When the Media Research Center a few weeks ago announced that Fox News commentator Sean Hannity would receive the William F. Buckley Jr. Award for Media Excellence, some of us who cut our teeth on Buckley’s principled, intellectually vibrant conservatism were sure of two things. First, Buckley’s son, Christopher, keeper of the flame, would object to the outrageousness and stunning incongruity of this gesture.
Second, assuming that Buckley himself — quick-witted, insightful architect of the American conservative movement after World War II — discovered an award in his name for media excellence was being given to a crass peddler of conspiracy theories and absurd pronouncements, he would begin spinning wildly in his modest Connecticut grave.
Christopher Buckley indeed put an end to this travesty, leaving the red-faced Media Research Center and Hannity to concoct a face-saving yarn about how Hannity was unavailable to receive the award because of a scheduling conflict. Fake news? You decide.
Yet this flap raises legitimate questions. For instance, has the Media Research Center spent so much time sniffing out leftism in the news media that it doesn’t recognize genuine conservatism anymore?
More importantly, it confirms a growing divide in the American conservative movement. More specifically, it reflects a rift between the closely researched, reality-based, decent brand that Buckley long championed in his National Review magazine and a movement reveling in demagogy, deceit and denial that has all too successfully passed itself off as conservatism.
Buckley was no stranger to this struggle. As author Alvin S. Felzenberg notes in his readable, informative new book, “A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.,” Buckley claimed his greatest accomplishment during the more than half-century he shaped and spearheaded the conservative movement was keeping out extremists, kooks, bigots, anti-Semites and racists. It’s interesting to note that, shortly after his 2008 death, hate-mongering, willful ignorance and fact-free ideology began to again corrupt American conservatism.
A dedicated anti-communist, Buckley spent much time battling the John Birchers and their conspiracy theories, many just as bizarre as those peddled by Donald Trump, including the latter’s idea President Obama was foreign-born and thus an illegitimate president — a fable still embraced by many unquestioning Republicans. Buckley’s battle with the Birchers became especially intense after their founder, Robert Welch, claimed President Eisenhower was a communist. Buckley delighted in quoting fellow conservative Russell Kirk’s droll observation at a 1962 gathering of Goldwater supporters: “Eisenhower isn’t a communist; he is a golfer.”
Nor was Buckley ambiguous about the toxic conservatism of Ayn Rand, which has now utterly infected the Republican Party. A couple of Trib readers objected when this paper described Rand’s “objectivism” as “nothing more than social Darwinism that allows the vulnerable to perish as the price for others to flourish.” Yet famous Buckley mentor Whittaker Chambers dismissed Rand’s ideology as narcissistic, materialist and hedonistic. Buckley’s take was equally damning: “She had to declare God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble. She risked, in fact, giving to capitalism that bad name its enemies have done so well in giving it.” Yet today’s Republican conservatism champions this unwieldy hybrid of “godless” Randian ideology (quoting Chambers again) and what masquerades as holy evangelicalism.
Buckley’s final years were spent jousting with President George W. Bush over which was best positioned to define conservatism during a time of nation-building abroad and deficit-busting at home, so it’s no wonder the debate rages on today. How to recognize the real McCoy? Buckley’s legacy as a writer, debater and speaker suggests you’ll find it among those with keen insights into unvarnished history, studied familiarity with policy in all its nuances and, finally, acceptance of facts, even when they’re inconvenient and make the hill higher to climb in terms of setting viable policy and crafting solutions. That pretty much excludes Hannity — and a whole lot of others for whom Hannity carries what only at first glance appears to be water.