“The National Review,” Racist Writing, and the Legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.

political operative as romantic egoist

[UPDATE: I give a better developed version of some of this stuff at a panel on racism in conservatism.]

In a Boston Review essay, I had occasion to explore the early writings of William F. Buckley, Jr., on racial segregation. I argued then that Buckley’s famous 2004 apology for having once held racially regressive positions — an apology cited by his fans both conservative and liberal, part and parcel of a contention that, despite a perhaps unfortunate history together, racism and American conservatism aren’t ineluctably connected — was no apology at all. The aged Buckley was renouncing a position entirely different from the one he’d actually advanced in the 1950’s.

Writing in 1957, Buckley insisted that whites in the South were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, where they do not prevail numerically,” because the white race was “for the time being, the advanced race.”

In 2004, asked whether he’d ever taken a position he now regretted, he said “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.”

Neatly done. Where in ’57 he’d asserted a right even of a minority of whites to impose racial segregation by literally any means necessary, including breaking federal law, in ’04 Buckley expressed regret for having supposedly believed only that segregation would wither away without federal intervention. Stupid the man was not. He gets credited today both with honesty about his past and with having, in his own way, “evolved up.” Modern conservatives, more importantly, get to ignore the realities of their movement’s origins.

The persistence of the most virulent kind of racism and white supremacism in some National Review writers, leading to their recent firing, doesn’t mean to me that all of American conservatism is racist. But I think the firings, and ensuing discussion of them by, for two, Joan Walsh and Alex Pareene at Salon, support a suggestion I made in that essay regarding the nature of Buckley’s evolution away from his 1957 position. Buckley did evolve — but not in the way his fans like to imagine:

At a famous 1965 Oxford Union Debate with James Baldwin, fighting what was already a rearguard action on civil rights, Buckley . . . averred that everybody agreed that race prejudice is evil; accused the civil-rights movement of no longer seeking equality but the regression of the white race (though he also continued to call slow progress on equal rights necessary); announced that if the issue must come to race war, he was prepared (echoing Churchill for his Oxonian audience) to fight it on the beaches, in the hills, in the mountains; and suggested, for a laugh, that what he really objected to was any uneducated southerner, black or white, being allowed to vote. That joke distilled an unusual mix of states-rights populism and ruling-class prerogative put forth at length, that same year, by James J. Kilpatrick in The National Review: federalism will be destroyed unless states are free to impose voting qualifications; but those qualifications must discriminate equally, not on the basis of race.

It’s not clear what requirements Buckley thought poor blacks and poor whites should fulfill for access to the franchise. What is clear is that Buckley’s thinking on integration wasn’t, as his defenders claim, a turnabout on race but a retreat to a more logically consistent snobbism. Conservatives lost their all-out fights against school integration and the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, but race long remained a defining conservative issue for TNR. In a 1969 column, Buckley hymned the research of Arthur Jensen on race and IQ, which showed blacks testing lower than whites on abstract reasoning skills, a finding from which Buckley deduced a racial imperviousness to improvement by education. In the 1970’s The National Review persistently defended apartheid South Africa on the same basis that it had once defended Jim Crow.

One legacy of Buckley’s development on race is today’s conservative opposition to programs like affirmative action. Nobody today bases that opposition on a duty to preserve white privilege and prevent anarchy [as Buckley had justified obstructing federal law enforcement in the 1950’s]; opponents jump through hoops to show dedication to equality and democracy. Yet the new mode of opposition is a fallback, not a break, from Buckley’s early ideas, which were never really renounced, only defeated.

If conservatives today really mean to mark out an American conservative ethos with no remaining ties to racism, wouldn’t they need to reckon, far more seriously and realistically than they seem prepared to do, with the painful legacy of the postwar right when it comes to what was then called racial integration? With the Cold War, integration was the hot issue of the day, precisely at the time when the right wing was in the process of taking over the Republican Party. (Nelson Rockefeller, for example, was a fire-and-brimstone Cold Warrior but hyperliberal on race; he was the type the Buckleyites were trying to knock out.) Ties between conservatism and — no, not just theories of small government and “community standards” — but straight-up, hardcore racism were once so tight that for some of us with long enough memories, it can be bleakly comic to see racism on the part of TNR writers hopefully dismissed as some unhappy anomaly.

And the deeper one digs into the history of race and the right wing, the trickier things get. There’s another remark of Buckley’s that gets him routinely credited with acknowledging, in old age, postwar conservatives’ error on race, and personally recanting it: a comment he made during an interview with Judy Woodruff in 2006 regarding his opposition to the 1962 Civil Rights Act. I swear I’ve seen a complete interview transcript online but can’t find one now (here’s Woodruff’s article on it). [UPDATE: See the comment section, where I’m happy to say the exchange and its source have been supplied by a reader.]

“The effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us,” Buckley told Woodruff. My notes on the complete transcript show that in the interview Buckley was framing his old objection to the Civil Rights Act solely in terms of William Rehnquist’s supposedly having persuaded him and Barry Goldwater, when developing positions for the 1964 Goldwater campaign, to view opposition to the act as an inescapable conclusion of the strict constitutional reading on which Goldwater was supposedly running, a position that Buckley told Woodruff he’d since come to regret for its “constitutional formalism.”

But what Buckley told Woodruff in 2006 is false. Advancing states-rights and anti-judicial-review arguments against civil-rights laws had been nothing new to Buckley in ’63-’64, and his arguments certainly didn’t depend on any “formalist” urging from Rehnquist. By the time of the Goldwater campaign, nearly ten years of unrelenting objection to every form of civil-rights legislation had appeared in The National Review, weirdly blending the (supposedly race-neutral) “strict-constitutional” argument with Buckleyite claims for the right of cultures deemed superior by Buckleyites to violate the Constitution.

(A trip through the TNR archives can be a bit of a blast. When I wrote the Boston Review essay, one could get into the 1950’s and 1960’s archives at National Review Online and download old pieces for a nominal fee. Doesn’t look like that’s so any more! But public libraries will probably enable access.)

So if Buckley was really telling Woodruff in 2006 the only thing his admirers can mean when they call his remarks an apology or a recanting — that he’d been persuaded in the ’60’s by a well-regarded legal scholar to go along with a strict constitutional position that, while intellectually sound, had some regrettable real-world ramifications for black people, which Buckley only later came to understand and thus to regret — he was being preposterous, as the multitude of old TNR articles show.

But there’s a more intriguing possibility. In 1952, Rehnquist wrote a now-famous memo on “Brown vs. Board of Education.” The Times recently revived discussion of it, and of Rehnquist’s never, to me, credible denial that it reflected his own opinion. That memo put forth an idea related in interesting ways to Buckley’s ’57 “advanced race” essay.

In the memo, Rehnquist deemed the Supreme Court a poor place for ruling on individual rights, suggesting that the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment can’t be enforced by judicial review in communities where those rights are opposed by a majority. That is, they can’t be enforced. “In the long run,” Rehnquist wrote, “majorities will decide what the constitutional rights of minorities are.” And that’s at first what Buckley seemed to mean, too, when he said in the ’57 essay that the question of the white right to prevail could not be “answered by merely consulting a catalogue of the rights of American citizens, born Equal.”

But Buckley’s ’57 essay turns that already startling idea upside down. It says that even a minority of whites has a right — nay, a duty — to take measures necessary to prevail against a majority of blacks. That kind of romantic, questing elitism did not fit the Rehnquist-Goldwater populist argument on behalf of majority and states rights in resisting federal enforcement of racial integration. Really, Buckley’s view revealed too much of what “states rights” was so often code for: white supremacy.

Is it possible, then, that what Rehnquist actually advised Buckley during the ’64 Goldwater-campaign platform discussions amounted to a request to tone down the eccentric flights of derring-do, to get with the program of pushing the rights of majorities in local communities over those of the federal judiciary and legislature — i.e., get with the right-wing party line regarding segregation, which Rehnquist was even then transforming from the fatalistic mood of his ’52 memo into a positive program for Goldwater’s speeches?

When Buckley said he regretted going along with Rehnquist, didn’t he really mean he regretted relinquishing youthful, romantic militancy about the rights of superior civilizations, adopting instead a dry constitutional argument promoting mere white Southern majorities (often irritatingly low-class majorities at that)? If so, Buckley’s remark to Woodruff would at least make sense. And Buckley usually did make sense.

I’ll end with this. When Buckley said — cryptically at best, with an unusually convoluted reliance on the passive voice — “the effect of that bill should have been welcomed by us,” can “the effect” he’s talking about really be legislating equality for blacks (something Buckley continued to object to, as I’ve pointed out)? That would just be weird. I think the cagey old bastard meant he should have welcomed the effect of the Civil Rights Act on white voters in the South. They of course did respond to its passage by flocking to the Republican Party, an effect explicitly “welcomed” at the time by Buckley, and by others who would soon be leveraging that effect for the election. By 1968, openly opposing voting rights — on either the Buckley or the Rehnquist basis — had become counterproductive. Liberal successes in achieving federal support for racial integration were aiding the move rightward in the Republican party and bringing both old Dixiecrat New Dealers and white populists everywhere into the new Republican agenda. (That Nixon in some ways betrayed his supporters regarding race issues is an irony for another time.)

Anyway, I’d like to see conservative intellectuals, not liberal ones, digging into this stuff.

14 thoughts on ““The National Review,” Racist Writing, and the Legacy of William F. Buckley, Jr.

  1. MS. WOODRUFF: Do you have any major regrets along the way about positions that you espoused or people you championed?
    MR. BUCKLEY: I think we made a mistake in 1962 in opposing the Civil Rights Act. There were two or three acts that—The one that was opposed by Goldwater, who in the matter, by the way, was constitutionally advised by a man who 10 years later was Chief Justice of the United States.
    MS. WOODRUFF: William Rehnquist.
    MR. BUCKLEY: On the Civil Rights bill. And we were persuaded that was correct. I regret it. I think that the impact of that bill should have been welcomed by us. And that sort of transcended what would have become a constitutional formalism.
    I’m also sad that there wasn’t as much of an evolution in libertarian policies as I’d have liked to have seen. It’s simply accepted by everyone, including workaday conservatives, that education and health are substantially statist enterprises. I regret this. I think it was a surrender in principle and an abandonment of ideas that might have profited the republic hugely.

    Transcript of the 2006 Woodruff interview at

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  13. Bill, you seem like a reasonable and thoughtful guy. Your understanding of Bill Buckley and conservatism, alas, is skewed by the leftist paradigm through which you choose to view his work and life. I am free to tutor should dare to abandon your own prejudices, even for a few minutes. Your panel was at least understandable, unlike some of the other panels. I actually wrote an essay on the Baldwin- Buckley debate almost a decade ago — in a book called Crossing Swords, William F. Buckley and the American Left and it contained chapters on Buckley’s running debates with folks like Baldwin, Harrington, Mailer, Vidal, Galbraith, Chomsky, etc.

    To say Mr. Buckley was not an intellectual is defy both reason and objective truth. The man elevated public discourse for half a century — see Richard Posner on Public Intellectuals, Up from Communism (John Diggins) or George Nash’s history of modern American conservatism.

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