William F. Buckley Jr. said his greatest legacy was ridding the American conservative movement of “extremists, bigots, kooks, anti-Semites and racists.” What would he think of the state of U.S. politics today?
The question is sure to come up when Buckley biographer Alvin Felzenberg visits Indiana University this week for two talks, both sponsored by the Tocqueville Program and open to the public:
Buckley was best known for his TV interview program “Firing Line,” which aired for 33 years. National Review, the magazine he founded in 1955, remains a leading journal of conservative opinion. He launched Young Americans for Freedom, a conservative student group, and spoke each year on 70 college campuses (including multiple talks at IU Bloomington, where he became friends with conservative activists John von Kannon and R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr.). His syndicated column “On the Right” was in 500 newspapers at its peak.
“For a half century, there was only one person on the right who commanded the esteem of and had a rapport with all the people who called themselves conservatives – and even liberals who wanted to engage in civil discourse,” Felzenberg said. “Buckley was it.”
Felzenberg is a longtime public official, author and commentator who worked for New Jersey Gov. Thomas Kean in the 1980s and served as chief spokesman for the 9/11 Commission. Growing up in New Jersey, he was one of many young people who fell under Buckley’ spell.
“I was just mesmerized by him,” he said. “When other kids were lining up for tickets to hear the Beatles, I was waiting in the rain to hear Buckley speak at Montclair State College.”
As a student, he wrote to Buckley and was surprised the famous man wrote back. Later they became acquainted, and Buckley encouraged his political and writing careers.
“A Man and His Presidents” examines how Buckley brought together anti-Communists, small-government advocates, free-market supporters, libertarians and others to create a movement. It also explores his relationship with U.S. presidents, especially Ronald Reagan.
“Buckley had an extraordinary influence on Reagan – Reagan said that himself,” Felzenberg said. “They really did become close personal friends, and their wives were friends. You could say the election of Ronald Reagan, who gave voice to all of Buckley’s beliefs, really was the apex of his career.”
Buckley began as an upstart who took on the elites that led the Republican Party in the 1950s. But he broke with extremists like John Birch Society founder Robert Welch and kept his distance from writer Ayn Rand, whose celebrations of selfishness offended Buckley’s Catholic sense of morality and duty.
Over the years, he held to his belief in small government and basic conservative principles but moved away from his early opposition to civil rights and embraced race-based affirmative action, expanded legal immigration, criminal justice reform and drug legalization.
Felzenberg said Buckley never resolved whether populist movements or elites were better able to resolve important political questions – a question that took center stage in the 2016 election.
Buckley would probably support some current Republican priorities like cutting taxes and limiting the government’s role in health care, Felzenberg said. But as someone who “worshipped” the U.S. Constitution, he would not be happy with Trump’s approach to governing.
“The idea that we should only listen to one man would repel him,” he said. “Why do we have a Constitution? Because it constrains authority. Checks and balances are supposed to temper the passions of the moment. Ideas should be debated and deliberated on in that context.”