Well over a year ago, neoconservative David Frum unleashed an unpleasant gob of spit in National Review accusing a number of veteran conservative writers (including me) of being “unpatriotic conservatives“ [NRO, March 19, 2003] because we opposed President Bush’s war with Iraq.
Today Mr. Frum ought to rewrite his article. The founder and editor of National Review himself, William F. Buckley Jr., has declared that he would not have supported the war either had he known then what he knows now.
Mr. Buckley’s confession came out in the New York Times last week, when he announced his retirement from the magazine that, in its first issue of November 19, 1955, boasted it would “stand athwart history and cry stop.” [National Review Founder to Leave Stage,June 29, 2004, By David D. Kirkpatrick.]
Today, nearly fifty years later, it has conspicuously failed to do so, but Mr. Buckley is to be congratulated on at least having the intellectual honesty to acknowledge he was wrong about supporting history’s unfortunate double time into Iraq.
“With the benefit of minute hindsight,” he told the Times,“Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”
That makes Mr. Buckley as much of an “unpatriotic conservative,”by Mr. Frum’s standards, as Pat Buchanan, Joe Sobran, Chroniclesmagazine, Robert Novak, me or any of the other unusual suspects he lumped into the unpatriotic category.
The only difference is that we didn’t have to wait until more than 800 Americans and an untold number of Iraqis were dead, billions of dollars wasted, and half the planet despising us to know what would happen.
Nevertheless, if Mr. Buckley’s confession is honest, though a bit overdue, it’s not terribly typical. Thanks in no small part to his contributions in recent years, neoconservative hysterics like Mr. Frum and the lightweight kiddy-cons Mr. Buckley has handpicked to run his magazine have virtually destroyed the real right that Mr. Buckley himself helped kick off back in 1955.
Indeed, that’s a large part of the reason the left has come to regard Mr. Buckley so highly.
National Review for decades was the major and sometimes the only voice of serious conservatism in the country, and for a while it did indeed cry stop at the oncoming freight train of the future. Mr. Buckley assembled the leading conservative thinkers and writers of his generation to issue the magazine’s challenge—James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Willmore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers and others.
Most of them today have still not won the recognition they deserve, and one reason they haven’t is that neoconservatives have rejected and ignored them and their works—not infrequently with Mr. Buckley’s help.
Indeed, looking at what Mr. Buckley himself has done in the last couple of decades, it’s hard to resist the view that it was the men he originally brought together at his magazine rather than his own mind and pen that made National Review the intellectual and political success it was.
As his colleagues and editors died off—several of them prematurely—Mr. Buckley failed either to replace them or take up their legacies. After they were gone, he seemed to forget most of what they had tried to impart. His own efforts started wandering—into spy novels and travel memoirs that were strikingly forgettable and today are all but forgotten.
Since at least the 1980s, Mr. Buckley has encouraged the alliance of real conservatives with the neocons and has done little if anything to pull the newcomers in the proper direction.
Instead, he at least acquiesced in and often promoted the dilution and distortion of conservatism the neo-cons were injecting.
The Frum article last year is a case in point. Nowhere in it did Mr. Frum come even close to proving his claim that the anti-war right has “made common cause with the left-wing and Islamist antiwar movements in this country and in Europe” or that “some of them explicitly yearn for the victory of their nation’s enemies,” and had he been a bit more specific as to who exactly he was talking about here, he might have enjoyed a libel suit.
Nevertheless, Mr. Buckley allowed these charges to be published in the magazine he controlled.
Today he says the people Mr. Frum smeared were right all along.
An apology is more than overdue.
William F. Buckley Jr. brought many gifts to American conservatism, and much of what all conservatives today know and think could never have flourished without his efforts.
It’s his tragedy and that of the movement he helped found that they finished up riding on the caboose of the very train they once vowed to halt.