A biography of William F. Buckley, Jr., the spearhead of the American right
As Carl T. Bogus observes, when William F. Buckley Jr. brought out the first issue of a new conservative weekly, National Review, in 1955, he virtually had the field to himself. Cultural critic Lionel Trilling had declared in "The Liberal Imagination" in 1950 that conservatism as an intellectual and political force was moribund in this country. In politics, Sen. Robert A. Taft, known as Mr. Conservative, and in political philosophy, Russell Kirk, a disciple of Edmund Burke, were among the few conservative voices heeded by their peers and by the public.
Schooled at home amid a large, wealthy Connecticut family, Buckley seemed to imbibe his conservatism at the dinner table, even when the conversation was not specifically about politics. At Yale University, he created a sensation by attacking the liberal faculty in a best-selling book, "God and Man at Yale" (1951), brashly contending that education was all about indoctrination, and that the Yale faculty was promulgating a godless secularism that should not merely be attacked but expunged from the college curriculum.
Raising money from his father and other donors, Buckley at 30 began promoting the conservative point of view in a magazine that sought to enlist the services of prominent conservatives, including Kirk and Whittaker Chambers -- the latter pilloried in the liberal press for accusing Alger Hiss, a State Department official, of espionage.
How did Buckley not only make a success of his magazine, but also enlist as his first subscribers Ronald Reagan and others who would take conservatism from the extreme edges of electoral politics to the mainstream? Bogus provides the customary tributes to Buckley's wit and commanding rhetoric, but, more important, he points to Buckley's organizing skills and the way he co-opted even those conservatives who opposed certain of his positions. In other words, Buckley used his magazine to drive a wedge into the heart of American liberalism, making National Review a force conservatives dare not oppose.
Perhaps the biographer's greatest accomplishment is exposing the shameful aspect of Buckley's legacy: a racism that his conservative contemporaries have tried to obscure. Bogus never calls Buckley an out-and-out racist, but this conclusion is inescapable, given the evidence the biographer supplies. Buckley thought African Americans were inferior, and he used the National Review as an apologist organ for Southern segregationists.
This sorry chapter in Buckley's biography and in the history of the National Review is, however, put in perspective, one that gives Buckley due credit for, in the main, making a powerful contribution to American political thought and to the culture of politics that would have been considerably diminished without his sparkling contributions.
Carl Rollyson is a biographer and professor of journalism at Baruch College, The City University of New York.