Buckley and Reagan: The Qualities of Conservative Greatness

As conservatives bemoan the apparent descent of conservatism into a swamp, we would do well to remember the two men who most personify conservatism in America.  One of those two men, William F. Buckley, has just passed away.  The other man, Ronald Reagan died four years ago (also in the middle of a presidential campaign.)   These two men were more than conservative icons, they were American icons. 

No Leftist will ever be as loved by Americans as that "Arch-Conservative" Reagan  and  no Leftist will ever be as respected and admired as William F. Buckley, Jr.  While conservatives thrash about to define ourselves, to find ourselves, to seek our inner selves, let us first study a bit what made these two giants unifying leaders who they were.

The first common characteristic is that both men were devoutly religious -- it is impossible to think of either man without soon noting the importance of God in the biography.  Buckley's first book, God and  Man at Yale, wrote about the absence of God from universities:  who else then would have even noticed?  Yet Buckley, a deeply religious man, realized that all political problems are ultimately moral problems, and all moral problems ultimately religious problems.  The attempt to expunge God from politics, therefore, was the first step toward totalitarianism and the sort moldy social jelly that it Europe today. 

Reagan also put God above all else.  Buckley and Reagan, however,  were not the sort of political-religious leaders  like Huckabee.  Neither man would have said a word about Romney's Mormonism.  The God of Buckley and Reagan had very long arms.  It was a God that Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians each recognized well.  This God was concerned about unborn children, but just as concerned about souls trapped in the Gulag. 

As a natural consequence of the importance of God in their lives, Buckley and Reagan believed in the divine purpose of marriage and family.  Buckley was married once and for a very long time.  Reagan did have one unhappy marriage, but that was a Hollywood marriage, and his long and loving marriage to Nancy shows just how important he considered a happy and devoted home life.   Both men grounded themselves in those natural bulwarks of conservative values, faith and family, values which when working right in the lives of men make the Left less than unnecessary. 

Buckley and Reagan were also men with a genuine love of life.  They were not morose (although both were, at times, seriously worried about America and American values in the world.)  Buckley at the sail or harpsichord, Reagan chopping wood or riding a horse -- these images of happy men whose life was not just politics -- are part of what a full life should be.  Both men had a wonderful sense of humor to complement a life of decent fun.

The two conservative icons were, then, whole men.  God, family, the brotherhood of man, the joy of living -- all of these values together made Buckley and Reagan the giants that they were in American life.  Because they were naturally whole men, they were also utterly sincere.  Neither man was much interested in finesse.  What they believed in did not require finesse. 

This absence of finesse was the key to their eloquence.  Buckley, of course, was a writer of incomparable skill.  But Buckley the debater, the commentator, the orator was just as great.  Reagan the speaker was as powerful with his voice as Buckley with his pen, but Reagan is a grossly underestimated writer.  The secret of his power, as with Buckley, that he spoke as a clear, strong, informed conscience.

Never, at any time, did someone reading Buckley or listening to Reagan feel that anything other than a completely authentic heart and mind were in firm command of the message.   How many pundits - how many conservative pundits -- these days tweak their words and their message to conform to chic trends, twenty-four hour news cycles and oceans of public opinion polls?  The answer to that question may be the key to what has happened to conservatism.  All the leading Republican candidates this year have embraced for the sake of convenience or popularity very un-conservative positions.   Conservatives today seem not to be real conservatives but conservatives as the "other chair" in some pointless nightly television hootenanny.

Spoken plainly, conservative leaders today are too opportunistic, too interested in personal reward, too worried about what our enemies think, and too afraid too stand cheerfully alone.  Buckley and Reagan were men of great gifts, but it was not their gifts alone that made them great.  What made them great was certainty of moral purpose and absolute fearlessness in defending without equivocation what they knew was right.  Nations always need such men.  America particularly needs such men now.

As conservatives bemoan the apparent descent of conservatism into a swamp, we would do well to remember the two men who most personify conservatism in America.  One of those two men, William F. Buckley, has just passed away.  The other man, Ronald Reagan died four years ago (also in the middle of a presidential campaign.)   These two men were more than conservative icons, they were American icons. 

No Leftist will ever be as loved by Americans as that "Arch-Conservative" Reagan  and  no Leftist will ever be as respected and admired as William F. Buckley, Jr.  While conservatives thrash about to define ourselves, to find ourselves, to seek our inner selves, let us first study a bit what made these two giants unifying leaders who they were.

The first common characteristic is that both men were devoutly religious -- it is impossible to think of either man without soon noting the importance of God in the biography.  Buckley's first book, God and  Man at Yale, wrote about the absence of God from universities:  who else then would have even noticed?  Yet Buckley, a deeply religious man, realized that all political problems are ultimately moral problems, and all moral problems ultimately religious problems.  The attempt to expunge God from politics, therefore, was the first step toward totalitarianism and the sort moldy social jelly that it Europe today. 

Reagan also put God above all else.  Buckley and Reagan, however,  were not the sort of political-religious leaders  like Huckabee.  Neither man would have said a word about Romney's Mormonism.  The God of Buckley and Reagan had very long arms.  It was a God that Catholics and Protestants, Jews and Christians each recognized well.  This God was concerned about unborn children, but just as concerned about souls trapped in the Gulag. 

As a natural consequence of the importance of God in their lives, Buckley and Reagan believed in the divine purpose of marriage and family.  Buckley was married once and for a very long time.  Reagan did have one unhappy marriage, but that was a Hollywood marriage, and his long and loving marriage to Nancy shows just how important he considered a happy and devoted home life.   Both men grounded themselves in those natural bulwarks of conservative values, faith and family, values which when working right in the lives of men make the Left less than unnecessary. 

Buckley and Reagan were also men with a genuine love of life.  They were not morose (although both were, at times, seriously worried about America and American values in the world.)  Buckley at the sail or harpsichord, Reagan chopping wood or riding a horse -- these images of happy men whose life was not just politics -- are part of what a full life should be.  Both men had a wonderful sense of humor to complement a life of decent fun.

The two conservative icons were, then, whole men.  God, family, the brotherhood of man, the joy of living -- all of these values together made Buckley and Reagan the giants that they were in American life.  Because they were naturally whole men, they were also utterly sincere.  Neither man was much interested in finesse.  What they believed in did not require finesse. 

This absence of finesse was the key to their eloquence.  Buckley, of course, was a writer of incomparable skill.  But Buckley the debater, the commentator, the orator was just as great.  Reagan the speaker was as powerful with his voice as Buckley with his pen, but Reagan is a grossly underestimated writer.  The secret of his power, as with Buckley, that he spoke as a clear, strong, informed conscience.

Never, at any time, did someone reading Buckley or listening to Reagan feel that anything other than a completely authentic heart and mind were in firm command of the message.   How many pundits - how many conservative pundits -- these days tweak their words and their message to conform to chic trends, twenty-four hour news cycles and oceans of public opinion polls?  The answer to that question may be the key to what has happened to conservatism.  All the leading Republican candidates this year have embraced for the sake of convenience or popularity very un-conservative positions.   Conservatives today seem not to be real conservatives but conservatives as the "other chair" in some pointless nightly television hootenanny.

Spoken plainly, conservative leaders today are too opportunistic, too interested in personal reward, too worried about what our enemies think, and too afraid too stand cheerfully alone.  Buckley and Reagan were men of great gifts, but it was not their gifts alone that made them great.  What made them great was certainty of moral purpose and absolute fearlessness in defending without equivocation what they knew was right.  Nations always need such men.  America particularly needs such men now.