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.
The YouTube clip linked above ends quickly, but the entire “debate” was summarized, tendentiously, by Buckley himself in his syndicated column “On the Right” in February 1968. (The column, “An Hour with George Wallace,” can be read in two parts, in a Cumulus archive. It takes some searching, but Buckley’s other writing is there too; it’s an amazing resource.) In the column, Buckley sums up his own questioning of Wallace with great self-admiration (people forget he was the Rush of his day — with better timing and the guts to go one-on-one — delighting in infuriating people with displays of narcissism), and he editorializes and condenses Wallace’s answers, so unless we can get a clip of the whole interview, we don’t know exactly how it went. But the column does have the shooting-fish-in-a-barrel quality we can see in the clip: Buckley smooth, devious, coiled, quick, polished, and nastily quite funny; Wallace sullen, defensive, sluggish, crude, humorless. Though he had a Texan father and a New Orleans mother and worshipped as a Roman Catholic, Buckley epitomizes hypersophisticated New York-Connecticut WASPdom, Wallace deep-South redneckdom.
And Buckley does confront Wallace with Wallace’s history of outright segregationism, mocking him for denying it, mocking the positions to which Wallace tried to retreat (which were often in fact Buckley’s positions, too), mocking indeed any effort to change positions. That took a sailboatload of sheer gall, given Buckley’s writing on race from the 1950’s. But Buckley had that.
Context is everything, and the context for Buckley’s “debating” Wallace on segregation is “the Southern strategy,” brought to a climax on the right in the years leading up to ’68, partly in Buckley’s “National Review.” Potted version: In ’64, the right-wing Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater, backed by advisers like Buckley and William Rehnquist, carried only six states, but five had been Democratic strongholds since the 1877 party bargain that awarded the Republican Rutherford B. Hayes the presidency in exchange for federal withdrawal from the South. That deal consigned black southerners to an appalling, century-long fate not well summed up by the expressions “Jim Crow” or “segregation.” The South became Democrat, and “Democrat” in the South meant militantly and violently segregated and racist, impervious to change, remaining so throughout the New Deal period, since FDR knew what would happen to his social-contract policies if he ever tried to mess with segregation in the South. That is: the 1877 Hayes-Tilden deal can be seen as helping enable New Deal liberalism.
Southern governors weren’t right-wing on federal-government activism; they weren’t “small-government” activists like Buckley. They wallowed in the federal trough, as people often put it then, while remaining committed to state-enforced racism, increasingly so as equal rights for blacks became a hot topic in the 1930’s and ’40’s.
FDR was right. The Hayes-Tilden deal had been made to restrain Republican presidents from enforcing federal law in the South. But after FDR, Democratic presidents Truman and Johnson began using federal executive power to promote racial equality (the moderate-Republican Eisenhower did too). Southern Democrats began breaking away from the party. Third parties formed. Goldwater’s deep-South Republican victory revealed the new weakness of the Democratic Party in what had once been its best stronghold. Everything was realigning, and quickly, and the right, having been working on a new populist conservatism since the late 1940’s, saw its chance both to continue shifting the Republican party rightward and to win the presidency for a right-wing-approved, yet also solidly inclusive Republican candidate in ’68.
In that effort, Buckley, who now had a committed readership for TNR and a widely syndicated newspaper column, played a key role as propagandist. He viewed Nixon, the ’68 Republican presidential candidate, as a compromise. Though hardly a Rockefeller Republican — he was made a VP candidate back in ’52 to balance the liberal-establishment Eisenhower with a non-aristocratic cold warrior — Nixon was slippery on all positions and a total pragmatist on big-government social programs, a pragmatist even on détente with communism. In the 1960 presidential election, running as incumbent VP against JFK, Nixon actually had the more liberal platform. He’d been forced to collaborate directly with Rockefeller himself on the fervent, pro-civil-rights addition to the platform of that year; meanwhile, under intense pressure from Eisenhower, he’d had to withdraw fervent, hawkish arms-race elements equally dear to Rockefeller’s heart. Those compromises made Nixon’s ’60 campaign, in the end, the pro-civil-rights and anti-arms-race one. JFK beat up hard on Nixon from the right on the arms race while largely trying to ignore race. (As a senator, JFK had voted against the Eisenhower Civil Rights Act; during the 1960 campaign, under pressure, he did make calls to get Martin Luther King released from prison).
There were many such compromises in the strange alliances of those years. Kevin Phillips, for example, collaborated with Squire Willie. And in his Wallace “debate” column, Buckley shows the importance of his oddball place in the right-wing coalition. What everyone in the coalition had to sign on to in ’68 was that directly attacking federal voting-rights legislation, and especially defending superior rights of white minorities, as Buckley had in the ’50’s, wasn’t merely yesterday’s news, it was actually counterproductive. White southerners firmly and rightly associated equal-rights laws with the Democratic presidential candidate Hubert Humphrey anyway; some upscale Republicans who wanted law-and-order and small government nevertheless opposed or were embarrassed by low-rent, overt racism; and the more blacks who voted in the South, the better, since in the shrewd analysis of Phillips, that was the spectacle that had been bringing southern Democrats into the Republican Party.
Conservatives in TNR and elsewhere had long since begun elevating terms like “states’ rights,” “forced bussing,” “judicial colonization,” etc., to reassure white southerners of their plans to obstruct integration once in office (a promise Nixon had tacitly made too, by ’64, but would then betray in office), even while downplaying old arguments for preserving Jim Crow, certainly including fantasias like Buckley’s own championing of “advanced”-race minorities. In ’68, the right-wing Republican coalition, for all of its internal dissension, helped Nixon win the nomination and stayed solidly behind him. Other hopefuls from Rockefeller to George Romney to Ronald Reagan came to the convention with delegates, as was the custom, but there was no drama as there had been over Goldwater in ’64. Rocky was too liberal for the ongoing ideological realignment; Romney had started sounding like a peacenik; a lot of sober people in those days believed Ronald Reagan, of all people, could never be president. Nixon was the one.
But there was a bump. George Wallace, former Democrat, launched a third-party candidacy in ’68 (he’d threatened to do so in ’64). Wallace represented a new iteration of the old segregationist “Dixiecrat” breakaways, but this time with a broadly populist ethos, not a planter-elite one. (Strom Thurmond, the classic Dixiecrat, had gone Republican in ’64, part of the realignment; John Lindsay, uptown liberal Republican, would become a Democrat in ’71, and there’s your realignment, symbolically complete. We live today with the consequences.) In ’68 Wallace was making third-party inroads on the new populism that the Republican right had been courting for itself and its candidate. Republicans’ quite realistic fear was that Wallace would siphon off segregationist votes in the south and racist votes everywhere. He couldn’t win, but he might ensure a marginal victory for Humphrey or even throw the election into the House. Wallace made his third-party run official early in February of ’68, right after the appearance with Buckley.
And in the spring of ’68, intensification of race and social conflict would indeed help Wallace. He gained strong support in pockets of, for example, Buckley’s Connecticut. Wallace did in the end carry five states in the deep South, lending further credence to Phillips’s populist strategy and helping inspire 1970’s developments in “new conservatism.” Wallace really was a threat to the new Republican coalition.
Hence Buckley’s effort to take Wallace apart, preemptively, in the interest of making Nixon at once the true right-wing candidate and the correct Republican coalition choice. On the show and in the column, Wallace becomes a butt of the openly elitist sneering that Phillips saw no place for in blue-collar Nixon conservatism — yet the attack clearly had to be made. To keep snob-right eyes on the prize of a Nixon presidency, Buckley paints Wallace as both not-the-sort-of-person-Bach-lovers-and-sailors-would-want-to-know (Wallace helps, coming off as a flustered lowlife), and an irredeemable Democrat, long wallowing at the big-government trough, with a false states-rights position, masking prerogatives to accept federal money and dish out statist power.
The most interesting element in the article version of the “debate” may be Buckley’s contending again and again that Wallace had turned, hypocritically and temporarily, against Democratic Party big-government traditions only on the basis of the Democrats’ newly liberal race policies. Superficially, that makes Buckley sound liberal on race, conservative on federal activism. Yet because Buckley’s characterization of Wallace applies as well to the very electorate the Nixonites were imagining capturing (though in fact there were other reasons, too, for white working-class flight from the Democrats), some might see an irony — i.e., a flagrantly hypocritical contradiction! — in Buckley’s slam on Wallace.
I also think it’s important to remember, when reading the column and watching the video clip, that neither old-time Dixiecrats nor members of the southern working class were primary audiences for Buckley’s column; right-leaning, upscale establishment Republicans and culturally aspirational conservatives were, and they were meant to see Wallace as unacceptably declasse. Defining Wallace’s candidacy as both a stupid embarrassment and a Democrat stalking horse was the sort of propaganda effort at which Buckley excelled (“a right-wing circus act,” he was once called by Vidal — no stranger to the big top himself). I can’t discern any philosophical development on race, in any direction, in the tactical maneuvers by which Buckley tried to disable Wallace in ’68.
What remain endlessly fascinating to me are proliferating ideology and personality conflicts within the 1960’s right wing, and within all other insurgencies.