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PBS on William F. Buckley: Not quite getting it ‘right’

PBS on William F. Buckley: Not quite getting it ‘right’

A new documentary leaves out his shifting post-Cold War views, particularly on the Iraq War and neocons.


Analysis | Washington Politics

The latest addition to PBS’s American Masters series — “The Incomparable William F. Buckley, Jr. — makes for engrossing viewing, which isn’t surprising since Buckley himself was compulsively watchable (and readable).

The story of Buckley’s life and career has been well and often told, not least by the protagonist himself. A much anticipated biography two decades in the making by Sam Tanenhaus is expected early next year.

A globe-trotting journalist, editor, author, television personality, friend of Ronald and Nancy Reagan (among many others), and founder of the conservative magazine National Review, Buckley was, in the estimation of the late Dartmouth professor and longtime National Review senior editor Jeffrey Hart, “the most important journalist since Walter Lippmann.”

“In fact,” continued Hart, “Buckley’s career was more impressive.”

Maybe so — after all, what started in 1955 as a niche magazine with 16,000 subscribers, transformed over the ensuing decades into a big business, which came to be known colloquially as Conservative Inc., replete with multi-million dollar think tanks, obscenely well compensated radio and TV personalities, and presidential candidates seeking its imprimatur.

There is of course no question that Lippmann and Buckley’s respective audiences were immense. But the comparison to Lippmann has its limits. Of the two, Lippmann had an embarrassingly better track record on U.S. foreign policy, for example, particularly when it came to the Vietnam War and the Cold War.

National Review’scoverage of the Cold War was colored, and not for the better, by a roster of ex-Communists and intellectuals with ties and sympathies that extended beyond the Iron Curtain, to what became known as the Captive Nations. The philosopher Hannah Arendt observed that the postwar brand of anti-Communism “was originally the brainchild of former Communists who needed a new ideology by which to explain and reliably foretell the course of history.”

One of the things the documentary does well is demonstrate why the Vietnam War was the principal reason the now-infamous televised “debate” between Buckley and the novelist and critic Gore Vidal turned so ugly so quickly. After all, as the documentary notes, “Buckley was absolutely convinced that Vietnam was a crucial battle in the Cold War against Communism.”

And within Conservative Inc., no myth has been as unassailable as the idea that the Cold War was not only “won” by the United States but that it was “won” by Buckley’s hearty band of conservatives. The columnist (and former Washington editor of NR) George Will summed up the prevailing view this way:

“…Without Bill Buckley, no National Review. Without National Review, no Goldwater nomination. Without the Goldwater nomination, no conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Without that, no Reagan. Without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War. Therefore, Bill Buckley won the Cold War.”

But Will’s reasoning suffers, as Buckley himself might have put it, from the post hoc, ergo propter hoc fallacy.

The triumphant reaction by NR to the end of the Cold War was noted with distaste by the great Hungarian-American historian John Lukacs in a letter to the man generally recognized as the “father” of containment, George F. Kennan, in September 1991,

"Buckley gloats in the last number of his magazine: 'We won!” “We won!' He repeats that all over again, etc. etc."

The idea that “We won, we won,” was no doubt sincerely believed by Buckley and his followers, but it is, alas, an idea that is both ahistorical and dangerous — as we have come to see in the more than three decades since the end of the Cold War.

***

Once the Cold War ended, Buckley and his movement might have done well to reconsider the utility of continuing their alliance with the neoconservatives — after all, the rationale for so doing pretty much evaporated with the Soviet menace. By 1992, it was clear that a conservative alternative to the Cold War policy of global hegemony was emerging thanks to the insurgent candidacy of Patrick Buchanan. From the vantage point of 2024, it seems clear that for many conservatives, Buchanan's was the path not taken — tragically so.

Instead of tending to our own garden after 1989, Washington, with the enthusiastic support of Conservative Inc., embarked on a frenetic campaign of ruinous overseas misadventures from which we have yet to disengage. For the conservative movement, the first post-Cold War decade saw fusionists continue their stranglehold on domestic policy, while the neocons grabbed the initiative on foreign policy. All the while, Buchanan became a prophet without honor in his own country.

The American Conservative magazine co-founder Scott McConnell noted in a talk given in 2014 that as the Cold War was reaching its denouement, Buckley decided, thanks to the influence of the neocon power couple Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter, “To allow neoconservatives to regulate the terms of Mideast discussion in his own magazine, National Review.”

The consequences for the magazine and the movement were profound. Thereafter, noted McConnell,

"…The neoconservatives essentially won the right to supervise Israel-related discussions in National Review…Thereafter, any young Conservative knew the rules - you’d best be sufficiently pro-Israel to satisfy Midge and Norman if you wanted to advance.”

PBS ignores this history, making it seem as though the most interesting thing about Buckley in his final decade was his admission, made on the Charlie Rose Show, that he wanted to die. Whatever the (questionable) novelty of such sentiments by someone who had a) just lost his wife of 57 yearsand b) an advanced case of emphysema, Buckley’s politics toward the end of his life became far more interesting than one might come to understand if they relied solely on PBS.

Writing shortly after his death in 2008, Buckley biographer John Judis observed that, “Buckley chided conservatives or neoconservatives who refused to recognize that circumstances had changed — who invoked the old bogeymen or invented new ones.”

After visiting Cuba in 1998, Buckley even praised that great hero of foreign policy restrainers, John Quincy Adams, who, according to Buckley, “[r]eminded us that though we are friends of liberty everywhere, we are custodians only of our own.”

Indeed, thanks to the Iraq War and the mendacity of his old allies, the neocons who promoted it so ardently, the scales appeared to have fallen from Buckley's eyes. As Jeffrey Hart wrote in the American Conservative, “Buckley had expressed doubts about the Iraq War from the beginning ... During the last two years of his life, Bill Buckley understood the facts about Iraq and their implications.”

An exchange with with George Will on ABC in 2005 offered a sense of Buckley’s thinking post-Iraq:

Will: Today, we have a very different kind of foreign policy. It's called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush doctrine is that America must spread democracy, because our national security depends upon it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in national building. This is conservative or not?

Buckley: It's not at all conservative. It's anything but conservative. It's not conservative at all, inasmuch as conservatism doesn't invite unnecessary challenges. It insists on coming to terms with the world as it is…

The story of Buckley’s tenacious engagement with the war and his break with the neocons is a fascinating one, though one that PBS either missed or left on the cutting room floor.

As Tanenhaus recounted in The New Republic in 2007:

"Buckley has faulted Bush for trying to go it alone in Iraq and chided neoconservatives who"simply overrate the reach of U.S. power and influence.”….When I asked him recently if Iraq is the Republicans' Vietnam, he said, 'Absolutely.'"

It is arguable that on matters of war and peace Buckley ended up holding positions closer to those held by his nemesis Gore Vidal than the Republican standard bearers in 2008 and 2012. Which is to say that by the end of his life, with regard to U.S. foreign policy, Buckley was getting it right.

U.S. President George W. Bush pays tribute to National Review Magazine and its founder William F. Buckley Jr. (L), in Washington, October 6, 2005. The event was held to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the conservative magazine. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

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