Todd Seavey has a surprising, if not altogether implausible, idea: “If Buckley had outlived the 2008 presidential campaign, I could imagine he might even have become an ardent Ron Paul fan in time, which would have helped speed the right’s education along immensely. He was anti-Iraq War, after all.” Well, John Derbyshire in 2007 also argued that the gulf between National Review‘s founder and the Texas congressman was not as great as might be thought, a sentiment Andrew Sullivan echoed.
I don’t agree, for reasons that the “Firing Line” episode below ought to make clear. But that didn’t stop me from hatching a plan when I worked for the Paul campaign in 2008 to net WFB’s endorsement. He had said some encouraging things about Paul, so I leaned on a friend of mine whom Buckley had begun to cultivate as a protege (he had many) to lobby for his imprimatur. We never went through with it, for the very good reason that WFB was failing fast — this was in mid-February, and Buckley died Feb. 28. If he had recovered, though, we would have put to the test whether his frustrations with conservative movement he had done so much to build would have led him to make a revolutionary endorsement.
It should be noted, though, that at the height of his prestige WFB was reluctant to support insurgent conservative candidates. In 1964, James Burnham had convinced him that Goldwater simply couldn’t win in November, which led Buckley to the brink of throwing National Review‘s support behind Nelson Rockefeller in the Republican primaries. If Goldwater lost in California, Buckley decided, NR would call for him to drop out. Bill Rusher, Bill Rickenbacker, and others were prepared to tender their resignations, though in the event Goldwater pulled through and Buckley relented.
Despite all that, there’s some reason to think WFB was getting more unconventional toward the end. Asked by Corey Robin in 2001 what kind of politics a young 21st-century William F. Buckley would embrace, he replied, “I’d be a socialist. A Mike Harrington socialist. I’d even say a communist.” He was mostly joking, but the remark suggests he was aware of how stale movement conservatism had become.