Dec 6, 2013
Words From the Right: On Buckley and From Paul and Breitbart
Posted on May 27, 2011
By Allen Barra
Richard Brookhiser’s bracing memoir, “Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age With William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement,” was originally published in 2009. Upon rereading it in paperback, it seems as if almost as much time had passed in the conservative movement over those two years as had passed between 2009 and 1978 when, at age 23, Brookhiser became National Review’s youngest senior editor.
There is very little mention of Barack Obama (only four times) and none at all of the economic collapse at the end of 2008, and thus no discussion of whether or not conservatives should take any responsibility or accountability for it. For that matter, there is surprisingly little about George W. Bush himself, except for an early boast that “the conservative movement helped elect presidents from Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush.” There is no discussion about whether or not conservatives should distance themselves from the Bush failures, as conservatives in the tea party most certainly have tried to do.
The main focus is on the glorious years just before the election of Reagan in 1980. The opening quote, from Wordsworth, says it all: “Bliss was in it that dawn to be alive, but to be young was very heaven!”
Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement
By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 272 pages
Liberty Defined: 50 Essential Issues That Affect Our Freedom
By Ron Paul
Grand Central Publishing, 352 pages
Righteous Indignation: Excuse Me While I Save the World!
By Andrew Breitbart
Grand Central Publishing, 272 pages
Some might argue that Brookhiser, who in 1969 at the age of 14, wrote a cover story for National Review, the magazine Buckley edited for 25 years, was a little too young to have witnessed the glory years. Those a few years older might want to consult Buckley’s “Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater.” Anyway, you can’t fault Brookhiser for his enthusiasm: “William F. Buckley Jr. (1925-2008) changed the world. I was at his side during the years the world noticed it. George Will once said, ‘Without Buckley, no National Review; without National Review, no conservative takeover of the Republican party; without that, no Reagan; without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War.’ ” When Buckley died, “He was treated as a fallen head of state.”
Some 30 to 35 years earlier, “There was a conservative movement which might loosely be defined as Bill Buckley’s admirers and National Review’s readers, self-aware, ideological. ...” If the general public did not understand how important Buckley and National Review were to Reagan’s ascendancy, Reagan himself certainly did. After his victory over Jimmy Carter in 1980, NR splurged on a big ad in The New York Times which featured a picture of Reagan reading the magazine. The tag line read, “I got my job through National Review.” The 1980 election, writes Brookhiser, “was like getting the keys to the kingdom.”
Brookhiser’s account of the growth of conservatism in the Reagan era seems nostalgic. Back then most of the figureheads of the conservative movement were concentrated in the Northeast; many were old, moneyed WASPs or, like Buckley, from wealthy Catholic families. But having won the White House, they were now forced to let in the unwashed barbarians from the suburbs of the nation: “Even as National Review was changing, so the Right was changing around it, taking on new recruits. The Reverend Jerry Falwell, pastor of a mega church in Lynchburg, Virginia, began to mobilize and politicize evangelicals. Everyone thought they had disappeared with the Scopes trial. ...” I don’t think that Brookhiser has any idea how condescending this sounds. But let’s move on.
Buckley “defended the evangelicals from their cultured despisers, even though they were a new thing in his experience. The religion of the Right, especially his part of it, had been Catholicism. At the high end of polemics, Catholics drew on [Evelyn] Waugh and G.K. Chesterton, ultimately on Aquinas. At the low end they engaged in trench warfare.” One suspects that these cultured despisers whom Buckley defended these new soldiers against weren’t just liberals but many in his camp, and it’s easy to imagine that they were horrified at the thought of having to share their hard-won power with millions who couldn’t read a lick of Latin.
“I found evangelicals alien but interesting, roots music for white protestants,” Brookhiser writes with the kind of sniff more appropriate to a British anthropologist observing the Irish. “Neoconservatives struck me as forbidding, unfunny, and too apt to take credit for thoughts that we at National Review had thought years earlier.” It sounds to me that what Brookhiser means is that once these damn rednecks were handed the keys to the kingdom they wouldn’t take orders from him and his Ivy League pals.
In retrospect, it’s amazing that the National Reviewers could not have understood that the foot soldiers, once the doors were open, would overwhelm the palace guard and take over the kingdom. “National Review was discovering whole new tracts of America”—how jolly decent of them—“even as they [the evangelicals] were discovering the conservative movement.” I don’t think these people were “discovering” the conservative movement at all but operating on principles they regarded as conservative that were older and, shall we say, more fundamental than anything expressed in the pages of National Review.
How genteel Brookhiser sounds when he writes that “Things change politically, we believed, only though the force of ideas, and ideas got their dry runs in places like National Review.” But in a very short time the people taking over the show would be getting their ideas from preachers pushing their interpretations of the Old Testament and, just a few years after that, from an Internet where rumors were treated as fact. After a couple of short decades, it is questionable whether or not ideas, in the sense that William Buckley and his followers had known them, matter at all to conservatives.
Brookhiser passes on those ideas, such as they were, as summed up by the founder of The American Spectator, Bob Tyrrell: fight communism, cut taxes, the pieties. Those three credos are pretty much the essence of Reaganism. Communism is gone, which leaves the last two. Regarding the pieties, family values have pretty much been reduced to opposing gay marriage, a position that is losing support almost daily, and abortion, no matter how much it fires up certain segments of the right, will simply not carry a campaign. This leaves the Republicans with just one issue that they can all line up behind: cutting taxes. The problem is that since Reagan, that has increasingly meant cutting taxes for the rich—which as we head into the summer of 2011 is threatening to implode on the right.
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