A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.
by Alvin S. Felzenberg.
Yale University Press, 2017.
Hardcover, 417 pages, $35.

Reviewed by William F. Meehan III

Of the memorable lines about William F. Buckley Jr., spoken on the occasion of National Review’s 30th Anniversary Dinner in December 1985, it was President Reagan’s that captured a defining characteristic of the honoree’s life: “And, Bill—thanks, too, for all the fun.” From the moment Buckley entered the public scene with uncommon élan in 1951, with the publication of God and Man at Yale, he demonstrated that being on the right is not only downright upright but also a whole lot of fun. Even Time conceded the point when it placed Buckley on a 1967 cover with the words “conservatism can be fun.” In the biography under review, author Alvin S. Felzenberg also aptly opens the preface by referring to this association of the word fun with Buckley and closes the section by proposing to tell the story of how Buckley helped thwart prevailing liberal attitudes “and yes, of the fun he had along the way.”

With a powerful list of credentials, Felzenberg appears equipped for the task he said lay ahead from the start: “to re-create Buckley’s radiance, brilliance, wit, love of life, and appreciation of the human condition.” Felzenberg also appreciates that his subject is a figure of twentieth-century historical importance who considered himself a journalist but was always much more, possessing a combination of rare personal qualities. “Then there was Buckley,” Felzenberg recalls, when as a sixteen-year-old he became aware of Buckley during his campaign for mayor of New York City. “He was articulate, knowledgeable, witty, and urbane—hardly attributes people associated with ‘conservatives’ … Buckley had ‘a smile that could light up an auditorium’ … And that attribute of his was much on display in the fall of 1965.” Although Felzenberg’s biography is up-to-date, the fun Buckley had along the way does not emerge in A Man and His Presidents. Except for a few delightful chapters—“Sailing Against the New Frontier,” “Let the Man Go Decently,” and “Ancient Truths”—the book wants for the robust narrative that excites readers and stirs their desire to turn the page.

This is due in part to the lack of a unifying thesis. The title, for example, promotes one expectation, the preface another—where Felzenberg says he will give primary attention to “how Buckley functioned behind the scenes as a political strategist and adviser to the principal center-right political actors of his era.” While the title and purpose do not support each other, the subtitle expresses yet another, more confusing intent, which The New York Times, in its review of the biography, rightly questioned: What odyssey? Buckley stayed the course his entire life. The biographer knows this. Although Buckley changed some opinions and attitudes, Felzenberg writes, his “core beliefs remained the same.”

A Man and His Presidents has some initial structuring issues. The first seventy-one pages—the first three chapters—might have better been revised into an introduction, or at most a single chapter. This material pertains to Buckley’s preprofessional life, and indicates an attempt to produce a definitive biography, but best serves as a leadoff for Felzenberg’s emphasis. This is not to lighten the importance of Buckley’s formative years at home, school, and the army (Felzenberg awkwardly refers to Buckley as “Billy” throughout Chapter One). Significantly, it was the strong-willed father who gently counseled his son while at Millbrook School, where he was prone to quick judgment and caustic comment about others, “‘to learn to be more moderate in the expression’ of his views and to do so in a way that ‘would give as little offense as possible.’” This became a hallmark trait in Buckley.

Additionally, as an eighteen-year-old lieutenant, Felzenberg writes, Buckley “had learned to form friendships more easily” and “to appreciate the importance of tolerance and a sense of proportion” in the company of others who held different religious or political views—a significant teenage development, since Buckley grown-up became gifted in the art of friendship and never let opposing beliefs stand in the way of befriending someone. Buckley, indeed, never talked shop after hours; he believed there was always so much else to discuss, such as Bach or Alta.

“Demand a recount” is Buckley’s witty answer when asked what he would do if elected mayor. It also is the title of Chapter Nine in this volume. Although Buckley’s campaign “proved a turning point in his career and in the life of the conservative movement,” one wonders how this chapter advances a book purporting to be about “his presidents.” It, like the first three chapters, might be revised and incorporated into introductory material.

When it comes to Buckley’s presidents, there is only one POTUS to consider. And Buckley wrote about that president in The Reagan I Knew, complete with affectionate letters to and from his friend as well as his friend’s wife, the First Lady. For some reason unexplained, though, Felzenberg omits mention of the Reagan book in the two chapters devoted to the 40th President. Discussion of the Reagan presidency of course also means discussion of Barry Goldwater’s run for the Oval Office in 1964, which Felzenberg covers attractively. Here, too, Buckley wrote his own memoir about this man so important in the American conservative movement that culminated in the 1980 presidential election, but Felzenberg does not cite Buckley’s Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater. Except for Reagan, Buckley had no relationship with occupants of the White House that warrant chapters in a book.

What is more, in “Bill and Ronnie: Advising a President,” the second chapter devoted to Reagan, Felzenberg misses the opportunity that two recent Buckley biographers did not. Buckley so strongly opposed Reagan’s signing the INF Treaty that a May 1987 National Review cover called it “Reagan’s Suicide Pact.” Reagan, of course, prevailed, the Soviet Union collapsing four years later. Felzenberg explains it all but overlooks Buckley’s implied mea culpa when, in his 1995 spy novel A Very Private Plot, the fictional Reagan muses in the Oval Office that his conservative friends sometimes “don’t see the important things.”

Buckley was critical of all administrations, Republican and Democrat alike. Able to touch-type at least 120 words a minute over a career organized by deadlines, Buckley hardly let any official action, decision, vote, appointment, speech, nomination, campaign, press conference, and more pass by without commentary—as Felzenberg’s research shows. Buckley addressed presidents and their policies in language dazzling with a well-placed comma here and there for effect and with the carefully chosen obscure word or foreign term for perspective.

This reviewer should now make a disclosure. Although I am not mentioned in the numerous acknowledgments, I feel a distant connection to this biography. Shortly after the publication of my edition of Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr., in the fall of 2009, I received a call out of the blue from Felzenberg. The exact conversation is a bit vague, but I know it left me skeptical about the approach Felzenberg said he was taking. I also clearly recall making a case for why any Buckley biography might include discussion of his novels.

Instead of exposition of characters depicted in actual events (e.g., Kennedy, Castro, and the Cuban Missile Crisis in See You Later Alligator; Kennedy, Castro, and the CIA plot to kill the Cuban dictator in Mongoose. R.I.P.; Johnson and the Vietnam War in Tucker’s Last Stand), Felzenberg alludes to six novels in a manner resembling “Oh, and by the way, did you know … ?” Writing, for example, that “[Ayn] Rand appears as a character” in Getting in Right understates her vivid depiction in a starring role alongside another extremist, Robert Welch. But Felzenberg does not connect Welch with the novel, where doing so would have fit nicely into the chapter “Bill, Barry, and the Birchers”—as would Buckley’s novel Elvis in the Morning, where the protagonist (liberal) and his girlfriend (conservative) show up unannounced three weeks after the 1964 presidential election at Goldwater’s home in Phoenix and are welcomed by a warm, cordial Senator who is quite the contrary to his portrayal by liberals—and by President Johnson in the also-overlooked spy novel Tucker’s Last Stand. The mere mention that Clinton inspired the central character in The Rake leaves readers wanting more: Did Buckley see in Castle, as he did in the 39th President, “the encroaching sense of the con man” and “something in the nature of incorrigibility”?

In “The Genesis of Blackford Oakes,” an amusing article detailing how the first spy novel came to be, Buckley says he committed “literary iconoclasm” by making the Americans—the good guys. The Cold War, Buckley explains, is a battle between Good and Evil, the East and West not morally equivalent. In his own life “Buckley displayed an unwavering hostility toward ‘moral equivalency,’” Felzenberg writes—overlooking an opportunity in two places (the preface and Chapter Two) to discuss the leitmotif driving the spy novels.

While official Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhaus makes progress toward a protracted deadline, readers for now should turn to Buckley’s own works—Miles Gone By, The Right Word, Cruising Speed, Overdrive, The Unmaking of a Mayor, all the sailing books—to share some fun with the man in full. Otherwise, this biography, mutatis mutandis, might be re-titled William F. Buckley Jr.: The Political Life. 

William F. Meehan III is editor of William F. Buckley Jr.: A Bibliography (ISI Books, 2002) and Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr. (University Press of Mississippi, 2009).