There are a lot of myths that surround William F. Buckley Jr., and they will no doubt be out in force in the next several days. The first is that is that there were no conservatives or no conservative movement in this country before he started the National Review in 1955. Conservatives, in the person of Robert Taft, nearly captured the 1952 Republican nomination, still dominated the solid Democratic South, Joe McCarthy was doing his thing, and conservatives generally had generally given liberals fits since the beginning of the New Deal. Buckley’s obituary in the Times quotes the famous statement by Lionel Trilling, that c. 1950 that there was no conservative tradition in this country. This represent’s Trilling’s myopia, and a Saul Steinbergesque view of the United States, but is not an accurate assessment of the strength of conservatism at mid-century.
The second myth is that Buckley was the most important figure in the growth of a conservative movement in this country. He had his role, but conservative apologists love to point to the elegant, witty, and charming Buckley as the key figure in the conservative revival, to the neglect of the person who really was the key person, George Wallace, who showed in 1964 and 1968 that a link between a mildly post-Jim Crow South and conservative northern populism was a potent political combination, and it is populism, and not Buckley’s pseudo-aristocratic elitism that became the basis of the modern conservative movement. Nixon, Reagan, and the two Bushes are the political descendants of George Wallace, and not William F. Buckley. If Buckley accomplished anything, it was in making this coalition, the famous southern strategy, intellectually respectable in circles where this mattered, but part of the success of modern conservatism was its indifference or hostility to the sort of respectability a cultural mandarin like Lionel Trilling could bestow in the first place.
Buckley did fight a few good fights, certainly against anti-Semitism on the right, and the addled conspiracy theorists of the John Birch society, but I suspect his greatest political achievement was in the destruction of the Old “isolationist” Right, that had been suspicious of US entry into WWII, and was, in the early 1950s, in the person of people like Murray Rothbard, suspicious of the excesses of the Cold War as well. This opposition by the Old Right to all overseas ventures by the US at least had the virtue of consistency. But Buckley effectively marginalized these voices on the right, and set up what has been the essential contradiction of modern conservatism ever since; a commitment to small government and low taxes, along side an expansive and expensive view of the role of the US military in defeating communism, terrorism, or whatever the latest enemy is deemed to be. This contradiction is central to the Bush administration, and indeed to modern conservatism as a whole, and Buckley was a key figure in creating this muddle, which has bogged us down in needless wars time and again.
Oh, he may have been witty and charming, and genuinely enjoyed serious intellectual give and take in a way that is rare in the world today. I miss “The Firing Line,” and he evidently harbored serious doubts about war in Iraq. I wish he had invited me to sail on his yacht. But if I had to find one phrase to sum up the career of William F. Buckley, it would probably be “war-monger.”