Andrew Sullivan, blogging on The Daily Dish, has raised the subject of the National Review’s frequent recourse to the low road in recent years. He closes this column with the same thought the Liberal Ironist had while reading it–indeed, the same thought I’ve had for years when I would turn to the National Review:
“This is what’s become of The House That Buckley Built.”
True, Sullivan was mostly directing his criticism at various contributors to the National Review’s online content, but that doesn’t mitigate the point: William F. Buckley Jr., as much as anyone set the agenda for modern American Conservatism, but his magazine managed to invite a wide variety of strains of Conservatism into the political movement while also turning his hand up against uncouth radicals and resentful bigots alike. He wouldn’t ingratiate himself to his audience and he drew a line against bigotry, whether intellectual, religious or racial, and he would sometimes acknowledge he had been wrong about some progressive causes, such as the Civil Rights movement.
I really stopped paying attention to the National Review around 2004, when one of its contributors wasted an entire column with irrelevant and hyperbolic slurs about his life in (Democratic, and thus somehow abominable) New York. The truth is the National Review increasingly played to the lowest common denominator over the past decade, reflecting a shameful lack of mission integrity in the face of the mean-spirited and vacuous but marketable bluster of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter.
William F. Buckley Jr. left the editor position in 1990, and for whatever reason Rich Lowry simply doesn’t have his sense of fair play (or, apparently, Buckley’s concern with political relevance). Buckley probably did more than any other intellectual to breathe life into American Conservatism after founding the National Review in 1955. He was undeniably a Conservative (and your faithful Ironist frankly thinks our country would be better off without the political movement he cobbled together out of a fusion of market economics, Christian traditionalism, and anti-Communism), but he pushed the magazine (and by example exhorted the Republican Party generally) to take the high road, publishing Whittaker Chambers’ attack of the ideological bigotry of Atlas Shrugged back in the 1950s and keeping anti-Semites out of the magazine, attacking the John Birch Society in 1962 as a dangerous influence, admitting he was wrong about the Civil Rights movement after passage of the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act and opposing George Wallace’s Presidential bid in 1968 on those grounds, and stating before the New York Bar Association in 1995 that the “War on Drugs” was un-winnable and harmful to millions of Americans and thereafter moving the Review’s editorial position that way. Buckley was brilliant and early in his skepticism of the Iraq War; too central to the Conservative movement to condemn but no longer a necessary or active leader of it, his criticisms of the President’s decision to go to war made not a ripple, hidden in plain sight. Maybe it marks a significant transition that Buckley retired as editor-in-chief at the National Review in 1990 and Newt Gingrich emerged as the first Republican Speaker of the House since 1954 just 4 years later, similarly articulating Conservative principles in an intellectual cast but dissimilarly interpreting his electoral mandate as an invitation to carry on a spiteful and ultimately self-defeating vendetta against President Clinton.
The Republican Party’s recent historic political successes aside, the Conservative movement wants for someone to credibly assume the role of both its intellectual guide and conscience. That we may give “To bigotry no sanction,” as George Washington put it in his letter to the Providence synagogue, for the sake of civility in politics, and for the soul of the Conservative movement itself if not the very interest of its long-term political viability, this movement needs a Buckley of this generation, one with a catholic approach to the movement’s many perspectives who nonetheless disavows its darker impulses and focus on building a political tradition rather than simply destroying it in a storm of political know-nothingism. He would criticize those who’d say “the President is a Muslim” simply because of partisanship, and wouldn’t care any more for the Birthers than Buckley did for the Birchers. Like former Republican Mike Bloomberg, he would defend religious liberty in Lower Manhattan, refusing to make expedient compromise between fundamental principles and emotive misinformation. I have no idea what his reflections on the revolution in Egypt would be, but he wouldn’t criticize the President’s middling tack without laying a compelling alternative course. And whatever his proclivities on this issue, he wouldn’t pretend to defend the American heritage by assuming we could round-up undocumented immigrants in the largest mass-expulsion since Stalin.
William F. Buckley, Jr. may have slowly and serenely faded away before his death, but now the interacting consequences of his political vision and his personal absence are all around us. The Liberal Ironist misses the Catholic Conservative.