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Modern Conservative Crusader

Review of Carl T. Bogus's William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism (ISI, Oct 2011) ISBN: 978-1596915800. Hardback, 416 pages; $19.80.

Ronald Reagan affectionately called William F. Buckley "our clipboard-bearing Galahad" who took on the "knights of darkness." The quote delivered at the 30th anniversary celebration of National Review speaks to the depth of Buckley's leadership over the conservative movement. Anybody knowledgeable of ancient Christianity and theology understands the significance of biographer Lee Edwards words when he called Buckley "The St. Paul of the conservative movement." Now, in a new biography titled William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism, Carl T. Bogus offers his own analysis of Buckley focusing on the years 1955 – 1968, the latter date signifying the point where Buckley had left his lasting mark on conservatism.

Bogus, a self-described liberal who admits to being at times "highly critical of Buckley's ideology" nevertheless calls himself an "admirer." Bogus believes he offers a fair assessment of Buckley and the movement, and one wonders if it is enough that he just lives up to the proclamation only at times. His harshest criticism of Buckley is saved for National Review's general opposition to federal civil rights initiatives and action and Bogus claims "National Review thrived by wrapping racism with ostensibly highbrow arguments about constitutional law and political theory." Buckley of course would later say of his position on civil rights, "I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary."

The author also criticizes much of National Review's advocacy for a hard-line stance against Soviet aggression, preferring the more nuanced and diplomatic containment approach to check the red menace. Bogus even calls Buckley the leader of "a movement fueled by fear." This is perhaps the overarching flaw of his account in that there is too little respect for the ideas of conservatism itself. Buckley is rather lavished with praise for putting a happy, exciting face on the movement and for impeccable leadership skills and coalition-building among rivals.

Much of the strength of this account covers the early years of organizing and bringing together fractured figures within the limited government camps that very often had little affinity for one another. Frank S. Meyer's brand of libertarianism and Russell Kirk's Burkean conservatism is just one prime example of the public conflict that Buckley helped publicly diffuse for well over a quarter of a century. The treatment of Russell Kirk and Whittaker Chambers is splendid and this book shows competency in articulating the Christian foundations of the worldviews of Buckley, Chambers, and Kirk. Addressed in detail is Buckley's first book God and Man at Yale and his attack on the secular humanism at the University. Chambers' famous National Review critique of Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is chronicled masterfully as well as her philosophy of Objectivism. Buckley would, of course, forever heap praise on the former communist turned anti-communist for "reading Miss Rand right out of the conservative movement." In his review, Chambers called Rand's ideology "a forthright philosophic materialism" that was an anathema to Christianity.

Similarly, Bogus offers a precise and detailed account of how National Review extricated itself from support of the then popular John Birch Society and its wild conspiracies of subversive communist control throughout the United States government. He describes how National Review had to make harsh denouncements via its editorials. Bogus sums up the magazine's position, "Membership in the John Birch Society was indefensible. It was an act of lunacy, and it was irresponsible because it harmed the conservative movement."

If any criticism of collectivism comes from Bogus, it emerges in the coverage of Buckley's 1965 New York City mayoral campaign against Republican John V. Lindsay and Democrat Abraham D. Beame. Buckley loathed the liberal Republican Lindsay and combined humorous wit, lofty rhetoric, and free-market initiatives to launch a platform for his conservative ideas. This was at a time when it was not unusual for a Republican to run to the left of the Democrat. Lindsay did just that and eked out a victory. Lindsay's two terms as mayor, as Bogus notes, was seen as a failure for liberalism. Spending, welfare rolls, crime, and poverty all dramatically increased under Lindsay's tenure. In an election that saw Buckley only receive 13.4 percent of the vote, five years later it propelled his brother to win a U.S. Senate from New York as the Conservative Party candidate. Buckley's campaign would make conservative ideas mainstream, multiply subscriptions to National Review, and lead to the hosting of the long running series "Firing Line."

It is often noted that one of National Review's errors was not supporting Ronald Reagan over Richard Nixon in 1968. Former National Review publisher William Rusher called this "the blunder of 1968." This would all change by 1980. By then, many saw Reagan's victory as the triumph of Buckley's brand of conservatism. After Reagan, Americans were not only more skeptical about government programs; they were skeptical about government itself," says Bogus.

While Bogus sometimes offers too many background details to Cold War policies, Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, often with the purpose of undermining conservative ideas, he has constructed an account that rightly places Buckley at the center of the modern conservative movement. Although little is covered about Buckley's personal life or his notable charitable works, Bogus properly grounds Buckley as a principled conservative who championed human liberty rooted in the Christian tradition.

One glaring omission in this account is the sense of duty that often is a chief characteristic of many conservatives. In his biography, Lee Edwards pointed out that Buckley was a descendent of well-to-do parents, and when he was asked why he continued to work so hard at an old age despite wealth and fame, a surprised Buckley said, "My Father taught me that I owe it to my country. It's how I pay my debt."