When Christopher Buckley, the novelist, writer, and son of the founding editor of National Review, first penned his endorsement of Barack Obama in Tina Brown’s new web venture, The Daily Beast, he, no doubt, thought that he’d make a stir—but one probably confined to the media gawkers. “Sorry Dad, I’m Voting for Obama.” He consciously didn’t pitch the piece to NR and even took pains to say some nice things about John McCain, praising his “conservative instincts” (huh?) and advocacy of the “surge” strategy. In the end, Buckley simply thinks that Obama has the better personal temperament to be president. He might be right.
I doubt Buckley ever imagined that his sober and even-handed article would result in a rather ugly divorce between National Review and the offspring of its intellectual sagamore. Though there’s certainly two sides to the story, the basic outline is as such: After Buckley’s piece ran in The Daily Beast, and was commented on in the NR’s online echo chamber, the magazine apparently received tons of angry emails and letters from subscribers and donors. When Buckely was informed of this, he graciously tendered a pro-forma resignation, which he apparently never expected to be accepted. Well, editor-in-chief Rich Lowry did accept it, “briskly,” and Buckely was shown the door (though he’ll apparently be remaining on NR’s board.)
Buckley first entitled his response on the dustup “Sorry Dad, I was Fired” (which remains in the URL), later changing it to the more innocuous “Buckley Bows Out at National Review.” Without question, the original titles gets closer the truth with regard to Rich Lowry’s passive-aggressive sacking of NR prodigal son.
Though many will probably think it shocking—inconceivable—that a Buckley would be purged at NR, the whole matter stands as a kind of ironic culmination—almost to the point of parody—of a series of purges at NR over the past half century. The fact that at the end of the line, a member of the Buckley family got the boot is almost too perfect.
It’s worth revisiting the saga.
Echoing throughout the glowing obituaries of William F. Buckley this past February, in publications ranging from New York Times to The New Republic to The Weekly Standard, was the sentiment that Buckley “made conservatism respectful.” Referenced was not simply Buckley’s ability to charm—and skewer—his liberal opponents and chums, but his willingness to excommunicate an assortment of “extremist”—a rogues gallery of Old Right “isolationists,” neo-Nazis, racists, fascists, and anti-Semites, with the John Birch Society standing as the quintessential band of The Unrespectable.
What really happened was a bit more complicated. Take for instance, the case of the much-maligned Birchers. Sure, they have always been a bit wacky—their founder, Robert Welch, seriously believed Eisenhower to be a Communist spy and that the fluorination of drinking water was a Red scheme to turn Americans into compliant sheep (maybe he was onto something with this last one?) But racist and anti-Semitic the Birchers were (and are) most definitely not.
More importantly, all these insinuations about the JBS came long after they had been marginalized. When Buckley attacked Welch in 1962, he emphasized the JBS’s lack of resolve in supporting President Kennedy in his “anti-Communist action in Southeast Asia,” that is, what became the Vietnam War. The Birchers were anti-interventionist and thus had to go.
The fact that Buckley always considered the JBS members to be upstanding—and more importantly that Buckley later repudiated his support for Vietnam—makes the divorce between the NR-led conservative movement and then-largest nation-wide grassroots organization to be a missed opportunity of catastrophic proportions. Furthermore, the great irony of the “respectability” myth surrounding Buckley is that his most prominent ex-communicates weren’t “anti-Semites” but Jews, most notably, Murray Rothbard and Ayn Rand, both of whom opposed Cold War interventionism.
With Pat Buchana’s insurgent presidential campaigns in ’92 and ’96, Buckley again was presented with a golden opportunity to unify the “official” conservative movement with a populist, nationalist movement—and this time it would be led by a man with none of Welch’s “conspiracy theory” baggage. And again, Buckley chose denounciation, throwing in his lot with the rising neoconservative movement who detested Pat due to his questioning of Washington’s unequivocal support of Israel.
As Tom Piatak laments,
The effect of Buckley’s failure was calamitous. Pat Buchanan has been right about almost every major issue facing America since the end of the Cold War, from the necessity of controlling immigration, to the dangers posed by multiculturalism and political correctness, to the wisdom of staying out of the quagmire of Mideast politics, to the need to defend American sovereignty, American jobs, and the American middle class. If Buckley had decided to embrace Buchanan rather than attack him, these ideas, rather than neoconservatism, might today characterize the American right. It is possible that Buchanan might even have gained the presidency.
Opportunity missed. And instead of backing Pat, the NRchiks would go on to content themselves with eight years of the “conservative” presidency of Dubya, with all his fiscal restraint, humble of pursuit America’s national interest, and talk of the “permanent things.”
As Peter Brimelow has related, much of the subsequent purges in the ‘90s centered around the then-burgeoning debate on immigration, and more specifically, the fact that Buckley’s hand-picked replacement as editor, John O’Sullivan, had brought in NR writers seriously interested in the “national question,” Brimelow and Steve Sailer among them. With O’Sulliavan, NR was on the cutting edge for perhaps the last time in its history, publishing in 1992 Brimelow’s extensive 14,000-word call to “Rethink Immigration.”
Within five years, O’Sullivan was gone, as Buckley and his second attempt at an intellectual heir, Rich Lowry, moved the magazine in a direction that made it not only more palatable with the Wall Street Journal-set but the neconons, then close to being regnant within the conservative movement.
As Brimelow writes:
[A]fter 1998 National Review “stopped stridently claiming opposition to immigration as a conservative cause,” as Wall Street Journal Editor Robert L. Bartley accurately gloated (July 3, 2000), and did not return to the issue until some time in 2002. The reason for this, of course, is that Buckley fired O’Sullivan without warning and purged the magazine of immigration reformers (e.g. me).
We took enormous professional risks to broach the immigration issue. We were left, not merely without defense, but subject to poisonous abuse by the very opportunists and Republican publicists [e.g. Ramesh Ponnuru] whom Buckley appointed to run the magazine in O’Sullivan’s stead.
Much as with Lowry’s passive-aggression towards Christopher Buckley, O’Sullivan was pushed out surreptitiously, with a brief announcement in NR that the editor would be taking time off to write a book.
Much like Europe’s Communist parties of the 1930s would attack Social Democrats as “social fascists”—and then under Moscow’s orders make a volte-face and re-unite with their erstwhile enemies in a “popular front,” the NR editorial board would ironically come back around to many of the issues it once deemed verboten. Thusly NR returned to immigration restriction, sort of, in the summer of 2007 (though, of course, with the expected equivocations and perhaps largely motivated by a desire not to decouple the GOP from its rank-and-file support. In the words of David Frum, “No issue, not one, threatens to do more damage to the Republican coalition than immigration.”)
What is perhaps mot lamentable about the ideologcal purges (which, in many ways, devolved into something close to squabbling), is that those who came out on top were hardly the best and the brightest, nor even the most ruthless and conniving, but the most mediocre and least offensive.
And as the Christopher Buckley affair makes clear, it’s remarkable the degree to which the NR purges have been, in a sense, dumbed-down during Lowry’s tenure. What once was ideological warfare is now petty partisanship. With Buckley’s endorsement of Obama, the contentious issues of foreign policy and immigration were never in play—Christopher is rather non-commital on immigration and, at least in his Daily Beast essay, appears to be pro-war. Christopher was sacked (or whatever you want to call it) for merely bucking the GOP (something Buckley, Kirk, and did before him.) As my friend Michael Brendan Dougherty quiped, “National Review has now forsaken Buckley for McCain.”
In closing, I’d add that though I admire Buckley as a novelist and writer, I found his Obama endorsement a wee bit disappointing. I had heard that Buckley donated to Ron Paul’s campaign (excellent!), and I would have hoped for more of an antiwar, Obamcon howl of an endorsement. (If you’re gonna start a scandal, why not make it a big one!) Buckley does, however, speak honestly and forcefully in assessing the current state of the conservative movement:
While I regret this development, I am not in mourning, for I no longer have any clear idea what, exactly, the modern conservative movement stands for. Eight years of “conservative” government has brought us a doubled national debt, ruinous expansion of entitlement programs, bridges to nowhere, poster boy Jack Abramoff and an ill-premised, ill-waged war conducted by politicians of breathtaking arrogance. As a sideshow, it brought us a truly obscene attempt at federal intervention in the Terry Schiavo case.
So, to paraphrase a real conservative, Ronald Reagan: I haven’t left the Republican Party. It left me.
One couldn’t find a better summation of the conservative status quo. Moreover, Buckley’s reminiscence of his father’s playfulness and élan is certainly a gesture towards the embarrassing lack of culture one finds at any major Beltway “movement” gathering or in the pages of current NR. So don’t worry, Christopher, leaving the conservative movement is much less like ending a beautiful love affair and more like abandoning a sinking ship.
And we can also be sure that the current leaders of the old conservative flagship are still too blind to appreciate all the talented voices and golden opportunities they’ve been throwing overboard for the past half century.
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