Do you have a liberal friend who is reasonably intelligent and open-minded? Have you ever fantasized about giving your friend a reading list full of the iconic conservative works? Would he enjoy reading them, learn anything from them, be affected by them? Consider me a surrogate for your friend. I’m a dyed-in-the-wool liberal, and, in the course of researching a biography about William F. Buckley Jr. and the rise of the conservative movement, I’ve spent much of the past four years reading many of the great conservative books. Let me conduct something of an interview with myself, attempting to ask the questions you might ask your friend, and giving my answers.
Q. What did you read?
A. I read a lot of William F. Buckley Jr., of course — books, columns, speeches, and magazine articles — but not everything he wrote. Buckley wrote 56 books, and, if his syndicated columns were published in book form, they would fill another 28 volumes. I also read many other conservative writers from the seminal period of modern American conservatism — roughly from 1951, when God and Man at Yale was published, to 1968, by which time Buckley and National Review had redefined conservatism. I read authors within the National Review family — James Burnham, Russell Kirk, and Frank Meyer, among others — as well as conservative writers outside of National Review. I made a special point of reading (or in some cases rereading) the canon of American conservatism.
Q. What was your favorite Buckley book, and why?
A. I liked best The Unmaking of a Mayor, Buckley’s memoir of his 1965 New York mayoral campaign. The book bursts with scintillating wit, but it’s Buckley’s position papers — set forth in full — that make the book truly special. They may be the most unusual position papers ever issued by a political candidate. Buckley had no chance of winning. He wasn’t running to win; he was running to promote conservatism, and to explore conservative approaches for urban problems. This left him free — truly free — to tell the truth as he saw it, regardless of how voters would react. While most position papers are written by campaign staffs or consultants, Buckley wrote his own. They are cast in his inimitable style (James Buckley, who was his brother’s campaign manager, confirmed for me that Bill penned them himself). Most of his proposals exhibit sophisticated research and analysis, yet are presented with elegant simplicity. Some of Buckley’s proposals might be characterized as liberal, such as constructing an elevated bikeway from 1st Street to 125th Street in Manhattan; some are outrageous: quarantining welfare recipients and drug addicts in what Buckley described as “great and humane rehabilitation centers” and his opponents called “concentration camps”; but most deal with mundane yet critically important urban problems, such as traffic congestion, public transit, water, and the like. Buckley had the rare gift of making even such prosaic topics interesting.
Q. In your opinion, what constitutes the canon of modern American conservatism?
A. There is, of course, no official list. But I think there is a consensus that at least half a dozen books deserve such a designation. In chronological order, they are: F. A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom (1944), William F. Buckley Jr., God and Man at Yale (1951), Whittaker Chambers, Witness (1952), Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind (1953), Barry Goldwater, The Conscience of a Conservative (1960), and Milton Friedman, Freedom and Capitalism (1962).
Q. Which of these did you respect?
A. I respected something in each of them. Witness is marvelous in terms of literary merit — unrivaled in this respect among the conservative books with which I am familiar, except perhaps Memoirs of a Superfluous Man by Albert Jay Nock, a work that made an impact on the young William F. Buckley. Today, Witness serves as a reminder to us all that conservative worries about liberals with compromised loyalties have a historical basis (although it should also remind conservatives about the origins — and sensible limits — of such worries). Goldwater’s Conscience of a Conservative, which was ghostwritten by Buckley’s friend and brother-in-law Brent Bozell, is a model polemic, perhaps the modern conservative movement’s equivalent to Paine’s Common Sense. It is reductionist, but this may be the strength as well as the weakness of the genre. By contrast, Hayek’s Road to Serfdom is nuanced. But I suppose a liberal’s saying this is merely fuel for the fire of hard-line libertarians who denounce Hayek as a “squish.”