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Brinkman’s Books: A Man And His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F Buckley Jr.

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Ever wonder what books would provide a good foundation for conservative political thinking? Illinois conservative Daniel Brinkman is offering his insight to Illinois Review readers with the first of several thoughtful reviews of books he thinks would strengthen conservatives:

A Man And His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F Buckley Jr. 

By Alvin S. Felzenberg

Yale University Press 448p, May 2017

By Daniel Brinkman –

William F Buckley Jr. first met Ronald Reagan at a Beverly Hills event. WFB was the keynote and Reagan was to do the introduction. The event began rather poorly as the microphone had not been turned on and the balcony level control room was locked. “Reagan exited the room through the window, walked a foot wide ledge to reach the control room several feet away and entered through a window he broke with his elbow, minutes later to the delight of the audience the microphone was on and the program proceeded.” So began a great friendship that thrived for the next 35 years. 

It is well known that Bill Buckley founded the modern conservative movement. The “how?” of the matter is generally dispensed with justly in four simple words ‘National Review, Firing Line.’ Alvin Felzenberg gives us a much richer tale of how conservatism conquered, from Eisenhower to George W Bush.

At Yale, the young WFB saw in the 1948 ultra-left Henry Wallace candidacy that ideas even in losing causes can gain acceptance over time and that “the left through a myriad of organizations and communications outlets had helped change norms and policy outcomes.” Buckley took it as his life’s goal to build a similar infrastructure for conservatives.

Over the ensuing decades in addition to NR and Firing Line, Buckley founded activist groups and embarked on many a crusade to either expel liberals from the Republican Party, or to keep the movement free of elements that might tarnish its respectability. He worked to place conservatives in positions of influence and gave quiet and not so quiet counsel to presidents over half a century.

WFB performed the self-appointed role of “tablet keeper” of the conservative movement, excising the John Birch Society leadership, and later in 1968 using his nationally syndicated program Firing Line to wholly discredit George Wallace who was trying to claim he was a conservative.

Boldness was always the theme, whether actively advancing the brand, or exposing those candidates running only nominally as Republicans. The still thriving YAF (Young Americans for Freedom) was founded in 1960, partly as a response to Nixon’s moderate positions. Fearing a philosophical reversal following the defeat of Barry Goldwater, in 1965 WFB ran for mayor of New York City to frustrate the ambitions of liberal Republican John Lindsay. Statewide in New York, WFB worked tirelessly to blunt the ambition of another liberal Republican, and sole state party financier, Nelson Rockefeller. In 1988 Buckley skunked yet another liberal Republican in Lowell Weicker even backing Democrat Joe Lieberman to beat Weicker after no one had challenged him in the Connecticut primary. 

The last decade of WFB’s life saw the proliferation of conservative media that surely would not have come about without his paving the way. In an event at the White House honoring his 80th birthday, George W Bush observed, “And today, we've got, of course, an abundance of conservative columnists and radio hosts and television shows and think tanks and all kinds of organizations. I guess in an intellectual sense, you could say these are all Bill's children.”

Sprinkled throughout this volume are many vignettes shedding light on WFB’s character and one liners to brighten the soul. Felzenberg brings fresh light to the founder of modern conservatism, and lets WFB’s wit and effervescence shine through.

Available on Amazon.com 

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