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.

What more can possibly be said of William F. Buckley, Jr. that he or his biographers have not already said or written? A bit more it seems, as Alvin S. Felzenberg demonstrates in his well-sourced political biography, A Man and His Presidents. After covering well-travelled territory of his subject’s life history, he focuses in on Buckley’s relationship with and varying influence on American presidents starting with Eisenhower and ending with George W. Bush. In the process Felzenberg provides an engrossing history of post-War politics in the context of the emerging conservative movement crystallized by the intrepid author of God and Man at Yale (1951) and editor of National Review, for decades the paramount conservative magazine in the nation.

And what a subject he is. According to George H. Nash, author of the definitive history of the postwar conservative movement, Buckley published fifty-five books (fiction and non-fiction); dozens of book reviews; 225 obituary essays; more than eight hundred editorials, articles and remarks in National Review; and approximately 5,600 newspaper columns. He also delivered countless lectures, seventy over forty years by Buckley’s own estimate, and hosted 1,429 separate Firing Line television shows. According to Nash, Buckley “may have composed more letters than any American who ever lived.”

For the sheer fun of experiencing Buckley as an irresistible force of nature and the intensity, energy, and diversity of his intellectual, social, and political interests read his ironically titled Cruising Speed—A Documentary (1971), a frenetic account of the incredible pace of this man who was always on the move, knew everyone, did everything.

Alvin S. Felzenberg, who teaches at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for communication, served in two presidential administrations, and was principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission, grew up as a young man reading Buckley’s many books. He was quite taken with the man as a high school student in New Jersey during Buckley’s New York mayoral campaign. Like many of his generation, he found Buckley to be a bright conservative light in an otherwise monochromatic liberal intellectual environment, at least in the media, universities, and much of the political world.

Fun was the word often associated with Buckley,” writes Felzenberg in his preface. “On November 3, 1967, during my first semester in college, he made the cover of Time. Beneath a David Levine drawing of him appeared the words: “William Buckley/Conservatism Can Be Fun.”

Felzenberg concurs with columnist George Will that, without Buckley, no National Review, no Barry Goldwater, and no President Ronald Reagan. This book is the story how this came about; and that focus grounds and sustains its detailed, fact-rich narrative. Yet it is a very political book. Notes Felzenberg: “I place my emphasis on how Buckley functioned behind the scenes as a political strategist and adviser to the principal center-rightpolitical actors of his era.”

A Man and His Presidents contains sixteen chapters. Ten describe Buckley’s interactions with specific presidents, including two each on Nixon and Reagan. The story line reaches its apex with the ascension of Reagan to the White House while the chapters on both Presidents Bush are a kind of denouement. Nevertheless, these chapters are interlaced with great detail and amplification of events well-known but now better understood in the light of new research, which the author uses to great advantage.

Buckley might be surprised how recent revisionist history has elevated the status of Dwight Eisenhower as a president. He was quite unimpressed with Ike, who was too moderate for his liking. The former World War II hero once told intimates, “Should any political party attempt to abolish social security and eliminate labor laws and farm programs, you would not hear of that party again in our political history.” Such a view would have driven the young Buckley crazy, as did Ike’s more measured approach to containment of the Soviet Union. Buckley went so far as to recommend that conservatives substitute “I Prefer Ike” for the slogan “I Like Ike.” He and National Review did not endorse anyone for President in the 1956 election “and Buckley confided to friends that he had not voted for Eisenhower,” reports Felzenberg.

Buckley was a strong and loyal supporter of Barry Goldwater’s doomed presidential campaign, but Felzenberg documents the reluctance of campaign staff to bring him into their inner circles. Still, the Goldwater campaign was an opportunity for Buckley and Ronald Reagan to become closer still.

After initially supporting Nixon against Hubert Humphrey and George Wallace in 1968, he and most conservatives broke with Nixon over numerous issues, such as going off the gold standard, the EPA, imposition of wage and price controls, China, and, ultimately, Watergate. “Let the man go decently,” was Buckley’s final verdict. He believed that Nixon was the “weakest of men and strongest: a master of self-abuse and of self-recovery.” Theirs was a fraught relationship from the beginning.

Despite his personal liking of George H. W. Bush (“a reluctant statist”), Buckley did not hesitate to describe Bush’s flip-flop on raising taxes (recall Bush’s categorical pledge—“read my lips …”) an “arrant act of hypocrisy.” Buckley described his attitude and that of other conservative leaders toward George W. Bush as having to “count the silver,” i.e., keep an eye on someone self-described as a “compassionate conservative.”

Although Buckley believed him to be “conservative,” George W. Bush was not “a conservative,” much less an “activist conservative.” He also opposed the younger Bush’s expansion of entitlements and came to detest “nation building” in Afghanistan and Iraq. The announcement that the President would nominate White House Counsel Harriet Miers for the Supreme Court drove Buckley and most conservatives over the edge, resulting in a severe backlash and the nomination and eventual confirmation of the well-regarded Samuel Alito in her place. Miers’s appointment was viewed as patronage rather than good government.

The book’s center of gravity is the two chapters on Buckley and Reagan: “Bill and Ronnie: Preparing a President” and “Bill and Ronnie: Advising a President.” Felzenberg believes that “The role Buckley played in advancing Reagan’s career, both through his writings and through his personal intercession on Reagan’s behalf, cannot be overstated.”

The two men and their wives seem to have bonded very quickly, first meeting each other even before the Goldwater campaign. Reagan was a long-time subscriber to National Review. They spoke the same language, except for their famous debate over the Panama Canal. Reagan made his first appearanceon Firing Line in July 1967. There was no daylight between the two throughout Reagan’s years in the White House, although Buckley longed for Reagan to act on entitlement reform and opposed him on nuclear disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. Buckley and Reagan were in constant communication on matters of the highest importance, and their relationship represents Buckley’s high-water mark of presidential influence. “For Buckley, Reagan’s presidency represented the culmination of what he had hoped the conservative movement would attain and achieve.”

Within the chapters on the great man’s intellectual and personal biography, the discussion of Yale’s efforts to stomp on Buckley after publication of God and Man at Yale stands out. It could have been entitled, “The Empire Strikes Back” and is hardly flattering of the Ivy League school and McGeorge Bundy, one of JFK’s and LBJ’s “best and the brightest” who was part of the cabal.

There is also a wonderful chapter on Buckley’s famous 1965 New York City mayor’s race (a “paradigmatic campaign” said Buckley) entitled “Demand a Recount,” echoing his response to a reporter’s question as to what Buckley would do if he won the election. It is well worth reading even for readers of Buckley’s own account, The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966). The campaign was emblematic of Buckley’s strong opposition to liberal Republicans, Congressman John Lindsay in this case, although he made exceptions under the now famous “Buckley Rule” by which he would always support “the most right, viable candidate who could win,” e.g., Nixon over Rockefeller or Romney in 1968.

Throughout the book Felzenberg revisits several cross-cutting issues in Buckley’s life: the tension between populism and elitism, his shift on issues of racial equality, and his innate capacity for friendship not just with like-minded individuals but with those of differing political dispositions. Rarely were political disagreements personal for Buckley, except for the mutual animosity between him and Gore Vidal in their joint appearances on network television during the 1968 political conventions. Buckley’s friendship with Henry Kissinger, an original Rockefeller advisor and Secretary of State for Richard Nixon, is well told by Felzenberg, with all its ups and downs, culminating with Kissinger’s speech at Buckley’s funeral at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York in which he described the deceased as a “noble, gentle and valiant man who was truly touched by the grace of God.”

“In his eighty-two years of life, Buckley achieved much, if not all, of what he set out to do—and did so vigorously, joyfully, often noisily.… He was one of the few people engaged in the public discourse of his time who could lay a legitimate claim to having changed history.” Certainly, nothing like a modern conservative movement or a Reagan Administration would have occurred without the agency of William F. Buckley, Jr.

To that extent, Felzenberg is correct as it pertains to the politics of the era. But an honest evaluation of what actual outcomes Buckley wanted to achieve as to actual governance might render a mixed verdict, not so much on him personally, but on the conservative movement generally. Certainly, the defeat of the Soviet Empire and the international Communist threat should be put on the positive side of the ledger. Buckley and Reagan, along with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, deserve much credit for that achievement.

But what of domestic policy? One breakthrough was the Reagan-Kemp tax cuts. Buckley was way ahead of most Republicans if not most conservatives on supply-side economics, having supported President Kennedy’s proposed marginal tax cuts to stimulate the economy. This was “a position that at the time was considered an unusual one for a conservative,” notes Felzenberg. Because the Kennedy Administration justified the cuts on Keynesian grounds, this ran afoul traditional fiscal conservative instincts. Thus, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Eisenhower, and Nixon all were in opposition. Goldwater voted against the tax cuts when they came to a vote.

In his very interesting chapter on Buckley and President Lyndon Johnson, “Part of the Way With LBJ,” Felzenberg quotes at length Buckley’s column on the departing President, regarding whom he had mixed, even sympathetic feelings. Buckley offers a litany of Great Society programs as a way of illustrating how badly and paradoxically the President was treated by liberals who either resented him for not being JFK or for waging the war in Vietnam, causing him to leave office “lonely, unloved, and discredited.”

Anti-poverty programs, mass transportation bills, model cities help, rent supplements, crime control, anti-segregation acts, voting acts, housing acts, communications relations act, acts on water and air pollution, on waste, roads, recreation and parks, on meat and poultry and fabrics and farm prices, on truth in lending, on fair packaging, on electronic radiation, on traffic; aid to elementary schools, for higher education, for teacher corps, aid to the poor, adult education, job opportunity training, the job corps, business aid, aid for Appalachia, an increase in the minimum wage, Medicare for the elderly, Medicaid for the non elderly, doctors training, nurses training, mental health, immunization, health centers, and child health. [“LBJ Packs Up,” On the Right, NR, December 12, 1968]

Many of the specific programs in this staggering catalogue may no longer exist or were subsumed into other configurations. But the federal superstructure of health, welfare, and environmental programs persist in expanded form, especially entitlements like Social Security, Medicaid, and Medicare. Throw in farm subsidies, tax subsidies, thousands of pages of regulation growing, until Trump, under Republican as well as Democratic administrations. Would Buckley, always the moral and political realist, declare victory in terms of the basic structure of the American government, even setting aside social and religious issues discussed only in passing by Felzenberg? He was too intellectually honest to have fooled himself or anyone else. These are hard realities which neither Buckley nor the American conservative movement have been able to change despite electoral and political successes over the decade.

However, Buckley would not have lost hope. As a Catholic, he would have understood it to be a theological virtue. “Like Ronald Reagan, Buckley had an unshakable faith in his cause and remained eternally optimistic about his country’s future, writes Felzenberg in his concluding chapter, “The Ancient Truths.” Even in 1970, amidst the Vietnam war, a rough economy, and social and racial divisions, Buckley “defiantly declared on CBS’s 60 Minutes that that [sic] the ‘full-time undertakers’ were always ‘disappointed that America does not die on schedule.’”  

G. Tracy Mehan, III is an adjunct professor at Antonin Scalia Law School, George Mason University and Executive Director, Government Affairs with the American Water Works Association.