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Buckley, Mailer, and The American Conservative

Kevin Hilke

Norman Mailer, from <i>The New Yorker</i>'s publication of his selected political letters in late 2008

Norman Mailer, from The New Yorker's publication of his selected political letters in late 2008. Photograph by Diane Arbus.

Of the many interrelated reasons to lament the passing of William F. Buckley, the decline in quality of the locus of his particular incarnation of American intellectual conservatism, The National Review, is one of the most moving. The president who will leave office in eighteen days oversaw a decline in the already laggardly American intellectual discussion. Our new president, an intellectual and a minority, has the potential to invigorate and diversify this discussion significantly, but without a conservative wing with intellectual legitimacy, it will be unproductively incomplete.

Norman Mailer, rightly considered a serious liberal intellectual in his prime—and who enjoyed camaraderie and friendship with Buckley, a worthy and beloved sparring partner—understood the necessity of a serious conservative opposition, and so we find him writing to Buckley, in January, 1966:

Dear Bill,

I send you the enclosed not because I love National Review so much, for I don’t—it’s not so good as it ought to be, and often it’s tiresome, especially when one knows in advance what your trusted old line contributors are going to say—but as a personal mark of respect to you. Your letter was the best letter I ever read by an editor asking for funds. . . .

One request. Please keep my contribution in the secret crypts. It is not that I fear public opinion so much as ceaseless repetition. Repetition kills the soul and I would not wish to spend one hundred evenings in succession explaining to various outraged and somewhat stupid people in calm clear fashion my complex motives for giving a gift to a magazine for which I feel no affection and to an editor with whom on ninety of a hundred points I must rush to disagree. They would not understand that good writing is good writing, and occasionally carries the day.



Next to Buckley’s National Review, Rich Lowry, Kathryn Jean Lopez, Jonah Goldberg and the bulk of the rest of the current bunch are a terrible joke, as they proved in their much-glossed reaction to McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin and by the in-house dissent of David Frum and Buckley’s son Christopher.

If any American conservative publication of broad appeal can claim to be a home for conservative intellectuals today, it is not The National Review. It might be The American Conservative—founded, perhaps surprisingly, by Pat Buchanan. Yes, that one. Its regular contributors, of whom Buchanan—one of Mailer’s “trusted old line contributors”—is both the most regular and the most predictable, are individuals of intelligence and expertise who care passionately about the complex ideas required to think the political today. Even when they are wrong, they are willing to take intellectual risks, willing to experiment in the pursuit of what they take to be the greater good.

Take Dennis Dale’s November assessment of Obama’s campaign rhetoric, the first from the popular right I came across to treat it with anything approaching acumen. Yes, Dale is crass. He grossly and offensively misapprehends black culture, in a way that some surely would—and wrongly—cast as racist. He thrives among the solid certain roots of things, speaking unironically of “fundamental truths” and the like, and accordingly fails to see the vacuity of Obama’s as potentially productive, perfunctorily suspecting anyone proximal to it—principally Obama—of attempting to sinisterly exploit it. On substance, he is, from start to finish, almost entirely wrong. But unlike many conservatives, he apprehends well the way the rhetoric functions; he deftly maps its potent vacuity. Whatever we think of his views, he has the right sort of inquisitive, adaptable mind. Whatever his ideological baggage, he is smart and he gives a damn. We can work with that. It is all we can work with.

Category: Culture, Politics

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One Response

  1. […] Cockburn on the unlikely integrity of The American Conservative under publisher Ron Unz, which we pointed to last […]

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