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Debunking a long-standing myth about William F. Buckley

In February, Buckley wrote a second op-ed that called “Welch’s views on current affairs…far off from common sense.” Goldwater confirmed Buckley’s attack and added that in his view Welch’s views did “not represent the sentiments of most members of the John Birch Society”. In other forums, Goldwater denounced Welch as an “extremist”, called his ideas about Ike “stupid” and said, “I don’t remember speaking to Bob Welch other than ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye. “over the past nine years or so.” (He claimed that Buckley, not Welch, asked him to serve on the Committee Against Entanglements at the Summit, a Birch front group opposed to the Eisenhower-Nikita Khrushchev Summit, in 1959.) In a surreal echo of the liberals of the 1950 explaining their youthful flirtation with communism in the 1930s, Goldwater issued a devious mea culpa when he said: “All of us in public life sometimes lend our names to movements that later on we would have liked to take on a little more time to find out.”

When a Birch sidekick criticized National exam for his anti-Birch stances, Rusher responded by sending a copy of the February 1962 editorial and inviting him “to point out to me, anywhere in its first five pages, a single word of criticism of the John Birch society”. Buckley sounded equally defensive a few months later, when he wrote to Birch founder T. Coleman Andrews, “I don’t think in my life I have made a single unfavorable reference to members of the John Birch society.”

For decades, conservatives and liberals alike praised Buckley for these two (and subsequent) editorials. They celebrated him as a model of sobriety and rationality for sweeping the Birch Society and expelling the far-right fringe from the Conservative ranks. Over the past decade, however, the legend has come under intense scrutiny. Historians now argue that Buckley’s much-vaunted excommunication from the fringe is a myth. They are unimpressed with his supposedly Solomonic decision to repudiate Welch’s handy fruit and his conspiracy theories while sparing the base of society. By welcoming them into the fold before and after National Review a supposed break with society, Buckley and his magazine continued to benefit from Birchers’ political activism, funding, and commitment.

Ideologically, Buckley was not as far removed from the Birchers as has been claimed. He wrote a book defending McCarthy, supported massive civil rights resistance in the late 1950s, and gave conspiracy theorists intellectual cover. Moreover, there was significant overlap between his followers and the Birchers: many National exam subscribers also subscribed to the John Birch Society magazine, American opinion; Buckley’s 1965 Conservative Party campaign for mayor of New York drew support from Birch and the fringe; and Buckley maintained professional and personal relationships with some of Birch’s most extreme leaders, such as Revilo Oliver, who promoted anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

Nonetheless, by late 1965 Buckley’s broadsides had infuriated some Birch executives. Although Buckley never excommunicated the Birch Society from the Conservative movement, his criticisms of it did not endear him to Birch leaders. One of the original 12 founding members of the society, Louis Ruthenburg, for example, excoriated Buckley for his “defamation of the John Birch Society”.

Openly engaging with the Birchers remained an even thornier issue for a presidential candidate. As the 1964 campaign was underway, Goldwater continued its awkward pas de deux with the company. While renouncing some of the opinions and inflammatory rhetoric of Welch and other Birch leaders, as Buckley did, Goldwater carefully tried to avoid alienating the membership. As many historians have recently argued, Goldwater and other prominent conservatives have at times welcomed society’s base – and many of their ideas – into the fold. He lost to incumbent President Lyndon B. Johnson by such a huge margin that he set a record.

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