The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

July 21, 2018

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Recovering the Beginnings of Conservatism
Daniel McCarthy - 09/27/08

The following is featured in the current edition of Intercollegiate Review (43:02, Fall 2008).

A review of Flying High: Remembering Barry Goldwater by William F. Buckley, Jr. (New York: Basic Books, 2008), $17.

Right until the end, William F. Buckley Jr. remained as prolific as he was eloquent. Flying High is the proof. It is as graceful as anything he put between two covers, and although short—208 pages, including index—it is only the first of Buckley’s posthumous works. While waiting for Basic Books to publish these reminiscences of Barry Goldwater and his era, Buckley had time to compose a similar volume on Ronald Reagan. WFB was blessed with prodigious literary talents, and he exercised them in full to his last days.

This is indeed a timely book. With so many pundits surveying Republican political setbacks and pronouncing the death of conservatism—as if the one entailed the other—the moment is right for revisiting the conservative movement’s origins. The defeat that Arizona senator Barry Goldwater suffered to incumbent Democrat Lyndon Johnson in the 1964 presidential election eclipses anything that is likely to befall the GOP in the near future. Yet it was a beginning, not an end, for the American Right.

A beginning, if not the beginning—for part of the significance of Flying High is that it reminds the reader in 2008 that conservatism did not spring fully formed from the head of Senator Goldwater or the pen of William F. Buckley Jr. The tale of what followed the Goldwater campaign of 1964—the rise of the right wing within the Republican Party and the building of new institutions and media to convey the movement’s message—has been told many times before, recently and very ably by Al Regnery in Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism (2008). Buckley, who was present at the creation, points our eyes in the other direction: back, to the people and events that made the campaign of 1964 possible.

There were conservatives in 1960, but they had relatively little political organization or leadership. Ohio senator Robert A. Taft, a staunch opponent of the New Deal at home and a noninterventionist in foreign affairs (with some exceptions regarding China), had been the Right’s great hope eight years earlier. Yet he lost the 1952 Republican presidential nomination to the moderate Dwight Eisenhower and died two years later. Eisenhower, Buckley recalls, was beloved as a war hero and “a great national figure”—but “the majority of the delegates at the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago . . . were also glad that he was moving on.” His heir was to be his vice president, Richard Nixon, whose anticommunist credentials “were reassuring to many who thought Ike too much the appeaser . . . but for not a few Republicans, especially younger ones, there was something unsatisfactory even about Nixon.” That was clear well before 1960 to Clarence Manion, former dean of the law school at Notre Dame and a “leading figure in the conservative movement” in those early days.

Manion, whose political philosophy was very much in the mold of Senator Taft, “was incensed at the liberal policies of the Eisenhower Administration,” writes Buckley. “In 1959 he conceived the need for a slim book which would give fresh syntactical life to conservative doctrine, to stand in opposition to the prevailing political winds. And who better to serve as the official author than Barry Goldwater, the suave contrarian conservative from Arizona?” It was Manion who also recruited the book’s ghostwriter—Buckley’s brother-in-law, “a rangy, redheaded lawyer” named Brent Bozell, Washington editor for National Review. Bozell had written speeches for Senator McCarthy. The book he wrote for Manion under Goldwater’s name was The Conscience of a Conservative.

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