When Reagan ran for governor of California in 1966, NR enthusiastically endorsed his candidacy. By the early 1970s, Buckley was convinced that “Reagan was capable of becoming President.” Following Agnew’s exit in disgrace in 1973, the magazine dubbed Reagan the leader of conservatism. But after 20 often frustrating years of building a conservative alternative to the liberal establishment, Buckley could not help wondering what there was to lead.
In a November 1975 interview, a saturnine Buckley said: “As of this moment [the movement] is going nowhere.” At the 20th-anniversary dinner of National Review, Buckley described in detail the leftward tilt of Western civilization, led by American capitalists “fleeing into the protective arms of the government at the least hint of commercial difficulty.” He suggested that survival might well depend upon something like Albert Jay Nock’s “Remnant” — what Nock described as an elite group of writers and thinkers who would one day build a new and free society on the ruins of the modern welfare state
Still, Buckley would not submit to despair, because from the right angle it could be seen that “Communism is theoretically and empirically discredited.” All over the world, he said, “enslaved people continue to dream about freedom.” Inroads against poverty were successful “in almost exact correspondence to the vitality of the private sector.” And most significant of all, “there are no signs at all that God is dead. He appears to have survived even Vatican II.”
In these remarks we see the three major ideas that guided Bill Buckley from the beginning of his career: a contempt for Communism, a firm belief in private enterprise, and an abiding faith in God. As at previous anniversary dinners, Buckley pledged that he and the magazine would continue to persevere. “We have stood together for one-tenth the life span of this Republic,” he said, “and we must resolve to stand with it, and its ideals, forever.”
In the same interview in which Buckley said that the conservative movement was “going nowhere,” he added, “That would change if Reagan were to decide to challenge Mr. Ford in the primary.” Some conservatives, including leaders of the New Right and NR publisher William Rusher (but not Buckley), were pushing the idea of starting a third, conservative party. Reagan disavowed any interest in the idea. Conservatives lustily cheered Reagan at the 1975 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) when he asked, “Is it a third party that we need, or is it a new and revitalized second party, raising a banner of no pale pastels, but bold colors which make it unmistakably clear where we stand on all the issues troubling the people?”
Reagan hesitated and then decided to do as Buckley had suggested: challenge incumbent president Gerald Ford for the 1976 Republican presidential nomination. A turning point for Reagan had been Ford’s refusal to meet with famed Russian dissident and author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. For Reagan and Buckley there was no greater anti-Communist than the man who wrote One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich and The Gulag Archipelago. “The public acclaim by Solzhenitsyn of the kind of thing we were doing,” Buckley said, “was an enormous stroke in the ideological heavens, and his Gulag book simply broke the back of the intellectual pro-Communist Left.”
Buckley shared the movement’s elation when Reagan sought his party’s nomination — he had been encouraging Reagan to seek the presidency since at least 1973, and he backed the bid in his column, although he played no formal role in the campaign. He felt sharp disappointment when Ford won the nomination in a heartbreakingly close vote at the national convention — 1,187 delegates to 1,070. Reagan thanked his advisers and workers, many of whom were weeping, and reminded them that although “we lost . . . the cause goes on.” And he added a couple of lines from an old Scottish ballad, “I’ll lay me down and bleed awhile; though I am wounded, I am not slain. I shall rise and fight again.”
– Lee Edwards, the distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation, is the author of William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement, from which this excerpt is adapted.