A Born Teacher

A review of Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides from National Review by William F. Buckley, Jr., and of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the American Conservative Movement by Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne, Jr.

By Daniel Oliver

The Claremont Review of Books

Spring 2008

A review of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the American Conservative Movement by Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne, Jr.; and Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription: Notes and Asides from National Review, by William F. Buckley, Jr.

George Will called National Review the most consequential journal of opinion ever. It remade America by reinvigorating its spirit of enterprise and renewing its courage to resist and overcome Communism. Every fortnight, NR published good copy by good writers. It promoted Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. But the key was editor William F. Buckley, Jr., who founded and nourished the conservative movement.

Bill Buckley died on February 27 at the age of 82, at his desk, hard at work on tomorrow (in this case, another book—his 56th) yet more prepared for this day than anyone of his friends had ever known. His health was as dreadful as his spirits were cheerful—he had emphysema, diabetes, could barely walk, couldn’t climb stairs, had fallen a few weeks before and broken his right wrist—but he worked on, almost compulsively. Why? “My father taught me that I owe it to my country. It’s how I pay my debt.” For a book-length disquisition, see his Gratitude: Reflections on What We Owe to Our Country (1990).

Now his country owes him thanks, for the political movement he created that changed America and the world. By the late 1970s, the plain fact was that most practicing, effective conservatives were people who had been literally touched by Buckley—had received, so to speak, the laying on of hands. They had met Buckley, either at their college (he spoke at more than five hundred colleges) or at his house in Stamford, Connecticut, or in New York at the offices of National Review or at his apartment, or at any number of appearances he made around the country during his public career. Buckley was everywhere. And so, increasingly, were his followers.

Buckley probably never intended to create a conservative movement. But he seems to have had a sense that organization was necessary—that organizations were necessary. And his planting hand can be seen in a number of them—the Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute), the Philadelphia Society, Young Americans for Freedom, the Fund for American Studies. But the most important organization, of course, was the magazine.National Review was not just a beacon. It was also the rallying point for conservatives: the conservatives’ internet in the pre-internet age. In its pages writers could not only talk to laymen; they could also argue among themselves, honing the positions that, in time, would guide America into the National Review Age.

Buckley, as is now widely acknowledged, was the remarkable man behind it all—indeed, he was probably the most remarkable political man, certainly the most important intellectual political man, of the second half of the 20th century. He was clearly one of the greatest of what is now sometimes called the greatest generation. Strictly Right and Cancel YourOwn Goddam Subscription make that plain. Strictly Right is the storyline, Cancel provides us with some of the dialogue. Many of the now, er, mature movement conservatives know the Buckley story. But for many others, early, even middle, Buckley is ancient history. After all, National Review’s crowning success—the election of Ronald Reagan—took place 28 years ago. Many may be familiar with some of Buckley’s work, but they will not know the whole story of the precocious lad from—well, from a variety of places, a sufficient variety that his first language was Spanish, followed by…French.

Linda Bridges, National Review’s institutional memory (and former managing editor), and John Coyne, a former NR associate editor and writer, are fitting chroniclers. They were present, if not at the creation, then at least from about Deuteronomy on, so they have first-hand knowledge of the story they tell in Strictly Right, the story of a remarkable man and his time. Bridges and Coyne have given us a book that is both story and reference. They take us from WFB’s life before National Review, through forging the conservative movement, Goldwater for President, the raging ’60s, and on to, alas, all too close to the end: passing the torch. From their special vantage, they have written the biography of this great man, which is, therefore, part of the history of our time.

But the spirit of the man can be seen in the letters to and from him published in NR’s Notes & Asides, collected here inCancel Your Own Goddam Subscription. The title is from Buckley’s reply to an irate NR subscriber who wrote in saying, “Three cheers to Dr. Ross Terrill. He slashed you to bits as you have been doing to yourself for the past year. Cancel my subscription.” Buckley’s reply is vintage Buckley. And the book displays Buckley’s vintage friendship, and shows how seriously he took friendship. In the first chapter of Cancel, he recalls getting a letter “claiming to come from a high-school student, so stunningly precocious I thought it phony.” He published the letter and got to know young Edward Vasquez, who then wrote a bit for NR. When Vazquez went off to get a job, Buckley wrote a “To Whom It May Concern” letter of recommendation for him. “I know that he was accepted, and am sorry not to have had word from him since then, thirty-five years ago.” For Vazquez’s sake, I hope all these years he’s been in an order requiring monastic silence. There is an exchange with Eric Sevareid who says “My friendship is not easily given.” Buckley replied, “My friendship, by contrast, is easily given, but does not preclude concurrent disagreement.”

* * *

There was in Washington a number of years ago a prominent politician about whom it was said that even his friends didn’t like him. In Buckley’s case, even his (political) enemies did like him—John Kenneth Galbraith, Mike Wallace, and many more—though some may have been slower to come round than others. And with his friendly charm Buckley captivated the legions of college students who became the conservative movement. Charm was needed, because his arguments were hugely politically incorrect, long before “P.C.” had been invented.

Though P.C. was not around in the ’50s and ’60s, vitriol flowed freely. Some of the letters in Cancel are stunningly vitriolic, a point worth pondering in this political season. In the last few months, the pundits have been wilting at the charges hurled by the candidates at each other during the Democratic primaries. They have been shocked to hear former president Bill Clinton say nasty things about the young senator from Illinois. The impeached ex-president said that one of Senator Obama’s claims was a “fairy tale.” Ooo! Such ugliness the current American press has never heard. They should readCancel.

From A. Ruesthe (1967): “You are the mouthpiece of that evil rabble that depends on fraud, perjury, dirty tricks…. I would trust a snake before I would trust you or anybody you support.” From Richard Sharvy (1968) “You ridiculous ass…. [N]obody who matters pays any attention to clowns like you.” From Carl E. Jampel (1970): “You are a hateful un-Christian demagogue and a fit associate for loudmouth Rusher…. I don’t know whether the Lord should damn or save your little frightened cringing soul.” And from John R. Owen (1972): “The convincer in my decision to quit buying NR was the disgusting appearance of Editor Bill Buckley on TV with his seedy-looking Schickelgruber-Beatnik hairdo and sloppy-collared shirts, along with a retinue of whiney-snively-militant-Sodomite-looking punks.”

All that just fueled Buckley’s fire. I doubt it bothered him a bit. Besides, he had an agenda: stopping centralism, collectivism, secularism, and Communism. That agenda required nurturing, managing, and protecting the right wing, and that meant separating, when necessary, the irresponsible ideologues from the conservative mainstream. Buckley’s reading the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement (its leader said President Eisenhower was a Communist) was a major service to the conservative community.

Buckley also protected the anti-Communist Right by waging war with Linus Pauling. In 1963, Pauling, a Nobel Prize winner (later famous for pushing Vitamin C as a cold cure) whom James Burnham had called a fellow traveler (because he was one) sued National Review for libel. Pauling had been making a living by filing libel suits against people who called him that, the defendants tending to settle because that was cheaper than defending. Not Buckley, who spent vast sums to defeat Pauling in court, putting him out of business and making it safe for conservatives to call fellow travelers “fellow travelers.”

More skill, if less money, was required settling disputes among the in-house crowd. The question of whether to endorse Nixon in 1960 divided the senior editors of National Review about five to one—the one being not Buckley but James Burnham who favored, as always, what Buckley would later call the “rightwardmost viable candidate.” Buckley crafted the magazine’s editorial policy himself, neither endorsing nor rejecting Nixon, but saying either position was one a conservative could take—a high wire act that held the factions together. Nixon was always problematical for the Right, but Buckley thought he was incredibly bright. In 1967, Nixon told Buckley that he had learned two things from his race for governor in California in 1962 and from Goldwater’s campaign for the presidency: that you can’t win an important race with only the Right, and you can’t win without it.

In 1973 Buckley again managed, even if he did not soothe, warring factions when he defended George Will (“a callow young columnist without a lick of sense,” as Will later described himself—inaccurately) against the pro-Agnew crowd at NRand in Washington. Will had written a column for the magazine, “The Snicker Factor,” which was not a flattering picture of the vice president (Will had used the same analogy Buckley had used five years earlier: that Agnew was Nixon’s insurance policy). Some conservatives wanted Buckley to fire Will. Wisely, both at the time and, of course, in retrospect, Buckley refused to fire a fellow iconoclast, and one whose writing possessed, or was developing, Buckley’s own grace and style.

* * *

It is easy to forget, given his many other facets, that Buckley was also a master journalist. He could sit down and write exquisite copy hour after hour, day or night, in his office or on the fly, before breakfast or after a long evening of entertaining guests; and fortnight after fortnight he produced a journal—determining the content, assigning articles, editing copy, managing the Letters section—that was the bible of the conservative movement. He saw his calling as popularizing the thinking that had been done, not doing the abstract thinking himself. The movement—and America, and the world—is lucky he didn’t have a vanity that required a doctrine bearing his name.

In Cancel one finds no dreary doctrines but wit enough for a lifetime; and not just pretty little baubles in the air but wonderful instruction. Buckley was a born teacher (he once described his favorite occupation as correcting other people’s errors), in a world where the reigning Zeitgeist—central planning in its many guises—was one huge error. In a letter declining an invitation to appear on the television program Laugh-In he wrote, “I would rather be a comedian than a teacher, but it was not meant to be, and by dressing in the robes of the former, I diminish my usefulness as the latter.” In the end, he relented, swayed, perhaps, by the size of the audience and the teaching opportunity. Years later, he volunteered to teach writing for two semesters at his alma mater, Yale.

His ongoing battles with the New York Times, perhaps NR’s Public Enemy Number One, reveal his polemical enthusiasm—though Strictly Right quotes the magazine’s longtime publisher William A. Rusher’s remark, that no one at NR ever believed anything until it was reported in the New York Times.

His lessons on the proper use of English are far more entertaining than Fowler’s. To the correspondent who wrote “Don’t start a sentence with ‘and’…. I am beginning to wonder just how good (or bad) your high school was…,” Buckley replied, “Verses 2-26 and 28-31, Chapter I, Genesis, all begin with ‘And.’ The King James scholars went to pretty good high schools.” And then to a subsequent correspondent, “But my point wasn’t that the King James scholars correctly translated from the original, rather that they were the most influential writers in English history. The general rule is not to begin a sentence with “and”; the particular rule is that writers with a good ear know when to break the general rule.” Or as Buckley used to say around the offices of National Review, “Let your ear be your guide.” Uh-huh. Bet that’s what Bach said, too.

Buckley wrote a memo to the NR editors and staff, complaining about an “epidemic of exclamationitis.” “In the current issue, Mrs. Nena Ossa concludes her interesting essay on Chile, ‘That would be the moment to pack and leave!’ ‘That would be the moment to pack and leave.’ is, I submit, a much tenser way of suggesting that that would be the moment to pack and leave.”

There is a lengthy exchange with Hugh Kenner on the lead sentence in a piece Buckley wrote for Esquire. Buckley introduces the exchange with, “What follows is primarily of interest to syntacticians. How many of them are there? Not many. But—ah!—how many voyeurs?” Buckley describes his sentence as “springy and tight.” Kenner replies, “Those aren’t springs, they’re bits of scotch tape. Have your syntactic DNA checked for mutations.” It goes on and on. Not to be missed.

Though Buckley was not always right, he was always gracious. Eva Moseley corrected him on his insertion of a comma into “Wherefore art thou, Romeo?” What Juliet says, writes Moseley, is “‘…wherefore art thou Romeo?’ She isn’t asking why he exists (nor, as some seem to think, is ‘wherefore’ a fancy Elizabethan word for ‘where’) but, in modern parlance, ‘what did you have to go and be Romeo for?’ It’s names—especially Montague and Capulet, of course—that are the issue.” Buckley replies: “Dear Mrs. Moseley: Quite right, and nicely corrected.”

Running through the whole volume is a series of exchanges with Art Buchwald on which of them was being treated better by the Hertz rental car “frequent user” program. It’s a great gag. And then there is the most impish reply, to the man who closed his letter saying that conservatives were still “attempting to force a square peg into a round hole.” “The trick,” replies Buckley after dealing with the other issues, “is to make the hole a little larger in diameter—and plop!, in goes the square peg.” Exit cliché, pursued by a guffaw, dispatched by a grinning Buckley, irrepressibly young at heart.

Which is not surprising. In a Vanity Fair questionnaire, Buckley’s answer to “When and where were you happiest?” is “Age five to seven.” A couple of years later Kalman Gabriel writes, “Dear Mr. Buckley: I am a 12-year-old boy from Oyster Bay, New York. If you could give me advice for life, what would it be?” “Dear Kalman: Don’t grow up. Cordially, WFB.”

* * *

Alas, it all comes to an end. Buckley wrote on December 31, 2005, “I regretfully conclude that ‘Notes & Asides’ can’t continue as a regular feature of National Review. The reason is: We aren’t getting enough letters that qualify as ‘N&A’ material—inquisitive, zany, confused, annoyed, piquant.” Maybe they all grew up. Maybe it was the end of the conservative movement. There is much grousing these days about its loss of direction. Without Communism and, some say, without pre-Reagan levels of taxation to outrage and galvanize the Right, it wanders, confused, in search of its mission, or a mission. Or a leader.

One view is that the conservative movement is over—that it ended in triumph when Ronald Reagan moved into the White House. Certainly the movement started out as a band of outsiders, who wanted primarily to influence the insiders who held the levers of power. When Reagan got elected, the conservatives took hold of those levers, which may not have been the original plan because, at least in the beginning, it seemed improbable. On the other hand, perhaps it was inevitable. Once inside the corridors of government, the conservatives became, if not corrupted by power, at least befriended by it, and whatever else happened, the conservative movement came to an end. A triumphant end, perhaps, but an end nevertheless. Now the conservatives, with their disparate interests, wander, not yet having found a new banner to march under. Hence the grousing. That’s not Buckley’s fault. He led them to the promised land. What they do after feasting on milk and honey is their responsibility. That view seems consistent with Buckley’s comment about his life a few days before he turned 80: “There’s nothing I hoped for that wasn’t reasonably achieved.”

An alternative view is that only the creative stage of conservatism is over, but the movement goes on—which calls to mind A.P. Herbert’s crack in Uncommon Law, “The movement of the law is clear, but it’s not clear in which direction the law is moving.” The conservative movement may not be over, but it’s not clear where it’s moving.

Buckley was its prime mover: he helped create it—and he helped create the modern world as well. Communism is gone. And so, in many countries, are the high tax rates and other policies that are inimical to enterprise. In the nine freest and highest-income countries, the tax rate has dropped more than 30% since 1980—so pervasive has been the spread of free market ideas, spread at least in part because of the Reagan Revolution, which was Bill Buckley’s and National Review’s grand achievement.

People say it’s not as much fun to be a conservative these days. That’s partly because—whatever the election returns show—there just isn’t as much opposition as there was when the movement was just setting out, when some of that opposition came from the Republican Party! Now every Republican candidate wants to be considered a conservative. That’s progress, though it may sully the brand, and confuse consumers.

It may not be as much fun, but there’s still work to be done. Of the nine freest and highest-income countries, the U.S. has the highest corporate tax rate. And several countries in Eastern Europe have beaten us to a flat tax—countries whose new freedom, and more sensible tax regimes, were midwifed by the conservative movement. Most important—in this year when the first baby-boomer started collecting Social Security—is the need to teach the welfare society to nurture free market entrepreneurship. Absent happy and productive entrepreneurs, America will be unable to pay the welfare society’s bills, which are starting to come due with a vengeance. Solving that problem will be like…putting a square peg into a round hole.

Now that Bill is gone, who will teach us to make the hole a little larger?