JUNE 20, 2017
IN LATE MARCH, veteran news anchor Ted Koppel hosted Sean Hannity for what would prove to be a defining moment in recent American political journalism. Hannity declared the American people “know the difference between an opinion show and a news show.”
Koppel asserted that Hannity and his supporters placed ideology over facts, eliciting this hurt response from Hannity: “You think I’m bad for America?”
“Yeah,” said Koppel, without hesitating.
Reading A Man and His Presidents, the recent biography of William F. Buckley Jr. by Alvin S. Felzenberg, a lecturer at University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School of Communication, it’s hard not to question if Koppel might have made the same condemnation of Buckley at various times throughout his career.
Buckley was, after all, the intellectual firebrand who famously defined conservatism as a movement that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop” — regardless, it often seemed, of the issue at hand. Indeed, the act of objecting — in print, on television, through political campaigns — was an art form that Buckley perfected. He was a singular character, whose gravitas and intellect helped define a political movement that climaxed in the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
But Buckley’s life story, as told by Felzenberg, is also characterized by the tensions of a man coming to terms with his own convictions — quite frequently only after he’d set them forth in public view.
Buckley was born into a large, wealthy Catholic family that would have him living, at turns, in Connecticut, South Carolina, Mexico, France, and in the United Kingdom. Despite Buckley’s wealth and precociousness, he was beset early on with the self-consciousness of a minority living in the upper crust. Felzenberg describes the young Buckley as, alternatively, “a Yankee in South Carolina, a southerner and a Catholic in Yankee Protestant Connecticut, a conservative at Yale, and an activist in the buttoned-down CIA,” where Buckley spent a few years at the outset of his career.
Rather than temper Buckley’s views or his demeanor, his outsider status seemed to exaggerate them. At one point, for example, the young Buckley stormed into a faculty meeting to, as his father would put it, lecture his teachers on “the virtues of isolationism, the dignity of the Catholic Church, and the political ignorance of the school staff.”
The list of events to which Buckley objected throughout his long career was seemingly endless. Throughout the lead up to World War II, for example, Buckley was an ardent “America Firster,” supporting Charles Lindbergh’s entreaties to let the war (and the atrocities) on the European continent take its course. Buckley was also an early and consistent defender of the southern states’ rights to discriminate against African Americans. Upon graduating from Yale, Buckley formalized his hostility to the liberal elite in his book, God and Man at Yale, which, among other assertions, placed the contest between Christianity and atheism as the central struggle of his era. A struggle, of course, that Yale and its faculty were both ignoring and losing.
God and Man at Yale might have made Buckley well known within intellectual circles, but it failed to temper his rejectionist inclinations. Buckley would, for example, label the state itself a “domestic enemy,” and become one of Joseph McCarthy’s staunchest defenders, even after the Wisconsin senator had fallen from national grace. As Felzenberg describes it, even after McCarthy’s downfall, Buckley continued to assist his “wounded champion,” never speaking ill of McCarthy or his allies.
A decade later, Buckley engaged in what now appears to be an act of extreme intellectual provocation when, in 1965, he publicly debated James Baldwin on whether the American Dream had been created at the expense of African Americans. The New York Times published a transcript of the debate the very day of the assaults on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Before an audience of 700, Buckley argued that Baldwin’s literary success itself proved that African Americans were not disadvantaged in the United States.
While Buckley might not have been fully transparent about all his views during that debate, Buckley was never one to hide his beliefs. Elsewhere, Buckley would publicly describe whites as an advanced race that was, quite simply, “entitled to rule.” Decades later, Buckley would admit to regretting not supporting civil rights sooner.
Among the markers of Buckley’s rise to fame were his founding of the National Review (in 1955), which Ronald Reagan would describe as playing “a part in my becoming a Republican”; the national syndication of his column “On the Right” (in 1962), allowing Buckley to appear in print in 150 newspapers nationwide three times a week; his run for New York City mayor in a publicity-seeking third-party bid (in 1965); and his public affairs show Firing Line, which would air on television for over three decades, becoming a marquee public venue for both conservative thinking and the exhibition of Buckley’s personal charm.
Throughout it all, Buckley relished his role as a member of the opposition — deriding everyone from fellow Republicans Eisenhower and Nixon, to communists and welfare proponents, to the ultra-liberal Gore Vidal or the extremist John Birch Society, against which Buckley waged a decades-long fight, successfully preventing the group from becoming mainstream in conservative circles. Felzenberg consistently describes Buckley’s various crusades with skill and detail. As a result, A Man and His Presidents thoroughly captures Buckley’s life and decades-long career, a comprehensive portrait of one of the towering figures of 20th-century conservatism.
But the character Felzenberg depicts is also largely from a distance. When it comes to the lived experience of Buckley’s career choices or much of Buckley’s private life, A Man and His Presidents falls short. Perhaps this is indicative of Buckley himself, who used his wit and intellect as a both a bludgeon and as a personal shield; perhaps Buckley was most animated in the National Review columns that Felzenberg meticulously cites, though this seems unlikely. Even his letters to Nancy Reagan, with whom Buckley was a frequent correspondent, are described as lively and flirtatious. But something less than the man himself fully materializes from the pages of A Man and His Presidents, which is a shame, given the clear admiration and interest Felzenberg holds for his subject.
We are, however, afforded what feels like the most extensive view into Buckley during Reagan’s presidency, where Buckley appears both more measured and more principled than at any other time throughout his career. Having placed his bets on Reagan since the 1960s, and subsequently lent him the full weight of his credibility and assistance, Buckley saw in Reagan an ability to transform his own objectionist impulses. As Felzenberg describes it: “What distinguished Reagan in Buckley’s eyes was his capacity to project his conservative ideas as a positive agenda, stating what he was for rather than delivering a litany of what he opposed.” Yelling “stop” at history, in other words, formed an incomplete basis for a political agenda. In Reagan, Buckley saw someone who could — and, indeed, did — redefine what it meant to object to the four decades of politics brought forth by the New Deal.
The dependence was mutual. Reagan leaned on Buckley heavily throughout his political career, both before and after his ascendance to the presidency. As the United States sent troops into Lebanon, for example, Reagan would write Buckley to temper his objections to foreign intervention. “Bill, I know Lebanon looks like a lost cause but there are things going on that don’t make the front page,” Reagan would write. In response, Buckley would caution his friend against falling victim to “misplaced pride.”
Despite the book’s title, no relationship rivaled that which Buckley shared with Reagan. Throughout the 1950s, Buckley attacked Eisenhower for his unquestioning acceptance of the active role of government in American life, determining that Eisenhower “did nothing whatever for the Republican Party” nor to “catalyze a meaty American conservatism.”
Buckley would enjoy a closer relationship with the next Republican president, thanks in no small part to his deep relationship with Henry Kissinger, who would, in addition to Buckley’s son, serve as the only speaker at Buckley’s funeral. But the association with Richard Nixon was by all means an uneasy one, marked by both men’s suspicions of the other, especially after Nixon declared himself a “Keynsian” on economic matters — a deep, if not fatal, blow to his conservative credibility. Buckley would become one of the first conservatives to call for Nixon’s resignation after his culpability in the Watergate scandal became clear.
When George H. W. Bush followed Reagan, Buckley found fault in Bush’s inability to sell a positive vision of conservatism, deeming his pledges against raising taxes as both an uninspired and insufficient embodiment of conservatism from Reagan’s successor. And if Buckley’s relationship with H. W. was marked by its distance, it was even colder with W., whose two terms were characterized by foreign interventionism and increased government spending. Buckley would pronounce the 43rd president “conservative” but “not a conservative.”
Indeed, what marked Buckley’s connection to the Republican presidents throughout his lifetime was not the consistency of meaningful relationships, as the book’s title implies. Instead, such presidents often sought simply to understand, if not to channel, the power Buckley wielded throughout the conservative intelligentsia, at times from a distance. When Democrats occupied the White House, Buckley was largely shut out. For that reason Buckley’s thoughts about such presidents, from Kennedy to Carter to Clinton, play a lesser role in Felzenberg’s narrative.
Ultimately, what emerges from A Man and His Presidents is less the biography of one political commentator, and more the rise and fall of a movement bookended by the New Deal on the one hand and the “compassionate conservatism” of George W. Bush on the other. Between these two periods, Buckley emerged as, in Felzenberg’s words, “a single voice speaking for the conservative movement.” One can’t help but wonder who holds that mantle today.