Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater, by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Basic Books, 304 pp., 25.95)

The generosity with which old adversaries treated William F. Buckley, Jr., after his death in February was double-edged. They praised the man and deplored his ideas. “He was a cultivated man,” Hendrik Hertzberg wrote in The New Yorker. “He could not have been happy with the vulgarity of the movement he did so much to spawn.” Hertzberg justified his eulogy by arguing that Buckley had changed: after Ronald Reagan became president, he “began to drift away from the militant conservative movement and its orthodoxies—not as spectacularly as his friend Barry Goldwater, but perceptibly. His political writings became perfunctory; he preferred to write thrillers (and pieces about sailing for The New Yorker).” If Hertzberg were right, Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater—the last book Buckley saw through the press—would presumably give some indication of his estrangement from the movement to which he and Goldwater devoted the energies of their prime.

It doesn’t. Flying High is not a recantation. In it, Buckley describes the “grand time” that he and Goldwater had leading the conservative counterrevolution against the orthodoxies of the Left and against those Republicans—like Nelson Rockefeller and John Lindsay—who accommodated them. This aboriginal right-wing conspiracy succeeded when Goldwater won the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and campaigned on the principles of his 1960 book, The Conscience of a Conservative. Buckley’s brother-in-law, National Review editor L. Brent Bozell, ghostwrote the book, which lamented America’s betrayal of the idea of limited government and drew attention to some of the consequences of that betrayal: “an immense tax burden, high consumer prices, vexatious controls.” Buckley admits that he and his fellow conspirators made mistakes. They had not yet found a way to sell conservatism to the nation as a whole. Goldwater’s rhetoric was at times too strident; Buckley shows Ronald Reagan, about to launch his own political career, carefully taking note.

Goldwater is remembered today mainly as Reagan’s unsuccessful forerunner, but Buckley, a master of the éloge, shows that there was much more to the man. In Flying High he evokes not only the politician but also the pilot, the naturalist (“a child of the Grand Canyon”), the eccentric (Goldwater arrived in Palm Beach in 1962 wearing denim jeans, a cowboy hat, and cowboy boots), and the loyal—but always honest—friend. (Asked how Buckley had acquitted himself performing a harpsichord concerto in Phoenix, Goldwater said: “Wonderfully. Absolutely first rate. Of course, this is the first time I ever went to a concert.”) Goldwater’s decency, too, is manifest. Advised to make political hay of LBJ’s disgraced aide Walter Jenkins, who had resigned in a sex scandal, Goldwater shook his head. “Jenkins has a wife and six children,” he said. “Leave him alone.”

Flying High is not the work of a disenchanted conservative. It is, however, the work of a man who recoiled from repetition, a restless writer continually working out new literary forms. While he might not have indulged in what J. S. Mill called “experiments of living,” Buckley had no patience with the notion that a conservative must conform to the established aesthetic modes.

Conscious of how easily the controversialist can become a bore, Buckley sought fresh ways to make his point of view interesting. In Rumbles Left and Right (1963) and The Unmaking of a Mayor (1966), he did not merely take stands in controversies (such as those generated by Richard Rovere’s facetious claim that a shadowy establishment of Council on Foreign Relations types ran the country, or by his own campaign for mayor of New York); he anatomized them. He assembled a record of disputes—letters, articles, transcripts of radio shows and press conferences—and analyzed it in a playful, mock-anthropological way. True, the method enabled a busy man to write books rapidly; Buckley’s literary manners were Victorian, and he sometimes indulged in the sin to which Pascal confessed when he said that he wrote a long piece because he did not have time to write a short one. Yet The Unmaking of a Mayor lives—in part because it is not only political commentary, but also commentary on the commentary.

If Ronald Reagan figured out how to make conservatism appealing to a large audience through television, Buckley did something similar in his books. In the Blackford Oakes spy novels, he mocked the moral relativism of Graham Greene and John le Carré, which by the 1970s had become standard fare. The Oakes books reached readers who would never have picked up God and Man at Yale. At the same time, Buckley began experimenting with a novel mode of autobiography. Nietzsche maintained that every philosophy reveals the character of a philosopher; Buckley devised an ingenious method of revealing his own philosophy by showing how he lived. A “scrupulous journal of a week in an individual’s life,” Buckley wrote,

is at least a literary form worth thinking about, at best a literary idea worth celebrating. . . . If I were offered today the alternative of reading an autobiography of Walter Lippmann, tracking his career, with which I am routinely familiar, or another comprehending his activity and his thought hour by hour during a single week, I think—I’m not sure—I might not lose by choosing the latter.

Here was the idea—that of Boswellizing one’s self in bits and pieces—that underlay Cruising Speed (1971), Overdrive (1983), and the sailing books. They are efforts to portray the works and days of a man who was, among other things, conservative.

It is a characteristic conceit of the mandarins, in thrall to etiolated abstractions, that a book, to be political, must be dull. Thus Hertzberg’s reasoning: that because Buckley did not compose boring tracts in the style of John Rawls, he had drifted away from politics. Yet a book on sailing may contain more conservative wisdom than a cycle of polemical essays. Overdrive, in its way, is a deeply political work. Reviewing it for Commentary, Norman Podhoretz wrote that Buckley was “famous for holding opinions that are very unpopular with most of the people who review books in this country, and those opinions are richly in evidence in Overdrive.”

The same literary inventiveness characterized Buckley’s later treatment of episodes in his own life and in the history of modern conservatism. Redhunter (1999) and Getting It Right (2003) are nonfiction novels, or novelized history. Flying High, too, is a literary hybrid, though in a different way. The book is styled a memoir, but it reads like a novel, and Buckley, in composing it, availed himself of the Thucydidean prerogative of inventing dialogue. The book, though “factually reliable,” is not, he says, “strictly factual, in that conversations are reported as having taken place which cannot be documented as having taken place word for word.”

Flying High exhibits, not the drift Hertzberg detected, but mastery—the literary mastery of a man who devised idiosyncratic forms to capture the essence of a conservative temperament. True, Buckley changed his mind about certain things—he revised his views, for example, on civil rights legislation—but this scarcely amounted to a repudiation of conservatism. True, too, that he abhorred vulgarity. But he did so charitably, and probably bore in mind the advice that so impressed The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway in his younger and more vulnerable years: “Just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.” Moreover, Buckley knew what too many Ivy League mandarins don’t: that the vulgus is sometimes right and the nobiles often wrong. Thus his celebrated statement: “I confess I should sooner live in a society governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard University.”

A political movement cannot, of course, inspire in maturity the same excitement it did in its earliest and most revolutionary phases. Bill Buckley, in the sunset of life, had a degree of nostalgia for the “joys and sorrows” of the early days of the conservative revival. But he did not drift away from the movement he founded. Flying High, his last book, is not a work of disillusion. It is the work of a man faithful to his earliest inspirations, and highly original in his literary representation of them.


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