The Corner

Politics & Policy

Say It Ain’t So, Whittaker

How can you not love Al Felzenberg? He is a happy warrior, and a terrific writer. His new biography of our founder, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr., has received deserved acclaim and attention. It is a most welcome elaboration of the WFB Legacy. So much so that George Will used his precious column space to praise the book. Nice, no?

But our former colleague (George) really had other business to attend to here: His commentary on Al’s book comes across as more so an excuse, an opportunity, to blast the problems of conservatism in the era of Trump. George says the movement “is soiled by scowling primitives whose irritable gestures lack mental ingredients.”

Rough words. He’s entitled to that opinion. And whether he’s right or not, what is more important than this latest kvetch is Will’s blame-placing for the problems of conservatism, circa 2017:

Buckley famously said he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by Harvard’s faculty, but he briskly defended the Council on Foreign Relations from “those American right-wingers who specialize in ignorance.”

“All his life,” Felzenberg writes, “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism,” never resolving the tension between them. If only he had.

He, to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography Witness became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.

Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.” Buckley, a Bach aficionado from Yale and ocean mariner from the New York Yacht Club, was unembarrassed about having good taste and without guilt about savoring the good life.

It’s Whittaker’s fault? The same Chambers who Will effusively praised in this 1984 column?

To say that a titan of conservatism and a heroic foe of Communism is responsible for polluting the cause for liberty is troubling at best. Frankly, I think it’s appalling.