The Buckley Rule has been much invoked in recent weeks, in this space and elsewhere, and on almost every occasion it has been both misquoted and misapplied. As one who was present at the formulation, I feel obliged to record the “originalist” intention.
It was the winter of 1964 and the unresolved question at NR editorial meetings, week to week, was this: Whom should the magazine support for the Republican presidential nomination? To outsiders, the question would have seemed all but settled. Issue by issue, NR gave every appearance of being all in for Barry Goldwater.
And it was not outnumbered — if, that is, you counted James Burnham’s as only a single voice. Facing Rusher, Rick, and me across the conference table was Team Rockefeller. In the first chair sat Jim Burnham, a senior editor and the most potent intellectual force at the magazine. Next to him was Priscilla Buckley — Bill’s older sister, Burnham’s soulmate, and the magazine’s managing editor. And next to her was Arlene Croce, a fine writer who went on, somewhat implausibly, to become the nation’s premier dance critic at The New Yorker.
I will not do justice to Burnham’s argument. Nobody could. His was a superbly analytical mind, powered by a mesmerizing boardroom presence. (It was the common judgment of the staff that if you were ever caught standing over a lifeless body, with smoke still wafting from the gun in your hand, you should bypass the defense bar and call Jim Burnham. He would get you off, the presumption held, with an abject note of apology from the arresting officer.)
Burnham’s most powerful argument, his closer, was that on the overriding issue of the day Rockefeller would stand with us against our mortal foes: the capitulationists in the twilight struggle with international Communism. In Burnham’s telling, Rockefeller had shown himself to be a reliable anti-Communist in his tenure at the State Department. His family’s businesses around the world had cooperated with what were euphemistically known as “agencies of the U.S. government.” And most significantly for Burnham, Rockefeller had retained as his principal foreign-policy adviser a young academic with impeccable anti-Communist credentials named Henry Kissinger. Burnham concluded by suggesting that, because of the depth of his experience and the range of his contacts, Rockefeller might be even more effective in prosecuting the Cold War than the boisterously anti-Communist Goldwater.
Well, there you had it. The gauntlet had been flung. Team Goldwater’s response rolled out this way. First, the polls were to be dismissed. As well as he ran against Goldwater, Rockefeller was still trailing Johnson by open-water margins. There was little chance that the American people were going to want a third president in less than a year: Johnson was the beneficiary of a halo effect as the country came together in the aftermath of JFK’s assassination a few months earlier. Second, Goldwater would make our brand-new conservative case — a case that most Americans had never heard — with verve and impact. Third, a Rockefeller nomination would mute both the social issues and the limited-government issues and, as a consequence, might stunt or splinter our fragile fusionist coalition. (Rockefeller was a social liberal and, quintessentially, a big-government Republican.) Finally and most important, we argued that Goldwater would advance our cause strategically. He would rip the Republican party from its roots in the eastern establishment and push it into the future — toward the West and toward the South.
These intramural arguments, as I say, were protracted, begun in the winter and carrying on into the early spring. WFB sat at the head of the table, encouraging others to speak, keeping his own counsel. In early June, after Rockefeller had won the Oregon primary and Goldwater had won California, after all of us had had our say, after rumors had begun to creep out of 35th Street that NR might shift its support to Nelson Rockefeller — the equivalent, today, of word leaking out of 15th Street that the Washington Post might endorse Michele Bachmann — Bill, who rarely proposed, decided that it was time to dispose. With each of us in our assigned seat and with six pairs of eyeballs staring at him unblinkingly, Bill announced that “National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate.”
Victory for Team Goldwater! We all knew what “viable” meant in Bill’s lexicon. It meant somebody who saw the world as we did. Somebody who would bring credit to our cause. Somebody who, win or lose, would conservatize the Republican party and the country. It meant somebody like Barry Goldwater. (And so it came to pass. For the next 40 years, the GOP nominated and elected men from the West and the South. Nixon won twice, Reagan twice, the Bushes thrice. Only in recent cycles has the GOP reverted to its habit of nominating “moderates” favored by the establishment. Dole, McCain, Romney — all of them were admired by the fashionable media until they won the GOP nomination, at which point they were abandoned in favor of the liberal nominated by the Democrats.)
Bill Buckley was careful with words. If he had opted on that June day for the words “rightwardmost electable candidate,” we would all have recognized it as a victory for Team Rockefeller. And life might look very different today. If there had been no Goldwater, National Review might not have become so influential, and if there had been no Goldwater, no National Review, there might have been no Reagan.
I did not check back every five minutes over the next 50 years to see if Bill had amended his formulation of the Buckley Rule. But in the following year, 1965, he reaffirmed his position by running in New York City as a third-party conservative against a highly electable Republican. I can tell you as the manager of that campaign that there was never a single day, from our first planning meeting in February until the polls closed in November, that Bill considered himself even remotely electable. But viable? Absolutely. He was the best candidate in the country to carry the conservative message into the heart of American liberalism. And for those who needed further reinforcement of the point, five years later Bill’s brother, James, ran for the U.S. Senate as a third-party candidate against a mainstream-Republican incumbent.
We all understand that it is Karl Rove’s mission to promote the Republican party. It was the mission of Bill Buckley to promote the conservative cause. There should be no confusion between the two.
— Neal B. Freeman, a former NR editor and columnist, is a contributor to National Review.