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.
Heck, there were those who thought Bill Buckley’s merry band had invented the Goldwater candidacy. Our publisher, Bill Rusher, was a prime mover in the Draft Goldwater committee, which had propelled Goldwater to an early lead in the delegate count. Senior editor Bill Rickenbacker, a polymath, amused himself by ghosting remarks for Goldwater and then hailing them in the magazine as “brilliantly insightful.” (NR was not in those days a conflict-of-interest-free zone.) I was the Washington correspondent, and my own weekly reporting files were more than occasionally one long leak from the Goldwater campaign. Beyond the editorial staff, WFB’s brother-in-law Brent Bozell had written The Conscience of a Conservative, Goldwater’s bestselling book that had consolidated his leadership of our fledgling political movement. Team Goldwater was well represented at the editorial meetings.
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.)
The basic elements of Burnham’s brief were these. Some of them will sound familiar. First, Rockefeller was running well ahead of Goldwater in the trial-heat polls against incumbent Lyndon Johnson. Second, Rockefeller was an Ivy Leaguer, a well-connected establishmentarian, a sophisticated candidate who could expect more positive treatment from the eastern press. Third, Rockefeller had the financial resources. (Even Rusher conceded this point.) Fourth, the influence of Rockefeller’s family was marbled through institutional New York — Wall Street, medicine, the real-estate moguldom, big philanthropy, a rainbow array of well-endowed ethnic and racial groups, the cultural centers. (Every New York museum worth visiting seemed to be chaired by one Rockefeller or another.) Burnham’s political point? As governor of a northeastern state, Rockefeller could put at least parts of the region in play, a rare and highly valuable asset for any GOP hopeful.
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.”