Glowing obits obscure an ugly record
Over the course of his career, William F. Buckley routinely reproached the “liberal media” from his perch high atop it. By his death on February 27, he’d published dozens of books, written decades of syndicated columns that appeared in hundreds of newspapers, and made thousands of television and radio appearances, among them some 1,500 on his own PBS show, Firing Line, the longest-running public affairs show in public television history.
Unsurprisingly, that same “liberal” media treated Buckley’s passing as the loss of a great intellectual and upstanding human being, with admiring obituaries that largely ignored a massive body of unfavorable material.
For instance, the Associated Press (2/27/08) described Buckley as “erudite,” “handsome,” “good-natured,” “intelligent,” “witty” and “well-educated.” But it only hinted at less flattering aspects of his record, with a passing mention of his support for McCarthyism and a single sentence about his magazine, the National Review, having “defended the Vietnam War, opposed civil rights legislation and once declared that ‘the white community in the South is entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail.'”
Buckley’s career began in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale, an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism. Despite this early assault on academic freedom, Buckley in later years routinely took offense at what he saw as liberal “political correctness” (e.g., National Review, 10/24/05; Post and Courier, 2/18/99).
During the Civil Rights Era, Buckley made a name for himself as a promoter of white supremacy. National Review, which he founded in 1955, championed violent racist regimes in the American South and South Africa.
A 1957 editorial written by Buckley, “Why the South Must Prevail” (National Review, 8/24/57), cited the “cultural superiority of white over Negro” in explaining why whites were “entitled to take such measures as are necessary to prevail, politically and culturally, in areas where [they do] not predominate numerically.” Appearing on NPR’s Fresh Air in 1989 (rebroadcast 2/28/08), he stood by the passage. “Well, I think that’s absolutely correct,” Buckley told host Terry Gross when she read it back to him.
A 1960 National Review editorial supported South Africa’s white minority rule (4/23/60): “The whites are entitled, we believe, to preeminence in South Africa.” In a 1961 National Review column about colonialism—which the magazine once called “that brilliantly conceived structure” (William F. Buckley, John Judis)–Buckley explained that “black Africans” left alone “tend to revert to savagery.” The same year, in a speech to the group Young Americans for Freedom, Buckley called citizens of the Congo “semi-savages” (National Review, 9/9/61).
National Review editors condemned the 1963 bombing of a black Birmingham Church that killed four children, but because it “set back the cause of the white people there so dramatically,” the editors wondered “whether in fact the explosion was the act of a provocateur—of a Communist, or of a crazed Negro” (Chicago Reader, 8/26/05).
Just months before the 1965 Voting Rights Act was passed, Buckley warned in his syndicated column (2/18/65) that “chaos” and “mobocratic rule” might follow if “the entire Negro population in the South were suddenly given the vote.” In his 1969 column “On Negro Inferiority” (4/8/69), Buckley heralded as “massive” and “apparently authoritative” academic racist Arthur Jensen’s findings that blacks are less intelligent than whites and Asians.
The ugliness of Buckley’s public advocacy was not restricted to race. McCarthy and His Enemies, published in 1954 and coauthored by Buckley with Brent Bozell Sr., called Sen. Joseph McCarthy “a prophet,” and described McCarthyism as “a movement around which men of good will and stern morality can close ranks.”
Buckley’s disdain for what he called “liberals’ fetishistic commitment to democracy” (William F. Buckley, John Judis) was evident in his admiration for dictators, including Spain’s Francisco Franco and Chile’s Augusto Pinochet. “General Franco is an authentic national hero,” wrote Buckley (National Review, 10/ 26/57), lauding the fascist for wresting Spain from its democracy and “the visionaries, ideologues, Marxists and nihilists” in charge. Pinochet was defended (National Review, 11/23/98) for deposing the democratically elected Salvador Allende, “a president who was defiling the Chilean constitution and waving proudly the banner of his friend and idol, Fidel Castro.”
During the Cold War, Buckley advocated massive violence against disfavored nations. In 1965, four years after the Bay of Pigs fiasco, he continued to call for an invasion of Cuba (National Review, 4/20/65). The same year, he called for a nuclear attack on China’s nuclear production facilities (Life, 9/17/65). In a 1968 syndicated column (2/22/68), he urged a nuclear attack on North Vietnam.
Through the years, the self-styled libertarian conservative backed policies calling for deep state intrusion into the private lives of citizens. In his 1965 campaign for mayor of New York City, he called for the relocation of ‘chronic welfare cases” to “rehabilitation centers” outside the city and for drug addicts to be quarantined (William F. Buckley, John Judis).
In a 1986 New York Times op-ed (3/18/86), Buckley urged that ‘everyone detected with AIDS should be tattooed in the upper forearm, to protect common-needle users, and on the buttocks, to prevent the victimization of other homosexuals.” In 2005 Buckley obliquely tried to rekindle interest in the policy in a column (National Review, 2/19/05):
Someone, 20 years ago, suggested a discreet tattoo the site of which would alert the prospective partner to the danger of proceeding as had been planned. But the author of the idea was treated as though he had been schooled in Buchenwald, and the idea was not widely considered, but maybe it is up now for reconsideration.
Though Buckley was credited in many obituaries with purging the right of extremist tendencies, particularly anti-Semitism (e.g., USA Today, 2/28/08; New York Times, 2/28/08), he was apparently not entirely effective in purging it from himself. In 1964, according to Buckley foe Gore Vidal (Esquire, 9/69), Buckley charged that Jews, moved by the “political myth” that “Hitler was the embodiment of the ultra-Right” and by the fact that Communists opposed him, “emotionally feel a kind of toleration for Communist excesses in this country.”
Despite the volume of available material, with few exceptions obits brushed lightly over Buckley’s ugliness. The Washington Post (2/28/08) was effusive if cliched in its praise (“He was urbane, charming and erudite. His wit was trenchant and his sarcasm biting”), relegating Buckley’s extremist views to a single vague paragraph that said the National Review “attacked . . . policies it perceived as concessions to Communism,” “condemned what it called the ‘welfare state'” and “defended the South’s resistance to racial integration.” The New York Times’ full-page obit (2/28/08) only touched on Buckley’s racism and McCarthy cheerleading in two of 58 paragraphs.
PBS‘s Charlie Rose dedicated his full hour-long show (2/27/08) to Buckley “in his own words.” He introduced the tribute: “We celebrate his laughter and his joy and his friendship. We celebrate his ideas.” Well, perhaps not all of his ideas.
Even liberal commentators like Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel (“A Liberal’s Praise for William F. Buckley,” Newsweek, 3/10/08) and Nation writer John Nichols (“Contemplating the Former Brilliance of Bill Buckley,” Nation, 2/27/08) had little but praise for Buckley, paying surprisingly little attention to his viciously anti-liberal views. Liberals tended to dwell on Buckley’s personal comity and wit–often stemming from the writers’ contact with Buckley–rather than his ideas and their impact on the national polity.
One common claim in Buckley obits suggested that he’d changed his views on race around the mid- to late 1960s (e.g. Newsweek, 3/10/08). In an online New York Times Q&A (2/28/08), Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the paper’s “Week in Review” and “Book Review” sections, who is working on a Buckley biography, insisted repeatedly that Buckley parted ways with racism in the ’60s, offering as evidence the claims that Buckley had “debated George Wallace quite strenuously in the late 1960s” and had “wept when he learned of the Birmingham church bombing that killed four black children” (the same one he blamed on a “crazed Negro”).
Tanenhaus also downplayed the role of race at National Review, claiming it “did not figure importantly in its core ideology,” which was anti-Communism. That point is less telling, however, in light of an article Buckley’s magazine published (7/13/57) headlined “Integration Is Communization.”
There is evidence that Buckley later softened some of his racist views. When Time (4/5/04), asked if he’d taken any positions he’d come to regret, he answered: “Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: Federal intervention was necessary.” But Buckley never seriously renounced or retracted what amounts to a huge body of racist work. And National Review continued to publish racist material nearly to the present day. Indeed, Buckley and National Review were promoting racist writers like Philippe Rushton, Steve Sailer and Mark Snyderman into the current decade (Extra!, 3-4/05.)
With such a wealth of unbecoming material—long-term support for racism, fascism, militarism and harshly intrusive policies into the private lives of individuals—one might have expected obituaries to present at least a mixed portrait of Buckley’s influential life. Considering the generosity Buckley received from a media he disdained, one shudders to think about the orgy of praise his death would have occasioned in a media more to his liking.