… Somebody… I wrote several pieces — I think maybe two or three, I can’t remember now — for the op-ed editor of the New York Times, a very distinguished journalist, the former op-ed editor, James Bennett. He was a Jerusalem bureau chief, he covered the ’96 election…
Geoff Kabaservice: My college classmate.
Sam Tanenhaus: He was your college classmate… Well, his father, who died recently, was in a very high-class retirement home called Essex Meadows near where we live. His father was also, I think, the president of Wesleyan at one point and was in the Clinton administration. But apart from all that, James Bennett was a really good journalist. He loses his job because he publishes a… Yeah, it was a dumb essay by Tom Cotton. But he lost his job because of that? Yeah, there is something going on. I mean, there’s a problem. There’s a problem.
Sam Tanenhaus: And now you do the balance, the scales… Well, what’s a bigger problem then: African Americans are getting killed by the police, or that if you have a conservative point of view they might not publish you in the New York Times or you’ll be in the minority in the faculty at Harvard? Well, we know which is the greater problem. We know which is the one that the society has to fix. But from one’s own perspective, you see the world as you do.
Geoff Kabaservice: One of the things that Bill Buckley would point out as one of his prouder moments was when he tried at least to anathematize the John Birch Society — to exclude these paranoid conspiracy theorists from the mainstream conservative movement, as he saw it.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yes. He was very proud of that. And it’s an honorable thing. But we also know the timeline there, too. We know that his very first piece on the Birchers… Well, first of all, Robert Welch, as you found in some of the great archival digging you did… Robert Welch was an early backer of National Review, and Bill was a friend of his. In fact, Welch’s very early essay “Letter to the South,” on segregation, is actually more liberal-minded than what National Review was publishing. If you go back and look at it, he says, “Well, let’s give it time.” Bill Buckley wasn’t even saying that. He was saying: No! He was more like George Wallace: “Segregation today, segregation tomorrow.” Then he moderated. In fact, even if you look at the notorious editorial, he does say, “for the time being.” That was the moderate segregationist position.
But at any rate, if you look at the early relationship between National Review and Robert Welch, they were very supportive of him. They called him an amazing, remarkable man. They really admired him. At the time the John Birch Society was founded, I am certain that had Bill’s father, William Senior, lived longer — he died in the autumn of 1958, right before the John Birch Society was founded — had he lived longer, he would have been one of the people in that first group, because he agreed with everything that they were about. And Bill’s mother was a member of the John Birch Society.
So you have to look at the stages. So, very early on, National Review supported him. And their argument? There were no enemies to the right. “He’s an anticommunist. Why are we going to complain about other silly things he may say?” Then he says… And Russell Kirk gets points for this… His widow, Annette, is really mad at me because of the piece I wrote in Vanity Affair about the DeVoses, and I bring Russell Kirk in. But Russell Kirk has actually become sort of a hero in this book.
He was the one who told Bill Buckley, “We have to get rid of the Birchers.” That famous meeting at the Breakers Hotel, that was all Russell Kirk and J. Gordon Hall — a forgotten figure, who was the one who was behind it; I think he worked for General Motors or something. And he was the one who wrote Goldwater’s famous speech in the 1960 convention where he said, “Republicans, grow up.” He’s in Lee Edwards’ book. Lee Edwards knows a lot of this stuff. He writes these court histories, but some of them are very good, including his Goldwater biography.
Well, at any rate, Russell Kirk said to him, “We cannot do this. If Goldwater is going to be serious, we have to get rid of the Birchers.” And at that moment, 1962, Goldwater looked up to Kirk more than he did to Buckley. Buckley wasn’t interested in Goldwater. He wasn’t interested in him early on. It was Bill Rusher who was on to Goldwater very early. And Bill Buckley wasn’t interested. He said, “This guy…”
Geoff Kabaservice: Bill Rusher was the publisher of National Review.
Sam Tanenhaus: Sorry, publisher of National Review. And he had heard Goldwater give a speech out in Colorado in the ‘50s at the Broadmoor Hotel and then brought him to New York to meet with the New York State Republicans when the villain was Jacob Javits, a senator from New York, the classic liberal Republican.
One of Bill’s greatest lines is… Who would you like to see elected president? What’s your ideal ticket in ’68? And he said, “Ronald Reagan and Jacob Javits, with the understanding that if Reagan dies in office, in commiseration or sorrow Jacob Javits will heave himself onto the funeral pyre.” But he saw very early… And Clarence Manion, Dean Manion, who was also an important player in all this — the Notre Dame professor who had quit, worked for Eisenhower and quit. You know all those stories. Well, they were the first ones… And Brent Bozell. They were the ones who were on the Goldwater case.
Bill was not interested in Goldwater — you know, a guy from Arizona, he’s not well-read… The idea that Goldwater’s an intellectual got invented by some people. He was an earnest guy. People really liked him. Garry Wills loved him, said he was the only honest politician he ever met. And he was a really good guy. But he was over his head, and he himself said so.
But then Bill got on to him. And why did Bill get onto him? Because Goldwater won the South Carolina Republican primary in 1960. And, Geoff, if you think about it, and the thing that you are expert in which is how the party works… In a way, that was the first victory, electoral victory for the right since Eisenhower got the nomination in Chicago over Taft in 1952. Here’s a guy who beats Nixon for the South Carolina primary. And Joe Alsop wrote a column saying, “Why are people not talking about this? Goldwater just kicked Nixon’s rear end in South Carolina. Nixon had people there.”
And then Bill writes one of those classic editorials: “Well, where’s the liberal media? This is an extraordinary breakthrough by Barry Goldwater.” They couldn’t get him to give Goldwater the time of day before that. But Bill was so strategic… He moves very quickly and he sees, “Okay, this guy may have something.” And it was South Carolina. Roger Millikan, whom you know all about — he was, after Bill’s father, the second biggest donor of National Review — he had a big textile factory in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Keep coming back to that, because that’s the other half of Buckley.
Goldwater got it. Goldwater went to South Carolina and said, “What we need is Strom Thurmond to be president.” And Thurmond embraced Goldwater, and now you’re moving towards the center. Then what did they do? They knew Goldwater was not going to get the nomination. So what do they do? You’ve written about this because you did the other side — you did the liberal activists. They created the Young Americans for Freedom out of that. They went to Chicago — Bill, Bill Rusher, Marvin Liebman (whom we haven’t talked about) — and they saw these young kids coming off college campuses who would have Conscience of a Conservative, written by Brent Bozell. There’s this fiction out there that Goldwater wrote it. No, he didn’t. We know, right? Burnham had that line: “Down to the commas, it was Brent Bozell.” He wrote it in about six weeks.
Geoff Kabaservice: It’s not a hundred percent sure that Goldwater even read it.
Sam Tanenhaus: Not even read it! Eventually he may have read it, yeah. And so they begin to see young people who are interested in this. And then Bill Buckley invites them to Sharon, Connecticut, his family’s estate, and you can see the commemorative rock there with the plaque denoting the first meeting of the Young Americans for Freedom. The “Sharon Statement” written by Stan Evans, the son of the crazy Medford Evans, the nuclear hoax guy… And suddenly they have a youth movement.
And then they realize they have a problem. And you probably know all about this, too. They had to keep the youth movement clean because it was getting close to the Birchers. The Birchers and YAF were getting mixed up in people’s minds. And some of the early Young Americans for Freedom types were involved in the Bircher movement. So they had to clean that out.
Now they saw they had a problem, because they’re building a student youth movement. And Bill… Do you know this factoid? In 1962, the three most popular speakers on college campuses were, one, Barry Goldwater, two, Bill Buckley, and three, Martin Luther King. Bill Buckley was a bigger draw on college campuses than the most charismatic, heroic figure of the second half of the 20th century. Bill came out ahead of him.
Well, they knew they had to get those students. And with the Birchers, it’s a problem. So eventually, Bill writes the first column that attacks Welch himself but not the Birchers. Then Kirk comes around and says… That was when he wrote at Kirk’s behest. And to show you how far Bill had not gone yet, Bill was offended that Kirk had written his own anti-Welch and -Bircher piece in Commonweal magazine. And Bill says, “What are you doing writing for them?” Because they were too liberal.
Then in 1965, they realized they had a problem because Bill was now, as a result of his campaign for mayor, the most important conservative. Not just the most important conservative intellectual — the most important, best known conservative in America.
Geoff Kabaservice: His public profile was enormously elevated by running for mayor of New York City in 1965.
Sam Tanenhaus: He got more press than Ronald Reagan did when Reagan was first making his move to run for governor [in California]. It was Buckley everywhere. Walter Lippmann coined the term “Buckleyism.” For people who want to read an advance version of this that I have in my book, I did a big thing in the New York Times Magazine on that mayoral campaign. I wrote it in, I think, 2005. It was a 40th anniversary. That made Bill Buckley really famous.
Before then, Bill Buckley could walk down the street more or less the way you and I would walk down the street. After he ran for mayor and then started doing “Firing Line,” he could not walk through an airport without being mobbed. And when he got on a plane and flew out to Arizona to meet Goldwater — he knew him by this point, but to visit with Goldwater — the media crowded the plane and Goldwater treated Buckley like a visiting dignitary. So at that point it was up to him to get rid of the crazies.
And let me just add one thing, Geoff. The reason he did that was not because he thought they were terrible people. In retrospect, the Birchers actually look pretty mild. What are they doing? They’re writing stupid letters to… Yeah, you disagree. They’re not advocating using weapons the way the right is now. They’re chasing people off of school boards. They want to impeach Earl Warren, which is never going to happen. James Burnham floated the impeachment of Earl Warrant thing long before the Birchers got there.
They’re kooks, but they’re not dangerous kooks. But they were making the movement look bad in the eyes of the liberals. And Bill is now kind of part of the establishment. He does not want to go to the Overseas Press Club or wherever, the Yale Club or the Yacht Club, and have people there thinking — his friends, Kempton and Rovere and all these New Yorker people he knows — he doesn’t want them thinking, “This guy’s still hanging out with Robert Welch and the Birchers.”
So at that point, it was a kind of cosmetic thing. Because you will notice, what did the liberal publications say at the time Bill denounced Robert Welch? What did the Nation and The New Republic say? They said, “Okay, he’s gone after Welch and the Birchers. Now please explain to us, Mr. Buckley and National Review, what exactly it is you disagree with them about? You’re ready for all-out war with the Soviet Union. You’re opposed to civil rights legislation. You think the welfare state is communist. What exactly is the difference? Robert Welch had been a Taft delegate at the ’52 convention. What exactly is the difference between the two of you? Where do you disagree on the issues?” I think it’s a valid question. What’s your answer to that, by the way?
Geoff Kabaservice: Well, there’s that famous letter that I’ve quoted from and that you know well, where Buckley was basically not so much concerned about liberal opinion as he was about what he called “the moderate, wishy-washy conservatives.” And he said that if they come to feel that the Republican Party endorses the crazy conspiracy theories of the John Birch Society, “they will pass by Crackpot Alley and they will not pause until they feel the warm embrace of those way over on the other side, the liberals.”
And so there was a reputational issue here. And I think Buckley, after his pseudo-revolutionary youth, came to understand something more about the reality of power in this country and the need for respectability. And it’s the conservative movement having forgotten that there is such a thing as respectability and that it’s important to winning elections, particularly where the middle class is concerned, that really has changed our politics.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yeah. Well, that’s a very good point. I’m glad you reminded me of that letter. And it’s true: Bill was brilliantly pragmatic. The adjective of most disdain he would use was “quixotic.” And it’s interesting because he would push an extreme position pretty far, and yet he would know when to draw back. There’s a good moment when he was bringing Bill Rusher, who was then a lawyer, over to National Review because they needed a publisher. So they’d been publishing for a couple of years, and Bill was terrible at these decisions. He was a terrible businessman just like his father. His father made millions in oil but lost many millions more. He would hire the wrong people. He would be taken in by every hustler. And this happened to Bill a lot too. You can make the case that Bill was taken in by McCarthy and Roy Cohn. I mean, that’s not an extravagant case to make.
Bill Rusher liked to tell the story… He told it to me, and I think he told it to other interviewers as well. So Bill was recruiting Rusher. They needed a publisher and he thought that Rusher… And that was a brilliant insight of Buckley’s, that this guy would be good at that. He’s very meticulous. He’ll keep records. Bill Rusher had a little black notebook he’d write everything in. He’s very meticulous. So Rusher, as you know, because you quote that famous letter in your book where Rusher describes how he lost his innocence as an establishment Republican, Mr. Republican, when he heard Nixon go after McCarthy during the McCarthy hearings or during the McCarthy controversy. And Nixon didn’t mention him by name, but he’d been forced by Eisenhower to go out and essentially appease Adlai Stevenson by saying, “No, we don’t accept this stuff.”
Nixon didn’t want to give the speech, as you know, but he was forced to do it. And Bill Rusher heard it in a car coming back from the Hamptons, which is another side of Bill Rusher we won’t get into right now. So then he goes to Bill Buckley, and when he meets with Bill Buckley, he pulls out of his wallet a piece of paper. He had cut out of the New York Times — you probably know this — the names of all 22 Republicans who voted to censure McCarthy. Interesting to keep in mind with the acquittal vote for Trump. So we know there were 44 Republicans in the Senate. Half of them voted to censure McCarthy, half of them voted not to. And Bill Rusher had circled all the names of those who had voted to censure McCarthy.
And he said to Bill, and I think he said this to others, too, “Those are the people I want to go after.” And Bill Buckley said, “No, we’re not going to do that.” And he was surprised because here’s a guy who’s written the book defending McCarthy. But Bill knows you don’t do that. If you look at the commemorative issue National Review put out, that massive obituary they did for McCarthy after he died, it had pieces by Willi Schlamm (whom we haven’t discussed), who was really the most intense of the pro-McCarthyites and founded the magazine with Bill — a really underrated and overlooked figure, Schlamm. And Brent Bozell wrote a piece because he’d been a speechwriter for McCarthy. They both wrote very sentimentally and affectionately about McCarthy.
Bill’s piece is much colder. It’s just an editorial that says, “Well, his enemies got him. This is the problem with liberalism.” But there’s not one word of affection for him that indicates personal connection when he actually felt it as much as the others. And they owed McCarthy a great deal.
I want to add something here, Geoff, because this is where guys like you and me have to set the record straight. There are people out there saying — they tend to be ex-Republicans, Never Trumpers and people like that — “Well, history remembers who did not vote to censure Joe McCarthy.” Goldwater did not vote to censure McCarthy. Everett Dirksen did not vote to censure McCarthy. And those are the names we’re being told right now are the great Republicans, right? Because Dirksen helped put through the Civil Rights Act and Goldwater did become this great, humane guy later in his life.
This episode, however bad it is, may not define somebody’s career forever. Those are the things we want to think. But you could come out of that episode. And that’s the nearest, that’s where the analogy is being drawn, the McCarthy censure and the Trump (because there was even talk of a Trump censure), the second Trump acquittal. No, you could be on the other side and have a perfectly fine career. You can go the Lindsey Graham way and you may end up fine four years from now. It’s not to say I agree with this. It’s just that we need to be realistic about it, I think.
Geoff Kabaservice: I’ve been rereading some of Bill Buckley’s interviews from the early ‘70s, and in particular, the collection Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr. And like a lot of other people, I’ve been struck by a quote in there that Buckley says in an interview, I think with Playboy in 1970, that “Conservatism is the politics of reality.”
And here we are today with Donald Trump having maintained this Big Lie that he actually won the election in a landslide. And although he can’t prove it in a court of law, somehow or other the Democrats stole it all in the context of this huge collusion of unnamed actors. It’s anything but the politics of reality.
So I guess the question is to what extent is Buckley responsible for the turn of the conservative movement towards conspiratorial thinking, away from empiricism, toward just insane division and polarization, and eventually toward Donald Trump? What kind of responsibility does he bear for what his movement has become?
Sam Tanenhaus: Well, it’s a really big question. Because, again, Bill at times represented the very best of it. Bill endorsed liberal Democrats, as you know, who ran for Congress, if he happened to like them. And he thought, by the way, that it was good for the country. The mature Bill Buckley’s very different from the younger Bill Buckley. And of course, that will bother some readers of mine. I think some conservatives will say, “Oh, this is another liberal who wants to say Bill Buckley was okay once he became a liberal too.”
I think it’s fair to say Bill Buckley never became a liberal. He did have a real feel for where the sources of power were, and respectability. Also he did not like conspiracy theories. He was allergic to them. And for listeners who are interested, you can Google Bill Buckley, Donald Trump, and Cigar Aficionado and see the one piece Bill ever wrote about Trump, which is quite prescient. He says, “This is a narcissist we don’t want in politics.”
Remember, Donald Trump’s first try at the presidency was when he was defeated by Patrick Buchanan for the nomination of Ross Perot’s Reform Party. All of that, I think, Bill Buckley would have a problem with. See, I wonder what Bill would have made of Barack Obama. Because there was an interview in that same period, there’s a Life magazine interview from 1970 or ’71, where Bill Buckley says, “You know what the country needs? We could use an African-American president.” He said, “That’s what much of the country would really benefit from.”
Now, as my wife was saying the other day, “Well, he’d like a conservative. He’d like a Republican African American.” Okay. That’s okay. So in that sense, he did have a feel for… The civic part of our culture, I think, was very real for him. I talked to a friend of mine who went to high school in, I guess it was in Greenwich, and Bill spoke. This is my friend Alan Cullison, who’s at the Wall Street Journal, who is much younger than I, a good eight or 10 years younger than I. He’s probably your age. But at any rate, he said Bill Buckley spoke at his graduation. And he said what struck him was how patriotic he was, how much he loved America. And I do think that it’s hard not to hear a contempt and indifference to our great political tradition in a lot of the stuff that comes out of the Right. It’s really hard for me to fathom that Bill Buckley would go along with someone who is, as you say, promulgating this utter falsehood and exploiting the gullibility of millions of people. He might have been less surprised by it than some others because he thought there was a lot of demagoguery in politics.
Remember, he and Burnham both used the term, the adjective “democratist,” as if… And Burnham would write about “plebiscitary democracy” — by that, he meant elections. “Well, we have the danger of the plebiscitary vote,” meaning that everybody gets to vote. Well, it goes back to that idea that we were a republic initially and we evolved into a democracy.
You know, Harry Jaffa’s convinced that Garry Wills hates Lincoln (although he wrote a classic on Lincoln at Gettysburg) because Wills makes the argument that Lincoln shifted the debate a little bit away from Madison and back toward Jefferson in the Declaration. And Harry is one of the… You know, he’s a Straussian, so he’s very single-minded — I say “he is,” but he died a few years ago — and convinced that anybody who didn’t agree with him was his enemy.
But there was this side of Buckley and company that Harry Jaffa was right about that was kind of Calhounist and about protecting entrenched groups and all the rest. But they also believed… Bill Buckley was a Catholic and he very much believed in the Catechism.
He was genuinely curious. Willmoore Kendall said Bill Buckley was the greatest conversationalist alive. What he meant was he was the greatest listener alive. Willmoore Kendall did all the talking but Bill was a great listener — and Wills says this, too, in his memoirs. He would listen to everything that you said. My wife and I found this. When we would go to visit Bill we were nobodies, just starting the Chambers book, I hadn’t done anything. And yet he took an interest in us. And he would say, “Well, what do you think?” Or, “What are you reading?” “Oh, really. Did you do that?”
John Leonard’s widow told me — his first widow, he was married twice — that when she went to the Buckleys’ house when John started working for them, she had gone to Radcliffe and she said all the professors ever told her was, “When you get out of here, you’ll make a good wife with a fancy degree.” Bill Buckley would say, “Well, where are you from? Where’s your family from? Oh, you play the piano? Well, here, I have one. What are you interested in?” And he had that quality.
Well, Geoff, enlarge that. See him as a civic presence enlarged out of his personality. What do you have? You have somebody who would say, “Who is this Barack Obama? How does he write that well? How can he be a literary man who’s involved in politics?” He’d read the memoir and see it, see the quality there. And then you begin to realize, okay, this is a different kind of guy. I think it was his sensibility, in part, as well as his idea of, yes, establishment and credentials and all those things, but also the artist in him, I think. Or maybe that’s my romanization of him. But I think it was partly the writer, the observer. He’d always comment on… I don’t know if he did this to you, but he’d always say to me, “You look terrible.” He didn’t like — my skin looked bad or whatever, not that I’m ever a non-terrible-looking guy. But he was particularly attuned to that. He was just a very sensitive and delicate nature. I think that’s one reason he didn’t learn more about what was going on in the South. He didn’t want to know.
Geoff Kabaservice: Here’s a last question for you, then, Sam. Do you think there is a possibility that we will see, in our lifetimes, a conservatism that reflects more of Bill Buckley’s positive qualities than the negative legacies that we’ve talked about today?
Sam Tanenhaus: You’re so much younger than I am, so maybe in your lifetime. You know, I look for it. I listen for it. You tell me. You wrote the classic book. You wrote the best book on the modern Republican Party, its factional discords. I’ve written about it, reviewed in the New York Review of Books. I’ve read it very closely. I cite in the book I’ve got now. You tell me. Where do you see it? I know you’re helping run a think tank that is committed to this. I know Margaret Hoover is committed to this and there are lots of people who are. But do you see them politically? Where are they?
Geoff Kabaservice: I sure don’t see them politically. But I don’t know that you would have looked at Buckley for the first 30 years of his existence and necessarily have thought that he would have come to some of the places he did later, or that there would have been this kind of moderation. I think of a quote Buckley wrote to one of his associates… He said something to the effect that, “I’ve recently been having to negotiate with my 15 year-old son, Christopher, regarding whom I suppose I possess weapons as definitive as any of those at the disposal of the nuclearists in the Pentagon. But I found myself — not temporizing, that’s the bad word. But calculating, figuring, reckoning. I do think it is part of the conservative function to do that.”
And I think that if the conservatives see themselves losing badly enough in the political arena, they will come back to that sense of realism that Buckley did (at least periodically) embrace. But I think it’s probably not going to happen unless there is a sustained period of defeat.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yeah, it might take that. And it could be a few cycles. It’s a very interesting question. It’s an idea that’s been on my mind for other reasons and something I’ve thought about writing. It partly comes out of the career of Robert Penn Warren.
And there’s a new wave of literature you may be aware of, literary criticism, that looks at some of the white Southern writers on race — William Styron was another one — and how remarkable they were because they saw this big thing that needed to be looked at. This idea of atonement is very much in my mind because we hear a lot about guilt — anti-racism and guilt — and I’m thinking, “Well, that’s not really what imaginative people do. What imaginative people do is recreate the thing that they know.” Bill Buckley had the imagination of an artist. Once he got inside the conservative movement and once he was leading it, he’s looking all the different places he can go: “Who do we want on our side?” When he first meets a Wills or a Leonard or Joan Didion and he says, “Okay, they don’t get politics but we want their prose in our magazine.”
Well, you can do the analogy. You can do it politically. You can say, “You know what? They’re going to vote oppositely on almost everything that matters, but if they call themselves conservatives, let’s bring them in.” That’s what Whitaker Chambers did. He was the dissenting voice in the early National Reviews. He’s the one who sided with the Arabs in the Suez crisis. He’s the one who says, “Sputnik is a revelation and we have to realize the Soviets are not these automatons we think they are. We have to look again at the Soviet revolution.” He quit the magazine because he didn’t like Bill’s attack on Khrushchev when Khrushchev made that ridiculous speech in the United Nations calling for disarmament. Whitaker Chambers believed him. He thought it was really true and he quit the magazine over that.
But Bill Buckley didn’t see why Chambers should leave. He’d say, “Who cares?” He had a great phrase… He called them “disputes among monks.” Remember when he said that to Willi Schlamm? He said, “Why are you fighting with Burnham? You agree about all the things that matter. These are disputes among monks.” Well, if you see your monastery as being big enough, there are all kinds of brothers you can bring in. And nowadays you have the convent there, too, so you have brothers and sisters. And Bill was not a big tent in the way that party operators are where you’re just, it’s entirely transactional. I don’t think Bill Buckley was transactional in that way: you give me something and I’ll give you something. It’s more, “Well, maybe there’s something we actually agree about.” There is a weird consensus thing that he had.
The last thing I’ll say, and then… I know I’ve overstayed my welcome here. Have you ever seen, Geoff, the piece Bill wrote for Kissinger’s magazine Confluence? The one that Kissinger turned down? Remember that?
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes.
Sam Tanenhaus: Yeah. He wants to make the case for McCarthy that liberals might find palatable. Do you remember this? And what he said is, “Look, we don’t want to have these witch hunts either. We really don’t. We agree. Let’s have an end to the hunting for scalps.” Now, he’s going to want to get there in a different way, but he gets that that’s what liberals want to hear. And remember, Kissinger turned the article down, but we know why he turned it down: it’s because Galbraith and Schlesinger were on the board. And they, of course, became friends of Bill Buckley’s, but they weren’t yet. Kissinger knew he was going to get in trouble. Kissinger really was an opportunist and careerist in a way that Bill wasn’t, and so he was calculating the angles all the time, not in a way that Bill did.
I’ll tell you one last thing Bill said to Kissinger when they had lunch. Kissinger said to Buckley, “You know, why is it that you people on the right” — because Henry was then this kind of Cold War liberal type, and his idea of winning the war was to have limited nuclear… It all sounds crazy today; I would never write about Whitaker Chambers today, nobody would want to hear about this stuff. But when I wrote it, it seemed interesting. Kissinger says to Buckley, “Tell me something… ” Because he sees he can really talk to Buckley, which is what other people found. “Why is it everybody on the right is so vitriolic and ad hominem? That doesn’t happen with liberals.” And Bill Buckley, with that great shark’s grin — and Kissinger could remember this verbatim a zillion years later — he looked at Kissinger and he said, “They haven’t calibrated you yet.” And he said, “I never forgot that.” Because then the liberals went after Kissinger too.
Geoff Kabaservice: Buckley’s actually invoked at the Niskanen Center because in some ways he actually is the exemplar of a kind of person who can take a marginalized political movement and build it into something that eventually gains power. And there was a comment that Buckley made maybe in the early ‘60s — I don’t remember exactly when — when he was asked by a skeptical interviewer, “Why are you doing this? You’re just meeting with defeat after defeat. You’re never going to get anywhere.” And his response was, “You know, what we’re doing is we’re on an island and we are preparing a landing strip. And there aren’t planes here now, but eventually they will land and when they do land, we will have coffee and Cokes.” And I think in the same way, we are making ready for the potential visitors to our little island of center-right, empirically-oriented, policy-interested kind of politics. And in that sense, Buckley actually provides a useful model.
Sam Tanenhaus: That’s very interesting. I hadn’t thought of that. Makes perfect sense. Yeah. Yeah. And then a lot of his virtues come into play: that he’s flexible, he’s open to the discussion, he admires brains. Look at the figures in the Nixon cabinet Buckley liked best, Kissinger and Moynihan. And they were probably the two most liberal in a lot of ways. (There was Finch but he kind of faded out.) This new book by John Price, which is coming out, has some of this material in it. Bill really liked … He liked the two smartest guys. There is an aristocracy of intellect.
It sounds ridiculous, but I’m very proud of being someone that Bill Buckley sort of — I don’t want to inflate myself — but sort of encouraged, let’s say, as a writer when nobody else was. I was young, early thirties. I wasn’t getting anywhere or doing anything. And I felt that Bill Buckley’s interest in me made a difference. So I feel as if I am one of his acolytes. Garry Wills still speaks with utmost admiration and affection for Bill Buckley. You don’t see it in much of the writing, but if you talk to him the way I do… It’s his generosity, it’s his wit, it’s his ingratiating quality, it’s his openness. It’s all these things. It’s the temperament, the really first-class temperament. Buckley had that beyond anyone else.
Sam Tanenhaus: When he was dealing with Kendall early on… Kendall was an established academic. The guy was stalled in his career but still, he’s an associate professor of political science at Yale. Bill’s his patron at college. He’s older than the typical undergraduate because he’d had two years, 22 months, in the military, as so many of them did. But Bill was his patron. Kendall knew Bill was bigger than he was as a person. They all did. They all did. They understood that Buckley was larger than they were, that he was larger in the ways that matter.
One of my favorite books — I’m rereading it for about the zillionth time right now — is Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station. It has those great portraits of Marx and Engels and Michelet and LaSalle, and it goes all the way through Lenin and Trotsky, and they’re very large figures. Buckley was that big. My book, before it gets cut, is going to be something like 2,000 pages long. It’s not because I’m indulging myself; I don’t think I’m that kind of writer. People look at my stuff… It’s not really about me. It’s him! He would sit in a professor’s class, quit after three because he doesn’t — like Paul Weiss, the philosopher — because he doesn’t want to do the reading, complain because the grade he got was too low when he makes it clear he has not read a single article or book in a course on philosophy and religion. And then he becomes Weiss’ champion and Weiss loves him — one of the first guests on “Firing Line”!
I met a guy early on when I was still working on Chambers… I went out to Stanford — you visited there, the beautiful house on Long Island Sound — and I’m having lunch and Bill says, “Well, here’s Ed Lindblom.” Wait a minute — that’s the Charles Lindblom who’s called every name in the book God and Man at Yale! I said to him, “What about that? Didn’t he sort of attack you in that book?” He said, “Oh, that’s Bill. Bill had to do that. I just stick my name in there. The book isn’t going to work if my name isn’t in it.” And there he is having lunch at Buckley’s house, being served by their Latina maids while Bill’s speaking Spanish to them.
Karl Hess has that great line… He said, “This guy should have been a Spanish aristocrat. That’s what he was raised to be. He was not raised to be an American conservative.” That’s the last point I’ll leave with you, that maybe one solution to all of this: maybe the genius comes from some totally unexpected place. And your job, our job — and I say “our,” I mean just as people who are interested observers, not commentators, observer in my case, just watching — is just to keep our eyes open. Because you don’t know where the really interesting mind or argument is going to come from — or political candidate, somebody who puts things together in a way you haven’t really heard before, who’s able to cut through very complicated, divisive issues with some very simple statement.
Look at Obama in 2004 with his “We’re not red states and we’re not blue states.” The “politics of hope,” as you know, comes right out of Schlesinger’s book in the Kennedy years. But that other thing… I think it was Deval Patrick, actually; he took it from him. But he knew it was there, he knew how to use it. He said it at the right time and it started something. Maybe that’s all it takes. But our job, again, is to be listening. I asked Mike Kinsley once, back when he was doing a lot of stuff and I had just started with the Times Book Review and he’d written a piece for us. I said, “What about the internet?” He said, “Well, the internet creates a lot of mouths. It doesn’t create a lot of ears.”
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s a good note, Sam, on which to end. Bill Buckley is, indeed, a big subject — one deserving of a 2,000-page book!
Sam Tanenhaus: They’re going to kill me.
Geoff Kabaservice: Whatever length it comes to be, I’m sure we will all eagerly await it and receive it rapturously. So thank you so much for being with me today, Sam. And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast from the Niskanen Center. Stay tuned.
Series: Reagan White House Photographs, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989Collection: White House Photographic Collection, 1/20/1981 – 1/20/1989, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons