EDITOR’S NOTE: In the new book William F. Buckley Jr.: The Maker of a Movement (ISI Books), historian Lee Edwards provides a much-needed intellectual biography of this towering figure. Edwards, who knew Bill Buckley for more than 40 years, reminds readers of the ideas that animated WFB and propelled the rise of the modern conservative movement. In this excerpt, Edwards discusses the relationship between Buckley and Ronald Reagan, and how together they led the conservative movement during the dark days of the 1970s.
Wherever he was — in New Guinea; in Gstaad, Switzerland; or at his home in Stamford, Connecticut — Bill Buckley kept his eye on the state of the conservative movement, including and most especially the political fortunes of Ronald Reagan. The two conservatives had first met in January 1961, when Reagan, then the host of the popular television program GE Theater, was to introduce Buckley to an assembly of mostly doctors and their wives at a Los Angeles high school. However, it was discovered that the microphone was dead, and the control room at the rear of the hall was locked. As the audience grew increasingly restless at the delay of the program, Reagan decided to take remedial action.
The future president walked to the side of the hall and looked through the window at the ledge running the length of the building some two stories above traffic. He slipped out the window and with his back to the wall sidestepped carefully on the parapet toward the control-room window. Reaching it, he broke the glass with his elbow and disappeared into the control room. “In a minute there was light in the upstairs room,” Buckley later wrote, “and then we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone.”
For Buckley, Reagan’s movements that night were a “nifty allegory of his approach to foreign policy” — the calm appraisal of a situation, the willingness to take risks, and then the decisive moment “leading to lights and sound — and music, the music of the spheres.”
The Yale University graduate and the Eureka College alumnus had much in common: Each was tall (Reagan 6′1″, Buckley 6′2″), handsome, ambitious, a gifted speaker with a ready wit, an inveterate reader with an abiding interest in ideas, and a star in his profession. Each was a committed conservative — Reagan the zealous convert from liberalism, Buckley the cradle conservative. Each had a strong libertarian streak and viewed government as almost always the problem, not the solution. (One of the earliest and most important influences on Buckley was the libertarian author and social critic Albert Jay Nock.) Each was a fierce anti-Communist who believed that you could only trust the Communists to be Communists — although Reagan would come to believe that you could trust some Communists if you carefully verified their actions. A close friendship developed, reinforced by Nancy Reagan’s warm approval of Bill Buckley and his wife, Pat, who knew many of the same socially prominent New Yorkers she did.
There was a significant intellectual difference between the two conservatives: Buckley’s innate skepticism — deepened by the influence of former Soviet spy Whittaker Chambers and National Review senior editor James Burnham — about the possibility of altering the course of history contrasted with Reagan’s sunny belief that, in the words of Thomas Paine, “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”
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.