William F. Buckley, Father Of American Conservatism

Dec 17, 2011
Originally published on December 17, 2011 9:13 pm

When William F. Buckley burst onto the national scene in 1955, conservatism was a dead letter in American politics.

"Lots of people thought that it was outdated, anachronistic, prehistoric, foolish, not very intelligent," Carl Bogus tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz.

Bogus is the author of a new biography, Buckley: William F. Buckley and the Rise of American Conservatism. He says that back in the 1950s and '60s, there really was an established liberal elite in America, which controlled both political parties.

Buckley set out to change that. As a recent Yale graduate, he published a book called God and Man at Yale, which took the university to task for failing to promote Christianity and free market economics.

"He collapsed in that book religion, economics and political ideology," Bogus says, producing the mix of ideas we recognize today as conservatism: free-market capitalism, support for American military actions, libertarianism and social conservatism.

"It was Buckley who made that coalition. He held within him all ... of those beliefs. He was what we call today a neoconservative, a social conservative and a libertarian."

Buckley founded the magazine National Review to popularize those beliefs and create a kind of conservative intelligentsia that could bring renewed attention and respectability to the movement.

To do that, Bogus says, he had to marginalize the people he felt made conservatism look bad — the reactionary John Birch Society and Ayn Rand's atheist Objectivists — attacking them repeatedly in the pages of National Review.

But both Buckley and his magazine held views that did not reflect well on conservatism. Though he later reconsidered his position, Buckley at first was staunchly opposed to the civil rights movement. "The magazine is, from today's perspective, quite shocking in its views about race," Bogus says.

Buckley became one of the most public faces of conservatism, through both National Review and Firing Line, the public television program he hosted for more than 30 years.

Firing Line featured guests ranging from Margaret Thatcher to Groucho Marx, as well as Buckley's signature slouched and rambling interview style. "It was sort of, how shall I put this, prep-school senior style," Bogus says. "Someone once asked him, 'Why do you slouch?' And he said, 'It's too hard to stand up under the weight of all that I know.'"

What would American conservatism look like today without William F. Buckley? Bogus says it's impossible to predict. "All that can be said is this: Had it not been for Buckley, conservatism would not be what it is today. And when we say the word 'conservatism,' we'd be thinking about something else."

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It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. William F. Buckley didn't just revive American conservatism, he defined it.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: "Firing Line" with William F. Buckley, Jr.

RAZ: For three decades, viewers watched Buckley interview everyone from Margaret Thatcher to Noam Chomsky on his TV program "Firing Line." He founded National Review in 1955 and would go on to become one of the most famous conservative polemicists in America.

Author Carl Bogus has written a new biography of Buckley. It's called "William F. Buckley and the Rise of American Conservatism." And as Bogus explains, in 1950, Lionel Trilling in his book, "The Liberal Imagination," wrote that conservatism as a force in American politics was moribund. Liberalism dominated.

CARL BOGUS: And it pretty much had control of both political parties. Conservatism was really in disrepute. Lots of people thought that it was outdated, anachronistic, prehistoric, foolish, not very intelligent.

RAZ: William F. Buckley really burst onto the scene shortly after he graduated from Yale University. He was a very young man. He wrote a book called "God and Man at Yale." And that often - people often sort of trace the beginnings of the modern conservative movement to that event. Describe how significant it was.

BOGUS: It was incredibly significant. He was 26 years, old and he wrote a book, which was about the economics in religion departments at Yale. And he criticized the economics department for being too collectivist and not sufficiently purist in laissez-faire ideology. And he said that the religion department was academically everything one could ask for but that it did not proselytize Christianity.

And he collapsed in that book religion, economics and political ideology. He wrote the following two sentences, which may be his historically most important two sentences. He wrote: I myself believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world. I further believe that the struggle between individualism and collectivism is the same struggle reproduced on another level.

RAZ: He managed, you write, to fuse elements of conservatism that we might identify today as neo-conservatism, libertarianism and social conservatism and basically fused those into what we now think of as modern conservative movement.

BOGUS: That's exactly right. Today, we think of conservatism as a coalition of those three schools of thought. It was Buckley who made that coalition. He held within him all three of those beliefs. He was what we today call a neo-conservative, a social conservative and libertarian.

RAZ: You know, I've been talking to people about this book recently. And without fail, everyone says, William Buckley, I remember him fondly. People remember him and his program "Firing Line" that he hosted on public television for more than three decades. I just want to play a clip. This is - he has, on this particular episode, Jack Kerouac as a guest, and Kerouac is clearly very, very drunk.


RAZ: This is clearly - give that man a drink, he says. He knows Kerouac is drunk. And it's a difficult guest. And this is television. It's not easy, but he rolls with it. What was it about Buckley that people seemed to really connect with? I mean, he was a patrician, wealthy, snobby guy who used hundred-dollar words and yet he had wide appeal.

BOGUS: Yes. I don't know whether I'd adopt the word snobby. He did have what people thought was an aristocratic bearing.

RAZ: Elitist, maybe.

BOGUS: He did have elitist intellectual. We hear there from that clip his unique speech pattern...

RAZ: His accent, yeah.

BOGUS: ...and something of his charm and panache, which were an important part of why people loved him. And also his playfulness - he was able to be both a very sharp advocate, but he somehow knew where the line was and was never mean-spirited.

RAZ: And he could take it as good as he could give it. There's one episode of "Firing Line" where he invites Huey Newton, at the time the co-founder of the Black Panther Party, onto the program. Buckley was, I think fair to say, not sympathetic to that movement or even, as I'll ask you in a bit, about civil rights. Before they begin, Huey Newton says, William F. Buckley, I want to ask you a question. And here's what he asks.


RAZ: It's absolutely amazing to hear that. Huey Newton saying which side would you be on during the revolution, essentially saying you are a traditionalist, you're a conservative, you don't believe in change, and he goes on - he's referring to the civil rights movement and so on. And Buckley acknowledges that maybe in fact he would have been on the side of the loyalists during the Revolutionary War.

BOGUS: It is a remarkable exchange. We see Buckley's honesty there, his candor and his being uncertain in some ways about where his own philosophy might have led him or might lead him.

RAZ: It has to be said, in talking about National Review, that it was indeed on the wrong side of the civil rights movement. Buckley, later on in his life, changed his mind, admitted he was wrong. But the magazine, in its early days, was staunchly opposed to desegregation in the South. Buckley had written a famous editorial where he called whites more advanced.

BOGUS: Yes. The magazine is, from today's perspective, quite shocking, on its views about race. However, while he said this was a mistake on my part, he did not much dwell on it. One has a hard time finding the places where he apologized for his views on the civil rights movement.

RAZ: What do you think the country would look like today had William F. Buckley not existed? Do you think there would have been a conservative revival?

BOGUS: Doing counterfactual history is treacherous. I do think that there would have been some kind of conservative revival because conservatism, broadly speaking, is an important part of the American psyche. But I think all that can be said is this: had it not been for Buckley, conservatism would not be what it is today. And when we say the word conservatism, we'd be thinking about something else.

RAZ: That's Carl Bogus. He's the author of the new book "Buckley: William F. Buckley and the Rise of American Conservatism." He also teaches law at Roger Williams University. Carl Bogus, thank you so much for coming in.

BOGUS: Thanks for having me, Guy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.