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One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. -- Plato (429-347 BC)

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Political Odyssey Of William F. Buckley Jr: 'One Cannot Exaggerate Infinity.'

by Ralph Benko, Contributing Author: Comes now Alvin Felzenberg, with whom I am socially acquainted, with a marvelous biography of the man who perhaps more than any other public intellectual shaped the modern conservative movement and, thereby, modern politics: A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.

This beautifully rendered book is making waves, drawing highest profile reviews. Deservedly so.

Coming from a different wing and a different generation of the conservative movement I met Bill Buckley in person exactly once. It was at a soirée, if memory serves, staged by Dr. Arthur Laffer in Washington, DC.

I was struck by how, in person, WFB was as suave as Roger Moore's James Bond. On TV, during his several decades as host of Firing Line, Buckley’s face presented a panoply of nonstop tics and odd mannerisms, almost a signature of his public persona. This anomaly is perhaps the only mystery that Felzenberg fails to probe.

For most of the youth who Occupy Conservatism today Buckley is a remote figure. He perhaps is mostly remembered as the most erudite of conservatives, from Firing Line and for the National Review, which he founded and for which he coined a suitably whimsical, borderline flamboyant, Mission Statement: “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.”

Buckley went on, in a way that remains as true today as it was in 1955:It is out of place because, in its maturity, literate America rejected conservatism in favor of radical social experimentation. … Radical conservatives in this country have an interesting time of it, for when they are not being suppressed or mutilated by the Liberals, they are being ignored or humiliated by a great many of those of the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity.Buckley, in ways large and small, whimsical and earnest, made an impact. He arguably played a material role in stopping history by providing a critical assist to the defeat of the USSR, thus earning a place in The Pantheon.

Buckley, in ways large and small, whimsical and earnest, made an impact. He arguably played a material role in stopping history by providing a critical assist to the defeat of the USSR, thus earning a place in The Pantheon.

And although even Buckley could not prevent the subsidence of world culture and politics into “radical social experimentation,” something still very much besetting Western culture, perhaps he slowed it somewhat. And his legacy, foremost the National Review, remains one of the great ramparts of civilization.

Felzenberg lucidly tells the story of precisely how Buckley stood athwart history, yelling Stop. It’s a charming, consistently fascinating, story. Buckley's persona and life shaped and helps explain the circumstances of both the conservative movement (if something so still still can be called a movement) and our larger political culture today.

For me the highlight of the book is the recounting of Buckley’s 1965 Conservative Party mayoral candidacy against nominal Republican John Lindsay (who won) and machine Democrat Abe Beame (who succeeded Lindsay). Buckley's candidacy was, of course, a symbolic one. A reporter asked him what he would do if he won. Buckley answered: “Demand a recount.”

Still, this jeu d’esprit of a race did wonders for conservative morale after the setback of Barry Goldwater's presidential loss. Buckley, perhaps more than anyone, provided the "secret sauce" that powers movements: a narrative.

Buckley more than wove a narrative. He lived one. His life was an adventure. Felzenberg astutely calls it an odyssey. Be prepared to be immersed in an epic tale.

Felzenberg’s book has drawn handsome notice. It was featured on the cover of the New York Times Book Review and, almost simultaneously, reviewed by the Wall Street Journal wherein reviewer Lee Edwards recounts how President Reagan, at a public dinner, called Buckley "perhaps the most influential intellectual and journalist in our era." This is an important book about an important man. And it has drawn due praise:“A gracefully written and richly informative book.”—Damon Linker, New York Times

“Deeply researched and smoothly written . . . a superb political biography… [a] fresh account of a much-chronicled figure.”—Lee Edwards, Wall Street Journal

“A magisterial biography . . . . Felzenberg captures the toute ensemble, telling the story of modern America’s most vital conservative force in prose that is as enlivening as it is illuminating. No one with an interest in the past six decades of American history will want to miss this wonderful and irreplaceable book.” — The New Criterion
There seems, however, something mischievous in the prominence given to it by the liberal New York Times. There, reviewer Damon Linker observes:Reading the book in light of events since Buckley’s death — including the Sarah Palin sensation of 2008, the Anybody but Romney procession during the Republican primaries of 2012, but most of all Donald Trump’s shockingly successful populist insurrection in 2016 — one realizes the passages that provide the most illumination are those in which Felzenberg highlights what Buckley himself described as his greatest achievement: purging the conservative movement of “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists.”Nor is such use of this book as a bludgeon against what Buckley called "radical conservatives" -- among whom he properly counted himself -- limited to the left.

In Buckley’s own National Review -- itself a bastion of #NeverTrumpism -- prominent #NeverTrumper George Will (who resigned his membership in the Republican Party upon realization of the inevitability of Trump’s nomination) published a meditation on Felzenberg’s book under the headline Buckley Captained Conservatism Before It Was Hijacked:“Today, conservatism is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients. America needs a reminder of conservatism before vulgarians hijacked it, and a hint of how it became susceptible to hijacking.” … “His true ideal,” Felzenberg writes, “was governance by a new conservative elite in which he played a prominent role.” And for which he would play the harpsichord.”Using this book as a bludgeon against some of the more vivid Republican Party populist figures does not do the book, or such figures, justice. Felzenberg, especially in writing about Buckley’s 1965 mayoral race, makes it very clear that WFB appealed to many of the same kind of of blue collar voters who elected Trump. Felzenberg trenchantly quotes James Q. Wilson’s distinction between Democrats who championed the cause of workers, especially ethnic blue collars, and those who he called “amateurs,” the progressives who had, and have, hijacked my father’s (and, long ago, my very own) Democratic Party.

Buckley’s erudition, Ivy League pedigree, and personal wealth did not estrange working class voters. Workers sensed his respect for their values and dignity. They sensed the same in Trump, despite his foibles. This is no small thing.

There have long been tensions and rivalries, some more friendly than others, within the Vast Right Wing Conspiracy to which I belong. Damon Linker:Those were the factions of the right that Buckley aimed to exclude from the conservative movement: proudly plutocratic libertarians; conspiracy theorists; angry, race-baiting populists; and paleocons dabbling in ethnic demonization.

Sound familiar?
Well, no. We paleocons do expect to be caricatured as very deplorable indeed. The picture drawn of us represents a rather grotesque caricature, relying on the amplification of tiny, immaterial, factions of a school of thought that is firmly rooted in classical liberal republican thought. Mischievous, sometimes malicious, journalists can always find, and exaggerate, an outlier. Few, virtually none, of us “dabble in ethnic demonization.” Those are opportunistic hangers-on.

But yes, By George! Many of us outer borough bridge-and-tunnel Morlocks are vulgarians. Perhaps we, made irate that our jobs and economic security have been so eviscerated by the ruling elites, our values mocked, might at times justly be called “scowling primitives.” That said, the vast majority of us are not tools of plutocratic libertarians, nor conspiracy theorists, nor race-baiters, nor ethnic demonizers. Few of us are “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists” and those few unwelcome in our midst.

It’s sad that the Pretty People do not like us. But in a way that works to our political advantage. As the New York Times’s own Frank Bruni -- an honest and rigorous liberal -- wrote recently in Can Democrats Save Themselves:They’re still not sure how much of Trump’s victory had to do with Hillary Clinton’s flaws versus the party’s poor grasp of America, and the more they focus on the former, tattling for the tell-all book “Shattered” and then tittering over its revelations, the less they own up to the latter.

They’re still searching for a concise, coherent message. They’re still feuding: the Bernie Sanders/Elizabeth Warren wing versus the moderates. And they’re still indulging in elitist optics at odds with the lessons of 2016. Although new research commissioned by Priorities USA, a Democratic super PAC, concluded that many Obama-to-Trump voters believed that Democrats are out of touch with less affluent Americans, a recent, high-profile Democratic brainstorming session in Washington was held at the opulent Four Seasons Hotel.
Somewhere in a dresser drawer I may still have my “Eat An Eloi” t-shirt. Time to take it out of mothballs.

Buckley considered Eisenhower a miserable president and had ticklish relations with nominally conservative Republican leaders throughout most of his career. The signal exception, of course, was the truly conservative Ronald Reagan, with whom Buckley was on close terms and served, somewhat, as a mentor. The Buckley political rule, as recorded by Barry Popik, was “I’d be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.”

It’s not quite Kristol Clear to this reader what William F. Buckley would have made of Donald J. Trump. He is not around to say. But in his day, Buckley served as a provocateur who aligned more with populists and with "radical conservatives" than with Establishment Republicans or "the well-fed Right, whose ignorance and amorality have never been exaggerated for the same reason that one cannot exaggerate infinity."

It is highly likely that Buckley, at very least, would have been in full sympathy with Kellyanne Conway's observation that “I thank God every day. I click my heels three times and say ‘[Hillary Clinton] is not the president, she is not the president, she is not the president.” Those who present WFB's life and work as an indictment of contemporary conservatism clearly have misread this book.

WFB, may he rest in peace, is no longer with us to tell us what he thinks in his invariably witty, erudite, way. That said, thanks be to Alvin Felzenberg for bringing to life the epic story -- the political odyssey -- of a radical conservative overflowing with wit and elan. Felzenberg distills the essence of Buckley's life and thought in ways thoroughly enjoyable and magnificently helpful for understanding the architecture of contemporary conservatism and national politics. It's an indispensable work.
-----------------
Ralph Benko is an advisor to nonprofit and advocacy organizations, is a member of the Conservative Action Project, a contributor to the contributor to the ARRA News Service. Founder of The Prosperity Caucus, he was a member of the Jack Kemp supply-side team, served in an unrelated area as a deputy general counsel in the Reagan White House. The article which first appeared in Forbes.

Tags: Ralph Benko, Political Odyssey, William F. Buckley Jr To share or post to your site, click on "Post Link". Please mention / link to the ARRA News Service and "Like" Facebook Page - Thanks!
Posted by Bill Smith at 7:26 PM - Post Link

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