The problem with political novels is that pedantry all too often overcomes poetry. Readers of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s Getting It Right are made all too painfully aware of this long before the last page of this polemic disguised as a novel is turned.
In Buckley’s little morality play, teeming with often obscure figures in the history of the American Right, the main character is really a magazine, National Review, Buckley’s brainchild. What holds the narrative together is that editorial voice: lecturing, scolding, and energetically excommunicating deviationists the novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, the libertarian theorist Murray Rothbard, and John Birch Society founder Robert Welch while what passes for the story line progresses, creaking and groaning all the way.
Hinging on the interaction of two characters, Woodroe Raynor, a Mormon, and a functionary of the John Birch Society, and Leonora Goldstein, an Ayn Rand acolyte, the story follows the path of their disillusion. Both start out as young idealists, enamored of their respective mentors on account of the best of intentions. Solidly anti-Communist, committed philosophically to the restoration of limited government and possessed of a crusading spirit, they are a “movement” couple, whose banter reflects the internal debates on the Right during the turbulent 1960s, presented by Buckley as a three-way tug of war between Welch, Rand, and National Review.
Through the Eisenhower years, the Kennedy era, and the Goldwater campaign, the reader is taken along on this couple’s ideological odyssey, the two of them arguing back and forth (but goodnaturedly). Woody, ever the man-of-action, disdains Rand’s emphasis on the power of ideas: “What do we have going to hold the Communists back? For instance, we’ve got to get Castro out of Cuba. How’re we going to do that? Send John Galt over there? Yo soy John Galt. Yo explico todo.” Leonora’s answer is to change the subject, to a passage from Rand’s novel Atlas Shrugged, explicating the author’s theory of sex.
Woody objects to the minimalist state advocated by Rand and the libertarians on the grounds that we need to fight Communism with “an air force and a military and a CIA.” But it turned out that none of these brought down the Red Empire. In the end, the peoples of the captive nations sat on their hands, and refused to produce, rising up in a massive and relatively nonviolent act of civil disobedience. The Soviet implosion demonstrated, in reality and on a grand scale, the plot-theme of Atlas Shrugged, which tells the story of what happens when the men of intelligence, ability, and integrity go on strike and withdraw their sanction from a system that considers them sacrificial victims. In an important sense, John Galt, the golden-haired hero of Rand’s magnum opus and the personification of her ideal man as a free trader in a capitalist society, did take down the Soviet bloc.
There is a strategy behind the author’s seemingly odd decision to translate what should have been an essay into fictional terms: it permits him to put words into the mouths of his enemies. The problem is that they are all the wrong words. In his portrait of Rand as a megalomaniac cultist, Buckley has her saying that her novels were intended as “a catalyst for social change” the exact opposite of Rand’s actual position, which was “art for art’s sake,” clearly explained in her widely available essay, “The Goal of My Writing.”
The Russian-born author’s sex life is of more interest to Buckley than anything she ever wrote: except for one brief literary passage, he is careful not to quote her actual words. The result is that Rand’s views are consistently misrepresented. She was never an anarchist, as Buckley implies. Furthermore, far from opposing the cold war, Rand embraced it, and wrote that it would be morally justified to invade any Communist country.
Buckley is plain wrong about Rothbard’s views on political action (p. 269): far from opposing it as an unprincipled concession to statism, the late libertarian theorist was a longtime Libertarian Party member until he left, in 1991 when he was of the earliest supporters of Pat Buchanan’s 1992 presidential campaign. Buckley is also quite wrong to aver that the Rothbard-Rand split was over “whether there’s any life left in the Republican party.” As I show in my biography of Rothbard, An Enemy of the State, the issue was the very real personal and psychological abuse Rothbard suffered at the hands of the Rand cult, as well as Rothbard’s opposition to the Vietnam war.
Robert Welch’s great sin, in Buckley’s eyes, was to have questioned the legitimacy of the regime in the midst of the cold war. Welch’s ultimate betrayal, according to Buckley, is to have imagined that the architects of defeat in Vietnam were guilty of treason rather than hubris, criminals and not mere sinners. In reading Welch’s take on Vietnam as a “trap” designed by the Communists, Woody experiences his moment of epiphany: for Welch to have questioned the interventionist imperative in any way is such a shock that it causes him to break with the JBS.
Buckley mentions the Tonkin Gulf incident, and has Barry Goldwater cheering on Lyndon Baines Johnson ”Is Lyndon really fighting back?” as the President bombs North Vietnam. “Holy Moses!” exclaims Woody, as he hears the news. But the Tonkin Gulf incident, as we know now, was a fabrication: James Stockdale, a Navy aviator who responded to the alleged “attacks” on the U.S. destroyers, says it never happened: “I had the best seat in the house to watch that event,” says Stockdale in his 1984 book, In Love and War, “and our destroyers were just shooting at phantom targets there were no PT boats there. There was nothing but black water and American firepower.” Recently released transcripts of conversations between White House officials and military personnel in the field underscore LBJ’s strategy of deception and covert provocation. We were lied into war. Yet Buckley reiterates the lie, as if the truth had not long since been uncovered.
The villains in this book are not the Left, but those deemed too far to the right. Every bugbear and shibboleth ever raised by liberal academics such as Richard Hofstadter about the “paranoid style” of traditional conservatives, and by the Marxist sociologist Theodor Adorno, who accused opponents of FDR and the New Deal of exemplifying “the authoritarian personality,” is trotted out by Buckley. Such deservedly obscure figures as General Edwin A. Walker, Billy James Hargis, and others are utilized to smear supporters of states rights as racist monsters: anyone who challenges the triumph of “civil rights” over property rights is vilified as a segregationist. Getting It Right, in short, tells the story of the American conservative movement as seen through neoconservative eyes.
In the climactic scene if it can be called that a thoroughly neocon-ized Woodroe gets a phone call from General Walker, who wants his opinion on National Review‘s denunciation of the John Birch Society. “You know,” says the General, “A lot of the people who got together to start up that magazine were Communists.” He mentions Willi Schlamm, Frank S. Meyer, and James Burnham. Woody testily replies: “Actually, General, Burnham was a Trotskyist.” This fails to impress the General, but Woody, determined to stand up to Walker, persists: “The Communists assassinated Trotsky.” It was, avers Walker, “a lovers quarrel,” and Woody wisely decides he “didn’t want to argue that point.”
There is something very strange about this book, a quality I couldn’t quite put my finger on until the final pages. If I hadn’t seen Buckley’s name emblazoned on the cover, and his photo on the flyleaf, I’d have sworn the author of Getting It Right was some liberal college professor. Someone along the lines of those Berkeley psychologists whose recent “study” of conservatives diagnosed them as prone to “fear and aggression,” afflicted with “dogmatism and intolerance of ambiguity,” and wracked by “uncertainty avoidance.”
Behind the fictional façade of this pseudo-novel stands some very real history. The Birchers, the Randians, the libertarians one by one they were led to the guillotine by the editors of National Review. Welch’s sin was that he saw the Vietnam disaster long before it occurred, and thus violated the central canon of the Cold War Right: the Randians, too, got in the way in the way of Buckley’s overriding principle: their influence would lead the GOP down the primrose path to “anarchic misanthropy,” as one of Buckley’s characters puts it, and so they, too, were dispatched. The libertarians were excommunicated on several occasions, and Rothbard, the most thoroughgoing exponent of laissez-faire capitalism since Ludwig von Mises, was excoriated as a “Leninist.”
The purge of dissident elements within the conservative movement did not lead to the triumph of the Right, however, but to the victory of “big government conservatism.” “We have a responsibility that when somebody hurts, government has got to move,” said George W. Bush on Labor Day this year. As Ramesh Ponnuru recently pointed out in National Review, FDR couldn’t have said it better. We have, says Ponnuru, been “swallowed by Leviathan” and so, I would argue, has the conservative movement.
If this book had been written as a memoir as it should have been it would have been a history of the periodic purges that shook the world of the Right in the 1960s. This story, unencumbered by fictional devices, needs to be told. But Getting It Right gets it wrong.
Why bring up all this ancient history, then? Certainly that’s a legitimate question, the answer to which is that, once again, conservatives are being asked to throw away their support for limited government and civil liberties in the name of perpetual war and anyone on the Right who dissents is being smeared as an “extremist,” even “anti-American,” as David Frum, the neoconservative enforcer of political correctness, has characterized me and others. The smear campaign against authentic opponents of Big Government and Empire continues, and Buckley’s National Review is its main conduit. The “Big Government conservatives,” who worship at the altar of “national greatness,” have their own politically correct version of history. How appropriate that it should be related in the form of a very improbable and badly-written pulp novel.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
“When my new book Left Illusions came out I prepared myself for the inevitable sabotage the political left and its fellow-travelers would attempt in order to discourage readers. So when Amazon posted a character assassination by Justin Raimondo in its section reserved for reviews I was not surprised.”
In other words: Wahhhh! Wahhhh! In his book, Radical Son, from which excerpts are printed in this latest compilation, Horowitz red-baits his own parents, who were members of the Communist Party, and says they deserved to be fired from their jobs as teachers for being “traitors.” In his non-rebuttal, Horowitz denies all but anyone who has read Radical Son, or his latest, can easily see that I’m right.
“I have never been able to quite pinpoint the psychological disorder from which Raimondo so evidently suffers. Why would a man who has a well-trafficked website even think to post to this obscure section of the web simply to discourage people from buying someone else’s book. Why would he spend the time? A google search of Raimondo’s site, brings up more than 250 personal attacks on me, so that is probably a sufficient explanation. His ‘review’ is titled ‘Nobody Likes A Stool Pigeon’ and accuses me of ‘turning in’ my parents as Communists. Of course as Raimondo and anyone else who has read Radical Son knows, both my parents died before the book was written (I described both deaths in the book itself).”
Anyone who points out the hypocrisy and hysteria behind his politics is crazed, according to Horowitz this is so typical of the neoconservative mind, which cannot even imagine honest disagreement. Every attack on his politics is, according to him, a “personal attack.” More crybaby stuff. I don’t know where he gets “more than 250” it’s about 50, not counting duplications, and all of them are old. This also includes an article by him on our website, and very brief mentions of his name. So what? Why is this relentless self-promoter complaining about that? And Amazon.com is not exactly an “obscure section of the web,” but we’ll let that pass.
Why would anyone bother with Horowitz? That’s a better question, the answer to which is: why not? Sure, he’s a schmuck, but over a month is far too long to go without an attack on me originating in Frontpage, Horowitz’s website. It used to be that every week, at least, there would be a new attempt to prove that I’m a fascist left-wing sympathizer of the Mikado and then, suddenly, nothing, nada, zilch! What’s up with that? I knew I just knew this would get a rise out of him. And it did. (Bwahahahahahaha!)
Horowitz can dish it out, but he sure as heck can’t take it. Grow up, David, and stop yer whinin’. There’s nothing worse than a crybaby you big sissy.