Thursday, 20 November 2008

“The Reagan I Knew”, by William F. Buckley Jr. (Basic Books)


An intimate look at a friendship between one of America’s most gifted conservative thinkers and America’s 40th President

When William F. Buckley started National Review in 1955, proposing a journal that “stands athwart history, yelling Stop!”, Ronald Reagan was an actor in Hollywood stumping for liberal Democrats. Buckley grew up in a patrician household speaking three languages. Reagan was born in an apartment in the tiny town of Tampico, Illinois. Buckley attended Yale, Reagan went to Eureka College. Despite these significant differences, these two men would come together and define American conservatism in the 20th century.

The Reagan I Knew is Buckley’s tribute to their friendship. The book is comprised of correspondence with Reagan and his wife Nancy (with whom Buckley was extremely close), transcripts of Reagan on Buckley’s long running TV show, Firing Line, and his personal observations of the man who was known affectionately as “The Gipper”.

Buckley’s relationship with Reagan roughly corresponded with Reagan’s transition from an FDR liberal to the conservatism he would later come to define. The book is broken into sections of time and issues Reagan was involved with (Panama Canal, presidential campaign, budget issues, and national defense) and illustrates his thinking well.

The letters between Buckley and Reagan, and especially the transcripts of Reagan’s appearances on Firing Line, show clearly that the two men had significant differences over policy – specifically with regard to the Panama Canal. But on the core issues (anti-communism, slowing the growth of government, and a strong national defense) they were in concert.

It is often said that Buckley made conservatism respectable by detaching it from, and in the process discrediting, the far right, anti-Semitic, protectionist base it had previously been associated with. Buckley, despite his high-brow manner and blueblood upbringing, brought conservatism out of the country clubs and gave it a veneer of worldliness which largely reflected the man himself. Buckley engaged the world and, more specifically, confronted his enemies directly, through years of debates on Firing Line and other public forums with such establishment leftists as Gore Vidal and Noam Chomsky, and indirectly via his columns and books decrying communism.

Buckley was a public intellectual in the truest sense of that phrase and recognized more than any other figure on the right that conservatism must be clearly defined and be forceful in the public arena to have any effect. In Ronald Reagan, Buckley found a man who could bridge the gap between the heady world of intellectual debate and the average American. The correspondence between Reagan and Buckley details this process and the book is at its strongest when the two men are grappling with consequential issues such as the Panama Canal, détente with the Soviets and the budget.

The book also delights when Buckley recounts Reagan’s interaction with personalities such as Truman Capote, as well as some personal anecdotes regarding both men’s children. Unfortunately, there are too many letters between Buckley and Nancy Reagan of no real value or interest to anybody but the two authors and the book looses focus during these. I have no idea if such correspondence exists between Buckley and the First Lady, but it would’ve been interesting to gain an insight into Nancy’s thinking during her “Just Say No” campaign or her thoughts later in Reagan’s presidency when the press was increasingly attacking his advanced age.

The Reagan I Knew provides a unique insight into two of the most consequential men in the last one hundred years of American politics and is well worth the read for students of politics and history.

Reviewed by Nick Plosser

Also recommended: William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale (1951) & Up From Liberalism (1961); Ronald Reagan, An American Life: The Autobiography (1990) & Reagan: A Life in Letters (2003)

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