Heaven Can Indeed Fall: The Life of Willmoore Kendall, by Christopher H. Owen (Lexington, 256 pp., $105)
Some people remember William F. Buckley, Jr., by his line, “I would rather be governed by the first 2,000 people in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 people on the faculty of Harvard University.” But the quip has much less to do with Buckley’s political orientation than with that of his teacher Willmoore Kendall. Other Kendall students—Hubert Humphrey, Russell Long, and Brent Bozell among them—also attest to his influence, but his imprint glares most clearly on people who neither read him nor know his name.
In the concept of majoritarianism that he derived from John Locke, Kendall speaks more directly to the populist moment of contemporary conservatism than most of the lodestars of the postwar Right. Why do we talk about him less than his counterparts? Christopher H. Owen takes up that question in his new intellectual biography. That Kendall lacked the discipline to write a book setting forth his basic worldview—like Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Frank Meyer’s In Defense of Freedom, or Richard Weaver’s Ideas Have Consequences—surely offers part of the answer. But another answer lies in his combative contrarianism and his dedication to a majority-rules ethos in the political sphere for much of his academic career.
The son of a blind preacher, Kendall’s importance to his father and family perhaps inflated his ego. His acceptance by Northwestern University at 13, an event covered by newspapers far distant from his native Oklahoma, may have inflated it more. His immaturity in dropping out did little to humble him. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma at the age his peers graduated from high school and taught students not much younger than he was.
“The young teacher, still in uniform, then punched someone who insulted his date,” Owen writes of a visit by 20-year-old Kendall, then an instructor at a military academy, to a honkytonk. “Three bouncers hauled him outside and beat him unconscious. When he revived and tried to escape, they dragged him to a police station where—booked for public drunkenness—he spent the night in jail. The next day the story appeared on the first page of the Tulsa Tribune.” The ingredients—alcohol, women, and belligerence—that fueled Kendall’s Prohibition-era misadventure would remain in play in the years ahead.
At Yale, the tenured Marxist-turned-conservative alienated colleagues through his Cold War outspokenness. “Various colleagues at Yale . . . came to hate Kendall as a ‘Fascist’ and a ‘War-monger,’” Owen writes. “In 1950, department members informed Kendall that he was not welcome in their midst. V. O. Key told him in July that he would never receive promotion and that he could either resign or serve permanently as an associate professor.” The explicit ceiling on advancement led to a buyout that Yale appeared especially eager to pay.
Problems followed Kendall when he took a visiting position at Stanford. “Kendall hardly got settled in before serious trouble arose,” Owen writes. “Early in the semester he showed up for work smelling of alcohol. He made the excuse that he had been suffering from the flu and had medicated himself with his traditional remedy of ‘hot-buttered rum.’ More serious was an incident that occurred shortly afterward. Menlo Park police stopped Kendall and charged him with drunk driving. Kendall had been driving the wrong way on a one-way street. He pleaded guilty, but because he had been wearing a tuxedo after attending a former dinner party and was a Stanford professor, the story made it into the papers.” On the lecture circuit, Kendall took the stage in various states of inebriation, such as during a debate in Seattle with left-wing activist Carl Braden. He joined former students Buckley and Bozell at the creation of National Review and scandalized a fellow employee who walked in on him having sex with a secretary. His alcoholism, adulterous adventures, and irritating gadfly behavior kept him on speaking terms with few at any given time. Anyone acting as his superior, but especially a former student, could not sustain a lasting relationship. Thus Buckley, a man who showed great forbearance in keeping Kendall at the magazine, became, like so many others, someone to whom Kendall refused to speak—a list that came to include his mother and brother.
But to reduce Kendall to a bellicose, lecherous drunk misses his intellectual contributions. Heaven Can Indeed Fall, even if its jaundiced reviewers cannot control their impulses to fixate on Kendall’s uncontrolled impulses, does not succumb to this temptation. Owen, in a style rare among academics aiming to please readers rather than impress peers, paints a portrait where lesser authors might create a caricature.
Personal foibles aside, Kendall’s accomplishments in the classroom at Yale and the University of Dallas, in the pages of the biggest little magazine of the twentieth century, and as a Cold War propagandist and secret agent in the employ of the federal government merit this book-length history. He enjoyed an important if brief career in intelligence (including the fledgling Central Intelligence Agency) in which he helped end Soviet spy Maurice Halperin’s career in the federal government. His philosophy favoring majorities over elites today finds expression among conservatives lamenting judicial overreach and bureaucratic governance. Owen sums up Kendall’s approach to his animating idea thusly: “Anyone who challenged the sovereignty of the people risked his learned and ferocious wrath.” He observes that “reading Kendall is instructive precisely because his ideas do not lend themselves to simplistic summary or easy left-right dichotomy.” Ever the contrarian, even among the contrarians associated with National Review, the Okie intellectual voted for Lyndon Johnson in 1964 after supporting John F. Kennedy and Harry Truman earlier.
Most important, Kendall, a man despised by so many colleagues, earned the devotion of his students, many of whom provided a substantial return on his investment in them. Appropriately, his grave features a one-word epitaph: “Teacher.”