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The Beltway Beloved Buckley

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1/21/1988 President Reagan meeting with William F Buckley in oval office

The fact that anyone sees William F. Buckley as a respectable, brilliant, genius conservative figure just blows my mind. He was an absolute scumbag, someone who made this nation far worse for him living it. He did so much work to create what the modern Republican Party has become. And yet, the Beltway institutions absolutely refuse to see this. To do so would be to question the Both Sides Paradigm and perhaps even anger modern Republicans by presenting an honest discussion of Buckley’s life, and that is a Beltway crime against humanity. So I find it pretty funny that in the same week that one branch of our public media–NPR–has a right-wing hack go the Bari Weiss train of claiming that his workplace is a bunch of libs and then quitting in a huff, the other branch–PBS–pukes out a hagiography of Buckley.

Rick Perlstein’s review of this trash, from the position of being one of the talking heads on it, is just brutal:

I SAT IN PRODUCER/DIRECTOR BARAK GOODMAN’S INTERVIEW CHAIR in a sumptuous apartment in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood, stocked with gorgeous African traditional art, on a rainy fall day in 2021. I remember the details clearly, because it was a notably pleasant experience. I led Goodman through the emerging scholarly consensus in short, punchy sound bites, as I have trained myself to do. He seemed to take it all in with respect and an open mind. An exhausting but gratifying day, even if it ended up being too rainy to go fishing afterward in Lincoln Park’s South Lagoon.

The story I told echoed what I set down both in a 2017 New York Times Magazine essay, and in a piece I co-authored in the spring of 2021 in The New Republic with historian Edward H. Miller, biographer of John Birch Society founder Robert Welch. The old consensus, as I wrote in that 2017 piece, was that, pre-Buckley, “conservatives had become a scattered and obscure remnant, vanquished by the New Deal and the apparent reality that, as the critic Lionel Trilling wrote in 1950, liberalism was ‘not only the dominant but even the sole intellectual tradition.’” And then came National Review, founded in 1955 with the aim of articulating, as Buckley put it, “a position on world affairs which a conservative candidate can adhere to without fear of intellectual embarrassment or political surrealism.” There, he and his cohort “fused the diverse schools of conservative thinking—traditionalist philosophers, militant anti-Communists, libertarian economists—into a coherent ideology, one that eventually came to dominate American politics.” Then, Buckley purged the lunatic conspiracists of the John Birch Society and the antisemites, which was what finally made conservatism ready for its mainstream success.

After establishing that standard interpretation, I guided Goodman point by point through what we now understand about how misleading it is.

Buckley, a former CIA operative, was sedulously playing a double game. Historian Joseph Fronczak—in no less than the field’s journal of record, The Journal of American History—has documented the complicated story of Buckley’s long relationship with one of his biggest early influences, the American fascist Merwin K. Hart. Hart’s influence on Buckley is acknowledged in the documentary, as if a youthful misadventure—but not that Buckley explicitly named him as the kind of figure whose name would be kept out of his new magazine, the better to spare the politicians he hoped to influence any fear of intellectual embarrassment.

Then there are all those conspiracy-spouting Birchers Buckley supposedly “purged.” Historian Matthew Dallek has shown it to be a myth. Princeton’s David Austin Walsh argues the Buckleyites and Birchers are more accurately understood as part of a “popular front.” John Huntington calls the far right—not Buckley—the movement’s “vanguard.” After all, it was the Birchers who pioneered the use of cultural wedge issues like abortion as recruitment tools; no modern conservatism without that. And according to the work of Jeff Roche, it was Birch-style conspiracists who built and grew the modern Republican Party in the crucial state of Texas, a pattern I’ve noticed in other states as well.

“Without William Buckley,” a talking head in the PBS documentary tells us early on, “conservatism, as we understand it, would never have happened.” But if he had actually accomplished what the show says he did—purged its fringe, made conservatism respectable—conservatism as we would have understood it would not have happened, either.

….

It’s interesting how much evidence contrary to the producers’ own interpretations is right there on the screen, in their own program. Buckley is quoted at a gathering of New York City police about the thwarted 1965 voting rights march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama: “All of America saw the police charge at the demonstrators and the blood on the bridge. They did not see the restraint on the part of the officers and the sincere negotiations to cool the tempers.” This is disinformation on an Alex Jones level, though PBS viewers would have no way of knowing that: The fiction just hangs there without correction, like a Donald Trump interview on Fox.

We do learn that the enthusiastic response from the cops helped inspire Buckley to run for mayor of New York City. But not, say, about Buckley’s campaign proposal for a “pilot program of relocating chronic welfare cases outside the city limits.” Drug addicts, too. A Buckley position paper suggested they would be sent to “great and humane rehabilitation centers.” Critics said it sounded more like concentration camps for the poor. It also sounds like a recent idea of Donald Trump’s.

Who, it is true, said it with a lot less style and a far worse vocabulary.

I am sure Buckley would hate Trump in the same way George Will does–he’s not respectable. But he sure gave the rich a tax cut and hates black people and immigrants, so whatever.

A recent book by journalist Jacob Heilbrunn cuts through that conclusion. America Last: The Right’s Century-Long Romance With Foreign Dictators makes the simple point that if you really want to understand what kinds of societies American conservatives want, look to the regimes they most admired abroad. In Buckley’s case, these included that of the theocratic general who overthrew Mexican democracy, whom Buckley’s father joined a counterrevolution to seek to restore, and fascist Spain. Regarding the former, we learn only that William Buckley Sr. “got caught up in a lot of revolutionary movements in Latin America, and I think that instilled in him a distaste for disorder and a fear of revolt.” The latter, The Incomparable Mr. Buckley passes over in silence.

But not the actual Mr. Buckley: not at all.

“General Franco is an authentic national hero,” he wrote in 1957. National Review’s longtime foreign affairs guru James Burnham eulogized him in 1976 as “our century’s most successful ruler.” Buckley assigned one of his brothers—not the senator—to pen one of the magazine’s two fulsome obituaries. He called Franco “a Spaniard out of the heroic annals of the nation, a giant. He will be truly mourned by Spain because with all his heart and might and soul, he loved his country, and in the vast context of Spanish history, did well by it.”

Say it plain: These were regimes where setting loose violent mobs for political ends was a normal political practice.

Why do American elites seem to so desperately need this narrative of a respectable right wing that Trump and January 6th have usurped? In the case of the Public Broadcasting Service, maybe because it turns their own complicity aside. They’ve invested a great deal in promoting this interpretation: When I did a newspaper interview about the show, not one but two publicists sat in. Publicists were also surely involved in curating the chat accompanying the show on YouTube—crafted, it certainly seems, with young and impressionable viewers in mind. One prompt: “You can read about how Buckley’s upper-class lifestyle was a formative aesthetic for conservative influencers.” It links to a nifty visual essay on preppy fashion.

And what might be the consequences of all of this? I recently gave a lecture to college students. I asked their professor how much they could be expected to know about the history of conservatism. “Put it this way,” she replied, “they probably haven’t heard of William F. Buckley.” Well, if they flipped on the telly last Friday, or Google this show in the decades to come, what they will learn is that everything would have turned out just ducky if only he could have stuck around, and that maybe, just maybe, our monstrous political era could be repaired, if only conservatism could become great again—with lots more boat shoes and crewneck sweaters, for a start.

This is just complete desperation by the Beltway to maintain the myth of the Good Republican. And there must always be the Good Republican, no matter what horrible positions they actually support and what awful damage they do to the world. Otherwise, it would be like proving to a priest that God does not exist. It just can’t be equated in the minds of the people who run the elite institutions of this country.

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