Listening to Bill Buckley give a speech was a painful experience. It was like watching an old cow give birth. The words came out so slowly…and then you were inevitably disappointed. You expected more. A man who took so long to choose his words ought to come up with something better. But Buckley’s words were always a little slimy.
Still, the pompous tone did its job. The common, naturally-conservative American thought he heard an angel singing…and thought he saw something practically divine in Buckley’s palaver. He had found nobility he could bend to…a man whose looks, wealth, and education and family rivalled the Kennedys’.
"For people of my generation, Bill Buckley was pretty much the first intelligent, witty, well-educated conservative one saw on television," said fellow warmonger William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard, at the time the show ended. "He legitimized conservatism as an intellectual movement and therefore as a political movement."
This past week saw a downpour of regret at the death of William F. Buckley. It was Buckley, it was said, who revived American conservatism. This is something he certainly did not do. He came not to praise traditional conservatism but to bury it. In its place, he invented something new…or rather, it invented him.
People come to believe what they must believe when they must believe it. When they have a modest republic, they believe in the modest sentiments and simple creed of republican government. When they are citizens of a great empire, on the other hand, they come to see things differently. Always and everywhere, someone takes the lead, expressing the new sentiments better, more persuasively, or perhaps more memorably, than others. William F. Buckley was born into a republic that was fast becoming an empire. President Wilson arrived in Le Havre at the end of WWI. He came neither as a tourist nor a businessman…that is, not as an honest traveler. Instead, he came to sort out the Old World’s problems and brought 17 Points to help do it. The cynical, worldly Europeans laughed at him. Even God needed only 10 commandments, they said. Wilson was so humiliated he had a stroke and never recovered.
To their credit, the American people were slow to put on the imperial purple. The conservatives among them wanted to retain the old form of government, with its limited aims and limited means. Conservatism was a more innocent creed back then. There was no place in it for handing out pills to old people. The idea of trying to remake another country, half way around the world, into an American-style democracy, would not have been scorned; it would have been unimaginable. Back then, of course, there was no homeland. The idea would have made no sense. Americans’ interests stopped at the Rio Grande and the 49th parallel. The foreigners would have to take care of themselves. Even home-grown 100% Americans were expected to look out for their own kith and kin. "Balance the budget, protect the borders, and otherwise leave people alone," was the extent of conservative ambitions.
But the world wouldn’t stand still. After WWI, Americans had largely gone back to minding their own business. But then came the Great Depression; all of a sudden bread was in demand and activism was in style. People wanted the Roosevelt administration to do something. It rose to the challenge…and then some. And then came the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor and the whole country mobilized, under government direction. To win it.
After the war, there was no going back. America was the leading world power. "Isolationism" became a kind of insult. A few of the old conservatives — such as Frank Chodorov, Robert Taft and Warren Buffett’s father, a US Congressman — kept wearing their old starched collars. But the fashion had clearly changed. They could vote against government spending programs…and they opposed further military adventures abroad… but they couldn’t win national elections and they couldn’t participate in the great fun of having an empire — getting to boss people around all over the world. There was no glory in being a conservative. No power. No money. No style.
Then, with the Cold War, even the old die-hards went shopping for new clothes. In their minds, it was a contest between good and evil…freedom and communism…black and white.
Indeed, the Cold War played roughly the same roll as the War on Terror would half a century later — it perverted the old conservative values.
"We are again being told to be afraid," wrote Frank Chodorov. "As it was before the two world wars so it is now; politicians talk in frightening terms, journalists invent scare-lines, and even next-door neighbors are taking up the cry: the enemy is at the city gates; we must gird for battle. In case you don’t know, the enemy this time is the USSR."
Few Americans had even met a communist, but they were certain that if they didn’t go toe to toe with them in places like Korea, Berlin and Vietnam, they’d soon be stealing the family silver in Dubuque. The urbane, witty, charming and cosmopolitan William F. Buckley:
The "invincible aggressiveness of the Soviet Union" imminently threatens the United States, he said. "We have to accept Big Government for the duration — for neither an offensive nor a defensive war can be waged…except through the instrument of a totalitarian bureaucracy within our shores."
And thus was the fabric laid out…cut and sewn…for America’s new conservative outfits. Now, they could fight totalitarians by being totalitarians.
Buckley’s contribution to American political life was that he helped bring conservatives to the levers of imperial power — but at the cost of rejecting everything important they ever believed. Henceforth, conservatives — notably George W. Bush — would be America’s most activist presidents — adding trillions to Americans financial burdens, extending domestic programs, and projecting U.S. military power to places Americans had not even known existed. And henceforth, "conservatives" would distinguish themselves from "liberals" principally on cultural issues — such as whether gay couples could marry, when to pull the plug on a coma victim, and whether it was proper for a Southern state to use elements of the old confederate banner in its state flag.
In the early 50s, Ike Eisenhower, a conservative Republican president of the old school, warned against letting the "military industrial complex" get control of the nation’s agenda. But it was too late. Just as the Great Depression brought the liberals and conservatives together on the domestic agenda…so did the cold war bring them together on military policy. Now, they were all Keynesians at home…and Kennedys overseas…willing to impose any burden on their neighbors…and force the next generation to pay any price…in order to enjoy bread at home and military circuses abroad.
There was even some doubt about the real source of Buckley’s money and support for his money-losing magazine. Rumors said it came directly from the military industrial complex itself — maybe via the CIA…where Buckley had been an agent. But who would bother to look into it? Who was left to oppose the imperial program of big spending in the 50 states…and big spending all over the world? The empire was now a source of power…glory too…and money — trillions of dollars worth of government contracts and giveaway programs.
Bill Buckley merely cut conservatives into the deal.
Bill Bonner [send him mail] is the author, with Addison Wiggin, of Financial Reckoning Day: Surviving the Soft Depression of The 21st Century and Empire of Debt: The Rise Of An Epic Financial Crisis and the co-author with Lila Rajiva of Mobs, Messiahs and Markets (Wiley, 2007).