The end of the cult of Buckley

What to think of a magazine that feels it necessary to defend Phil Robertson but not Pat Buchanan?

That first tweet strikes me as probably correct, but it’s worth breaking down a bit.

In his defense, the CIA had great taste in journalism back in the day. Read this piece by Carl Bernstein if you doubt it:

Among the executives who lent their cooperation to the Agency were Williarn Paley of the Columbia Broadcasting System, Henry Luce of Tirne Inc., Arthur Hays Sulzberger of the New York Times, Barry Bingham Sr. of the LouisviIle Courier‑Journal, and James Copley of the Copley News Service. Other organizations which cooperated with the CIA include the American Broadcasting Company, the National Broadcasting Company, the Associated Press, United Press International, Reuters, Hearst Newspapers, Scripps‑Howard, Newsweek magazine, the Mutual Broadcasting System, the Miami Herald and the oldSaturday Evening Post and New York Herald‑Tribune.

By far the most valuable of these associations, according to CIA officials, have been with the New York Times, CBS and Time Inc.

The CIA’s use of the American news media has been much more extensive than Agency officials have acknowledged publicly or in closed sessions with members of Congress. The general outlines of what happened are indisputable; the specifics are harder to come by. CIA sources hint that a particular journalist was trafficking all over Eastern Europe for the Agency; the journalist says no, he just had lunch with the station chief. CIA sources say flatly that a well‑known ABC correspondent worked for the Agency through 1973; they refuse to identify him. A high‑level CIA official with a prodigious memory says that the New York Times provided cover for about ten CIA operatives between 1950 and 1966; he does not know who they were, or who in the newspaper’s management made the arrangements.

On the one hand, I suppose working with the CIA is better than, say, Claud Cockburn’s counter-espionage work in Spain on behalf of the Soviets. On the other hand, when a news media that lathers up the American people into scares about domestic extremism leads to a situation like Ruby Ridge, there is no functional difference, right down to the execution. The SPLC is a kind of counter-espionage organ, in other words.

(Ask yourself, if the CIA were to get involved in journalism today, which publications do you think it would be working with? Maybe one with unusually good access to foreign, often dangerous locations, posturing as subversive while actually helping to solidify American cultural imperialism? Fits the profile…)


Anyway, having seen the operation of the Buckley cult in beltway conservatism, it seems like he is largely an avatar of baby’s-first-intellectual-rightism. Those who know better usually caveat their praise with something like “but he cared about music too, not just politics!”, with enough implied exoticism to suggest that he hadn’t met a cultured soul since leaving Vanderbilt or Dartmouth or wherever he got his gingham ties and boat shoes.

Look, I like Buckley fine. Or at least, like most people, I like the idea of liking Buckley. His writing doesn’t deserve the notoriety of, say, Florence King — a high bar that may be — but Firing Line was a good show and he deserves credit as a figurehead or whatever. And yet, all I’ve read of his various cultural tastes suggests they were rather bland. And as for the politics, Buckley admiration seems to be a somewhat defensive way of hiding the fact that the conservative movement he founded has failed to conserve much. Even Reagan, the crowning success of the movement he built, accelerated the pace by which profligacy, dependence, and endless war are overtaking us.

Once that fact is realized, it’s a short step to concluding that his methods — which it has been alleged were more focused on appearing respectable to enemies; exiling the Birchers, then fellow Irish Catholic Pat Buchanan, then his protege Joe Sobran, then replacing his chosen successor in a decision sometimes rumored to be about ensuring his reputation wouldn’t be overshadowed, but in any case the way Brookhiser tells it, sounds strange — were all wrong. Every political movement polices itself, but some of these cases are dubious, and in the Bircher case, it was a serious enough matter that Willmoore Kendall once characterized the feud as a war. And I suppose I would trust Buckley more if he didn’t admit to being an adherent of the sort of Yankee conservatism that exists, as Dabney put it of the Northern opponents of women’s suffrage, to keep progressivism from “becoming pursy and lazy, from having nothing to whip.” Buckley had a sense of it in this piece in Commonweal in 1952, which is often quoted but rarely in full:

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He understood the temptation, but eventually let all this happen to his movement. The trouble is, to the conservatives that won, there is never any end to security threats that justify accepting big government for the duration. The parallels to today are obvious; today’s right-wing hawks are at pains to reconstruct a new Cold War with Russia, or elevate counter-terrorism to the same level.

Regardless of your feelings about that, Nixon’s silent majority doesn’t really exist anymore (which should be the real lesson of our “libertarian moment”) so not only does the role of gatekeeper of national conservatism (or conservative HUMINT) cease to be productive, even the various cultural commitments Buckley held no longer have the sort of foundational resonance they once did. He loved Bach, probably the most foundational Western composer, and played the harpsichord. One can only run on cultural fumes for so long, especially if you are committed to winning elections and have image consultants to answer to.

This is all very contentious territory, so I’d better leave it there, but not before suggesting that there are those who would see this as Atlantean treachery. And that as far as speaking ill of the dead goes, he didn’t spare Murray Rothbard.

(If you’re reading this and thinking, ‘I wouldn’t trade my Bach recordings for a goddamn vote! Glenn Gould or death!’ congratulations, you’ve passed into the Outside.)


All of this raises the question of who and what to replace him with. I know I’m not the only one to think it would be poetic to replace a former CIA agent with the last conservative politician who was serious about cleaning out the depraved Augean stables of the sovereign civil service; Joe McCarthy, another Irishman. That guy didn’t care what the New York Times thought of him. As for Buckley’s affectations, surely the patrician optimism has to go, and de Maistre might be able to help us out with a patch:

So if the phrase ‘national representation is understood to mean a certain number of representatives set by certain men taken from certain cities and boroughs by virtue of an old concession by the sovereign, there is no dispute — such a government exists, and it is that of England. But if the phrase is understood to mean that all the people are represented, that they may be represented only by virtue of a mandate, and that every citizen, with some physically and morally inevitable exceptions, is able to give or receive these mandates, and if there is also a claim to join to such an order of thing the abolition of all hereditary distinctions and offices, this representation is a thing that has never been seen and that will never succeed.

America is often cited. I know of nothing so provoking as the praises bestowed on this babe-in-arms. Let it grow.

But to make this discussion as clear as possible, we must note that the instigators of the French Republic are bound to prove not only that perfected representation (so styled by the innovators) is possible and good, but also that the people can by this means retain their sovereignty (again, so they say) and form, in their totality, a republic. This is the crux of the question, for if the republic is the capital and the rest of France is subject to the republic, the republic is not accountable to the sovereign people.

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