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The birth of the conservative movement
By Steven Martinovich
There are perhaps few figures better placed to write about the modern conservative movement than William F. Buckley Jr. Founder of the National Review and co-founder of the Young Americans for Freedom, he has moved in the same circles as many of the seminal figures of the right for the better part of five decades. Privy and participant to the groundwork that ushered the conservative revolution of the 1980s, Buckley -- along with men like Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater -- for many is the face of conservatism.
It's appropriate then that he undertook to write a fictionalized account of the movement's early days with Getting It Right. Utilizing the actual events, words and actions of the main participants, Buckley illustrates the disparate philosophies that competed and also meshed together to produce the mainstream conservative movement. Buckley weaves in major figures like Ayn Rand and Robert Welch to illustrate the extraordinary ideas that gripped millions in the 1950s and 60s.
The plot of Getting It Right centers on Woodroe Raynor, a Mormon turned John Birch Society member, and Leonora Goldstein, a member of Ayn Rand's Objectivist movement. The two first meet at the founding meeting of the Young Americans for Freedom, held at the home of Buckley's mother in Connecticut in 1960. Buckley uses the pair to illustrate the debate between the factions of the right and how they dealt with the major events that defined the conservative movement.
Given that the gun is in Buckley's hand, it should be no surprise that he uses it to take aim at his philosophical enemies. Buckley's Rand is a domineering but fragile presence, described by him as "creepy," a judgment underlined as he relates her infidelity and cult-like leadership over her devotees, a group that included no less than Alan Greenspan. JBS founder Robert Welch is portrayed in no kinder of a manner, a man determined to find a communist conspiracy under every bed. Even Dwight D. Eisenhower was labeled a communist in an unofficial society publication.
Given the bad blood between Buckley, Rand and Welch -- the later pair were both denounced in the pages of the National Review in those early days -- the fact that Getting It Right paints an unflattering picture of the JBS and Objectivism isn't a revelation. Although both were highly influential amongst conservatives, both carried what Buckley sees as major flaws. The society was unable to understand that communists were not behind every failure or setback. Objectivism was handicapped by Rand's personality flaws, one that saw her come to believe only she could determine who was a proper Objectivist.
Of course, the winner in Buckley's tale -- history will agree even if some on the right don't like to admit it -- is the National Review clan. Today the JBS is at best a fringe group while Objectivism has splintered into competing and unfriendly camps. Buckley uses his two protagonists to illustrate how their members became disillusioned with what many dubbed the radical right as events revealed the limitations of their philosophies. The mainstream conservative movement won, it seems, because its competitors and their leaders weren't able to restrain what Buckley sees as philosophical and personal excesses.
Of course, Getting It Right is not history but rather a historical novel and should be judged primarily on those grounds. It's tempting for some writers to cast characters in historical-political novels as one-dimensional representatives of their beliefs. To a certain extent Buckley falls into that trap with some of his supporting cast though he does do a better job with Woodroe and Leonora. His characters travel through a briskly plotted novel passionately debating what they believe without ever becoming tiresome caricatures. Buckley has managed to craft an interesting look at one of the defining eras in American politics, one overlooked by people in love with the turbulence of the far left. While to a certain extent this is a novel justifying the victory of Buckley's vision, Getting It Right is still an engaging and enjoyable effort.
Steven Martinovich is a freelance writer in Sudbury, Ontario.
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