Two Disgruntled Catholics
Right from the Beginning
By Patrick J. Buchanan
Publisher: Little, Brown
Pages: 392 pages
Review Author: James J. Thompson Jr.
In the pinchbeck realm of celebrity, religious devotion is not a ticket to the top. Clerical rascality, however, brings the glitz merchants running. Jim Bakker enjoyed a modest reputation as a weeper and a spellbinder, but it took Jessica Hahn to rocket him into the stratosphere reserved for the truly newsworthy. Jimmy Swaggart languished in the Pentecostal ghetto until his lubricity landed him and his motel-sweetie in the pages of Hustler. Serious religion lacks glamour and panache; who wants to read about all that drab otherworldliness, self-sacrifice, and humility?
Ask Patrick Buchanan and William F. Buckley Jr. They know their names did not become household words because of their commitment to Christianity. Many people probably don’t even realize that both men are Catholics. But everyone knows they are authentic celebrities, albeit of unequal stature, for Buckley sparkles in circles that have yet to throw open their doors to Pat Buchanan. Politics, not religion earned notoriety for Buckley and Buchanan. Not the humdrum occupation of workaday pols and their journalistic nemeses, but the politics of glamour, of chic, of media-movers and high-stakes rollers. Both men are personalities, the supreme accolade American culture can a ward an individual.
Tie askew, pencil stabbing the air, eyebrows leaping to his hairline, sesquipedalian utterances tripping forth in an accent redolent of country houses and vintage port, William F. Buckley Jr. personifies the rumpled elegance of aristocratic conservatism. Buchanan fills a different slot: growling in minatory tones, face wreathed in a pugnacious scowl, he luxuriates in the role of “pit bull of the American Right.” Flashbulbs pop, cameras roll, reporters giggle and nudge one another: the journalist is transformed into the subject of journalism — or, more properly, into a celebrity.
As young men both Buckley and Buchanan craved fame, sought it avidly, and, once having snatched it up, have reveled in its trappings. But both, unlike many of their fellow denizens in the land of press-agent fantasy, amount to more than the sum total of their clippings. Each has contributed immensely to sober public discourse in recent decades. Both evince a core of hard substance — the stuff of which character, not personality, is made — a substance that derives from the Catholicism that has shaped their lives. All that glitters in the pages of People is not necessarily fool’s gold alone.
Buchanan details this influence in Right from the Beginning. The book mainly chronicles the formation of his political outlook in the 1950s and 1960s, but it penetrates deeper into his inner makeup to reveal a life formed by the Church. In Buckley’s case one has to rely upon more fragmentary evidence; as the subtitle of John Judis’s admirable biography indicates, it focuses almost exclusively on the rise to prominence of Buckley the publicist of political conservatism. Even so, Judis cannot ignore the religious angle, though he fingers it gingerly, like a meat-and-potatoes trencherman unexpectedly confronted with an exotic and indefinable culinary mystery. Despite this, one can tease out of Judis’s narrative a religious leitmotif.
Although Buckley received a markedly Catholic upbringing, he did not — despite the Irish surname — grow up in a broader Catholic cultural milieu. Judis remarks that Buckley’s “Catholicism had always a string of English Catholic aestheticism.” Judis is more correct than he realizes, for the allusion to England reveals more than mere aesthetic preference. The Buckley family cultivated a sense of belonging to an elite minority, the same sort of sensibility that characterized the old landed Catholic families in England. Will Buckley, the family patriarch, grew up in Texas, a Catholic in a bastion of fierce Protestantism, and he raised his children to consider themselves a species apart — different from, and superior to, those misbegotten creatures outside the faith. In Sharon, Connecticut, where Will settled his family after his profitable adventures in the oil business in Mexico, the Buckleys were not only richer than their neighbors, but they displayed the eccentric stamp of Catholics from the South. They were equally distinctive in the seat of their other home, South Carolina, for here the natives eyed them warily as a pack of Yankee papists.
Will Buckley assiduously rejected the one identity that offered membership in a larger community of kindred souls; as Judis points out, Will “defined himself against the stereotype of the immigrant Irish Catholic.” The Buckley style of Catholicism sheltered them in a privileged faith, a religion of exquisite taste, of wealth and refinement, of lengthy European sojourns; it isolated them from the middle-class and blue-collar culture of their fellow believers. One could be a Catholic in America without being an American Catholic.
Pat Buchanan has often been typed as the quintessential roistering, scrappy Irishman, the sort of Catholic Will Buckley sniffed at with distaste. Alas for stereotypes: “Buchanan” is a Scottish name by way of Ulster, and Pat Buchanan’s paternal ancestors were quintessential Mississippi Protestants. In some ways, though, his raising did conform to what is commonly perceived as the Catholic experience in America.
Buchanan is a rare commodity in Washington, D.C.: a native. The city of his boyhood and youth was, he rightly notes, discernibly Southern, a fact that dumbfounds those who know the capital only in its post-Kennedy manifestation. Despite its Southernness, the city contained enough Catholics to induce in them a palpable sense of membership in a community of Catholics. As Buchanan remarks: “By conscious choice, we inhabited a separate world of our own creation; we built and occupied our own ghettos.” It was a secure, stable middle-class world of “clarity and absolutes” — an existence delimited by Blessed Sacrament parish, the Baltimore Catechism, the Catholic Youth Organization, and Gonzaga High School. Buchanan was a Catholic in America, but most unabashedly, an American Catholic as well.
Political conservatism sprouted easily in this environment, as it did, too, in the very different soil of Buckley’s upbringing. Vulgar Marxism finds what it needs to justify its case: Buckley’s family was rich, and Buchanan’s belonged to the upwardly mobile middle class of a burgeoning affluent society. To be satisfied with a reductionist explanation would be to underestimate the power of ideas — in this case, religious ones — to motivate the fashioning of a political position.
Will Buckley was rich, but no mere defender of the status quo. He saw himself as an outright counter-revolutionary, enlisted in a global struggle for Catholicism against the rising tide of Red Revolution, a menace he had first espied in the upheavals that wracked Mexico in the years before World War I. To him, General Franco was the 20th century’s first towering hero in this war to the death between two all-encompassing world views. Capitalism was, to Will Buckley, not so much about personal enrichment or material abundance as about freedom. He inspired his children to become warriors for freedom and the faith. The father was more than a father; he was mentor, too, and “Bill Buckley became his father’s foremost disciple,” Judis contends. The son would bear the flag of counter-revolution into the next generation, and his General Franco would take the form of Senator Joseph P. McCarthy, Catholic anti-Communist.
Buchanan’s father, too, venerated Franco, the first figure in his triumvirate of heroes, joined there by General Douglas MacArthur and the Senator from Wisconsin. Americanism and Catholicism were intertwined — at times indistinguishable — in the Buchanan household and in the “ghetto” inhabited by the parents and their nine children. “America was God’s country,” Buchanan recalls; “there was no conflict then between nation and church.” Buchanan’s father was no ideologue, not the sort of man to tag himself a “counter-revolutionary,” or even a “conservative”; “Al Smith Democrat” sufficed for the elder Buchanan. But like Will Buckley, William Buchanan schooled his offspring to battle for freedom and the faith. Patrick Buchanan, too, would carry the father’s creed into postwar America.
Buckley mounted his first counter-revolutionary strike in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale, a scorching condemnation of his alma mater for subverting laissez-faire capitalism and Christianity — freedom and the faith. The most important act, however — and with this, Judis hits his stride — came with Buckley’s founding of National Review in 1955. With this event, the political scene witnessed the birth of what would become the most talked-about and influential conservative magazine in the history of the U.S. No small part of the “Reagan revolution” was cooked up in the cramped, slightly raffish New York quarters of the irreverent and rambunctious periodical.
In tracing the rise of National Review and of Buckley’s meteoric career, John Judis, a democratic socialist, exhibits a balance and dispassion nothing short of heroic for a man of the Left confronted with the Robespierre of the Right. Judis elevates political analysis above the ruck and moil of partisan nastiness and tendentious malice, and in the process shames the ideologues of both Right and Left who cannot write without the goad of rancor. In part, this debouches from Judis’s admiration for someone (even from the Right) with spirit and moxie enough to sass the Establishment (as the young Buckley did), but it originates as well in what appears to be the author’s high sense of decency and his dedication to fairness.
For young right-wingers of the late 1950s and early 1960s, National Review brightened their days with hope and summoned them to action. Judis interviewed Buchanan and quotes him on this phenomenon, but the tribute contained in Right from the Beginning succinctly captures the significance of Buckley and his magazine: “It is difficult to exaggerate the debt conservatives of my generation owe National Review and Bill Buckley…. We young conservatives were truly wandering around in a political wilderness.… For us, what National Review did was take the word conservative, then a synonym for stuffy orthodoxy, Republican stand-pat-ism and economic self-interest, and convert it into the pennant of a fighting faith.”
The rest, as they say, is history — or in this case, perhaps, current events. Buckley would lead his guerillas through the debacles of Goldwater’s Little Big Horn and Nixon’s (temporary) burial, and on to victory with Reagan. Along the way, Buchanan would join Buckley as a confidante to presidents and a belligerent, and often persuasive, advocate of the rightward revolution.
Conservatism’s phoenix-like recrudescence might be cause for celebration for both men. But neither is happy. As both know, “victories” are transitory in politics. Yesterday, conservatives boasted of a “revolution” that would cinch their supremacy far into the 21st century. Today, they worriedly scrutinize opinion polls, fret about the future, and commiserate over the deteriorating fortunes of the cause. With Reagan retired to the ranch to fumble over his memoirs and to pore over his horoscope, victory becomes yesterday’s stale news. “Buckley could find himself in a familiar role,” Judis predicts, “as a member of an embattled minority standing athwart history and yelling stop.”
The struggle to magnify liberty — a polestar for both Buckley and Buchanan — can, by their reckoning, number few lasting triumphs in the 1980s. As they see it, Big Government still flexes its muscles arrogantly on the home front, while abroad, communism relentlessly gobbles up fresh victims. This alone would ensure a measure of dissatisfaction for Buckley and Buchanan.
Even worse for their peace of mind, the faith fares no better than freedom. Buchanan dates the debacle to the death of Pope Pius XII in 1958, an event as shocking to the “Catholic youth of my generation” as was “the death of FDR to Americans who had known no other president.” With the elevation of John XXIII to the papal throne a new Catholicism emerged. For Buckley and Buchanan, things have been out of whack ever since.
Buckley has conducted a running feud with pope and Church since the early 1960s. Soft on communism, ignorant of economics — such is his verdict on the Church of the past three decades. “Buckley’s Catholicism,” Judis notes, “was rooted in God’s rather than Rome’s authority, and when the political — or even moral — priorities of Rome differed from his own, Buckley expressed his disagreement, sometimes harshly.”
From “Mater si, Magistra no,” his blast at Pope John’s encyclical Mater et Magistra, to his recent fulminations over John Paul’s pronouncements on social justice, Buckley has nipped and yelped at the pope as frenetically as any neo-Modernist theologian. At one time or another he has, as Judis attests, urged the Vatican to approve marriage for priests, rejected the Church’s proscription of contraception, and disagreed with its ban on divorce. In the late 1960s he even chided the papacy for being pigheaded about the movement to liberalize abortion laws in the United States. One noisy band of Catholics in this country clamors for a faith attuned to the morals and mores of American society, while their opponents at the opposite end of the spectrum implore the Church to align itself with capitalism and anti-communism. Buckley, a double-barreled dissenter, appears to want both.
Pat Buchanan’s disgruntlement arises not so much out of pique at the Church’s stand on specific issues, though he does applaud Buckley’s rebuke of Pope John. Buchanan’s main problem is his general disgust with the whole tenor of the Church since Vatican II. He pines for a restoration of the “militant and triumphant” Church of the 1950s. “A quarter century after Vatican II,” he grumps, “we need another Council of Trent.” One sympathizes with what a Catholic Buchanan’s age (he was born in 1938) has been forced to endure in the transition from the old to the new. Those dedicated to sniffing out liturgical, moral, and doctrinal atrocities from the past 25 years need boast no especially keen nose. But was the golden age really so splendid? In his hymn to the glories of the vanished paradise, Buchanan unwittingly adduces a cogent brief for the reforms initiated by the Second Vatican Council. One can almost hear the rasping of the saw as he cuts off the limb on which he sits. (Curiously, in an interview in the March 1, 1987, issue of the National Catholic Register, he allowed that the church he attends “might be” Lefebvrist.)
Along with the “relief and comfort and security” that Buchanan remembers affectionately, there went, by his own admission, “smug self-confidence.” The smugness does not trouble him; it was no more than an amusing trait of a people who belonged to a Church that exhibited not a single debilitating flaw or even, as he tells it, a minor imperfection. It is as if 2,000 years of Christian history labored to give birth to the American Church of the 1950s, an institution in which “the Faith was unquestioned and patriotism unconstrained…and Vatican II was only a gleam in the eye of Monsignor Roncalli.”
A Catholic could only pity those dismally ignorant Protestants, adrift on an angry sea of secularism and relativism with no oar, a shattered rudder, and a hole the size of a watermelon in the bottom of the boat. For “smug self-confidence” Buchanan’s assessment of those outside the faith would be hard to top. One reads the passage twice, then again, to make certain that his eyes do not deceive him: the Church, Buchanan writes, provided “us with what our non-Catholic friends did not have: a code of morality, a code of conduct, a sure knowledge of what was right and wrong, a way of acknowledging personal guilt and of seeking out and attaining forgiveness and absolution.”
That settles the Protestants’ hash. Except it doesn’t: a little sociology, a dab of theology, and a bit of Protestant moral teaching easily refute Buchanan’s peculiar assertion. But I can zing him closer to home — literally. As it happens, Pat Buchanan and I were nearly neighbors in our younger days. Only six years younger than he, I grew up in Maryland, only five or so miles from his home in northwest Washington. (I even worked at a drive-in restaurant — the famous Hot Shoppe on Connecticut Avenue — where he and his buddies sucked on milkshakes and snorted at teenage girls.)
As a Seventh-Day Adventist, I dwelt in a “ghetto” every bit as cozy and fortified as his Catholic one, except, unlike Buchanan, I never mistook mine for the universe. My fellow Adventists and I possessed everything he contends we so conspicuously lacked: “a code of morality,” “a sure knowledge of what was right and wrong” — the whole business. Even a “way of acknowledging personal guilt and of seeking out and attaining forgiveness and absolution,” for we had testimonial meetings for confession and we needed no priest to absolve us: we had only to ask Christ to do so. And wonder of wonders, we pitied those pathetic and benighted Catholics!
Buchanan avers that “there was…a magnetism about our certitude.” Granted, Protestants have found the absolute certainty of Catholics a compelling temptation to abandon their own less-resolute communions. But Chesterton grasped a salient truth when he remarked: “There is many a convert who has reached a stage at which no word from any Protestant or pagan could any longer hold him back. Only the word of a Catholic can keep him from Catholicism.” Perhaps he had in mind something akin to the insular haughtiness that Buchanan and his Catholic friends evinced back in the 1950s. Thank God I never crossed paths with Buchanan back then, else I might not be a Catholic today.
One searches Buchanan’s reminiscences of the old faith in vain for the word “love.” “Comfort,” “security,” “certitude,” yes, but nothing about love. He would probably scorn this as part of Vatican II squishiness, but one might reasonably argue that it does have something to do with the Gospel. Judis mentions Buckley’s aversion to his father’s harsh and rigorous “Old Testament” Catholicism. Buckley once recalled that as a child he found the God of the Old Testament “a horrible, horrible person, capricious and arbitrary.” Recoiling from this deity, he turned to the gentler, “endearing” Christ of his mother’s brand of Catholicism. William Buchanan’s God bore similarities to Will Buckley’s, but that never disconcerted Pat. He fondly recollects his father’s graphic lesson on divine justice: “To impress upon us what the loss of the soul through mortal sin meant, my father would light a match, grab our hands, and hold them briefly over the flame, saying: ‘See how that feels; now imagine that for all eternity.'”
That, and a steady diet of the Baltimore Catechism, CYO dances (no pagans or Protestants allowed, thank you), and drill-sergeant Jesuits (“the Pope’s Marines,” Buchanan calls them) would be enough to send anyone screaming into the arms of the nearest secular humanist — or to sigh with relief when Vatican II started cleaning house.
Buckley and Buchanan must be anticipating the future with pricklings of disquietude. Neither religion nor politics would seem headed in the right (Right) direction for their tastes. Buchanan appears to have reconciled himself to this more satisfactorily than his friend. Less swept up in the glitz of celebrity than Buckley, Buchanan will, one suspects, grit his teeth, square his jaw, and suffer through the dégringolade. There is a lingering air of the Old Roman about Buchanan — a stoic acceptance of misfortune, a steely virtue that weathers all the caprices and vicissitudes that beset mortal man. “Country, family, faith”; Buchanan will never, one bets, desert these verities, “the things worth dying for…worth fighting for…worth living for,” as he felicitously phrases it.
Near the end of Right from the Beginning he enunciates a credo for the long haul: “The duty of the political conservative, then, is to do our best to make ourselves, and our government, the allies of our Judeo-Christian values, to make government again the protector and friend of the permanent things, to do the best we can in the times in which we live. And to put our trust and faith, ultimately, not in ourselves.” Whatever quarrels one has with Pat Buchanan’s politics, one can respect that statement, especially its poignant concluding sentence.
Buchanan might derive additional fortitude and ease of mind from an incident he recounts. Several years ago he dropped by a Catholic bookstore frequented by members of his family. The owner mentioned that Buchanan’s father had recently been in the store, and that she had said to him: “Isn’t it terrible what’s going on in the Church today?” The old man had replied: “No, there is nothing to fear. We have it on the authority of Christ Himself — the Rock shall not break.” Pat Buchanan might emulate his father’s “trust and faith” instead of grousing that “the Church Militant has been superseded by the Church Milquetoast.”
The present-day Bill Buckley appears, by Judis’s rendering, to be especially unsettled. Referring to his subject’s 60th birthday in 1985, Judis observes that Buckley “showed continuing signs of disquiet about his own life and work.” Since Buckley has shunned the tell-all confessional mode, and Judis little reveals the inner man, one cannot discern what is percolating in Buckley’s innermost self. Surely, though, there must be times, in the solitude and stillness of the deep night, when he asks himself: “What does it all add up to?” Fame, wealth, a happy marriage, a son of whom to be proud, dinners at the White House, a score or more of books and untold articles and columns, a popular television program, and an incalculable sway over the minds of droves of his countrymen: all that could make a man in his mid-60s serene and satisfied — or it could leave him with a nagging question: “Is this everything?”
Buckley’s stormy relationship with the Church over the past quarter-century might be the source of such a pestering thought, for he does not seem to possess now the firm strength in the faith that his parents and the granite Catholicism of his young years instilled in him. Yet on occasion Buckley discloses that he grasps what ultimately matters. A suggestion of this appears in an episode that Judis relates. In 1978 Fr. Theodore Hesburgh invited Buckley to deliver the commencement address at Notre Dame. During the visit to South Bend, his wife, Patricia, “made a snide remark about Hesburgh’s liberal politics.” According to Judis, “Buckley rebuked her” with a clenched-jaw retort: “He is a man of God.”
Buckley’s response indicates that, at least sometimes, the loyal Catholic triumphs over the conservative ideologue. It also hints at depths to Buckley that neither John Judis, nor any other analyst of the public Buckley, has fathomed. What transpires deep within Buckley’s soul between himself and God is what matters. The glitter, the wealth, the success and influence are ultimately nothing. I think Buckley might agree with that. What he will do about it in the years ahead remains to be seen.
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