- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 12, 2007

STRICTLY RIGHT: WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. AND THE AMERICAN CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT

By Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne Jr.

Wiley, $27.95, 358 pages, illus.

REVIEWED BY WILLIAM F. GAVIN

How do you solve a problem like Bill Buckley? He has always been easy to caricature — the eloquent eyebrows and the aristocratic drawl, with its lord-of-the-manor tone — but difficult to analyze. Prolific writer, great editor, nonpareil debater, television celebrity, expert skier, gifted harpsichord player, ready wit (rapier or stiletto style, take your choice), popular lecturer, political guru, an ideological warrior who distrusts ideology: Just who, and what, is this guy? A brilliant dilettante with Attention Deficit Disorder or a Renaissance man overflowing with talent and ideas?

His obvious delight in debate, his knack for writing entertaining escapist fiction, his defense of religious orthodoxy and his gifts as an intellectual gadfly have always reminded me of G.K. Chesterton. But in “Strictly Right,” co-authors Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne, Jr. make a strong case that Mr. Buckley may well be the single most influential non-elected American political figure in the last half of the 20th century.

He was a necessary, if not sufficient, cause of the political rebirth of conservatism, and his insistence on the moral and cultural importance of traditional conservatism, from the very beginning of National Review magazine in 1955, laid the groundwork for the defense of conservative values when the culture wars began.

Mr. Coyne (my friend for many years) and Ms. Bridges, former National Review colleagues, give us an insiders’ look at the Buckley phenomenon. For conservatives, reading “Strictly Right” is like being present at a family reunion where two informed and articulate relatives regale us with anecdotes about family lore, and gossip about family feuds.

They whisper about disreputable cousins, pause now and then to wander down memory lane in personal reminiscences and entertain us with tall tales of yesteryear. But at the heart of the affectionate discourse are stories about the life and times of Our Bill, the family favorite, the ageless enfant terrible, the precocious, impossible-to-resist charmer whose achievements and escapades have captivated everyone who knows him (with the exception of Gore Vidal) for decades.

Like the fictional character Scaramouche, Mr. Buckley was “born with the gift of laughter,” and his laughter has demolished a thousand liberal pomposities. The authors have captured his happy warrior spirit and wisely chosen to highlight the personal effect Mr. Buckley has had on them and on others who know him.

They also place him in the wider perspective of national politics. Readers are given historical background from time to time to explain the particular circumstances of once-explosive but now forgotten issues (e.g., National Review’s perennial inability, from 1960 onward, to decide whether to embrace Richard Nixon or support a challenger against him). Ms. Bridges and Mr. Coyne, knowing that Mr. Buckley and his wife Pat (Mrs. Buckley died in April) were celebrities in New York society circles, have a good time describing the glamour and the glitter of being Bill.

But, as the title of the book reminds us, Mr. Buckley’s relationship to the American conservative movement is at the heart of the story. On the face of it, National Review should never have existed. There was no “conservative movement” at the time, and very few conservatives in the public square.

But Mr. Buckley, a 29-year-old polemicist, hitherto infamous as the author of the iconoclastic “God and Man at Yale,” somehow managed to put together — and then hold together — a staff composed of former Communists, hard-line libertarians, traditional anti-Communist conservatives, Buckley family members, old journalists and young intellectuals. All were highly opinionated, too many of them believing they and only they knew how to make the magazine successful.

Somehow, through the sheer force of his charm and intellect and will, he made them work together. The magazine was savagely attacked by the some of the most formidable liberal critics of the time (e.g. Dwight McDonald). But it held on, grew, solidified its base of circulation, changed formats, expanded gradually, had fun, made a lot of noise, gained many enemies on the right as well as the left and earned a growing number of friends.

In 1965, one year after pundits declared conservatism officially dead because of the Goldwater defeat, Mr. Buckley ran for mayor of New York City. Anyone with his background — Skull & Bones, a former Yale Daily News chairman, and a sailing enthusiast — would seem an improbable hero for the first thousand names in the telephone directory, to use his famous phrase.

But, to everyone’s surprise (including his) he won 13.4 percent of the vote, a stunning success for anyone running as a conservative in the capital of liberalism. Perhaps only in an ideology such as conservatism, with its acknowledgment of the tragic nature of the human condition, could two back-to-back electoral defeats — Goldwater’s and then Buckley’s — be seen as harbingers of greater things to come. And come they did, culminating the great Reagan triumphs of the 1980s.

So, who and what is this guy? The authors sum it up best by quoting Peter Viereck, a conservative, although not of the Buckley type: “Buckley, despite his rhetoric, was a reconciler and an institution builder: his goal was to see conservatism become a politically dominant mass movement.”

In this, as in so many other goals he set for himself, Bill Buckley succeeded. The country and the world are better places because his gift of laughter was always in the service of the deepest values of the American people. Vive Bill!

William F. Gavin is a novelist and reviewer living in the Washington area.

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