On November 20, 1983, a made-for-TV film titled The Day After debuted on ABC. The film is about a fictional war that escalates into a large scale nuclear holocaust between NATO countries. The film was so real and the imagery so graphic, that I walked around the next several weeks anticipating a nuclear war. But, despite the fascinating images of mushroom clouds projecting to the ends of my old cathode ray tube, the more intriguing exchange came in the form of a debate afterwards between two titans of academia: Carl Sagan and one William F. Buckley, Jr.
Now I’d seen both of these distinguished fellows on TV in the past. Carl Sagan was known for his famous PBS production Cosmos, while Bill (as friends would refer to him) Buckley had a little show called Firing Line, which was also on PBS. Buckley had also created a magazine called National Review, which is still doing quite well up to the present day.
Watching both of these men spar with words was like watching a rhetorical Thrilla in Manilla with Ali and Frazier going toe-to-toe. In the debate, Mr. Sagan argued the liberal side, which called for the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons. While Buckley saw the threat of nuclear weapons, and the dangling of such before the enemies of America, as a deterrent.
It was an understatement to say that Buckley had a way with words. In fact, it was much more than that. He was the guy that I would think of when someone would say to me, “now that guy is smart”. I would think to myself if you had seen or heard William F. Buckley, Jr. speak, “that guy” would look dumbfounded next to Bill! He was sophisticated, yet humorous. He was educated, yes. But what many people don’t know about Buckley is that he lived an extraordinary life. Where many view Bill Buckley as a stuffy, ascot-wearing, pipe smoking. social elitist, my view of him is quite different. He did walk to the beat of his own drum, and was in the classical sense a true Renaissance man.
In that respect, his education was just a small part of who he was (which he was also an homeschooled student until the 8th grade). Among the many life experiences that shaped his world and views…
He joined the U.S. Army, where he attended Officer Candidate School and was commissioned as a second lieutenant.
He was a member of FDR’s Honor Guard upon the president’s death.
He served stateside throughout the war at Fort Benning, GA, Fort Gordon, GA, and Fort Sam Houston, TX.
He returned to Yale after the Army and was an active member of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union, also serving as the Chairman of the Yale Daily News and an informant for the FBI.
He graduated with honors from Yale in 1950, having studied political science, history, and economics. He was also a champion (of course) on the Yale Debate Team.
He worked for the CIA under E. Howard Hunt while in Mexico City for two years.
He married Patricia Aldyen Austin “Pat” Taylor, the daughter of Canadian industrialist Austin C. Taylor, in 1950.
He wrote his first book in 1951 called God and Man at Yale.
There are many more achievements and milestones to mention. But what defined William F. Buckley, Jr. was his role in the modern day conservative movement. Where many see Barry Goldwater as the political father of the movement, all other societal circles of conservatism see Buckley as their founder. Though many have shaped my views and thoughts as a conservative, all of those folks are descendants of Bill Buckley when it comes to the foundation of their political worldview.
It’s been 9 1/2 years since Buckley’s passing. So on his 92nd birthday, I reflect on what he would think of today’s Conservative Movement, with a Capital “C” (explanation forthcoming), and whether or not his labor was for not. Some would see the movement as being on the rocks, while others are seeing a rebirth. I see it more as a bit muddy, as one who wears his waders into the murkiest of waters in hopes of catching a catfish in the shallow end of a large freshwater lake.
This is similar to how Buckley viewed it during the middle of the George W. Bush years, not long before his death. He referred to W. Bush as a “lowercase c” conservative (as he did with Senior Bush). Buckley said the “Capital C” Conservatives were the true Conservatives, which were in every way fiscally and socially Conservative or Libertarian-leaning in every way. He used the Iraq War, the albatross of the George W. Bush presidency, as an analogy of the presidents’ “smaller c” conservatism. Regarding the war in Iraq, Buckley stated, “The reality of the situation is that missions abroad to effect regime change in countries without a bill of rights or democratic tradition are terribly arduous…This isn’t to say that the Iraq war is wrong, or that history will judge it to be wrong. But it is absolutely to say that conservatism implies a certain submission to reality; and this war has an unrealistic frank and is being conscripted by events.”
By 2006, Buckley’s view had morphed into a more tragic view of the Iraq war. Jeffrey Hart wrote that he “saw it as a disaster and thought that the conservative movement that he (Buckley) had created had in effect committed intellectual suicide by failing to maintain distance from the Bush Administration…At the end of his life, Buckley believed that the movement he made had destroyed itself by supporting the war in Iraq.”
The term that Buckley referred to as lowercase c conservatism, had taken on more specific names by the end of his life, which ironically coincided with the end of the George W. Bush presidency, as neo-cons & RINO’s. It was the Post-Iraq war time that gave birth to the American Tea Party, which sought to separate itself from the neo-conservative movement that was taking hold. This divide, along with the rise in libertarian-leaning independents such as Ron Paul, lead to a crack in the foundation in the GOP whose evolution resulted in the election of Democratic Party superstar Barrack Husein Obama being elected president in 2008. If Buckley had not passed on earlier that year, that event would have surely sent him to his grave.
In the Post-Obama all-Trump-all-the-time world of today, a 92-year old Buckley would look out into the landscape of Conservatism and see either one extreme or the other. But he would see a large number of conservatives rolling the dice on a guy named Donald J. Trump. Yes, that Donald J. Trump. The Trump that Buckley in 2000 said this about: “When he looks at a glass, he is mesmerized by its reflection. If Donald Trump were shaped a little differently, he would compete for Miss America.” Man, a lot has changed in a decade or so. But this is what a two-term Obama presidency and an potential Hillary Rodham Clinton presidency will do to once sane people.
So what Buckley would see 9 1/2 year’s after his passing is a conservatism that has been diluted down and separated to some degree out of necessity. But it has also been split into several different factions, most likely to never be reunited. He would probably reconcile his thoughts of Mr. Trump as a necessity to prevent a further slide of America into an upscale version of Venezuela.
But he would also see a dissent of the major parties into a scandalous group of predators that are a mere caricature of their old selves. Conservatism is not what it use to be and is unlikely to return to the status and swagger that one William F. Buckley, Jr. provided it. But conservatives can still be a powerful political force if they are able to unite under one umbrella. As we are now, we are much like a people wandering in the wilderness amongst neo-cons, RINOS, nationalists, white nationalists, alt-right, and other demagogues.
So here is to Mr. Buckley on his 92nd birthday. You remain a strong jolt of champagne. You will always be a glowing example of what the intellectual conservative is about. And your place in history as the father of modern-day conservatism is solid, even if the waters we are wading in remain murky.
(Chris Gaines is an aspiring author and the Editor In Chief of Patriot Gaines. He lives with his wife Jennifer, and two children, Patrick & Megan, in the Cedar Valley of Northeastern Iowa.)
(Photos are from National Review Archives)