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Good Time(ing) Bill: William F. Buckley and the Damage Done

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Message David Michael Green

William F. Buckley was a smart man, that’s for sure.

He could throw around more ten dollar words than his beloved Catholic church has sinners (even excluding the priesthood). He knew all the right places to ski and the proper wines to drink while listening to this concerto or appreciating that symphony. A product of privilege right down to the French boarding schools he attended, Buckley was as sophisticated, erudite and insightful as they come.

Except on the subject of politics, that is – which just happened to be his life’s great work.

And aren’t we lucky for it?

Buckley is often credited with being the father of the modern conservatism (pardon the oxymoron) in America. It is said that before he founded the National Review in 1955, there essentially was no such movement in the country. It is said (no less than by Reagan himself), that the line is drawn directly from Buckley to Goldwater to Reagan. (For some completely inexplicable reason, conservatives usually leave off Gingrich and Bush the Younger from that genealogy.)

Buckley was an astute observer of the human condition, despite keeping, shall we say, a certain polite distance from most of the poor humans who happen to find themselves stuck in that sometimes challenging condition. He was once asked by NPR’s Terry Gross whether being raised in European boarding schools and being a member of Yale’s notoriously elitist Skull and Bones Society hadn’t left Buckley a trifle, um, out of touch with real people (the hoi polloi, that is, as they’re referred to at the Club)? Au contraire!, he skillfully parried. Buckley did a lot of reading and therefore understood people quite well!

So well, indeed, that he came out in support of segregation during the era when the civil rights movement was the most important, the most consuming, political question of the day. So who do you think history will judge to have gotten this question right, eh? – Martin Luther King or Bill Buckley? One could say that Buckley’s position was just about the most spectacular example ever recorded of the missing of a historical train. There was Ol’ Bill (who actually didn’t even have the excuse then of being old), standing on the (whites only) platform, watching the Morality Express go whooshing by.

But then, wasn’t missing just such trains precisely the point of conservatism?

Buckley certainly thought so. In the essay with which he launched the National Review, he committed it and the conservative movement to the project of "stand[ing] athwart history, yelling Stop".

Yep, that’s actually a bona fide quote from the man himself. If that sounds a bit anachronistic as the grand rallying cry for a modern political movement, you’re – ahem – still not getting it, I’m afraid. The thwarting and reversal of progress is precisely the point of conservatism.

After all, progress is scary. Progress is difficult. Progress is messy. And progress means having to share.

So Buckley launched a movement to yell "Stop!", and they all did, and they were grandly successful, as a matter of fact. For three decades now conservatives have ruled America and stopped progressive change in its tracks. Moreover, they have worked assiduously to undo those achievements that so many of us took for granted as the very markers of civilization itself.

Sometimes they have only wanted to unravel history a couple of decades worth, as when they oppose civil rights, women’s rights or environmentalism. Sometimes it is more on the order of a century, as when the seek to dismantle social safety net programs like Social Security and Medicare. Sometimes their handiwork goes back several centuries, as when they find First Amendment ideas such as separation of church and state to be troublesome, or when they object to that whole pesky checks-and-balances thing. But sometimes it is the work of an entire millennium they wish to unravel, as they rip up the inconvenient notions of democracy itself, expressed as far back as Magna Carta.

So, how ‘bout it folks? Anybody here excited to return our society to the gleaming days of the twelfth century? Watch where you step in the street! I mean, um, the latrine. Well, what’s the difference, anyhow? And monarchy is really not so bad after all, you know – once you get used to it. It only has a bad name because it gets treated so unfairly by the liberal press. You know, like George W. Bush.

So let’s do it, huh?! Back we go!

All you nice Negroes out there, I’m afraid we’re going to need to ask you to use that other drinking fountain from now on. Sorry about that. Careful with your chains too, if you would please. And ladies, I think you remember your proper position in conservative society, do you not? That’s right. Take off your shoes – you won’t be needing them anymore. Now assume the position. Careers? Oh, that’s a laugh. Political equality? Such a comedian! Family planning? How’s your rhythm?

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David Michael Green is a professor of political science at Hofstra University in New York.  He is delighted to receive readers' reactions to his articles (, but regrets that time constraints do not always allow him to respond. His website is (more...)
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