Politics & Policy

At the NRI Ideas Summit, William F. Buckley Jr. Loomed Large

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
He followed the adage that politics is about addition, not subtraction; multiplication, not division.

He is best known as the founder of National Review and the host of the long-running TV program Firing Line, but Bill Buckley was also as the political leader who, more than anyone else, built the modern conservative movement. The cornerstone of the movement was National Review, whose masthead included representatives of all the different strains of conservatism in the 1950s.

Buckley was a master fusionist. Before him, conservatives were a bunch of ill-assorted semi-enemies located in isolated outposts across the country. He persuaded conservatives to unify in the face of a common enemy — liberals. He welcomed traditional conservatives such as Russell Kirk, libertarians like Frank Meyer, anti-Communists like Whittaker Chambers, neoconservatives like Irving Kristol, and neo-populist conservatives such as Willmoore Kendall.

Unwelcome were kooks, anti-Semites, and God-haters such as Ayn Rand, whom he once encountered at a New York City party. Rand singled Buckley out and remarked, in her heavy Russian accent, “Mr. Buckley you are too intelligent to believe in Gott.” Reflecting on how best to respond, Buckley decided to send her a Christmas card — in Latin.

His policy of inclusion and his practice of civility inspired young conservatives like myself when we founded Young Americans for Freedom at his Sharon, Conn., home in 1960. Present at the founding were nearly 100 strong-willed, outspoken conservatives and libertarians. We debated and voted on everything, especially the wording of the Sharon Statement, our statement of first principles. A key question was whether to include the phrase “God-given free will.” The ayes barely prevailed — 44 to 40. Significantly, the libertarians did not protest or walk out; they abided by the democratic process and honored Buckley’s example of civility, sadly absent in much of today’s politics.

Bill Buckley would have praised the National Review Institute Ideas Summit recently held here in Washington. In fusionist fashion, the speakers ranged from Tucker Carlson, Jonah Goldberg, and James Buckley to Secretary of State Michael Pompeo, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and Senator Marco Rubio of Florida.

Secretary Pompeo delivered a brisk tour d’horizon of the world and America’s place in it. The Trump doctrine, he said, is principled and realistic: Its core principle is “defensive engagement.” The president is the toughest commander in chief since Ronald Reagan, Pompeo said, unafraid to challenge shibboleths. Why not, therefore, reevaluate NATO?

Regarding Venezuela, the U.S. has built “a major coalition of partners” against Nicolás Maduro and will continue to apply pressure and to call attention to the Cuban forces that are protecting the Venezuelan dictator. Although the ISIS caliphate is gone, the threat of ISIS remains. The world cannot survive, the secretary said emphatically, without a strong and powerful America on the world stage. Living through the Cold War and faced with the clear danger of the Soviet Union, Bill Buckley was always a supporter of a policy of peace through strength — as was his favorite president, Ronald Reagan.

TV commentator Tucker Carlson described the decline of the American male, whose life expectancy is falling, in part owing to a rising suicide rate. College graduates are shackled with student debt and living with their parents. Modern feminism is producing women who think they have a moral obligation to serve business before their family. His solution: “Stop with the identity-politics crap!” Buckley would have endorsed the solution if not the rhetoric.

Conservative feminists Tammy Bruce and Harmeet Dhillon argued that too many people are afraid to speak and that the Left is relying on “shutting us down.” Conservatives must defend those who do speak out, like Mark Janus, an Illinois government employee whose refusal to pay union dues was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court and who was honored at the NRI Ideas Summit. We must understand, said Dhillon, that the Left is playing by Leninist rules while conservatives are still playing by Marquess of Queensbury rules. The two women urged conservatives to learn from President Trump, who “has taught us to fight back.”

Bill Buckley too was a fighter who challenged the liberal zeitgeist, with National Review as his primary weapon. He took the struggle into the streets in 1965 when he ran for mayor of New York City. Ever the fusionist, he reached out to conservative Republicans and blue-collar Democrats on his way to receiving 13.5 percent of the vote. In The Emerging Republican Majority, the political analyst Kevin Phillips wrote that the Buckley campaign uncovered populist Democrats who helped Richard Nixon and Reagan gain their landslide victories.

If he had been a speaker at the NRI Ideas Summit, Bill Buckley would probably have reminded the attendees of a tried and true political axiom that some conservatives seem to have forgotten: Politics is about addition, not subtraction; multiplication, not division. Fusionism was Buckley’s guiding principle as he built the conservative movement that remains a major political force to this day.

A final comment about a question frequently asked at the Ideas Summit: “Should conservatives welcome populists or not?” Here is what Bill Buckley once said: “I would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than by the Harvard University faculty.”

Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation.

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