Appalled by the march of collectivism and atheism around the world and liberalism holding sway at home, a new magazine of conservative opinion, National Review, released its first issue 60 years ago this month, announcing its intentions unapologetically in its publisher’s statement: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”
The name affixed to the bottom of that piece, William F. Buckley, Jr., was entirely superfluous. The hallmarks of the style that had made the magazine’s founder an enfant terrible of conservatism four years before, in his polemic, God and Man at Yale, were all here, too—notably, puckishness (their opponents made them “just about the hottest thing in town”) and polysyllabic vocabulary (“supererogation”).
It is fascinating to contrast “What Would Eisenhower Do?” a tribute in the magazine’s 60th anniversary issue to the Republican President at the time of Buckley’s broadside, with how the guiding light of NR felt about him at the time. Ike, according to historian Niall Ferguson, writing in 2015, “understood strategy better than almost anyone in his generation.”
That kind of talk would have been hotly disputed in the Fifties by Buckley, who, when Ike announced his re-election bid in 1956, dismissed the leader of the successful invasion of Normandy a dozen years before as “undaunted by principle, unchained by any coherent ideas about man and society, uncommitted to any estimate of the nature of potential of the enemy.”
If an institution is, as Ralph Waldo Emerson claimed, “the lengthened shadow of a single man,” then it is entirely apropos to examine NR in the context of its founder. The magazine’s 60th anniversary issue this month makes this practically a necessity, since it contains even more self-congratulation than other journals of opinion, such as The New Republic and The Nation, have resorted to in the last year or so.
The label given Buckley by Lee Edwards of the Heritage Foundation, “The St. Paul of the Modern American Conservative Movement,” captures the reverence with which Buckley is held on the right. According to The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America, by John Micklethwait and Adrian Wooldridge, Buckley brought three qualities to his fledgling movement: “extraordinary self-belief,” a large and necessary source of funds (his father’s oil business), and wit that not only won over conservative friends but disarmed liberal critics.
Like liberal counterparts The Nation and The New Republic, NR functioned as a kind of internal debating society for its movement. Its editor was ready and willing to isolate what he regarded as fringe elements that could damage the movement, including anti-Semites, isolationists, and the John Birch Society. In this, it was generally acknowledged, he was largely successful, though he was slow to acknowledge the moral necessity of the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s until it had achieved its greatest successes.
Buckley, fighting a perception voiced by Columbia University’s Lionel Trilling that conservatism could only be expressed in “in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas,” recruited a host of thinkers from various strands of the movement: ex-Marxists or ex-leftists (such as Whittaker Chambers, William Schlamm, John Dos Passos, Frank Meyer and James Burnham), Catholics (L. Brent Bozell, Harry V. Jaffa and Garry Wills), and libertarians (by his own description, Buckley can be considered a charter member). In turn, the magazine influenced a host of politicians (Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich were regular readers).
A figure of astonishing energy, Buckley propagated the conservative faith in more than 50 books, 6,000 newspaper columns totaling some 4.5 million words, editing NR for 35 years, appearing on his own TV show, Firing Line, running for mayor of New York City in 1965, lecturing on college campuses, and founding Young Americans for Freedom at his Connecticut estate in 1960.
But being in the shadow of such a magnetic figure was a mixed blessing for both his son and a protégé.
In the case of the latter, Richard Brookhiser had been groomed for years to succeed Buckley as editor when, without warning, the conservative literary lion sent him a letter informing him of a change of plans. It was one of the quirks of a figure known for never uttering a word out of place on Firing Line that not only could he not deliver bad news to employees face to face but that he also (as in this case) flew out of the country so that the magazine’s publisher would do so in his stead.
Buckley had an infinitely more complicated relationship with his only son, Christopher, who, in his memoir Losing Mum and Pup, described the death of both his parents in a single year. William not only locked horns with his son over the latter’s agnosticism and much of his writing (about his Christopher’s satire Boomsday: "This one didn't work for me. Sorry."), but excluded from his will Christopher’s out-of-wedlock son. “I spent, whether consciously or unconsciously, most of my career trying to be something other than William F. Buckley’s son,” Christopher remarked in an interview with Alexandra Wolfe of The Wall Street Journal earlier this month. “But it may just be that…the book that may remain in print 50 years from now is the one about being William F. Buckley’s son.”
What would Buckley think of the state of conservatism today? Unlike the younger, more neo-con, Rupert Murdoch-financed Weekly Standard, NR has held its nose at Donald Trump, and there is a strong possibility Buckley would have loathed the billionaire as a lowlife. On the other hand, the 60th anniversary edition of the magazine included a tribute to Buckley from Rush Limbaugh, who has helped dig the fetid hole in which much of contemporary conservatism finds itself.