Liberal admirer attempts fair-and-balanced bio of William F. Buckley Jr.
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By Carl Bogus' count, William F. Buckley Jr. authored 56 books. By my count, the number of Bill Buckley biographies, whether by friends, foes or family members, is rapidly approaching the number of books he wrote himself.
Mr. Bogus' "Buckley" is a serious attempt to focus on the period from 1955 to 1968, by which time Buckley and National Review "had largely completed the task of defining conservatism and fashioning a robust movement to advance it." The author, a professor of law at Roger Williams University, includes a set of lengthy digressions on the Mexican Revolution, Edmund Burke, Ayn Rand and Robert Taft, intended to provide historical background to factors influencing his subject or his father (in the case of the Mexican Revolution).
While the book is well-intentioned, one wishes there had been an editor's scalpel at work to help the reader concentrate on the truly germane.
Although the book draws heavily on earlier biographies, particularly by John Judis, it is helped by access to Buckley's papers at Yale University and substantive interviews with Buckley siblings, Priscilla and James, both of whom were very much a part of the conservative movement (the latter in his capacity as U.S. senator from New York).
Bloomsbury Press, $30
Despite being a self-confessed "committed liberal," Mr. Bogus is a strong admirer of Buckley for his success in making National Review a must-read journal for the politically aware and in making conservatism a "robust movement." Among his encomiums are "an extraordinary leader," "a true patriot" and "a man of marvelous talents." The leadership skills were apparent in Buckley's ability to distance the magazine from right-wing fringe groups such as the John Birch Society, anti-Semites or of the Ayn Rand variety.
Mr. Bogus correctly points out that one of Buckley's most effective initiatives was to run for mayor of New York City in 1965 on the Conservative Party ticket. The near-term objective (which failed) was to ensure that silk-stocking liberal Republican John Lindsay did not win the office. In fact, Buckley's appeal to conservative Democrats probably threw the election to Democrat Abe Beame.
But, as a result of the national publicity surrounding the campaign plus Buckley's energy and wit, the conservative message and the Buckley persona was communicated to a much wider audience. National Review circulation soared and five months later Buckley was invited to start hosting the PBS public affairs production "Firing Line" -- which resulted in more than 1,500 spirited political debates with both liberal and conservative worthies between 1966 and 1999.
Since my father (James Burnham), an influential writer in his own right, was the de facto second-in-command at National Review for many years, I was exposed directly at times to Buckley's energy, charms and intellect. I have always felt that Buckley bore an uncanny resemblance to the well-known English writer G.K. Chesterton, in their shared Catholicism, wit, phenomenal output as writers (at one point, his weekly column was in 350 newspapers), and enthusiasm for debate.
What Mr. Bogus badly neglects discussing was Buckley's generosity and thoughtfulness toward others, including those who disagreed with him.
The talented Garry Wills, one of the many young writers recruited by Buckley (but who eventually left the magazine and became one of several "National Review apostates"), has written recently that Buckley was "thoughtful of others, almost to a fault." His friendships with liberal political opposites, such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Murray Kempton, were genuine and long-lasting.
And as Mr. Bogus briefly acknowledges, Buckley's views evolved over the years. His 1990 book "Gratitude: Reflections of What We Owe Our Country," with its call for a "universal voluntary national service" program for young people, sponsored by the federal government, is proof positive that the founder of National Review was no ideologue.
Mr. Bogus' limitations as "a committed liberal" show up in his caricature of how conservatism evolved under Buckley's leadership and his casual use of the term "racist." The magazine may have disdained the conservatism of Sen. Robert Taft, but, contrary to Mr. Bogus' assertions, it certainly was focused on "conserving the best in American traditions and institutions" and keeping in mind "the dangers of unintended consequences." The tension between libertarians and traditional, pragmatic "Edmund Burke conservatives" has been a feature of the conservative movement for several generations, and continues to this day.
While National Review may have been on the wrong side of the civil rights movement early on, to dismiss its initial position as simply "wrapping racism with ostensibly highbrow arguments about constitutional law and political theory" is to substitute rhetoric for studied judgment.
The limitations of a committed liberal law professor writing about foreign affairs also shows up in Mr. Bogus' extensive but superficial reviews of my father's own books on politics and the struggle against the Soviet Union, some of which remain in print after 70 years.
In short, Carl Bogus' attempt at "honestly trying to understand the other side," as he puts it in his preface, comes up short -- but is still worth reading.
First Published November 13, 2011 12:00 am