Friday, March 7, 2008

Walking the Road that Buckley Built

By Michael Johns

It can be said that modern conservatism knows only two times. There was the time before him and there was the time after him, and those two times could not be more contrasting. In this stark contrast lies his larger-than-life legacy, and let there be no mistake: It is a legacy that will endure the ages.

As word of William F. Buckley, Jr.'s passing reached his many students, admirers and colleagues late last week, it seemed each had an account (some grand, some small) of how this intellectual giant memorably impacted and touched their lives, their vision, and their work. In the aggregate, they tell the story of a man whose immense collective qualities--genius, boldness, industriousness, persuasiveness, and (perhaps least appreciated) kindness and generosity--were without equal in modern American public life. Even in death, Buckley is bringing conservatives together more effectually than many conservative leaders are doing in life. It should surprise no one. To have had the good fortune to have brushed upon Buckley during this life was to leave impressed, inspired, and reinvigorated in the purpose-driven life that he lived admirably and which he cultivated in a whole generation of conservatives who, now in his absence, carry forward his torch.

It may be said too often of the recently deceased, but it must be said emphatically of Buckley: We will not likely see his type again.

So diverse and ultimately immense were Buckley's accomplishments that it becomes dangerously easy to shortchange the vastness of his ultimate legacy. During the 82 years that God granted him to us, he was described as the most prolific conservative writer of modern times. No doubt. From the early 1950s until a few weeks ago, Buckley's writings eloquently challenged liberalism's false promises at every step and defined the intellectual and political alternative that was and still is contemporary conservatism. His books (35 non-fiction, 12 in the Blackford Oakes novel series, and another eight of fiction), his National Review columns and commentary (beginning with the magazine's 1955 founding and continuing through early this year), and his syndicated column (published since 1962 in over 300 U.S. and global newspapers) represent nothing short of a library of modern conservative thought. In these writings lies not just Buckley's persuasive case for conservative policies and principles but one of the best depictions of conservatism's evolution from a nascent ideology to the most consequential intellectual and political force of modern times. What a literary treasure he has left us.

But Buckley's impact is not constrained to his role as the most prolific conservative author and writer of our times. His role in the ultimate ascent of conservatism as a national and even global political force is less broadly recognized but equally undeniable and important. The conservative revolution may have materialized nationally with Ronald Reagan's 1980 election, but that electoral victory was the result of over two decades of work in the trenches, pre-dating even Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful 1964 challenge against Lyndon Johnson. What existed before Buckley was an ineffectual group (one cannot even really call it a political movement) of self-described conservatives whose relevance was largely negligible. Before Buckley, modern conservatism had no refined policy agenda (and if one existed at all, it would likely have been equated with Robert Taft's dangerous isolationism at a moment when the global threat of communism was amassing). Conservatism then also had zero skill in communicating to, and connecting with, the hearts and minds of the American people. Add those two things up, and it's not surprising that conservatives, pre-Buckley, also failed in the electoral process.

It was Buckley who, in 1960, quickly looked at this "movement," and changed it forever. One of his first steps, the founding of Young Americans for Freedom (YAF), formed the foundation that ultimately propelled Goldwater's candidacy. On September 11, 1960, conservatives gathered in Buckley's hometown of Sharon, Connecticut, where conservative author M. Stanton Evans, one of the first and greatest Buckley proteges, with input from Annette Kirk (wife of the late Russell Kirk), drafted the "Sharon Statement." It is not an overstatement that it may well be one of the most important documents on the American purpose and conservative vision since the Declaration of Independence itself.

"In this time of moral and political crises," the Sharon Document began, "it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths." It immediately and appropriately referenced the fact that it was only God's gift of free will that permits man's "rights to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force." It followed with an unhesitating and accurate reference to the fact that political freedom, without economic freedom, cannot long endure. It defined the Constitutionally protected freedoms and national security interests that were incumbent on the American government to protect (including, if necessary, by military force). Consistent with this, it boldly called for victory over, not coexistence with, global communism, stating "that the forces of international Communism are, at present, the greatest single threat to these liberties" and "that the United States should stress victory over, rather than coexistence with, this menace." Invigorated at Sharon, conservatives left that conference with a clear cut vision of who and what they were and who and what they opposed. Modern conservatism was born.

As the years progressed, it was this Sharon-inspired movement that challenged the emerging opposition to the U.S. effort to help defend South Vietnam during the Vietnam War, urging intervention against North Vietnam's aggression not just in the defense of South Vietnam but also in resisting North Vietnam's destabilization efforts in neighboring Cambodia and Laos. While accepting many of the objectives of Johnson's "Great Society," the movement simultaneously and staunchly denounced the extraordinary expansion of federal government that Johnson used to achieve them. In 1964, it was this movement that urged and then supported Goldwater's national candidacy. While unsuccessful electorally, it did succeed in giving birth to Reagan's monumental speech, "A Time for Choosing," which was hugely and transparently influenced by the Sharon Statement's position on the importance of defending economic liberty. In this nationally-televised endorsement of Goldwater, Reagan said: "The founding fathers knew a government can't control the economy without controlling people. And they knew when a government sets out to do that, it must use force and coercion to achieve its purpose. So we have come to a time for choosing."

Reagan's persuasive case for Goldwater was made too late to salvage the Arizona Senator's Presidential candidacy, but it was this speech that gave birth to Reagan as a national political force. It was again Buckley and his allies that, following "A Time for Choosing," led conservatism forward, championing Reagan as Goldwater's conservative heir, first in his daring but unsuccessful 1976 challenge of Gerald Ford and then in his ultimately revolutionary 1980 victory. At each step, Buckley led these political advancements while carefully ensuring conservatism was kept on course and did not sacrifice its enduring principles in the name of political expediency. Buckley's was always a long-term plan and a long-term vision, which makes it unsurprising that his will be a long-term legacy.

Still, to describe Buckley as the most prolific and politically consequential conservative of our time does not capture the totality of his contributions to American democracy. The reason is this: Even if one rejects every conservative idea that Buckley embraced and carefully and eloquently articulated in his six decades of public life--the importance of connectivity between God and democratic peoples, the correlation between free markets and economic growth, and the case for resisting and defeating (not merely containing) totalitarian threats--it was Buckley who recreated intellectual and political choice in America. As the conservative columnist Mona Charen observed in The Washington Post last week, before Buckley, the liberal intellectual Lionel Trilling was able to state without challenge that conservatism did not really have any ideas. It had, Trilling wrote in The Liberal Imagination, merely "irritable mental gestures." When he died in 1975, Trilling probably still viewed conservatism in a similarly inconsequential light, but that's only because he never lived to see the fruition of the revolution that Buckley brought us. With steady progress, those gestures that Trilling observed in 1949 turned to concepts, those concepts turned to ideas, those ideas turned to policies, and those policies, embraced fearlessly by a new generation of conservatives impacted at every turn by Buckley, ultimately transformed a political and ideological movement, then a nation, and finally the world.

But it's equally important to remember that Buckley gave us conservatism as a choice, not as a guaranteed destination. That work falls to this and subsequent generations, and it is a job that, truth be told, will never be complete. Remembering one of his earliest Buckley-inspired influences, the conservative leader Bill Kristol recalled in The New York Times a few days ago that he proudly wore a lapel pin at his New York City high school in 1970. "Don't let THEM immanentize the Eschaton,” it said, summarizing the philosophy of the early National Review contributor Eric Voegelin. "THEM," of course, referred to those who sought (and still seek) to create and enforce, outside of God and through government, an ideologically-inspired utopian social order here on Earth.

Tragically, while we fought THEM (Marx, Lenin and his successors, and Hitler) necessarily and successfully in World War II and then again (under Buckley's urging and inspiration) in the Cold War, it may be easy to conclude that it is a victory fully won. I believe Buckley would urge restraint in such a conviction, especially when, in our own nation, Americans still pack indoor stadiums, some apparently fainting in awe, at the false promises of liberalism's allure, now conveyed in a junior Senator's promises to confiscate the income of one group of Americans and send it through the federal Treasury to others, while simultaneously leading America's retreat in the global war on terror and "daring" to engage without condition those remaining totalitarians in Pyongyang, Tehran, Havana and elsewhere who will use America's diplomatic engagement with them to validate their suppression of human liberties at home and to send a global signal that the best way to earn America's attention is to hate it. Sadly, even after Buckley, there exist some Americans who actually view such a course of false promises as a "brave" one. Message: The Eschaton is still being immanetized.

All of these grand battles, some under way right now and some yet to be fought, will now be waged by a seasoned generation of American conservative warriors educated and trained on Buckley's watch and in his tradition. This conservative generation is a centerpiece of Buckley's ultimate enduring legacy. It is a legacy, however, that is not restricted to what he accomplished in this world, but also in how he handled himself while doing it. As Charen accurately observed last week: "It was always Bill who rushed to get a chair for the person left standing. It was always Bill who reached to fill your glass. It was always Bill who volunteered to give you a lift wherever you were going, insisting it was on his way."

As he bravely and victoriously faced down the most dangerous ideological threats and temptations of his time, William F. Buckley, Jr., it should be remembered, always did it with a smile. In that smile was an eternal optimism that he held in the grand potential of the unleashed human spirit. As we honor his giant and enduring legacy, it is an optimism that must carry us forward. We now walk this road in Buckley's physical absence. But he has paved it well with the promises of the purpose-driven life amidst freedom and liberty, and a broadly-accepted and educated wisdom that permits us--and calls us--to defend both.

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