Politics & Policy

The Right Person in the Right Place at the Right Time

William F. Buckley and the conservative movement.

Writing in 1954, Lionel Trilling said that most conservatives do not “express themselves in ideas but only in action or in irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.”

One of the perks of being a liberal is disdaining people who are not liberals. However, as of 1954, Trilling’s dismissive attitude toward conservatives’ intellectual landscape was painfully close to the truth.

Trilling wrote ten years after Friedrich Hayek’s landmark counterattack against the Left in his book The Road to Serfdom. But that was a book with great impact on a relatively small number of people at the time, though its influence spread around the world over the years.

Trilling also wrote eight years before Milton Friedman’s first book aimed at a popular audience — Capitalism and Freedom — and a quarter of a century before Rush Limbaugh pioneered conservative talk radio.

They say it is always darkest before the dawn. One year after Lionel Trilling’s dismissal of conservative intellectual thought, William F. Buckley founded National Review, the first in a series of conservative journals of opinion that would build on its success.

In short, Bill Buckley revitalized conservatism, with his wit, his intellect, and his inimitable mannerisms that made him a TV icon as a guest on many programs, even before he created his own long-running program, Firing Line.

Some people like to believe that objective forces shape history but the right person in the right place at the right time can change everything. William F. Buckley was that person when he burst on the scene at the nadir of conservative thought in the 1950s.

There were of course conservative journalists before Buckley, including irrepressible black conservative journalist George Schuyler who was writing decades before Bill Buckley.

In a similar vein, there were ballplayers who hit home runs before Babe Ruth, but not nearly as many home runs. William F. Buckley revolutionized the conservative intellectual scene as much as Babe Ruth revolutionized the way baseball was played.

Today we take it for granted that there are conservative journals of opinions like The Weekly Standard, The American Spectator, City Journal, and of course the National Review.

We also take for granted that there are dozens of conservative talk radio programs, led by Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, as well as conservative columnists like Charles Krauthammer, George Will, and many others.

But these things didn’t just happen. Somebody had to lead the way and that somebody was William F. Buckley.

The difference today is more than quantitative. The way the liberal media operate is very different, now that there is a conservative media — not as large, but large enough to puncture the liberals’ pretensions and expose what they conceal.

There was a time when Walter Cronkite’s version of what was happening in Vietnam was enough to force a change in policy more disastrous than the Communist offensive which Cronkite depicted as a big loss to American military forces, when in fact the American military inflicted a crushing defeat on the Communist guerrillas.

Imagine how differently that war might have turned out — how many millions of people in Southeast Asia might not have been slaughtered by Communist governments there — if there had been a sizable contingent of conservative journalists to tell a very different story from that told by Walter Cronkite and the liberal media.

By the same token, think how successful Cronkite’s successor, Dan Rather, might have been with his fake documents about President Bush’s National Guard service, broadcast on the eve of the 2004 elections, if the fraud had not been exposed immediately by conservatives on the Internet, on talk radio, and in newspapers.

In addition to his own personal contributions to the intellectual diversity of American life, William F. Buckley’s pioneering opened the way for many others to add greatly to our intellectual diversity, the only kind of “diversity” that liberals seem to dislike, especially on our college campuses.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and author of Economic Facts and Fallacies.

© 2008 CREATORS SYNDICATE, INC.

Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.

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