Conservative thinker William F. Buckley Jr. was, perhaps, America's most important 20th-century public intellectual.
Charismatic, cocky, and enormously influential, he used his newspaper columns, television appearances, and magazine National Review to breath life into the conservative project and help clear the way for Ronald Reagan's presidency.
Carl Bogus, a law professor at Roger Williams University, is out with a new biography, William F. Buckley Jr. and the Rise of American Conservatism, that is at once admiring of the man's intellect and critical of his politics.
I caught up with Bogus, via e-mail, for a Q&A.
YOU DESCRIBE BUCKLEY'SNATIONAL REVIEW AS "THE MOST SUCCESSFUL JOURNAL OF OPINION IN HISTORY." GIVE US A SENSE FOR THE SWEEP OF ITS INFLUENCE. Before Buckley, conservatism was considered dead — a relic unsuited for modern times. Even in the Republican Party, the liberal wing dominated. The GOP nominated moderate or liberal candidates for president consistently since 1940 — Wendell Willkie, Thomas Dewey, and Dwight Eisenhower, who called himself a "modern" and "liberal" Republican. Buckley burst onto the scene in 1951 when, at age 26, he wrote God and Man at Yale, challenging what he claimed were liberal influences at his alma mater. The book was about the economics and religion departments at Yale; and improbably, it became a bestseller. In that book, Buckley began redefining conservatism. Previously, conservatives honored tradition and stressed caution and prudence. Buckley saw conservatism more as a religious crusade — a battle between good and evil, both abroad and at home.
YOU ARGUE THAT BUCKLEY ERRED IN SIDING WITH THE LIBERTARIANS AND NEOCONSERVATIVES OVER TRADITIONAL AMERICAN CONSERVATIVES, WHO RESPECTED INSTITUTIONS AND TOOK A SKEPTICAL APPROACH TO CHANGE. YET, BUCKLEY IS KNOWN FOR PUSHING A "FUSION" OF THE VARIOUS STRAINS OF CONSERVATIVE THOUGHT. IS THE POPULAR IMAGE ALL WRONG? Buckley was a libertarian, a neoconservative, and a religious conservative, and conservatism became a coalition of these schools of thought because Buckley embraced all three. But in conservative history, the term "fusionism" means combining libertarianism with traditional conservatism, that is, the philosophy associated with Edmund Burke. That popular image is indeed wrong. The image originates from an article written by Buckley's brother-in-law, Brent Bozell. Bozell said that Frank Meyer, a senior editor at National Review and a libertarian, was working to fuse libertarianism and traditional conservatism. This is frequently cited in conservative histories. But what's often overlooked is that Meyer wrote a response "to plead innocent" to Bozell's "indictment." Meyer understood that traditional conservatism and libertarianism are incompatible. Traditional conservatives stress community; libertarians stress individualism. Traditional conservatism believes that our culture and institutions have evolved over time because they serve us well, in ways not always obvious to us. Change is necessary, but it should be undertaken with concern for unforeseen consequences. Traditional conservatives stress humility, and believe that experience is more powerful than pure reason. The individual is foolish but the species is wise, Burkeans often say.
Libertarians, by contrast, are ready to sweep aside traditions and radically refashion institutions to bring their vision — a radical reduction in government — into being. Libertarians believe strong government is a threat to liberty; traditional conservatives believe strong government is necessary to preserve liberty. Meyer wanted to fuse libertarianism with "virtue." He conceded that libertarians needed to guard against becoming materialistic, but that is as far as he was willing to go. Meyer remained an implacable foe of traditional conservatism.