With quiet grace, James L. Buckley, age 87, steps across the dais. His hair — chalk white and swept neatly above his brow — glistens under the ballroom lights. As he reaches the podium, the crowd roars and Buckley flashes a grin, his eyes twinkling as only a Buckley’s can. “It is just marvelous to see so many old friends and fellow combaters,” he says.
Buckley rarely makes public appearances these days. But on this cool September evening in Washington, he has happily ventured from his home in Sharon, Conn., to celebrate the founding of Young Americans for Freedom. Fifty years ago this month, over 90 students from 17 states gathered at Great Elm, the Buckley family estate, to plot the future of the young conservative movement. After a spirited discussion shepherded by Buckley’s brother Bill, the founder of National Review, the gathering produced what is known as the Sharon Statement, a 368-word compass of conservative principles.
“In this time of moral and political crises, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths,” the statement begins. Eloquent affirmations of individual liberty, economic freedom, limited government, and a strong national defense follow. Five decades later, Buckley tells us that the credo remains a “distinct summary of the irreducible conditions for a free and prosperous society.”
“That statement then inspired one of the most effective political movements in modern history, and perhaps in all of American history,” Buckley says. “I know, because in 1970, I was its beneficiary. In that year, I was engaged as Conservative candidate in a three-way race for the United States Senate. The prospects for success were hardly the sunniest.”
But 1970, Buckley continues, much like 2010, was a time ripe for a conservative message rooted in America’s founding values. “It was an unusual year,” he recalls. “It was defined by escalating violence, flag burning, and campus bombing, and obscenity-spewing, pot-smoking, sex-obsessed young radicals.” With both of his opponents expressing sympathy for the excesses of liberalism, “I was able to make inroads among socially conservative Democrats.”
“It was a confluence of forces, to use a favorite Marxist phrase, that brought the YAF movement into my life and assured my election,” Buckley says. The enthusiasm of young conservatives, he reminds us, remains not only vital, but useful. During his senatorial campaign, collegiate activists, buckets and sponges in hand, wiped clean thousands of windshields. Their mission: “To slip a piece of paper under the wipers, saying, in effect, now that you can see clearly, vote Buckley.”
As the laughter subsides, Buckley turns to today’s political scene, urging conservatives to once again throw cold water on the Democrats’ big-government agenda. Despite all of the conservative movement’s success, much work, he cautions, is still to be done. “In the end,” Buckley says, the movement “has been able to do little more than slow the growth of the Leviathan state. The sad fact is that over the last half-century, since the Sharon conference, the federal government has managed to extend its bureaucratic tentacles into virtually every corner of American life.”
“This avalanche of federal programs and controls has imposed huge costs on the American economy and created entitlements and dependencies that have done incalculable damage,” Buckley says, his voice rising. “But what saddens me most is the demolition of what the Founders believed to be the most important safeguard of our liberties: the principle of federalism, which the Sharon Statement rightly describes as the ‘genius of the Constitution.’”
For many years, Buckley wondered whether Americans would ever wake up. “Too few of our fellow citizens are sufficiently aware of the profound changes taking place in how we govern ourselves — call it the frog in a pot of slowly warming water,” he says. Since January 2009, however, things have changed. “The reckless overreaching by President Obama and his administration has turned up the heat, making the water boil.” Buckley says Obamacare, the stimulus, and the country’s mounting debt have “ignited a public rebellion.”
“The critical question facing us today is one of national character,” Buckley says. “Do a sufficient number of Americans still prize their independence enough to resist the statist notion offered by phantom, cradle-to-grave security? Whatever the answer is to that question, the challenge is there, and it must be met.”
As November approaches, Buckley encourages conservatives to craft a platform that will do more “than throw the current rascals out.” Conservatives must “provide a new Congress with clear guidelines to achieve true reform,” he says, and most important, be ready to “sustain the political pressures to ensure that those plans will be implemented once the new team is in place.” Should the GOP win the House, and subsequently fail to listen to the rally cry of the tea-party movement, it risks more than political peril.
If you wish, call this speech an “octogenarian’s lament for times now dead and gone,” Buckley sighs, smile gone. “But I believe that the country we love and its institutions are now in critical danger. I believe the next very few years will tell whether we succeed in restoring America to its constitutional roots or whether we slip irretrievably into the suffocating embrace of the all-caring state and all that implies. It will take all of the energy in the American conservative movement to ensure that the last will not be our fate.”
With those words of warning, Buckley dips his head and the audience is still. A second later, he glances back up and that Buckley grin returns, his eyebrows arched. “You have your marching orders,” he says. “Godspeed.”
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.