BOOK REVIEW: Getting It Right , by William F. Buckley, Jr. Regnery Publishing, Inc., 2003
June 2003 -- I have always disliked that weird hybrid of fact and fiction known as the "docudrama." An inherently dishonest contrivance, it jumbles actual people's words and deeds with fictional characters, invented dialogue, and imaginary occurrences—but never tells the audience which is which.
The reputations of real people, living and dead, become toys for the docudramatist—especially for one with an axe to grind. His audience never knows if Thomas Jefferson, or Clark Gable—or Ayn Rand —really did say and do those unsavory things, or displaythese unseemly personality quirks. But the impression left with the audience—intentionally, of course—is that they did. After all, the stock proclamation at the start of every docudrama is that what follows "is based on real events."
When one accuses a docudramatist of playing fast and loose with historical facts, he is quick to reply: "But this is drama—a fictionalized account of events. I had to take some speculative liberties with history to create an entertaining story." Likewise, if one criticizes his product as poor drama, he retorts: "But this is history. I was limited creatively by my commitment to historical fidelity." Thus the docudramatist claims immunity from criticism, as either a bad historian or a bad artist. Lucrative film careers have been forged from this form of scummy subjectivity: witness Oliver Stone.
But the docudrama form has not contained itself to celluloid, and scummy subjectivity is not a monopoly of the Left. Its methodology has also blemished the face of biographical fiction; and William F. Buckley (pictured above), conservatism's pompous polysyllabilist, has been the source of some of its most unsightly pimples.
Buckley has for decades fashioned himself a novelist, churning out any number of political fictions situated in events of the past half-century. His latest, Getting It Right, embodies the most egregious offenses of the docudrama form, and—simply as fiction—it's lousy. It purports to be a novelized rendition of the origins of modern political conservatism from 1956 to 1966. The "it" in the title refers to the conservative political philosophy and movement, and the book aims to chronicle the pivotal events as various ideological factions wrestled for supremacy on the American Right.
The enmity between Buckley and Rand began in the 1950s.
Buckley's none-too-subtle agenda here is to cast his National Review magazine (and, by implication, himself) as heroic savior of a movement that, in his morality play, was nearly undone by two "extremist" forces: the conspiratorialists of the John Birch Society, and the Objectivists of the Nathaniel Branden Institute. One of his fictional mouthpieces states, "The Objectivists pose a special challenge. Because if they succeed in implanting their creed on the Republican Party, it becomes a vessel for…a kind of misanthropic anarchy. The GOP has to beat a path to a wholesome conservatism, and that isn't helped by anything I've read in Ayn Rand ." (p. 101)
Buckley & Co. prevail over these extremists, and help conservatives eventually to Get It Right—i. e., to create what one conservative reviewer calls "a mature, nuanced conservative movement."
Like previous Buckley novels, there's no plot here. His characters (at least, those whom he invents) are not protagonists with lives, goals, and conflicts of their own: they are passive spectators of events, dangling like lifeless marionettes upon the strings of History. The only real protagonists are the news headlines, whose eyewitnesses are a host of fictional creatures who flit in and out of scenes to no purpose or effect. The creatures eat, sleep, watch TV, have sex, make phone calls, and meet in restaurants and offices where famous names are dropped in conversation, and actual historic personages turn up in cameos. But most of all they chatter, blather, and gossip endlessly about the tidal forces that sweep them along, like the featureless flotsam they are.
Buckley's two—let's call them viewpoint characters—are a young man and woman, Woodroe Raynor and Leonora Goldstein.
Woody is a bright, idealistic Mormon in his late teens. There's nary a thing more that we ever learn about his personality that distinguishes him. In a narrative torrent that deftly avoids any attempt at character development, Buckley drags this cipher from Salt Lake City to Austria to do missionary work; then into Hungary, where he meets, beds, and falls in love with a local girl named Teresa; then back and forth across the border for more trysts with Teresa, as they listen to the ominous beginnings of the Hungarian Revolt on the BBC; whereupon Teresa stops communicating; so he searches for her until he (and we) learn she actually is working for the Soviet invaders; then back to the border, where he confronts communist soldiers, is shot and wounded; then to a hospital where Vice President Richard Nixon visits him; then back to the States where, suddenly propelled forward to 1962, he has graduated from Princeton and gone to work for the John Birch Society.
Believe it or not, this entire odyssey takes all of 20 pages. At every juncture where Buckley has the opportunity to dramatize and personalize turning points in Woody's life—getting shot, meeting Nixon—he merely provides summary narration, telling rather than showing us decisive actions and conversations. Yet dimly aware that fictional characters are supposed to…well, show some character, Buckley does make time for leaden passages laden with trivia. In these same 20 pages he devotes nearly a whole page to a letter from Woody to his mother, here condensed:
"It's this simple, Mom. I do anything that Andrew or Hildred ask me to. He's nice, but you know, he doesn't smile much. We listen to the radio all the time, in German and in English, and you can't tell, looking at him, what he's thinking…With Hildy, who is ten years younger, he's very formal…We speak together in English because Andrew wants her to practice her English…Mom, it's very beautiful in the Burgenland countryside. Not much like our part of the world. Send me your pumpkin pie recipe, will you? And, Mom, while you're at it, send me some pumpkins. Got to go. Much love, Woody."
Passage after excruciating passage of such tedium pad this trifle to 300 pages.
Leonora Goldstein, his other viewpoint character, is a New York Jewish intellectual at Hunter College. The daughter of Polish immigrants, her dad was killed in a communist riot in 1940. Within the half-dozen or so pages that Buckley devotes to telling us that little bit about her, we are left to infer that her father's murder made Lee a rabid anticommunist, and prepped her emotionally for "the new course in Objectivism by Nathaniel Branden."
Woody and Lee are coat racks masquerading as people, but there's a reason for Buckley's indifference to their characterizations: they are just stage props anyway. He needs somebody to take us inside the John Birch Society and Nathaniel Branden Institute, and so has conjured these two ghosts, whom he spirits onstage whenever he needs an eyewitness. For the rest of the narrative Woody and Lee are the Zeligs of this tale, popping up at historic milestones and meeting real-life right-wing celebrities. Then, over lunch or sex, they mull over what they have witnessed…or simply heard: Buckley's dramatic skills are so inept that he seldom places his props even at pivotal events.
Like all docudramatists, Buckley proclaims his devotion to historical accuracy. In his preface, he writes:
This book is a novel in which public figures are intimately portrayed. Liberties are taken in chronology, and of course, as is to be expected in novels, thoughts and sentences are given to individuals which, however true they are to character, were not actually recorded. But there is no misrepresentation in this novel, certainly none intended, and to the best of my knowledge, none crept in. These were the thoughts and declarations, the acts and critical sexual activities, of the protagonists, making up their private lives as well as their public lives. Not one word is attributed to any public declaration by Robert Welch or other representatives of the John Birch Society that wasn't actually spoken or written by them. This is so also of Ayn Rand , respecting her thought and work.
To add weight to these claims, Buckley includes an appendix of page references to biographies and histories he consulted for each of his 53 chapters. Superficially, it looks quite impressive, and is meant to: recall the book's title.
Yet his very claims to honesty are themselves a lie. In fact, at every turn Buckley deliberately mixes actual quotations with invented dialogue, and alters key facts in actual events—all the while attributing the resulting mishmash to the reference works cited in the appendix. Close examination of this source material—something no ordinary reader could be expected to undertake—reveals the scale of his manipulations and deceptions. Consider just his treatment of Ayn Rand .
The enmity between Buckley and Rand began in the 1950s. According to Nathaniel Branden's autobiography, she dismissed the Catholic conservative as "an intellectual lightweight"—but one whose claim that religion is the foundation of capitalism "implies that reason and science are on the side of the collectivists."
Buckley met Rand's lowest expectations with his 1957 publication, in National Review, of the single most vicious review of Atlas Shrugged . Titled "Big Sister Is Watching You," its author—communist-turned-religionist Whittaker Chambers—found the novel's "philosophical materialism" to be a blueprint for a "New Order," run by "a technocratic elite." Wrote Chambers: "And in reality, too, by contrast with fiction, this can only head into a dictatorship…From almost any page of Atlas Shrugged , a voice can be heard, from painful necessity, commanding: 'To a gas chamber—go!'"
Over the years, National Review published other attacks on her; and upon her death in 1982, Buckley wrote not one, but two nasty syndicated columns denouncing Ayn Rand and her ideas. For him, the grudge continues in Getting It Right.
In chapter five, Buckley introduces Rand—rather, his cartoon version of her—inventing interior monologue that allegedly expresses her philosophic thoughts and self-image:
I saw Barbara [Branden] wince when I rebuked that stupid student. Will she reproach me tomorrow? She doesn't have to say so. My eyes are all-seeing, my ears all-hearing.
Rand snuffed out her cigarette and let a half smile come to her face. Only God could reproach Ayn Rand , and He does not exist. Aristotle might have tried it, but it would have been presumptuous, because Aristotle didn't get it all correct, wandering off into cosmology, inquiring into prime movers, etc., etc.
The chapter in which this ludicrous passage appears cites only two references—Barbara Branden's excellent biography, The Passion of Ayn Rand, and Jeff Walker's trashy The Ayn Rand Cult. (The latter serves as the source of several preposterous fables that Buckley repeats in his narrative.) In this case, no specific page references are supplied.
Not surprising: anyone familiar with Rand's work, or with the biographies upon which Buckley relies, would know that she would never think herself (or any human) "all-seeing" and "all-hearing"—and never consider Aristotle her intellectual inferior.
She also explicitly disliked the idea of employing her own name as the label for her philosophy, movement, and influence. But not according to Buckley: the chapter ends as Rand urges the fictional Lee Goldstein—a new NBI recruit—to change her last name:
"You are aware that I was born Alissa Rosenbaum. Everybody is aware of it. Now, thirty years later, we have as common terms 'Randian,' 'Rand-like,' even 'Rand-worthy.'… You no doubt have seen somewhere that Nathaniel Branden was born Nathan Blumenthal? It is hardly accidental that his name incorporates my own. B-Rand-en."
Nothing deters Buckley from circulating these speculative canards as fact—even from putting them into Rand's own mouth.
In fact, Rand never publicly advertised her Russian name, which was not revealed widely until Barbara Branden's biography appeared in 1986. Regarding the reasons for Nathaniel Branden's name change: in his own memoir, Branden laughs off its supposed derivation from Rand's, explaining that he simply found the name in the phone book and liked the sound of it. That speculation originated in a hostile article by Nora Ephron, was picked up and circulated by Rand's anarchist foe Murray Rothbard, who in turn served as the source for Jeff Walker, who is Buckley's own source. Though Buckley relies heavily on the biographies by both Brandens and was completely aware of all this, nothing deters him from circulating these admittedly speculative canards as fact—even from putting them into Rand's own mouth. Small as they are, such falsehoods help create a crackpot image.
Buckley's most clumsy falsehoods arise from his efforts to lampoon Rand and her associates; his most ambitious, from his efforts to lampoon Objectivism . Here's a passage that attempts to do both—an alleged exchange between Rand and early colleague Alan Greenspan during a social gathering:
Alan Greenspan attempted to contribute to the question being explored. He said, "Yes. Nathaniel, perhaps you and Barbara should get away for a day or two? As an economist, I know something about the allocation of effort. It is economically profligate to deploy high skills that are not required for the undertaking at hand. You may say that there is an inelastic demand for work of a clerical nature being done to promote the fortunes of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, and I would acknowledge that—but without acknowledging that the allocation of your special skills to such work is the reasonable way to proceed.
Ayn liked the direction in which the talk was proceeding…
"As Alan says, there are demands which, because they are inelastic, by definition need to be met, and it is in the nature of social accommodation that these are often—note, I am not saying necessarily—undertaken by persons whose time, measured by their resources, is not reasonably used in such activity."
Of course, this gobbledygook conversation never occurred. But if one were to protest, Buckley, qua docudramatist, would doubtless reply that he's simply satirizing the style of Objectivist discourse, not quoting. However, a satire or lampoon doesn't cite reference works as sources for its inventions. In this, Buckley's gall is breathtaking. Recall his claim that the book contains "no misrepresentation"—that "these were the thoughts and declarations…of the protagonists…" Buckley actually cites the two Branden biographies as his source for this brief, single-scene chapter. How then is the typical reader supposed to know that the scene never occurred, and such idiotic words were never uttered?
Not only are events completely fabricated: over and over, Buckley recounts many actual events in ways that clash violently with the facts as provided by his own source material.
He takes particular relish, in this regard, concerning the disastrous extramarital affair between Rand and Nathaniel Branden. All published accounts of that relationship consistently report that the pair first sought the permission of their respective spouses, and that the affair was not launched until five months later. But in sordid scenes of his own invention, Buckley has them launch their affair immediately after the discussion with their spouses, in secret trysts that entail their deliberate deception; he puts ugly dialogue into the mouths of all the principals that nowhere appears in the sources he cites; he even concocts a scene in which a drunken Frank O'Connor, Rand's husband, confides to Lee that if he were to protest to his wife, "he would be out on his ear."
This goes far beyond satire; this is vicious libel. These contemptible falsehoods appear in chapters supposedly drawn entirely from the two Branden biographies, where one can search in vain for a shred of support. But how many casual readers would know that?
Like Jeff Walker, whom he cites approvingly, Buckley attempts to use his caricatures of Objectivists to undermine the credibility of Objectivism . And like Walker, he can't seem to decide which of two logically contradictory propositions he is asserting. On one hand, both contend that Rand's philosophy of rational self-interest is false, and that attempting to practice it led to the excesses and follies of the movement. On the other hand, they proclaim that Rand et al. did not practice what they preached about rationality—that their hypocrisy led to their downfall.
So which is it? Do we need less Objectivism —or more?
Buckley ducks the question and its implications. Instead, Getting It Right becomes a muddled ad hominem leveled against ideas he can never bring himself to accurately present. Instead, by creating disagreeable advocates, he can simply dismiss whatever they advocate—and hope unquestioning readers, impressed by his appendix of references, will buy it.
Readers of Navigator will be surprised to learn that Buckley even claims David Kelley's The Contested Legacy of Ayn Rand as a source for a few chapters where he pretends to grapple with tenets of Objectivism .
But as for Buckley's narrative of those days, I must raise my voice, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a waste basket—go!"
In chapter 39, Woody and Lee argue over the meaning of "altruism," with Lee, the alleged Objectivist, defending a subjectivist form of "selfishness." For this, Buckley cites page 52 of Kelley's book—where of course one finds Kelley arguing exactly the oppositeof the position Buckley attributes to Objectivism. In chapter 14, we find Rand and Branden holding forth about Objectivism at a public Q&A session; a citation is to pages 81-85 in Contested Legacy, where Kelley outlines the essentials of the Objectivist system. Trust me: there is scant resemblance between the notions emerging from the fictionalized Rand and Branden, and any ideas that appear in the Contested Legacypassage to which Buckley refers.
That same scene, where Rand supposedly is speaking publicly, also gives the lie to Buckley's prefatory claim that—at least in public settings—he quotes her with absolute fidelity. Nowhere did Rand ever say things such as, "My [novels] are not written merely for enjoyment…They are catalysts for societal change." Perhaps Buckley should read "The Goal of My Writing" in The Romantic Manifesto where, once again, she saysprecisely the opposite.
I've focused on just a sampling of the character assassination and intellectual dishonesty in Buckley's portrait of the Objectivist movement. I pass in silence on his renditions of Robert Welch, Edwin Walker, and many others, only because I did not have time to check on the accuracy of all his claims about them, and purported "quotations." However, his
unconscionable smears of Rand and her associates give no confidence about his treatment of others; and one need not admire or agree with any of Buckley's targets to conclude that they deserved better.
By the end of his narrative, the John Birch Society and Objectivist movement are imploding; Buckley's two ghosts have defected to the Mature, Nuanced Conservative Movement and are engaged to be wed; and a motley National Review crowd—Mormons, Jews, Catholics—are celebrating in intoxicated, smug self-satisfaction. It's like the closing scene in My Big Fat Greek Wedding…but without any of its attractive characters.
Today, while traditional conservatives are in confused retreat, the intellectual and political momentum on the Right lies within the libertarian and Objectivist camps.
What Buckley can't quite bring himself to tell the reader is what happened after that (alleged?) late-60s bash. Young Americans for Freedom—the youth group he had godfathered at his home to serve as the farm team for the GOP—disintegrated when hundreds of disenchanted students walked out in 1969 and launched the libertarian movement. Then, after Rand's death in 1982, a host of Objectivist organizations and publications arose to fill the void left by the demise of the Nathaniel Branden Institute.
Meanwhile, the conservative political movement managed to hold itself together only so long as it had a common enemy—the Soviet empire. But with the collapse of that enemy in 1989, the movement fell into disarray, sundered by a host of philosophical divisions that are regularly lamented even within the pages of his own National Review.
Today, while traditional conservatives are in confused retreat, the intellectual and political momentum on the Right lies within the libertarian and Objectivist camps. Their organizations and publications have grown up, attracting thousands of young people, and mounting respect from the media and intellectuals. It is they who have become a mature, nuanced movement.
So we leave William Buckley, looking backward with nostalgia to his glory days, as conservatives are wont to do. But as for his narrative of those days, I must raise my voice, from painful necessity, commanding: "To a waste basket—go!"
This article was originally published in the June 2003 issue of Navigator magazine, The Atlas Society precursor to The New Individualist.