Give the late William F. Buckley credit: The witty conservative writer, editor, talk-show host, debater and bon vivant was unafraid to allow liberal biographers extensive access to his life and private papers. In 1988, socialist true-believer John B. Judis published his wide-ranging, well-researched “William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.”
At some point in the future, editor and historian Sam Tanenhaus, known most recently for a book-length study of conservatism’s death, will release his authorized life of WFB. At the present time Carl T. Bogus, a self-styled liberal and a law professor at Roger Williams University, has brought forth “Buckley,” a remarkably perceptive biography.
“We often get a better grasp of our own perspective by reflecting on opposing perspectives; sometimes, in fact, that is the best method of self-understanding,” he writes. “It is for these reasons that I believe the story of William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of American conservatism is not only interesting but also relevant to our present moment.”
And indeed, Mr. Bogus rises to the occasion, crafting a formative biography and history that is not only interesting and relevant, but an essential study of Buckley and the post-World War II conservative movement.
“This book is about the rise of modern American conservatism - about the last time conservatism was refashioned,” Mr. Bogus writes early in his book. He adds, “I hope that by examining that period, conservatives may gain a better understanding of the direction they now wish to take. Although the book is about the rise of modern conservatism, I believe it can be just as helpful to liberals looking to the future.”
His work focuses upon the signal role Buckley (1925-2008) played in shaping the movement into his own image as well as the image of his father. That is, when he founded the conservative magazine National Review in 1955, he wrangled sometimes-grudging buy-in from his editorial team, contributors and readers - including such significant figures as Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, among others - to affirm the essence of conservatism as militarily interventionist, free-trade oriented, anti-tax, laissez-fair in terms of economics, and (among his co-religionists) pre-Vatican II Roman Catholic in terms of worldview.
In terms of facing the threat of communism during the Cold War, Buckley and his editorial cohorts generally leaned toward playing offense, advocating active rollback of Soviet and Chinese gains rather than containment, the strategy famously advocated by diplomat George Kennan.
In addition, it was no accident that one of his collections of articles and columns, “Happy Days Were Here Again,” was subtitled “Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist,” for Buckley, again like his father, was primarily a libertarian rather than what is today called a social conservative. Still, he admired conservatives such as Russell Kirk (author of the landmark 1953 work, “The Conservative Mind”), shared some of their key beliefs and saw them as valuable allies within the movement he sought to forge.
The presence of Kirk and other traditional conservatives at National Review, even in a back-bench capacity, lent a sense of well-roundedness and cultural concern to a predominantly political magazine.
Mr. Bogus is sure-handed in his interpretation and presentation of the facts regarding Buckley and the movement. Fairness seems to be his watchword throughout this work, which is not without minor flaws. For example, the author is on less sure ground when, after a nuanced discussion of Reagan, he states, “Modern conservatism came more fully to power with the administration of George W. Bush.”
But when he sticks to the early years of Buckley’s rise as a nationally known personality and force within American culture, Mr. Bogus is reliably good. Of Buckley and the troubled times in which he lived - a time of fear brought on by the Cold War and a seeming decline in the nation’s spiritual vigor - he writes:
“He was a cheerful, confident and attractive personality with a rare and wonderful sense of humor. As Time magazine had pointed out in its cover story, Buckley showed that conservatism could be fun. An ideology so weighted with worries would have been misery if it were led by someone whose personality reflected its fear, pessimism, or even paranoia. Buckley gave voice to his followers’ fears and yet was himself a powerful antidote to those fears.”
James E. Person Jr. is the author of “Russell Kirk: A Critical Biography of a Conservative Mind” (Madison Books, 1999).