What’s really impressive to me about Buckley is that he held his own, as a larger-than-life public elitist, within the right-wing insurgency that took over the Republican Party; indeed he helped lead it. That insurgency famously gained most of its ground by evincing not old-school country-estate elitism but extreme populism. The right began attacking Democratic Party inheritors of the New Deal, not wrongly, as privileged and patronizing; even more significantly, and at least as accurately, it ganged liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller in with them. Yet Buckley, a self-created cartoon of privilege and condescension, and in his early adulthood a questing romantic for elite glories, managed to help lead the new-right populist charge.
“Liberal Republicans”: Many younger people today may presume these were oddball edge cases. That misperception shows the overwhelming success of the right-wing effort that began during the period we’re talking about. Both parties then had strong liberal-establishment elements, today often called “moderate” on the Republican side, as the right wing (then led by Robert Taft) was always so immoderate that the Republican Thomas Dewey warned against letting the right take over the party: if it ever did, he predicted, Republicans would lose every future election.
Dewey was wrong, of course, and Kevin Phillips, who got it right — he was an author of the populist “new conservative” strategy of the era — scorned William F. Buckley, calling him “Squire Willie.” It makes sense. What place could a newly populist right have for a Yale man whose hot-potato accent rivaled FDR’s and Rocky’s (Buckley’s was evidently put on), who made a career reveling in Bach, using big words, writing books about private sailing trips, and suggesting that uneducated people shouldn’t vote?
One of the more interesting moments in this conflict within the insurgent right came when Buckley interviewed George Wallace on Buckley’s TV interview show “Firing Line.” Although Buckley did the questioning, the program was marketed as a debate, moderated, supposedly, by one C. Dickerman Williams. (A story for another time, and maybe the only Gore Vidalish moment I’ll ever get: I expose the UES/Litchfield County line of my heritage by noting that this C.D. Williams moved in circles in which my maternal grandparents also moved — mainly liberal-establishment Republican ones! — when I was kid. I remember him well and was amused to discover him on “Firing Line” actively not moderating the Buckley-Wallace “debate.”) Despite the presence of a fake moderator, Buckley’s interview of Wallace is really an O’Reilly-like “this is my show” attack.
Since Wallace was poster-boy for racial segregation in the South, Buckley’s attack on him provides Buckley admirers with yet another basis for claiming that Buckley repudiated racism on behalf of conservatism. But again the realpolitik of the moment suggests more interesting readings to me. (more…)