Witness to George Will’s Flight from Politics

In his latest column, George Will laments that conservatism has been “hijacked” by “scowling primitives” and “vulgarians.” A conservatism that once cheerfully and unapologetically embraced “high culture” has been overtaken by a vulgar populism, which defends main-street values against elite liberal cosmopolitans, but which increasingly embodies not intellectual argument but rather, in Lionel Trilling’s words, “irritable mental gestures” masquerading as ideas.

To rise above this, Will writes, we should draw lessons from Alvin S. Felzenberg’s new book, A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr. Buckley, according to Will, needed to evolve from his early judgments favoring isolationism, among other juvenile statements, and his “ebullience, decency, and enthusiasm for learning propelled him up from sectarianism.”

Chronicling Buckley’s moral, personal, and political growth, the book shows, in Felzenberg’s words, how “Buckley walked a tightrope between elitism and populism.” Alas, Will notes, Buckley could not reconcile the dissonant notes they struck. And now, nearly a decade after Buckley’s death, conservatism “soiled by scowling primitives.”

But what was conservatism before “vulgarians hijacked it”? Why was conservatism, in Will’s thinking, “susceptible to hijacking”?

Surprisingly, Will blames Whittaker Chambers:

[Buckley], to his credit, befriended Whittaker Chambers, whose autobiography Witness became a canonical text of conservatism. Unfortunately, it injected conservatism with a sour, whiney, complaining, crybaby populism. It is the screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infectious cheerfulness and unapologetic embrace of high culture.

Chambers wallowed in cloying sentimentality and curdled resentment about “the plain men and women” — “my people, humble people, strong in common sense, in common goodness” — enduring the “musk of snobbism” emanating from the “socially formidable circles” of the “nicest people” produced by “certain collegiate eyries.”

This is a profoundly unfair characterization of Chambers’s work, thought, and life. Indeed, Will is simply caricaturing Chambers, by taking a few lines of his work without even hinting at the actual context for Chambers’s judgment about those plain Americans he defended in his autobiography.

At the time of Witness, Chambers had been vilified in the press and in elite circles for his testimony against Alger Hiss’s Soviet espionage. Only a few prominent voices had defended him. And, Chambers sensed, the folks in the center of America were always with him.

Hiss and Chambers had conspired together from roughly 1935 to 1938 as members of a Soviet underground cell. As an employee of the State Department, Hiss provided documents to Chambers that he in turn handed off to Soviet handlers. But Chambers left Communism in 1938 and fled his former life as a Soviet agent with his wife and two children.  He illustrates his exitus from the Communist inferno in Witness with magnificent formulations from Lazarus, Isaiah, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton, George Fox, Ibsen, Rilke, and Koestler, among others. He also embraced Christianity but stood apart from any particular theological orthodoxy, preferring instead the stillness of the Quaker Meeting. Many leave Communist ideology, Chambers noted, but remain socialists or some type of collectivist sympathizer. In short, they only leave communism because of its violence, but not the ideology itself. Chambers’s conversion was root and branch.

In 1948 Chambers’s former life revisited him, and he was called by the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify against those who had served with him in the Soviet Underground. Chambers provided HUAC with 21 names and all have been confirmed in subsequent evidence as noted in John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and Alexander Vassiliev’s Spies: The Rise and Fall of the KGB in America (Yale University Press, 2009). Hiss was convicted in a 1950 federal trial for perjury, ostensibly regarding espionage, with the statute of limitations prohibiting a conviction on that grave charge.

The modern-day legacy of Witness is reduced by Will to little more than a contributor to the “screechy and dominant tone of the loutish faux conservatism that today is erasing Buckley’s legacy of infections cheerfulness.” Will does little to connect Chambers’s actual words to the modern-day problems that Will is lamenting. Nor does Will pause to concede that maybe, just maybe, the problems he’s lamenting could much more easily and directly be traced to the more recent media phenomena. Instead, Chambers’s autobiography, usually regarded by friend and foe alike as one of magnificent spiritual and philosophical intensity, is traduced by a conservative essayist regarded by many as a giant in his own right. Why?

Buckley himself knew better. Buckley looked to Chambers to understand communism’s sheer evil. Ironically, one of Chambers’s most important lessons for a young Buckley was in warning WFB against the dangers of unthinking populism. In letters Buckley later collected lovingly in Odyssey of a Friend, Chambers bluntly told Buckley that he was wrong to have defended Senator Joseph McCarthy in McCarthy and His Enemies, a book Buckley co-authored with Brent Bozell. On McCarthy’s tactics, Chambers stated to Buckley “It is repetitious and unartful, and, with time, the repeated dull thud of the low blow may prove to be the real factor in his undoing.” Moreover, McCarthy’s tactics united the Left, divided the Right, and allowed for a popular front faction to form and advance Progressive goals in America, Chambers noted. In other words, the wise course was to steer clear of the senator from Wisconsin. Isn’t McCarthy’s the real kind of populism Will should condemn?

Upon founding National Review, Buckley almost immediately turned to the sage of Westminster, Maryland to be a contributing editor, one who would provide wisdom and grace in helping to chart a course for the young periodical. After serving a brief stint as an editor of National Review (where in one essay—Chambers the populist rowdy­—urged that Hiss be provided with a requested passport and be permitted to travel) he begged off owing to health concerns. Unable to bear idleness, Chambers began taking science courses at a local state college in Maryland. On this interesting pursuit, Buckley remarked:

[S]o the author of Witness, former book reviewer and foreign editor for Time, author of profound essays on history and theology and politics, of exhaustive articles on the Renaissance and the culture of the Middle Ages, writer of what Dwight Macdonald has called the most emotive political prose of our time, whose voice John Strachey had called, along with those of Orwell, Camus, Koestler and Pasternak, the “strangled cry” of the West in crisis, a sixty-year-old man fluent in French, German, at home in Italian, Spanish, and Russian went back to school.

Some foolish populist, that Whittaker Chambers.

Perhaps the change at issue in Will’s column isn’t conservatism’s evolution, so much as Will’s. Quite frankly, Will grew tired of the frustrations inherent in the politics of republican self-government, which is why he has increasingly embraced an anti-political libertarianism. He would be the first to admit this—indeed, he did admit it in his 2013 interview with Reason:

I’ve lived in Washington now for 44 years, and that’s a lot of folly to witness up close. Whatever confidence and optimism I felt toward the central government when I got here January 1, 1970, has dissipated at the hands of the government. . . . I wrote the other day that if we could tax Americans’ cognitive dissonance we could balance the budget. The American people want all kinds of incompatible things, they’re human beings, and they want high services, low taxes, and an omnipresent, omniprominent welfare state.

No doubt, politics is frustrating, because people are frustrating—all the more frustrating for deeply thoughtful and principled men like both Will and Chambers. The answer is neither to reject political self-governance, as Will increasingly does, nor to throw in completely with unthinking populism, as Will caricatures Chambers. Rather, the best approach is Chambers’s actual approach: to pursue principle as prudently as possible in the political arena, in the given moment. As Chambers summed this up, in a letter to Buckley: “To live is to maneuver.”

It is hard to read Witness as a book of “cloying sentimentality” and “crybaby populism,” when the book’s entire message is a warning that America seemed unready to face up to the threat of Communism abroad and at home—a book that begins, famously, with Chambers’s lament, “I know that I am leaving the winning side of the losing side.” Harder still when one reads another letter from Chambers to Buckley, describing the state of America in 1954:

The enemy—he is ourselves. That is why it is idle to talk about preventing the wreck of Western civilization. It is already a wreck from within. That is why we can hope to do little more now than to snatch a fingernail of a saint from the rack or a handful of ashes from the faggots, and bury them secretly in a flowerpot against the day, ages hence, when a few men begin again to dare to believe that there was once something else, that something else is thinkable, and need some evidence of what it was, and the fortifying knowledge that there were those who, at the great nightfall, took loving thought to preserve the tokens of hope and truth.

In other words, Chambers wasn’t extolling the virtue of the masses; he was exhorting the public to improve itself, and he knew that he faced long odds. (Which is why one commentator compared Chambers’s Witness, quite rightly, to Jonah’s cry against the people of Ninevah.)

In short, Witness wasn’t the corruption of conservatism; it was the greatest book of the twentieth century. Chambers didn’t corrupt conservatism; he, James Burnham, and others helped to put Buckley’s conservatism on the firm foundation necessary to undergird an intellectual movement that would ultimately give rise to Reagan’s triumphs—a triumph that George Will famously traced to National Review and Buckley, and thus in fact to Buckley’s education from Chambers.

But don’t just take Buckley’s word for it (let alone ours). When Reagan awarded Chambers the Medal of Freedom in 1984, one eloquent writer noted that Chambers’s “extraordinary memoir ‘Witness’ is . . . comparable in depth and power to the memoir of another American alienated from his times, ‘The Education of Henry Adams.’” Witness, this author continued, “is an unrivaled account of the costs of the totalitarian temptation.” So that’s why “To Us, Chambers, a graceless man touched in the end by the blinding grace of painful truthfulness, led a life worth honoring.” George Will, you were right about Chambers the first time.