Present at the creation

Everything I think I know about politics I have learned from Harry Jaffa and his students at the Claremont Institute, but the man who opened my eyes to the claims of the great tradition is Dartmouth English Professor Jeffrey Hart. Professor Hart disabused me of my addled adolescent liberalism and smugness over the four years I was his student as an undergraduate. I remain his grateful student and look forward to reading his new book: The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.

Professor Hart joined the editorial board of National Review in 1969. In the course of his long association with the magazine he met up with virtually all of the magazine’s great characters.

In the current issue of the New Criterion, Professor Hart brings his gifts for portraiture to bear on an autobiographical reflection on the founding father of National Review and the modern conservative movement: “Buckley at the beginning.”

This brilliant essay is difficult to excerpt. Please read the whole thing. Here, however, is Professor Hart’s first glimpse of Buckley:

Not long before the first issue of National Review appeared, I had a chance to see William Buckley, already famous for God and Man at Yale (1951), in action. A debate had been announced, to take place in Harvard’s Lamont Library, between Buckley and James Wechsler, the diamond-pure liberal editor of The New York Post. Later Buckley would aptly write that Wechsler was so pure a liberal that he ought to be on exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, for tourists and schoolchildren to gawk at, as they did at Piltdown Man. He or someone else said that Wechsler was like a bronze bust of The Liberal that one might strike matches upon.

What happened on the appointed night in an auditorium at Lamont Library gave a preliminary indication of at least one of the many qualities that would render Buckley famous and National Review successful: Buckley’s bravura. The auditorium was jammed, his entrance buzzily awaited. Then down the aisle he proceeded with his wife Pat, she very tall, wearing an enormous leopard hat and large bag, also leopard. Buzz from the audience. At the podium, after thanking the host for his introduction, Buckley observed, with an elfin grin (soon a signature feature), that he was very pleased to see Professor Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., there in the audience. Then he added, “His many books would be dangerous if they weren’t so boring.” In his bow tie, Arthur looked Arthurish. Laughter. Not hostile. And the Harvard students loved it. Buckley’s entire performance was Byronic, rakish, and marvelous. His intonations were unique, though today familiar. They seemed something gorgeous, maybe out of the English fin de siècle, Beerbohm, Beardsley.

Whatever sober points Wechsler might have made, he was obliterated by the stylistic contrast and, ink-stained wretch that he obviously was, slunk back to the then-liberal New York Post. Right there, I saw the conservative movement being born, and liberalism made otiose. Right there was the esprit that caught the attention of early National Review readers—especially the young.

This was no stuffed-shirt or classroom policy wonk. This had nothing to do with the dismal science and its green eye-shades. This was great theater.

And this is a great essay.

UPDATE: The venerable Mr. Buckley writes:

I am a little embarrassed by the quote attributed to me on Arthur Schlesinger. He is NOT a boring writer!! He is other things. I don’t remember saying that, but pehaps I did.

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