Christopher Buckley, Repeat Apostate
Why his vote for Barack Obama shouldn't surprise us.
There's been some grumbling on the right about the media fuss over Christopher Buckley's recent endorsement of Barack Obama, a Democrat. I noted in an earlier column that the only child of William F. Buckley (WFB, in National Review-speak) had never been a "movement" conservative and that while he had leaned conservative in the past, his vocation was humor writer and littérateur rather than political partisan. Even so, CTB's parentage made him a person of some symbolic significance to a conservative movement that, its cavils against Joe Wilson notwithstanding, quietly embraces nepotism as a practical affirmation of family values. (See Bush, George W.) Moreover, CTB owns one-seventh of the National Review and sits on the magazine's board. CTB's public declaration consequently provoked an outcry among conservative National Review readers—the quantity of e-mails received remains a topic of some dispute—and CTB himself later stirred the pot further by confiding to the New York Times that while he continued to experience profound grief over WFB's death ("I miss him every day"), the loss had also been "ironically liberating. … I can now write about things I was not terribly comfortable writing about." The Times reporter, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, filled in the blank: "Like the Obama endorsement, although the younger Mr. Buckley is not certain his father would disapprove."
Actually, CTB knows significantly more than the Times let on about whether WFB would disapprove of his Obama endorsement. I know this because in the October 2006 Washington Monthly—an iconoclastic but reliably left-of-center political journal—CTB effectively endorsed the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, sight unseen. Read carefully the following passage:
"The trouble with our times," Paul Valéry said, "is that the future is not what it used to be."
This glum aperçu has been much with me as we move into the home stretch of the 2006 mid-term elections and shimmy into the starting gates of the 2008 presidential campaign. With heavy heart, as a once-proud—indeed, staunch— Republican, I here admit, behind enemy lines, to the guilty hope that my party loses; on both occasions [italics mine].
No matter who the next GOP presidential nominee turned out to be, CTB wanted that nominee to lose. Given that U.S. politics is dominated by two major parties, this amounted to an endorsement of the next Democratic presidential nominee. CTB's endorsement of Barack Obama is, therefore, a formality. WFB was very much alive in 2006. The Washington Monthly, where I'm a contributing editor, has a regrettably small circulation and sometimes casts its pearls before an insufficiently attentive herd. But if WFB had been at all inclined to care whether CTB was rooting for the Democrats, surely he would have found out.
In the passage I quoted above, CTB further stated his hope that the Republicans would lose the congressional midterm elections, which they did. And there was more:
I voted for George W. Bush in 2000. In 2004, I could not bring myself to pull the same lever again. Neither could I bring myself to vote for John Kerry, who, for all his strengths, credentials, and talent, seems very much less than the sum of his parts. So, I wrote in a vote for George Herbert Walker Bush, for whom I worked as a speechwriter from 1981 to '83. I wish he'd won.
CTB hasn't pulled the lever for a Republican presidential nominee in nearly a decade. In that sense, conservative commentators are right to downplay the news value of his Obama endorsement. Instead, we should give CTB credit for jumping this sinking ship earlier than Colin Powell, Ken Adelman, Paul O'Neill, William Donaldson, Douglas Kmiec, David Friedman (son of Milton and Rose), Julie Nixon Eisenhower, and other Obama converts whom the GOP can shrug off less easily.
Timothy Noah is a former Slate staffer. His book about income inequality is The Great Divergence.