William F. Buckley, Jr.
John B. Judis has produced a beautifully researched, immensely solid biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. Since Judis is an editor of the Democratic Socialist periodical In These Times, however, this book raises questions. Why should a premier commentator from the Left choose Buckley as his subject? Has Judis attempted a vindication of Left politics by writing about its haughtiest critic? Moreover, why a biography rather than a critique of Buckley’s journalism and political thought? Who, indeed, is the book’s intended audience, the Left, the Right, or that entity whose very existence is increasingly questionable—the American public?
Strangely, Judis has chosen the third of these options. Although this is at times a critical biography, the point of view from which criticism emerges is rarely clear. Judis’ drab subtitle is the first indication of the difficulty. In calling Buckley “Patron Saint of the Conservatives,” Judis certainly distances himself from his subject; at the same time, the phrase is mere neutral description, revealing little of Judis’ mind. This impression of neutrality deepens as one reads the work. The very “solidity” of the book therefore becomes problematic, for Judis thereby risks losing his clear position as a passionate (if measured) voice on the Left and becoming merely an academic writer. This especially is disturbing, for one of the things for which he faults Buckley is exactly such a movement from radicalism to pomposity and an increasingly “academic” bearing.
To call Judis’ book an academic biography suggests that he focuses mainly on his subject’s intellectual development. Happily, that is not the case. Judis skillfully mixes historical, intellectual, cultural, and personal material. Nor is he without some interpretive perspectives. He believes, for example, that the rise to power of American conservatism can partly be explained by the gradual fashioning of a seemingly coherent intellectual position (something Buckley’s own National Review very much helped accomplish). Of equal significance was the ability of the movement both to suppress its more fanatic voices—for example, those of Fred Schwarz, Robert Welch, and Gerald L. K. Smith—and rebound from such humiliations as the defeat of Barry Goldwater, Watergate, and Richard M. Nixon’s “apostasy” in recognizing China. Judis effectively shows how Buckley, as a founding father of modern conservatism, can also be a dissenter. For example, Buckley never evinced the anti-Semitism that has periodically disfigured conservatism in America. Indeed, Willi Schlamm, a Galician Jew and former Communist, helped Buckley start the magazine, and Jewish conservatives such as Frank Meyer, Morrie Ryskind, and Eugene Lyons played major roles on its staff. While some of Buckley’s early positions on segregation were decidedly racist, they changed dramatically. In 1979 he angered many on the Right by strongly supporting the establishment of a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King, Jr. Six years later, he stated that South African blacks who join the African National Congress and use violence against the Botha regime are entirely justified.
Buckley’s staunch Roman Catholicism has also set him athwart the conservative stream, fed as it has so often been from nativist Protestant tributaries. It would have been possible for Judis to discover in Buckley’s particular type of Catholicism the key to much that is anomalous, compelling, and infuriating in the man. As it is, Judis places Buckley in the history of American conservatism, a history in whose language the biographer is at least fluent. Had he interpreted Buckley more in terms of Catholic history (especially American Catholic history), his subject would have seemed no less an oddity, but at least the nature of that oddity is fathomable.
The “Credenda” statement in the first issue of National Review committed the magazine to libertarian, traditionalist, anti-Communist positions. The editors opposed “the growth of government,” upheld “the organic moral order,” and resolved to fight “the century’s most blatant force of satanic utopianism”—that is, the Soviet Union. They also wished to press the classic argument that the function of political liberty was to allow individuals to attain virtue—thus seeing freedom as a means rather than an end. The mixture here is clearly an unstable one. Judis recognizes that when libertarianism expresses itself economically as a doctrinaire preference for laissez-faire, it undermines “organic” structures and established traditions. Moreover, militant anticommunism can lead to policies unfavorable to capitalist expansion, such as trade embargoes and heavy taxation to...
(The entire section is 1937 words.)