The Right The Governor Misseth
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY is never boring, you can say that much. He has moxie, and no suspicion that he could possibly be wrong-about anything. As a prep school student, we are told, he crashed a faculty meeting to accuse a teacher of robbing him of the right to express his political views in class, then proceeded to expound to the stunned faculty on the virtues of isolationism and the political ignorance of the school staff. He attacked his alma mater in God and Man at Yale hardly before the ink had dried on his diploma. He has run a noisy third for Mayor of New York and called Gore Vidal a queer in front of twenty million television viewers (and later apologized). In addition, he is Mr. Conservative, middle America's Village Explainer, whose intellectual balm eases the joints of the political animal that includes Wallace, Nixon, and the boys back at the Yale Political Union.
Buckley's main problem is that he is the child of a bankrupt "non-tradition." American conservatism, derived from the great British conservative tradition, today bears little resemblance to its forebears. True Conservatism-that of Burke and John Adams-is not unlike what we now call liberalism. It believes in the unity of the past, present, and future; in the organic view of society, compelling a social responsibility that overrides immediate class or group interests; in personal property as the foundation of stable human relationships; and an understanding of the fact that while not all change is reform, stability is not immorality. As such, it has had much to offer, and one could say it helped produce Franklin Roosevelt and John Kennedy. The American Right has never acted in the great Conservative tradition. True Conservatism was shouldered out of the way by moneyed interests and cramped into a narrow and cranky orthodoxy that was draped in the finery of enduring principles. By the end of the twenties, the American Right was showing little understanding of its preserving function. It had no standards, no traditions, no coherence-only a grab bag of fetishes and dogmas.
Conservatism today is not so much a philosophy as a set of loosely connected attitudes. Goldwater in 1964 presented a "conscious" rather than a detailed program for America-as though the main issue was personal righteousness rather than the attractiveness and efficacy of political programs. He adopted a set of impassioned attitudes-they could not be called positions-which still enjoy the religious devotion of the American Right: the "better dead than red" approach to foreign policy, an aversion to any form of collectivism, and a concern about moral decay. But American politics is a politics of property, not of principle. Victory goes to the man who can achieve the broadest consensus among contending self-seeking groups. Goldwaterism and Buckley conservatism contain few ideas that can be given institutional form-so the unions, farmers, business executives, blacks, ethnic groups, the aged and the unemployed will never vote for their candidates. Only small business owners and other independent types are sufficiently free from institutional needs to assert their prejudices in the ballot box. After the Goldwater debacle, Buckley started chortling that it is far more important to influence history than to win elections, but, alas, from an historic, as well as political, standpoint. Buckley and company must reconcile themselves to irrelevance.
BUCKLEY'S writing is an exemplum of the shoddiness of present-day conservatism. He is one of those souls whose self-image far transcends any real situation. Whereas Edmund Burke would say, "I must see the things; I must see the men," one gets the impression that Buckley has never cut himself from the invisible umbilical cord that runs through rallies, magazine offices, receptions, VIP functions, and any other situation whose essence is the maintenance of the prejudices it has brought together to reaffirm. He glides along the soft surface of isolated dogmas and brings you back to the bright-minded certitudes when you knew that America was the best country in the world.
Not long after Yale, he contracted to write newspaper columns which became a battlefield where his loosely connected attitudes clashed with reality twice a week. The essence of his appeal was that if you simply ignored a problem or talked about it in such a way so as to trivialize it, it would disappear. Indeed, although he is no doubt sincere, his columns gave currency to the notion that there is some secret tie between the Right Wing and the psychopathic liar. And, since there are many who have to keep a constant guard up against reality, publishers have found it profitable to occasionally collect these utterances in book form.
The latest book is filled with the favorite Buckley gambit,: proof by non-sequitur. The idea is to make a proposition and then surreptitiously prove it by some trivial argument which you present as an aside but which actually takes up most of the piece. Johnson's State of the Union message, for instance, is analyzed in terms of the syntactical construction of two sentences in a manner that suggests that if Bill Moyers doesn't brush up on his Strunk and White the Republic is in trouble. The triviality inevitably derives its impact from the original assertion; thus many pieces are no more than smooth rhetorical tautologies. Columnists are always faced with the dilemma of whether to conclusively demonstrate something trivial or sound the rhetorical trumpets of matters of importance, but Mr. Buckley's problem is that he always chooses to do the latter in such trivial fashion.
ANOTHER hallmark of the Buckley approach is the either/or proposition he plants in almost everything he says. A quintessential Buckley sentence is "The purpose of education is to educate, not to promise a synthetic integration by numerically balancing ethnic groups in the classroom." The mind reels. Does education necessarily preclude integration? and vice versa? Is not learning to live with those of another race a valuable part of education? No, no, says Mr. Buckley, education is an " intellectual rather than a sociological process." Or: "It does not follow that if someone is old enough to die in Vietnam, he is old enough to vote.... After all, would the reverse apply-that when a man becomes too old to fight for his country he becomes too old to vote for it. Bad logic, all the way around." Indeed.
Arguing for the ABM he claims that the scientific dispute is neatly consigned to irrelevance by the observation that "if one group of scientists is correct, we have lost $5 billion, if the other is correct, we might lose 30,000,000 lives." Scientists have convincingly argued that there is only the smallest chance that the ABM-the most technologically complex system devised, one that will have to work in perfect split-second synchronization the first time it is used-will be a success, especially considering the trial and error process such lesser technological feats as the M-16 rifle and the F-111 went through. But Buckley is willing to blow the $5 billion anyway. Besides, he says, the fact that during the Cuban missile crisis "a significant minority of the Soviet General Staff counseled Krushchev to call the United States challenge-to refuse to withdraw their missiles" proves the irrationality of the Soviet Union and hence our need for the ABM. But if Buckley has read Robert Kennedy's Thirteen Days he knows that members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff counseled President Kennedy to launch an all-out attack on Russia even after the crisis was over. In contrast to this, a Russian attempt to oppose our use of nuclear brinkmanship-which the U. S. employed to assert that it alone has the right to surround other countries with nuclear weapons-suggests a triumph of moderation.
But it is futile to argue with his contentions. Buckley is essentially a high school debater who has stumbled into the big leagues. He is more interested in scoring points than in ascertaining the veracity of his position. Like Galbraith, however, he is impossible to hate because he has a fine sense of humor and an endearing self-love. His writing can be of little use to anybody, except maybe those left wingers who dip into his prose like a box of creamy chocolates any time they need self-assurance.