Getting It Right
by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Regnery Publishing, 2003.
311 pp., $24.95 cloth.
“In your heart you know he’s right.” The slogan, of course, dates from the 1964 failed presidential campaign/crusade of Senator Barry Goldwater. Surprisingly, this line appears nowhere in William F. Buckley Jr.’s novel/history of the early years of the conservative movement, circa 1956 to 1964. But among the stuff of real history in Getting It Right is that infamous daisy commercial and this unspoken insinuation: “In your heart you know he might.”
There you have it. For the first time in American political history one major party decided that it was within the bounds of fair play to suggest that the presidential candidate of the other major party was a crazed war monger bent on bringing on Armageddon. It wouldn’t be the last. Just ask the Democrats’ current version of a Republican war monger, no, make that the illegitimate, ignorant, God-crazed Republican war monger who has had the indecency to use the Oval Office to liberate Iraq rather than to appease his libido.
To hear Buckley tell it, candidate Goldwater was both “disappointed” and “mad” as he pondered the damnable things said about him, not to mention the “humiliating enormity” of his loss to Lyndon Johnson. It was bad enough that Johnson and the Democrats had accused Goldwater of being at best neglectful of and at worst hostile to black Americans and to the idea of racial equality. More damning still was their charge that the Arizona senator was at best ignorant of the dangers of nuclear war and at worst downright giddy over the prospect of launching one.
On this last point Buckley’s Goldwater was “unforgivably sore.” So, and rightly so, is Buckley himself. And so is Buckley’s Buckley. The only thing missing from what we now know to have been Bill Moyers’ maiden contribution to national high-mindedness, thinks both Buckleys, was a glimpse of a “grinning” Goldwater peering up at the “nuclear cloud.” Goodbye daisy. Hello mushroom. Or, as only Carol Channing could have sung it, hello Landslide Lyndon and hello as well to the still-mushrooming career of Moyer’s.
As of November, 1964, the present and future of modern American liberalism seemed secure, thanks in no small measure to the size of the Goldwater defeat, which was attributable in some significant measure to the Democrats’ shameless campaign. Still, who could have known that that loss was a step, perhaps even a necessary step, toward subsequent victories for the modern conservative movement?
Present as he was at the creation of that movement, Buckley is in a unique position to tell the story of its birth and youthful growing pains. Having set sail to tell this story, Buckley might have confined himself to a personal memoir or a general history. Instead he has chosen to write a novel into which he has inserted many more historical than fictional characters. Making slightly more than cameo appearances are other not-exactly-marginal historical players, including Eisenhower, Kennedy, Nixon, and Rockefeller. Moving up the cast of characters we find a sometime sailor and one time YAF organizer by the name of Buckley. Edging toward top billing are Objectivist founder Ayn Rand, with acolyte/lover Nathaniel Brandon lapping at her heels, and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch, with co-conspirators and fellow conspiracy theorists General Edwin Walker and Professor Revilo Oliver lurking in and out of the wings. Historical figures all, and yet, in the context of this novel, essentially bit players all.
The main characters are a Bircher-in-the-making named Woodroe Raynor and a Randian-in-training named Leonora Goldstein. These last two are, of course, Buckley creations. And fictional creations Buckley very much needs in this part-memoir, part-history masquerading as a not-so-thinly veiled novel.
What Mr. Buckley is up to in these pages is at once transparent and important. Thinly veiled it may be, but thin gruel it is not. The battles within the conservative movement were real, and the stakes were high. And the players? Let’s just say that there turned out to be a few crazed war mongers among them, not to mention a kook or two, Objectivistly speaking of course.
And Barry Goldwater? Kennedy and Johnson and their various relatives and minions did their best to portray him as both war mongerish and kookish. No doubt they had long been convinced that their onetime senate colleague was invariably wrong about virtually everything. But in their hearts they had to have known that the Arizonan across the aisle was not a racist, not a war monger, and certainly not a kook. More than that, in the depths of each president’s heart of hearts lurked the knowledge that Barry Goldwater was a decent man, no, make that a far more decent man than either of them could have ever dreamed of being. But then private decency can never make up for presumed public policy indecencies—at least not according to liberals then and now. By the same token, private indecencies can be—and still are—excused by liberals now, so long as those indecencies are committed by publicly decent liberals.
So what did young conservatives Mr. Raynor and Miss Goldstein know in each of their heart of hearts, and when did they come to know it? The story opens on the eve of the abortive Hungarian revolution of 1956. Somewhere in eastern Austria recent Princeton grad Woodroe Raynor is earnestly doing his Mormon missionary duty. In short order young Raynor is deflowered and betrayed (by a Hungarian woman who turns out to be far more loyal to an alien ideology than to her country or her latest lover) before he is wounded (by a communist bullet while helping Hungarians flee across the Michener-memorialized bridge at Andau).
Upon returning home, “Woodie” Raynor is more than ready to enlist in at least the domestic sphere of the Cold War against communism. In not so short order he is once again wooed, betrayed, and wounded. This time the perpetrators are the urgent messages and kindly, almost avuncular likes of Messrs. Welch, Walker, and Oliver. This time the wounds would also heal, albeit more slowly. But heal they eventually did. More than that, Woodroe Raynor finally emerges from his tour of duty with the John Birch Society a stronger and wiser fellow—and one more than ready to head across the Pacific to fight the good fight against communism in South Vietnam.
It is Buckley’s initial point that young Mr. Raynor was wise beyond his years when, upon returning home, he made his decision to enlist in Robert Welch’s crusade against communism. It is Buckley’s further point that a slightly older, but infinitely wiser Woodroe Raynor was still wiser beyond his years when he finally decided to leave the John Birch Society—and in the name of that same crusade against communism. Sobered, but not disillusioned, he signed on with the Birchers during the winter of his discontent, 1956-57. Disillusioned, but not disheartened, he said goodbye to the Birchers during the second winter of his discontent, 1963-64.
The clincher was Professor Oliver’s diatribe/eulogy in the JBS’s American Opinion following JFK’s assassination and the Warren Commission report. In it, Oliver concluded that the murder had been bungled by the ever-widening “Communist Conspiracy” that preoccupied and eventually warped the minds of Woodie Raynor’s once sainted trio of the professor, the general, and the founder.
Reading Revilo Oliver on the Kennedy assassination is akin to watching a reverse-image Oliver Stone on the Kennedy assassination. It was all a conspiracy so immense that everyone on the left was in on it (perhaps even the John Birch Society itself, suggested a puckish Russell Kirk). More than that, concluded Woodie Raynor, Welch and company seemed more intent on “peddling moral hatred” at home than in combating immoral communism abroad. In the end, it was all too much for this earnest and earnestly anti-communist one-time Mormon missionary.
No doubt non-Mormon, non-Bircher William F. Buckley, Jr., once made the same troubling discovery that his creation made. Put simply, Buckley long ago had to come to terms with the fact that the John Birch Society was home to the very kooks that Lyndon Johnson and Bill Moyers once advertised Barry Goldwater to have been. Hence the National Review’s public repudiation of and divorce from the John Birch Society. Hence this foray into fiction/history in the name of “getting right” the pre-1964 story of modern conservatism’s efforts to get things right, thereby setting its post-1964 course right as well.
Less well drawn is the figure of Leonora Goldstein. And somewhat less compelling is her story. Not so the story of the woman under whose spell Leonora falls. Like Ayn Rand, Leonora changes her name (to Lee Pound) so as to appear to be at once more American and less Jewish. Of course, Alissa Rosenbaum had long ago acted out a similar desire when she took a new name to help transform herself. A Russian, a Jew, and an immigrant, she would have a single identify and a single mission as Ayn Rand. The heart of that mission was to spread her atheistic gospel of rational self-interest. And if she ends up spreading herself around in the process, so be it. Married to a sap of a husband, artist Frank O’Connor, Rand takes up with Brandon, nee Blumenthal, who eventually redefines his own self-interest by taking up with someone other than either his original wife or his mentor/mistress. When she learns of this Brandon betrayal, Rand is, to put it as Objectivistly as possible, displeased.
If early in the story Buckley’s Welch is a genuinely appealing character, not to mention a self-effacing, yet highly productive businessman, Buckley’s Rand is a genuinely horrid creature throughout. More specifically, she is that before, during, and after her lengthy liaison with Brandon. In this woman’s case, her hellish fury did not require that she first be scorned. A producer of airy confections (and overly long novels), Ayn Rand turns out to be less the goddess of rational self-interest than a less-than-godly practitioner of self-promotion and self-justification, who also manages to flirt with self-destruction. If there was something appealing about Rand, the person, or Rand, the philosopher, it has long since escaped Buckley. No doubt, Rand herself would have taken that line as a compliment (without bothering to concede as much).
To be sure, none of this coupling, re-coupling, and uncoupling within the inner rings of Objectivist circles was known to either Lee or Woodie. It was one thing for Rand to publicize her ideas; it was quite another for Randians to parade their randiness. Besides, Lee and Woodie are quite content to be about the serious business of falling in love the old-fashioned way. Along the way, they also engage in serious—if occasionally playful—conversations about conservative politics and the Cold War.
Here we find National Review’s famous fusionism personalized, if not quite romanticized. Frank Meyer, who also appears in these pages, is credited with arranging the intellectual marriage (fusion) between conservative traditionalism and conservative individualism. While not a marriage made in heaven, it did take—with more than a little help from something called the Cold War. And while the two strands of conservatism did not live together in complete happiness ever after, they did establish a relationship that extended well beyond peaceful co-existence. But that was then and this is now. No wonder Buckley is nostalgic about a time when conservatives were coming together (as opposed to today when things are threatening to come apart).
In Getting It Right Woodie Raynor, the conservative traditionalist, courts Lee Pound, the conservative individualist. Having come to the realization that the John Birch Society is actually an obstacle to victory in the Cold War, he takes it upon himself to bring her around to a similar understanding of Objectivism and its place in history. A man of faith, Woodie deploys reason—and good humor—to persuade Lee. A woman of reason, Lee ultimately places her faith in Woodie—and in what becomes their joint cause of anti-communism. Together they have finally gotten it right.
There was a time when communist infiltration of American institutions was both real and threatening. This was especially so during the 1930s and 1940s. At that time, there was a need, not for witchhunts, but for plainspoken courage, not cowardly silence. Then the Robert Welches of America could have been positively portrayed as the premature anti-communists that they were. During that same time American capitalism was undergoing fundamental changes. To be more precise, it was under siege. At that time there was a need for defenders of capitalism to stand up and be counted. It was then that the Ayn Rands of America could have been seen as the belated pro-capitalists that they were.
In sum, there was a time when Welch and Rand were lonely voices. But the loneliness of the 1930s and 1940s gave way to the looniness of the late 1950s and early 1960s. For Birchers to argue, as they did, that the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 was a communist plot (so as to enable the real communists to expose and execute the real anti-communists) truly was loony. For Objectivists to carry on as they actually did, to believe as they apparently did that sex trumps all, that the irrational was somehow rational, was also truly loony. Therefore, to purge both from the conservative movement was anything but loony.
That accomplished, Goldwater Republicans could proudly proclaim that extremism, as they practiced it, in defense of liberty, as they understood it, was no vice. And a solid Goldwaterite by the name of Woodie Raynor could then proudly go off to Indochina to fight in the name of a refurbished anti-communism.
As the curtain falls, the likes of Barry Goldwater, William F. Buckley, Jr., and one Woodrow Raynor have all gotten it right. Little did any of them know the fate that awaited America in the streets and jungles of Vietnam. However, given what Goldwater and Buckley already knew about the Johnson administration, they at least had reason to be concerned. As things turned out, the conduct of that administration in Vietnam was such as to almost make one believe that it all must have been just another communist plot. After all, no American president, aided and abetted by an entourage of the best and the brightest, could be that incompetent by accident. But they were.
And Woodie Raynor? Fully convinced in his heart that Goldwater in his heart was right, Raynor went off to Vietnam equally convinced that he was doing the right thing. Did he emerge from that experience wiser yet beyond his years? The answer to that question must await another Buckley novel. And a novel it will have to be. After all, as the Vietnam debacle finally begins to recede into the mists of history there will be fewer and fewer left among us who will believe that things could ever have gone that wrong, whether by accident or on purpose.
John C. Chalberg teaches American history in Minnesota, performs as G.K. Chesterton among a few others, and has recently written a dual biography of Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey.