Review: “Confessions of a Conservative”

When Garry Wills left the seminar at the age of 22, he immediately accepted an offer from William F. Buckley to write for National Review. Buckley flew him out to New York, regaled him with his old records and stories, and put him to work reviewing books and plays. The rather touchingly innocent Wills, who’d spent six years in a Jesuit seminary, was dazzled by the bright, loud plays he was sent to review as he was by the lavish gentleman’s life of Buckley. Wills was so detached from the outside world that when, trying to catch up on the news, he read through a stack of old issues of Time, he found himself “revolted by the righteous sleaziness of the thing.” Wills’s memories of his National Review days make up the first 90 pages or so of his slim, thoughtful, and decidedly odd book Confessions of a Conservative.

These 90 pages are a fascinating time capsule, if nothing else. Wills’s first impression of the NR office is that everyone talks like Buckley. Buckley himself looms up as “pleasantly disheveled and informal, despite the rich prance and neighing of his voice.” We learn that Buckley is “unable to sit for a long time with a book,” and “no talent (and little patience)” for theory. His enthusiasm for free-market capitalism, we learn, exists side by side with an unapologetic Catholicism — which puzzles the intensely religious Wills, who notes that the church opposed capitalism for most of its existence. When Buckley praises the Pope for “standing athwart the spirit of the age” in condemning contraception despite worldwide support among Catholics for its use, Wills complains that it is more a matter of the Pope standing athwart the spirit of the church. Buckley’s conservatism seems to Wills infected by a certain blind regard for authority figures (as opposed to authority).

All of the National Review boys (and girls) seek to revive the spirit of Albert Jay Nock, the publisher of The Freeman and author of “Our Enemy, the State” and other proto-libertarian works. Nock is a hero of libertarians today but Wills finds him a singularly unpleasant figure — not just snobby but anti-Semitic, “pretentious” and “fussed at” as a writer, and smugly “above anything so vulgar as politics.” Never having read Nock myself, I’ll reserve judgment but it’s hard to be too harsh on a man who titled his autobiography Memoirs of a Superfluous Man. (1)

My favorite figure from this section was Willmoore Kendall, Buckley’s old teacher at Yale, who emerges as a wonderfully eccentric and hilarious character, straight out of a British children’s novel, who refused to write in anything but green ink and wore “muddy-purple plaid overcoats.” Unlike his disciple Buckley, Kendall never wrote a real book of any consequence after finishing his doctoral — but his conversations were dazzling. “Being grilled and guyed by Willmoore, hour after hour,” Wills writes, “was a course in political science as well as political Sade.” “Aristocratic” by temperature as well as nature, he was the only NR writer — maybe the only writer I know of, period — who advocated absolute tyranny of the majority. After he died, his colleagues learned to their horror that he had been a lifelong registered Democrat.

Wills soon found that he shared little in common with his fellow NR-ers, and had to struggle to disguise the fact. When he came to NR, he had read virtually nothing about politics. His idea of a conservative was G.K. Chesterton or the great Catholic thinker Cardinal Newman. In short, he believed in a conservatism that, while perfectly defensible and respectible, had little in common with conservatism as it developed in the United States in the twentieth century. When Wills decided that he opposed the Vietnam War and supported black civil rights on what he believed (rightly, in my view) to be honest conservative reasons, he left the magazine.

Wills’s book then takes a sharp detour into philosophical musings on society, en route to (eventually) defining himself as a conservative. He begins by sorting through a list of oft-scorned figures in society — “bureaucrats,” “do-gooders,” “politicians” — and finding their redeeming social values. Wills’s idea of conservatism is intensely Burkean. He is essentially at peace with his society, even the things he dislikes about it, and uneasy about reformers who lash out at “pointy-headed” bureaucrats and “meddling” do-gooders.

In this section of the book, Wills seems to relish turning every conventional conservative belief — as well as a few liberal commonplaces — on its head. Conservatives rail against unions; Wills notes that their influence is essentially conservative, since it encourages workers to stay in the same career their entire lives. Liberals and conservatives complain about elections; Wills argues that they preserve the status quo, since candidates rarely carry out any of the promises they make. Everyone complains about unscrupulous politicians; Wills praises them for promoting “mutual deference” and keeping us from tearing each other’s throats out. The book’s final section, which I don’t think I’m qualified to judge, is an extended meditation on the thought of St. Augustine. Whatever else you think of Wills, you can’t accuse him of not taking his subject seriously. (At points, I confess, I started longing for a bit of sardonic Buckleyism to re-invade the book.)

My feeling is that Wills’s political philosophy — if he even has one — doesn’t make sense. Standing up for the virtue of the status quo in every situation is a religious attitude, not a political one. As tedious as the critics of our society might sound at times, most of them have a point. Indeed, there seems no room in Wills’s philosophy for genuinely nasty politicians, bureaucrats, or union chiefs. Still, it’s hard to deny the freshness of his views, and the vigour with which he defends them.

1. I have since read Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, in which WFB approvingly quotes Nock as follows: “Nature takes her own time, sometimes a long time, about exacting her penalty — but exact it in the end she always does, and to the last penny.” I consider this a formidable contender for the Worst Sentence Ever.

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