Two Takes on Bill Buckley and a Look at the Future of the Right

WFB’s memorial service was yesterday. Matthew Richer and Austin Bramwell offer some reflections on the man they knew — lightly in Richer’s case, somewhat better in Bramwell’s. As you might anticipate from the venue, Richer’s VDARE commentary is rather scathing. Bramwell is affectionate but also judicious; this bit from his article is particularly revealing:

The net result of his divesting himself of control of National Review was to turn over ownership of the magazine to its employees. Today, Rich Lowry is the editor-owner of National Review to nearly the same extent that Buckley himself was. Lowry is by no means an untalented journalist. Nevertheless, it is unlikely that anybody would have chosen him as the man to control NR for the next fifty years. This result could have been avoided, if Buckley had cared enough to prevent it. As far as I could tell, however, he did know enough about NR even to begin to have any influence. His ignorance of the affairs of his own magazine at times astonished me. Although Bill congratulated me on my criticisms of movement conservatism and spoke candidly of its failings, its future simply did not concern him.

Meanwhile, the American Spectator blog has several items up — by Christopher Orlet, J.P. Freire, and Jim Antle — on Jeff Hart’s recent Buckley reminiscence in TAC and what it indicates about the future of the conservative movement. Daniel Larison comments as well.

Orlet asks whether a movement with as much young talent as conservatism has can really be doomed. Of course it can. Young journalists are one thing, but there’s no young Willmoore Kendall or young James Burnham or young Frank Meyer on the scene. No, I wouldn’t expect a 20-year-old or a 30-year-old to have the gravity of any of those thinkers — but even looking at our 40-year-olds and 50-year-olds, I can’t think of too many who are of much significance as theorists or academics. Some of the “Catholic Straussians” fit into that age cohort and are notable, but the best of them, Patrick Deneen, is at his best when he’s furthest from movement conservatism. There are some keen minds among the generation of conservatives ages 25 to 60, but few of them seem as keen as the minds of the conservatives who are in their 60s or older. (Maybe that’s not quite right: you could get another Stephen Tonsor or another Jeffrey Hart. But you won’t get another Robert Nisbet, I suspect.)

Part of the problem on the theoretical side is that too many of the best young minds in conservatism have followed Buckley’s example by shunning grad school and embracing journalism or the movement instead. That’s what I’ve done. (Daniel Larison is one of the few who hasn’t — he’s somehow writing more than anyone else and getting a Ph.D. too.)

In politics, the situation is even more embarrassing for conservatives. The failure to produce a single conservative leader of a caliber even close to Goldwater or Reagan (as flawed as both of them were) over the course of some five decades — for that’s how long the movement has been around — is conspicuous. Nobody who came out of Young Americans for Freedom went on to become a leading politician. Former College Republicans heads turn into backroom strategists like Ralph Reed and Karl Rove, advisers to awful politicians rather than awful politicians themselves. It’s ironic that a movement that become increasingly political over time has never become any better at cultivating young statesmen. Mostly, it just creates hacks and para-politicians; campaign managers rather than candidates.

There’s a silver lining to all of this. The conservative movement has gone so far off the rails over the last half-century that a wholesale reconstruction is in order, if not a replacement of the movement by something else. There’s some real intellectual fermentation going on in the exile quarters of the Right — among reactionary radicals and some of the more daring libertarians. This fermentation actually looks a lot like the Old Right, in the sense that it’s producing journalists who are more than just journalists (I’m thinking of people like Mencken or Bill Kauffman) and may yet produce some theorists. With the Ron Paul movement, it may have created some statesmen, too, though it will take some time to find out who they might be. For now, this alternative Right is more hoped-for than apparent, but it has the right ideas, and that’s more than can be said for the Bush-McCain movement.


10 thoughts on “Two Takes on Bill Buckley and a Look at the Future of the Right

  1. John April 6, 2008 / 9:00 pm

    How about Andrew Bacevich? I’m not all that familiar with his work, but what I’ve read seems to me to be exactly what conservatives need to be doing more of. For example, the brief “definition” he gives of conservatism at the start of his TAC article on Obama is strikingly superior to the “three-legged stool” nonsense we were getting from the Presidential candidates.

  2. Scott Lahti April 6, 2008 / 10:09 pm

    So much to engage in just one post; here goes nothing:

    Much of the murkiness one sees in many attempts at judicious reckoning of the changing fortunes of the vast and noisy rightward rump in our midst stem from disproportionate immersion in and identification with the “movement” itself, and from a disproportionate and allied “presentism” as disabling as the amnesia of the culture at large. This is where having as one’s primary allegiances and center of gravity not the galaxy chronicled front and center in, say, the George Nash book, but those at its margins – Robert Nisbet, John Lukacs, and beyond them Jacques Barzun, Albert Jay Nock and Ortega y Gasset, and beyond them Goethe and Montaigne, say – comes in handy. One thinks also of Nock’s dictum that one cannot be both a politicker and a philosopher: try and imagine, say, before reaching for the sickbag, Nock on Hannity and Colmes…

    Too often, there is a sort of looking back in sorrow among the paleo crowd, an elegiac rearguard echo of Kipling’s “All our pomp of yesterday/Is one with Nineveh and Tyre”, or, worse, a “say it ain’t so, Joe” disillusionment, when a bit more skepticism and stoicism, and distancing from one’s reflexive attachments ought be the order of the day and life. One needs to grasp above all the fact that orbit of talent, such as it is, within the conservative movement is a function of the larger culture in its historical moment spawning it.

    One also thinks back to a passage from Goethe’s Conversations With Eckermann, quoted by Robert Nisbet in Prejudices, to the effect that genius of the first order does not appear in splendid isolation, but as the highest peaks within the larger mountain range spawning it in organic, dynamic interaction: Shakespeare, yes, but not without Jonson, Marlowe, &c., the works of which latter, set in any other Bard-free time, would have easily qualified as the very Shakespeares of their transplanted eras…

    Back in ’02, I had an on-air three-way on C-SPAN with columnist Mona Charen, and my old Pentagon City-Brentano’s bookstore customer, and C-SPAN chief Brian Lamb. Over the phone, I asked Charen to compare the stature of the right-wing generation of the mid-1950s with that found in our current decade. Her diplomatic reply saluted the earlier cohort as giants, whose necessary moral and intellectual heavy lifting in historical time was denied those whose rise amid, say, 1970s suburbia allowed them to coast, comparatively. The 50s crowd was elbow-deep in the fight not just against Roosevelt, et al, but against Hitler and Stalin, and had at its back the immense gale of Winston Churchill.

    The 1990s- crowd was hip-deep in the fight against President Clinton, and had at its back the immense wind of…Rush Limbaugh.

    My comparison, not that of Charen, who went on to say that what the movement lacked in cerebral heft it made up in the kaleidoscope proliferation of outlets for its energies, across print, deep-pocketed think-tank, radio, cable, internet, &c. That sort of safety-in-numbers triumphalism is of a piece with Buckley’s strategic decision in the early 1970s to embrace the dissident social-science liberals of the budding “neoconservative” cohort whose dexterous number-crunching in empirical assessment of Great Society programs, he felt, provided a more persuasive blow to the empire of liberalism than the more literary/philosophic, courtly abstractionists of old. So we faced a corollary of the veteran quantity v quality debates stretching back to the early days of the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of mass society, of utility v soul, Mill v Ruskin or Kierkegaard, &c.

    I’ve often said to my (imaginary) Democrat friends pining for “another FDR” or another Lincoln (!) what I might say to my (equally imaginary) friends in the right-wing ghetto who pine for “another Buckley”: you don’t get another FDR without another Depression and Hitler to blow breath into his clay, and as for another Lincoln, well, good luck with *that* renewal of “National Greatness Conservatism”; I’ll take the flabby 2000s over the “heroic” 1860s for my home, thanks all the same, and confine my bloody shirts to the backyard barbecue…

    As to the long-term future of the movement, it helps, I think, to recall the line from Rush (the Canadian trio, not the slave-attracting gasbag from the wireless): “He knows changes aren’t permanent/But change is.” There was always something comically Quixotic about WFB’s famously defiant *cri de combat* to “stand athwart History, yelling Stop”; as the mall-rats say in their
    “text messages”: As If! At some point, you have to stop fighting the general process of change as a reflex, and make the most of it in all its bracing exhilaration; I can easily imagine Goethe or even Blake, on a cheap-day return to our day, marveling at the tools afforded the artist by PC-age technology, just as I see the rise of the modern welfare state as the organic spawn of the sort of rip-roaring industrialism otherwise embraced by the libertarian orthodox.

    Irving Kristol and Gertrude Himmelfarb came into my Brentano’s in mid-July 1993; I grasped their identity in seeing Irving’s name on his credit card as I rang up the Nancy Drew mysteries the two had chosen for their granddaughter. “I’ve been following your work since Encounter magazine back in the 50s,” I said to the Godfather of Neoconservatism. “That’s funny – you don’t look that old” came his puckish reply. I voiced my lament over the demise in 1990 of what had been in its day, CIA back-channel funding or no, far and away the most distinguished intellectual monthly of the postwar decades. He replied with becoming and stoic equanimity to the effect that all things human are destined to die.

    Quite so. The conservative movement as we have watched it this past half-century will suffer a decent burial as well, no tears necessary. Did not Buckley himself say, in that goosing of the recent National Review cruise in The New Republic by Johann Hari, that the movement whose fractious orchestra he assemled and conducted for a time, was no failure as posed in Hari’s pointed question, but had achieved its twin aims of seeing off Soviet Communism, and domestic socialism generally. Then he and N-Pod bade fair to re-enact 1968 punch-up, shipboard-wine-fuled to suit, over Iraq, and we all laughed to see such sport…

    Any great vein of ore will eventually suffer diminishing returns after an initial mother lode and her progressively more pint-sized spawn, yes? Comes a Mises, then a Rothbard, then a Nest of Rothbardians, then…Comes a Buckley, then an O’Sullivan (John, not Gilbert “Alone again, Naturally” O’S.), then a Lowry…pointless to blame the successors for not measuring up to the singularity of the figure cut in our general culture by WFB, ornament as he was among a galaxy of a dozen like novae – Julia Child, Dick Cavett, Alistair Cooke, Kenneth Clark and Jacob Bronowski, the Upstairs, Downstairs menage, the Pythons, Carl Sagan – who made of PBS in the 1970s a neither-before-nor since comet in US television.

    Speaking of historic magazines and whether they last, think on just how seldom it is that they are born among us, let alone last, and that they do so in time-bundled clusters: the 1850s/1860s for Harper’s, The Atlantic and The Nation, the 1910s for The New Republic, the 1920s for Reader’s Digest, Time and The New Yorker (and The American Mercury, which morphed over two post-Mencken decades unto a long, slow death)…Partisan Review in the 1930s…then the 1950s for Playboy and National Review…the 1960s for The New York Review of Books…and plenty of sound and fury since then on the consumer racks, but no new signifying historic pillars after the Mr. Peabody-like parade sketched above…a bit of fun for you kids sometime: browse through a stack of old Reader’s Digests from the first two decades, 1922-1941, chockablock with Nock and Mencken and Hazlitt, and Krutch, &c…then pass your time in line at Target and Mal-Wart with today’s cheese-puffed “Reader’s” Digest…O wot fun! There’s plenty of good stuff to read at large in our culture, just not necessarily within the old pockets, and certainly not within the mainline precincts of political or economic journalism: if you want some of the old-style cream from the general culture, save on subscriptions and peruse, e.g., Houghton Mifflin annuals The Best American Essays, The Best American Spiritual Writing, and The Best American Science and Nature Writing, whose promotion of “conservate” values is of a sort undreamed within the vast right-wing ghetto…

  3. Daniel McCarthy April 8, 2008 / 5:53 am

    Bacevich is a good suggestion, John.

    I’m inclined to agree with much of Scott’s analysis, particularly the remark he relates from Irving Kristol: everything human dies. And — this sounds like something euthanasia-related, but I’m just writing metaphorically — better a natural death than an artificially prolonged life. Better that the original Freeman expired in 1924 than if it had suffered the fate of the Mercury, hobbling along, shifting identities with every new editor, and eventually becoming a disgrace to its former self. Unfortunately, I think conservatism will probably follow the Mercury trajectory, and in a worse way, too.

    The currency is losing its value, the empire is crumbling but nobody wants to give it up, the great spiritual and civic institutions of the country and of Western civilization are in shoddy shape, and human beings in general, always a bad lot, become more treacherous and venal every day. It would be nice if there were any resistance to these trends, which is what I take the role of a serious conservatism (whatever it might be called) to be.

  4. R J Stove April 8, 2008 / 9:11 am

    Daniel McCarthy writes:

    “This fermentation actually looks a lot like the Old Right, in the sense that it’s producing journalists who are more than just journalists (I’m thinking of people like Mencken or Bill Kauffman) and may yet produce some theorists.”

    Good point about “journalists who are more than just journalists”. That describes Bill Kauffman, in particular, well. I’ve just been reading, belatedly, his fascinating and often laugh-out-loud Look Homeward America.

    Incidentally, among those writers of the Old Right who did go on to grad school was one whom Dan doesn’t mention in his original post: that’s to say, Russell Kirk. And Kirk left his native country altogether for a while, completing his doctorate in Scotland.

    Perhaps a similar geographical uprooting, in the pursuit of doctoral-level education, will be a necessary procedure for younger authors too. Indeed, even the stupidest Beltway neocon might benefit from having to carry out some serious study in, for instance, Continental Europe. Preferably a part of Continental Europe where they don’t automatically speak English.

  5. Daniel McCarthy April 8, 2008 / 5:12 pm

    International ties were important to Mencken and Nock too — not that they studied abroad formally, but both kept in tune with the European intellectual scene. Whatever epigones the Old Right may have today could benefit from more contact with Europe. There’s some already, but more would only be beneficial.

  6. Scott Lahti April 8, 2008 / 10:02 pm

    Speaking of periodicals enriched by European ideas, I hope you all have in your libraries the Liberty Fund editions of the quarter-century Modern Age anthology edited by George Panichas, and the volume housing the full run of The New Individualist Review, 1961-68, which volumes I now see for sale via for as little as four dollars and nine dollars respectively:

    Both collections are absolute musts for all those seeking their bearings within the content of this thread and web site, as a few moments perusing their respective Contents pages reveal blindingly and at once. I envy those about to buy or borrow either, or, ideally, both.

  7. Skemo April 11, 2008 / 5:12 am

    Conservatism doesn’t derive it’s meaning from a group of individuals, its a set of ideals that spring from the very vestiges of the American Experience. Conservatism will never die, its part of us as much as breathing, we were founded on the ideal that We The People control the future of this nation, and within those quiet words rests a solemn truth, people will always stand athwart the anvil of history willing to stop the trendy ideals of “progress.” Weather an Ivory Tower liberal will admit, we are a conservative nation, and tax and spend liberals like Hillary and Obama are a fleeting group, they believe they have the ear of the people, they only have a loud minority. Buckley lives on and his ideals will live on, he will never be lost and he most certainly will not be forgotten.

  8. a young curmudgeon April 22, 2008 / 4:10 am

    What great posts by Scott Lahti. I’ve just received my copy of the Modern Age anthology. Unfortunately I have to prepare term papers, and the lure to read Modern Age is distracting me from my more formal commitments. Thank you for the pointer.

  9. Bariatric Surgery November 24, 2010 / 8:17 pm

    what i like about cable internet is that it is almost immune to electrical noise which always degrades DSL lines `-`

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