Politics & Policy

Light & Truth in New Haven

A new student organization at Yale takes up the work WFB started 60 years ago.

In the post-election issue of NR, Jay Nordlinger wrote eloquently about the need for conservatives to resist the temptation to retreat home and cultivate our gardens, leaving the political arena to the Left. He emphasized the importance of building institutions that could counter the prevailing progressive orthodoxy.

One of the most heartening of these institutions, the William F. Buckley Jr. Program, has grown up within a body, Yale University, that is widely considered a leading bastion of that orthodoxy. Of course, Yale was not monolithic back when the program’s namesake took his alma mater to task in God and Man at Yale in 1951, nor was it monolithic before the Buckley Program was founded 60 years later. A number of Yale professors have supported the program and spoken at its events, and indeed the program grew out of a for-credit seminar on WFB taught at Yale in the fall of 2010.

The seminar was the brainchild of Alvin Felzenberg, who has worn many hats in a distinguished career — as, inter alia, principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, adjunct professor at George Washington University and the University of Pennsylvania, author of The Leaders We Deserved (and a Few We Didn’t), and, currently, communications director for the Republican contingent of the Joint Economic Committee of Congress. In 2010 Felzenberg was traveling fairly often to New Haven to do research for a book on Buckley, and it occurred to him to propose the seminar to the Yale authorities — and they accepted. He drew up an impressive reading list, and the students, he reported, were conscientious, indeed enthusiastic, about undertaking it. On the occasion when I spoke with the class (he had a different guest each week), I found that they had learned — some of them just in that one semester — an incredible amount about NR’s founding father.

And one of them — Lauren Noble, a senior majoring in history — hatched what Bill Buckley himself would have called “a bright idea”: Why not have an ongoing program “dedicated,” as its formal description says, “to providing an otherwise lacking intellectual diversity on campus”? Again, the authorities gave permission, and the Buckley Program was born. It soon attracted a core group of enthusiastic members, notably Nathaniel Zelinsky, a sophomore majoring in history, who had also taken part in the Buckley seminar.

Noble graduated that spring and left New Haven, but remained deeply involved in developing the program. Zelinsky, who took over from her as student president of the program, juggled course work with on-the-ground planning for their first big public event: an afternoon conference and gala dinner in November 2011 celebrating the 60th anniversary of God and Man at Yale. The afternoon panels — featuring, among others, Felzenberg, Yale professor Gaddis Smith, Yale professor Ted Malloch (who did a delicious riff on Gamay — as publisher Henry Regnery had dubbed the book in correspondence with its young author — as a robust grape that flourishes in flinty soil), Midge Decter, Roger Kimball, Rich Lowry, and Bill Kristol — examined the book itself and the reaction to it when it burst upon the scene in 1951, its implications for higher education today, and the lessons Bill Buckley could have taught the Republican presidential field then jostling toward the primaries. The proceedings ended on a high note, with siblings Jim and Priscilla (R.I.P.), son Christopher, and close friend of 50 years’ standing Henry Kissinger recalling Bill’s presence and discussing his legacy.

The conference was superbly organized and gave reason to hope this was no flash in the pan. The intervening year has borne out that hope. In the 2011–12 academic year, the program sponsored 19 guest speakers (including Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield; Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, who served as U.S. administrator of Iraq after the 2003 invasion; and Steve Moore of the Wall Street Journal), held two public debates and an essay contest, and provided stipends for Yale students serving as summer interns at National Review, The New Criterion, and The American Spectator. (NR’s intern, classics major Harry Graver, has just taken over from Zelinsky as student president of the program.) 

And last Friday, the Buckley Program held its second annual conference, this one celebrating the 60th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’s Witness. The panels were rich and varied, and most of the participants are well known to National Review readers. First up were Lee Edwards, Yale professor John Lewis Gaddis, M. Stanton Evans, and, as moderator, Yale professor Danilo Petranovich (who was the researcher for WFB’s last book, The Reagan I Knew). They evoked the temper of the times and spoke of the courage it required for the comparative outsider Chambers to take on “golden boy” Alger Hiss, as Edwards put it, and the entire Eastern establishment. And that establishment did a very good job of stonewalling. Although Chambers’s testimony was fully corroborated by the FBI investigation, it was not respectable to believe him until the research of Allen Weinstein and the release of Soviet information via the Venona intercepts and, later, the books of former KGB official Alexander Vassiliev made the truth inescapable. And at that, Gaddis warned, “You could still get in trouble if you stood on certain streets in northern Manhattan and shouted, ‘Alger Hiss was guilty!’” And what exactly was Hiss guilty of? Evans explained that the real issue was not espionage in the sense of sending classified information to Moscow; it was “policy influence.” This was most critical at Yalta, where FDR was “almost dead” and Secretary of State Edward Stettinius had been on the job only three months. “Hiss,” said Evans, “was the one American at Yalta who knew what he was doing.” Eastern Europe suffered the consequences for the next 45 years.

The next panel — Max Boot, Jay Nordlinger, Elliott Abrams, and, as moderator, Yale professor Charles Hill — discussed the continuing relevance of Witness to America’s dealings with the world. Chambers famously said that, in renouncing Communism, he was leaving the winning side for the losing side. As the Soviet empire was breaking up 20 years ago, it seemed that Chambers was proved wrong. But, Abrams starkly asked, is that true? The collapse of the Soviet Union meant Communism would die — but that did not mean Western civilization would survive. Chambers had contrasted materialism with “the instinct of [the] soul for God.” But all too often, in our battle with the new enemy of Western civilization, Islamism, we take the materialist side, and think, as Abrams put it, “that if we only create more jobs for Saudi youth” the Islamist problem will melt away. Max Boot took up the theme of confronting Islamism with a lesson from George Kennan (whose character, as John Gaddis described it, paralleled Chambers’s in many ways). Kennan had advocated political warfare, which we applied very competently in the Cold War — notably by helping forestall Communist political victories in Western Europe by assisting the Christian Democratic parties. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama we have missed myriad opportunities to help moderates in Muslim countries — and we must, said Boot, relearn how to do this. Jay Nordlinger concentrated instead on the pervasive double standard by which American intellectuals to this day rail against Pinochet’s crimes but completely ignore the Cuban gulag and the Chinese laogai. Nordlinger quoted Vladimir Bukovsky’s mordant remark about Joseph Brodsky, who had been so heroic as a Soviet dissident and then seemed to go soft when he came to the United States. “It is far easier,” said Bukovsky, “to stand up to the KGB than to The New York Review of Books.”

The final panel — Peter Berkowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Regnery, and, as moderator, Roger Kimball — addressed the question “Without Anti-Communism: What Defines Conservatives Today?” Podhoretz recalled how in the 1970s the American Left gave up defending Communism — instead, it turned to attacking America. And it is still doing so. Therefore, he urged, the task of conservatives of all stripes today is “to fight as passionate a war against anti-Americanism as we did against Communism.” However, that means that “great as Chambers was,” we must part company with him on one crucial point: He believed that the focus on material prosperity was a stain on the American character; he “never saw America as good.” Alfred Regnery, after pointing out that libertarians of the Rothbard stripe never embraced anti-Communism — on the grounds that fighting Communism would enlarge the state — sketched the enduring “pillars” of conservatism: liberty, rule of law, tradition and order, and belief in God. Peter Berkowitz continued this theme by saying that conservatives can rally around “a return to constitutionalism,” but he added that this does not mean rolling back everything the federal government has done since the New Deal — contra the early Bill Buckley, as Roger Kimball pointed out. Constitutional conservatism, Berkowitz explained, entails “a balancing and blending,” and any action requires taking account of “entrenched realities.” For him, calls for “small government” will not resonate: Too many Americans want a larger safety net. However, we can still call for, and fight for, “limited government” — a resolution, as Lee Edwards remarked, that is very much in the spirit of Chambers, who on political matters constantly weighed how much you can give up against how much you can’t give up and maintain your principles.

The tone of these panels was very different from that of last year’s — partly, no doubt, because the buoyancy of Bill Buckley contrasts so sharply with the plangent pessimism of Whittaker Chambers. The tone of the dinner, too, was very different. Last year’s was in high celebration mode; this year, outgoing Indiana governor Mitch Daniels gave a sober assessment of what conservatives must do going forward from November 6. He began with Witness, echoing Norman Podhoretz’s criticism of Chambers as being too critical of America. He then went on, in his quiet, unassuming way, to explain why Mitt Romney was so very wrong — not just politically maladroit, but wrong — in his famous remarks suggesting that nearly half our fellow citizens are parasites. Daniels, who has spent countless hours getting to know ordinary Indianans during his eight years as governor, retorted: “Think of people on Social Security earned through a lifetime of honest toil; of men thrown out of work by a reeling, mismanaged economy and desperately trying to find new employment while on unemployment insurance; of young families, including active-duty military personnel, working hard but still accepting food stamps, which, for the moment, they legitimately need to provide adequately for their families.” The vast majority of these people, Daniels continued, will respond to the candidate who says: “We believe in you and your ability to decide for yourself, and they don’t.”

What will the Buckley Program do for an encore? Well, the early Fifties were teeming with books by the people Bill Buckley would soon gather into the conservative movement. I’m sure these imaginative Yalies will have no trouble continuing their winning formula — or finding a new one. As we walked out into the streets of New Haven, I found myself thinking: WFB would be proud.

Linda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.


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