Bintel Blog

Buckley and the Jews

By Daniel Treiman

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Among other things, the late William F. Buckley — giant of postwar American conservatism and founder of National Review — played a key role in purging antisemitism from the ranks of his movement.

Jason Maoz addresses this aspect of Buckley’s life in a post on Commentary’s Contentions blog:

Among his many other accomplishments, William F. Buckley Jr. made the conservative movement a far less forbidding place for Jews.

Conservatism in the early 1960’s was, fairly or not, largely defined in the Jewish mind as a downscale hothouse of paranoia, racism and resentment fronted by such figures as the Christian Crusader Rev. Billy James Hargis, the anti-Semitic columnist Westbrook Pegler and, of course, Robert Welch, whose John Birch Society was never officially racist or anti-Semitic but attracted a fair number of those who could accurately be classified as such.

By basically reading the more conspiratorial-minded organizations and polemicists out of mainstream conservatism (a story engagingly told by the liberal journalist John Judis in his 1988 biography William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives), Buckley made it that much more difficult for the media to portray the right as a redoubt of angry kooks and Kleagles. His having done so no doubt smoothed the way for those liberal Jewish intellectuals who would eventually — and at first somewhat ambivalently — make their journey into the conservative camp.

Black and gay Americans may not remember him quite as fondly (though, as Buckley biographer Sam Tanenhus notes, he did eventually recant his early opposition to the civil rights movement).

The charming Buckley did, however, manage to win the affections of many of those with whom he disagreed politically. Read a Q&A with Tanenhaus about Buckley here and a fond remembrance from liberal expert on conservatism Rick Perlstein here.

The New York Times obituary is here.

UPDATE: My colleague Alana Newhouse points out the following:

In a Q&A posted yesterday, Tanenhaus argues that “In the 1950s, when American conservatism still bore the taint of anti-Semitism, Bill Buckley moved forcefully to erase it.” And yet, there’s some nuance to be had here. According to Tanenhaus himself, writing last year in The New Republic, Buckley had his personal preferences: “In 1997, when he was scouring the ranks of talented younger conservatives to find a new editor for National Review, Buckley eliminated one prospect, his one time protégé David Brooks, a rising star at The Weekly Standard. In a memo to board members, Buckley reported that he had discussed Brooks with NR alum George Will: ‘I said that I thought it would be wrong for the next editor to be other than a believing Christian. He agreed and added that the next editor should not be a Canadian’ — a possible reference to conservative writer David Frum.”


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