A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.

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Release Date: 
June 3, 2017
Yale University Press
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". . . a fascinating examination of Buckley’s approach to practical politics . . ."

William F. Buckley Jr. may have been the most politically influential intellectual of the 20th century. In the mid-1950s, he set about to make conservatism a respectable alternative to liberalism by founding National Review.

In the 1960s, he married conservative ideas to practical politics, first in the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater in 1964, and later in his own run for mayor of New York one year after.

He achieved the ultimate political success when his friend and philosophical pupil Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980 and resoundingly reelected in 1984.

Alvin Felzenberg’s A Man and His Presidents is a fascinating examination of Buckley’s approach to practical politics in the context of his strong but evolving philosophical views.

Felzenberg does not hide his admiration for Buckley. As a 16-year-old sophomore at Irvington High School in New Jersey, Felzenberg closely followed the 1965 New York mayoral campaign in which Buckley ran on the Conservative Party ticket. Buckley, he recalled, was “articulate, knowledgeable, witty and urbane.”

Felzenberg was soon regularly reading Buckley’s syndicated column. He also read some of Buckley’s books, including The Unmaking of a Mayor, Up From Liberalism, Rumbles Left and Right, and later God and Man at Yale, and got “hooked” on Buckley’s new television show Firing Line.

Buckley grew-up in what Felzenberg calls a “secure, serene, and privileged environment,” thanks to his father, William F. Buckley Sr., a politically connected entrepreneur who “believed that societies should be governed in accordance with eternal, time-tested, universal truths, all enshrined within the tenets of the Roman Catholic Church.”

Buckley worshipped his father and hewed to those “eternal, time-tested, universal truths” in life, journalism, and politics, but not, Felzenberg shows, inflexibly.

Throughout his career as intellectual conservatism’s leading public figure, Buckley repeatedly shaded his philosophical views when necessary to facilitate practical political goals.

Felzenberg rightly attributes Buckley’s political flexibility to the influence of James Burnham, the brilliant Cold War strategist and analyst who Buckley called the dominant intellectual influence at National Review, and Whittaker Chambers, the tormented ex-Soviet espionage courier who Buckley befriended in the 1950s.

Burnham and Chambers impressed upon their younger colleague “the importance of prioritizing goals, the need to cultivate public opinion for what one was proposing,” and in electoral politics the necessity of supporting the most right-leaning electable candidate.

One way Buckley achieved this was by reading out of the conservative movement extremist elements such as the John Birch Society. Another way he accomplished this was to find areas of agreement among the different strands of conservatism—cultural conservatives, libertarians, and anti-communists. Finally, his own views changed, especially in the area of Civil Rights.

The book’s main focus is Buckley’s relationships with GOP presidents, especially Nixon, Reagan, and George H. W. Bush. 

Buckley was not close to Nixon, but supported him in 1968 and 1972, despite what Buckley believed was Nixon’s unnecessary abandonment of Taiwan as part of the opening to China, his pursuit of détente and arms control with the Soviet Union, and his liberal domestic policies.

Nixon, for his part, was never a “movement” conservative, but he understood the political necessity of courting conservatives to maintain and expand his winning political coalition. Buckley accompanied Nixon to China, served briefly in his administration as a delegate to the UN General Assembly, and formed a close friendship with Henry Kissinger.

This did not immunize the Nixon administration from strong criticism when Buckley believed its policies went against those “eternal, time-tested, universal truths” he held so dear.

As the Watergate scandal intensified, Buckley refused to call for Nixon’s impeachment, but publicly “voiced increasing skepticism about whether Nixon could survive.”

After Nixon died, Buckley wrote that it was remarkable that most conservatives rallied to Nixon’s defense during Watergate given that Nixon had done very little to advance conservative policies. Felzenberg quotes Buckley’s final verdict on Nixon: he was the “weakest of men and the strongest: a master of self-abuse and of self-recovery.”

Buckley befriended Ronald and Nancy Reagan, Felzenberg notes, soon after Reagan gave his famous televised speech on behalf of Barry Goldwater shortly before the 1964 election. “Buckley,” writes Felzenberg, “became Reagan’s most trusted adviser outside his official family and, after Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s primary enabler and protector.”

Reagan was an avid reader of National Review. Like Buckley, he was a principled conservative but appreciated the need for flexibility in practical politics. Buckley saw in Reagan, Felzenberg notes, a “capacity to project . . . conservative ideas as a positive agenda, stating what he was for rather than delivering a litany of what he opposed.”

Ultimately, Buckley saw Reagan as a political leader who could win high office and implement the conservative agenda and conservative ideas that Buckley had been writing and talking about for decades.

During Reagan’s presidency, Buckley acted as an “informal policy adviser and confidant,” frequently meeting and communicating with the president and Nancy Reagan.  Reagan later called Buckley “the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era” and conservatism’s champion.

Felzenberg notes that Buckley’s correspondence with Reagan continued into his post-presidency until Reagan’s Alzheimer’s disease made that impossible. “He stayed in close contact with Nancy Reagan,” the author writes, “for the rest of his days.”

Buckley had been friends with George H. W. Bush from their Yale days, but unlike with Reagan, the friendship with Bush was personal not philosophical. Much to Bush’s chagrin, Buckley and National Review failed to endorse Bush over the other GOP candidates in the 1988 primaries.

Four years later, Buckley made it clear that he was philosophically closer to Jack Kemp and Pat Buchanan than to Bush, but in the general election he tepidly endorsed Bush over Bill Clinton and Ross Perot. Nevertheless, before he left office, George H. W. Bush awarded Buckley the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Buckley, of course, supported George W. Bush for president in 2000 and 2004, but Bush’s Wilsonian rhetoric and policies with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan struck Buckley as unwise, imprudent, and wasteful of American lives. “Nation-building,” often promoted by neoconservatives, was not to his liking. He often invoked the words of John Quincy Adams about not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy. It is a debate within conservatism that continues to this day.

The brash, young conservative who originally proclaimed his mission as standing athwart history yelling “Stop,” had, Felzenberg concludes, “learned to prioritize, . . . trimmed his sails, and, along the way, . . . helped change the world.”