Buckley's exploration of cultist extremes

February 23, 2003|By Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent,Special to the Sun

Getting It Right, by William F. Buckley Jr. Regnery. 320 pages. $24.95.

One likes to think that William F. Buckley Jr. is indulging in an arid jest with himself and us when he writes a historical novel in which he -- not Buckley qua narrator, mind you, but Buckley qua historical figure and godfather of modern conservatism -- appears as one of the characters. But if conjuring this driest of dry humors was indeed Buckley's intention in Getting It Right, either he has fallen considerably short of his objective, or he has pulled off a self-satire so highly pitched that only dogs can hear it.

Buckley's latest foray into fiction, a love story set against the backdrop of the early days of the Cold War and the rise of the conservative movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, does poke its share of fun, but only at some of Buckley's erstwhile intellectual and political foils, most notably objectivist novelist / philosopher Ayn Rand, her protege lover Nathaniel Branden, John Birch Society founder Robert Welch and rabid anticommunist activist Major General Edwin A. Walker, all of whom appear as characters in the novel.

Buckley swiftly caricatures them all. Rand is a megalomaniacal hypocrite, Branden a philandering lackey, Welch a pompous ideologue, and Walker a racist paranoid.

Getting It Right purports to be a bildungsroman built around its jejune protagonist Woodroe Raynor, a former Mormon missionary, who, fresh out of Princeton, plunges into the murky world of political partisanship and promptly loses his Balzacian illusions. But Raynor and his love interest Leonora Goldstein's stories are a thin pretense, merely the mocked-up occasion for Buckley to deliver a few last well-timed slaps at heretical conservatism, and -- it would appear -- to aggrandize his own place in intellectual history.

This being the case, Buckley might have saved us the trouble of a thin plot and makeshift characters, not to mention those strained references to himself in the third person, and merely penned another memoir sans the coy scaffolding.

After all, Buckley is a peerless guide to the period, and there is still much that needs clarifying about what being a sensible anticommunist free market conservative meant in the Cold War's infancy. The signature Birchite views that everyone -- including Chief Justice Earl Warren and President Eisenhower -- was a closet communist, and that racially integrating Ole Miss was to be resisted at all costs, were not by any means held by all on the burgeoning right at the time. Likewise, not every libertarian-minded capitalist worshipped at the feet of Ayn Rand.

Modern liberal memory is often vague on this, and Buckley is right to distinguish the mainstream conservatism of Barry Goldwater from the cultish extremes of Welch and Rand. The point about Ole Miss is especially topical given the public relations damage that former Republican Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's implied nostalgia for this country's segregationist past has done of late to the conservative agenda on race.

But the novel is a form unto itself, or should be, and Buckley has used it here as a rhetorical vehicle, and a fairly clunky one at that. More substance and enjoyment can be found in Buckley's many essays and commentaries than in the half-clad distractions of Getting It Right.

Norah Vincent is co-author of The Instant Intellectual: The Quick & Easy Guide to Sounding Smart and Cultured (Hyperion, 1998). Her work has appeared in the New Republic, The New York Times, Lingua Franca and many other publications. She writes a regular column for the Los Angeles Times and for Salon.com. She is a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.

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