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Righties Adrift

One of the unforeseen outcomes of the rise and fall of neoconservatism is the gooey nostalgia that both the left and the right now feel toward William F. Buckley, Jr. The arch aristo of high-minded Catholic reaction and latterday skeptic … Read More

By / June 26, 2007

One of the unforeseen outcomes of the rise and fall of neoconservatism is the gooey nostalgia that both the left and the right now feel toward William F. Buckley, Jr. The arch aristo of high-minded Catholic reaction and latterday skeptic of a democratic Iraq seems a tonic to the hawkish cabal plotting chaos and devastation around the globe. Or so goes the narrative taken up most recently by no less a figure than James Wolcott. The occasion for his moist tribute to Buckley — apart from an added layer of nostalgia for an act of journalistic kindness paid by Buckley to Wolcott — is Johann Hari's sort of disappointing travelogue of the National Review cruise. Disappointing because it's not as funny as it should be. (Wolcott's right to say that the gold standard of this genre is P.J. O'Rourke's cruise with "Mastercard Marxists" up the Volga in the late 80's. I remember one fellow traveling twit actually saying that wasn't it amazing how the Soviets managed to keep the river flowing like that…)

Now, I have a great deal of respect for Johann and his clean lefty work for The Independent. And I'm willing to grant that the tepidity of this piece was just bad luck with material. The best moment occurs when Norman Podhoretz and Buckley take to batting each other around like kittens vying for a maternal teat:

Podhoretz and Buckley now inhabit opposite poles of post-September 11 American conservatism, and they stare at wholly different Iraqs. Podhoretz is the Brooklyn-born, street-fighting kid who traveled through a long phase of left- liberalism to a pugilistic belief in America's power to redeem the world, one bomb at a time. Today, he is a bristling gray ball of aggression, here to declare that the Iraq war has been "an amazing success." He waves his fist and declaims, "There were WMD, and they were shipped to Syria. … This picture of a country in total chaos with no security is false. It has been a triumph. It couldn't have gone better." He wants more wars, and fast. He is "certain" Bush will bomb Iran, and "thank God" for that.

Buckley is an urbane old reactionary, drunk on doubts. He founded National Review in 1955–when conservatism was viewed in polite society as a mental affliction–and he has always been skeptical of appeals to "the people," preferring the eternal top-down certainties of Catholicism. He united with Podhoretz in mutual hatred of Godless Communism, but, slouching into his eighties, he possesses a worldview that is ill-suited for the fight to bring democracy to the Muslim world. He was a ghostly presence on the cruise at first, appearing only briefly to shake a few hands. But now he has emerged, and he is fighting.

"Aren't you embarrassed by the absence of these weapons?" Buckley snaps at Podhoretz. He has just explained that he supported the war reluctantly, because Dick Cheney convinced him Saddam Hussein had WMD primed to be fired. "No," Podhoretz replies. "As I say, they were shipped to Syria. During Gulf war one, the entire Iraqi air force was hidden in the deserts in Iran." He says he is "heartbroken" by this "rise of defeatism on the right." He adds, apropos of nothing, "There was nobody better than Don Rumsfeld. This defeatist talk only contributes to the impression we are losing, when I think we're winning."

You used to be able to turn as purple as Norman's prose holding your breath for him to utter a single criticism of the Bush administration. But there you go. There was nobody better than Don Rumsfeld. And that defeatist Bush fired him. 

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