Adrian Lee is a Solicitor-Advocate in London, specialising in criminal defence, and was twice a Conservative Parliamentary Candidate.
Fifty-three years ago, on Saturday 3 August 1968, at the start of one of the most closely fought American Presidential campaigns in post-war history, two men with impeccable manners and matching mid-Atlantic accents entered the ABC outside broadcast studio above the Republican Convention arena in Miami Beach, Florida, for the first in a series of debates from the two great nominating conventions.
In the Left corner was Democrat-supporting Gore Vidal, novelist, snob, raconteur and public wit. Whilst over on the Right, was the equally erudite Republican William F. Buckley Jnr. Each night they would exchange not only their contrasting political opinions, but also increasingly bitter sardonic barbs and put-downs.
The viewers loved it and the ratings grew. It culminated on 28 August at the Democratic Convention in Chicago, with tensions riding high and Police tear gas seeping into the hall from the Vietnam War protesting “Yippy” riots outside, with the two men almost coming to blows.
Vidal called Buckley a “crypto-Nazi” for supporting the Police action, with Buckley responding, “Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in the face and you’ll stay plastered.” The exchange went down in political history, but there was a lot more to Buckley than this brief loss of temper.
William F. Buckley Jnr was born in New York City on 24 November 1925, the sixth child of a Texas-born, Irish Catholic, oil baron. Whilst the family officially resided in Sharon, Connecticut, Bill spent much of his childhood in Mexico, where his father’s oil business was based.
Buckley first came to public attention in 1951 with the publication of ‘God and Man’ at Yale, which exposed the university (and his own alma mater) as a bastion of Left-Liberal dogma. The book examined the academic course materials used and the political bias expressed in classes by individual tutors.
Buckley argued that Yale was undermining student’s faith in Christianity, and promoting economic collectivism. Keynesian and socialist theory were taught as fact, and the opposing arguments were ignored. When teaching vacancies occurred, academics appointed those of the same opinion. To counter this, Buckley urged alumni on the university’s controlling board to exert their influence over academic appointments and enforce a broader curriculum.
The Left’s reaction to the publication of God and Man at Yale was one of outrage. McGeorge Bundy, academic and future National Security Advisor to both JFK and LBJ, called Buckley a “violent, twisted and ignorant young man”, and questioned both the “honesty of his method” and the “measure of his intelligence”. Another academic, Frank Ashburn, even suggested that Buckley should wear KKK rather than graduate robes.
Buckley would later remark of the intellectual elite: “I am obliged to confess that I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.”
William Buckley had an evangelical zeal to re-launch conservatism as a viable philosophy in America. He believed that a new, younger, broad-based movement needed to be created, uniting traditionalists, libertarians and anti-communists. In 1955, he launched a Conservative fortnightly periodical, the ‘National Review’. In its first editorial, entitled ‘Our Mission Statement’, on 19 November 1955, Buckley wrote:
“A conservative is someone who stands athwart history, yelling stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urges it so.”
It is hard to over-estimate the political impact and importance of National Review. Buckley, as Editor-in-Chief from its inception until 1990, brought together contributors from all strands of Conservative opinion. Over time, National Review developed its own blend of conservatism based on the free market, the rule of law and opposition to the spread of Soviet Communism.
Buckley concluded the decade with the publication of the polemic ‘Up from Liberalism’ in 1959. Of all of his works, this slim volume, containing a sharp critique of Liberal prejudices, probably has the greatest resonance today. Over 60 years ago Buckley wrote:
“I think it is fair to conclude that American Liberals are reluctant to co-exist with anyone on the Right…when a conservative speaks up demandingly, he runs the greatest risk of triggering the Liberal mania; and before you know it, the ideologist of open-mindedness and tolerance is hurtling towards you, lance cocked.”
During the 1960’s Buckley worked at a ferocious pace on new projects. In 1960, he formed the conservative youth movement, Young Americans for Freedom. In 1962, Buckley started writing a twice weekly syndicated column entitled ‘On the Right’, which appeared in 320 newspapers across the USA. In 1964, he was one of the principal drivers behind Barry Goldwater’s campaign for the Republican Presidential nomination.
In 1965, following the selection of John Lindsay, a bizarrely Left-wing Republican Party candidate supported by the New York Liberal Party, in the contest for the New York Mayoralty, Buckley joined the tiny New York State Conservative Party and stood as their candidate. This would be the only occasion that he would run for public office, and his campaign trail experiences would later be shared in his next book, ‘The Unmaking of the Mayor’.
He started the campaign with a humorous quip that almost backfired. When asked at a press conference what would be the first thing that he would do if elected Mayor, Buckley remarked “demand a recount”.
At that time, the New York electorate were treated by mainstream politicians as members of competing voting blocks. It was common practice to play off one ethnic or religious community against the other. Buckley was the first candidate to reject this approach and to treat voters as individuals:
“I will not go to Irish centres and go dancing. I will not go to Jewish centres and eat blintzes, nor will I go to Italian centres and pretend to speak Italian.”
Buckley stood on a manifesto of unbridled conservatism in a liberal metropolis at the height of the 1960s. He fought for zero tolerance of crime, low taxes, curbs on welfare, workfare for the long-term unemployed and the rehabilitation of drug addicts in residential hospitals.
His opponents at first tried to ignore him, and then attempted to smear him. However, Buckley’s humour shone through, and he finished in a highly respectable third place. The significance of the 1965 campaign is the amount of publicity he garnered for conservative opinions across the country.
A few months later, in 1966, PBS gave him his own weekly TV interview show, ‘Firing Line’. This programme was destined to be broadcast for 33 years, and the guests read like a lexicon of conservatives. Many episodes can now be viewed for free on the internet and British readers may find the interviews with Margaret Thatcher and Enoch Powell of particular interest.
Buckley’s peak of political influence came with the election of his friend, Ronald Reagan, to the Presidency. His final book, ‘The Reagan I Knew’, provides a touching insight into the relationship that he and his wife Pat had with both Ron and Nancy. The couples spent weekends and holidays together, and maintained a humorous written correspondence for over thirty years.
When Reagan became President, Buckley joked that he was not interested in a government appointment apart from as US Ambassador to Afghanistan, then under Soviet occupation and without American representation. Subsequent letters from Reagan to Buckley would always be addressed to “His Excellency”, and addressed to “The Bunker, Kabul”.
William F. Buckley Jnr, journalist, broadcaster, candidate, political organiser and author of over 50 books, died aged 82 in 2008. For over half a century he championed conservatism in the American media, and helped develop the movement’s organisational skills. We could all learn from his legacy