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.

Advertisements