A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr., by Alvin S. Felzenberg (Yale, 456 pp., $35)
William F. Buckley Jr. made enormous contributions to America’s publishing industry during his life, and he has continued to do so, albeit indirectly, in the nine years since his death. He has been the subject of two beautifully written memoirs — one by his son, Christopher, the other by NR’s Richard Brookhiser — along with biographies by Heritage Foundation scholar Lee Edwards and Roger Williams University law professor Carl Bogus. In 2015, the Devault-Graves Agency published the complete transcripts of Buckley’s famous 1968 debates with Gore Vidal, and University of Illinois at Chicago historian Kevin Schultz published a study of Buckley’s turbulent friendship with Norman Mailer. A year later, James Rosen of Fox News published an edited collection of Buckley’s best eulogies, while MIT film and media professor Heather Hendershot published a history of Firing Line, Buckley’s long-running weekly debate show.
The sheer number of WFB-related titles confirms his enduring impact on American intellectual life. Yet at this point, even the biggest Buckley fans might be excused for wondering, “Do we really need another book about the Great Man’s influence?” Alvin Felzenberg believes the answer is yes, and his new book proves him right. Part biography and part political history, A Man and His Presidents offers a veritable Thanksgiving feast for Buckleyologists.
Felzenberg approaches WFB from a sympathetic perspective, both personally and ideologically. Like so many others, he forged a relationship with Buckley by sending him a letter while in college. The letter yielded a visit to NR’s offices, which led to what Felzenberg calls an “active acquaintanceship” stretching out over four decades. During that time, Felzenberg compiled a lengthy CV in Republican politics, including a stint as New Jersey’s assistant secretary of state under Governor Tom Kean, positions in the Bush 41 and Bush 43 administrations, and a job as principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission (which Kean co-chaired).
A distinguished author and regular NR contributor, he clearly believes that Buckley’s conservative revolution was good for America and good for the world. Yet A Man and His Presidents is no hagiography. While Felzenberg documents the indispensable role that WFB played in building a movement and fueling Ronald Reagan’s ascent to the White House, he does not shy away from those issues on which Buckley made mistakes or showed poor judgment. The result is a well-balanced, richly detailed account of a most remarkable political journey.
WFB began that journey as a youthful “America Firster” who opposed U.S. aid to Britain prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. After the war, he called for rolling back Soviet control of Eastern Europe, before embracing a more pragmatic (though still aggressive) approach to the superpower conflict. Toward the end of his life, he supported George W. Bush’s Iraq War but quickly grew disillusioned with it, telling the New York Times in June 2004: “If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”
Meanwhile, Buckley went from defending Jim Crow to celebrating how the civil-rights revolution had transformed the American South. He also went from seeking a reversal of the New Deal to championing a former FDR Democrat turned conservative Republican — Ronald Reagan — whose presidency kept the New Deal mostly intact.
In short, while Buckley was deeply philosophical and deeply conservative, his views evolved over time. He launched an ideological movement, but he was never a rigid ideologue. “Buckley’s fealty to principle,” writes Felzenberg, “did not blind him to his own imperfections and inconsistencies. And by no means did his devotion to truths that had been passed down to him through the generations make him a prisoner of dogma. He had also learned to free himself of views that had come to him by the circumstances of his background that he concluded ran counter to values he cherished.”
For example, when Buckley created this magazine, he opposed using federal power to dismantle southern segregation. In 1957, he even penned an editorial arguing that whites were “entitled to rule” in the South because they were “the more advanced race.” That same year, NR opposed the civil-rights bill signed by President Eisenhower — a bill that earned the support of every Republican senator, including conservative stalwarts Barry Goldwater, Everett Dirksen, and William F. Knowland.
Yet by the mid 1960s, notes Felzenberg, “Buckley showed increased sympathy for the goals of the civil-rights movement and for the rights of citizens to demonstrate. While he continued to oppose an increased federal role in guaranteeing voting rights, he shifted his emphasis, criticizing more frequently those who resisted change in the South than he did those seeking federal assistance in bringing it about.” Indeed, he considered George Wallace, the segregationist governor of Alabama, to be a “welfare populist” who tried to camouflage his racist appeals behind the rhetoric of “states’ rights.” In 1968, Buckley debated the governor on Firing Line, and afterward he told Nancy Reagan that Wallace was a “dangerous man.”
During the years that followed, WFB applauded the ways in which civil-rights policies and local leaders had changed southern society for the better. Decades later, in 2004, he said unequivocally that his earlier opposition to the civil-rights movement had been a mistake, telling Time magazine: “I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: Federal intervention was necessary.”
Of course, as Felzenberg properly emphasizes, Buckley’s “core beliefs” remained constant throughout his career: He was a devout Catholic, a devout anti-Communist, and a devout believer in the virtues of economic and personal freedom.
On some issues, Buckley adopted positions that did not become conservative orthodoxy until many years down the line. In 1962, for example, he endorsed the concept of across-the-board reductions in marginal income-tax rates, at a moment when President Kennedy was promoting such a plan. Opponents of the JFK tax cut included Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, and the Chamber of Commerce. Even Goldwater eventually voted against it. “In taking the stand he did,” says Felzenberg, “Buckley showed himself to be a ‘supply-sider’ on economics a generation before the term was coined and years before either Jack Kemp or Ronald Reagan, both advocates of these kinds of tax cuts, entered electoral politics.”
Speaking of Reagan, Felzenberg does a masterly job documenting Buckley’s world-changing relationship with the 40th president, stressing that WFB was “Reagan’s most trusted adviser outside his official family and, after Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan’s primary enabler and protector.” Buckley provided the Gipper with everything from policy and personnel recommendations to “back-channel assistance” to robust support in his columns and articles. “The role Buckley played in advancing Reagan’s career,” writes Felzenberg, “cannot be overstated.” Their only two major policy disagreements came in the late 1970s, over the Panama Canal treaties (which Buckley supported and Reagan opposed), and in the late 1980s, over the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (which Reagan supported and Buckley opposed). At NR’s 30th-anniversary dinner, in December 1985, Reagan hailed Buckley as “perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era.”
A Man and His Presidents reminds us how he achieved that influence, and how it helped change the course of history. Felzenberg’s book surely won’t be the final word on WFB’s political odyssey; but for now, it is probably the best.
– Rachel Currie is a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.