William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 arrived at Yale, fresh from a 22-month stint in World War II, to a campus hollowed by the war. Like Buckley, many students had defered their admission to fight, leaving organizations such as the Yale Daily News without enough staff members to function.
In his class of 1,800 –double the average class and including many students who had defered admission to fight –Buckley quickly made a name for himself, becoming a star debater and popular columnist who helped reopen the News.
Buckley’s early years and influences provided the subject for a Branford College Master’s Tea Wednesday as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Sam Tanenhaus discussed the man he called “the foremost conservative intellectual” in America today.
Tanenhaus, whose next biography is about Buckley, said Buckley changed the political climate in America while he was in college.
“Buckley was the founder of the modern conservative movement in America; the only other figure who contributed to the same cause at the time was Joseph McCarthy,” Tanenhaus said.
Tanenhaus said the Yale that Buckley had attended inspired his novel, “God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom,” which shed light on what he thought was wrong about Yale. In it, he criticized what he saw as an abundance of liberalism at Yale.
But his ambitions were not limited to politics, Tanenhaus said, describing Buckley’s campus activities.
“He wanted it all, to run the paper, to be inducted into a secret society, which at the time was a huge deal,” Tanenhaus said. “He did not only want to be a Skull and Bone, he wanted to be the king of it all. Buckley went out and wrote editorials denouncing his professors and calling them ‘promoters of atheism’ or ‘anti-capitalists’ just like McCarthy had pointed out the communists.”
As an undergraduate, Buckley used his columns and close ties with the Yale administration to influence the conservative movement.
“Just like the Schubert Theater down the street here in New Haven was where shows were tried out before being taken to Broadway, Buckley used Yale as his Schubert to prep himself for his performance,” Tanenhaus said. “It was genius how he managed it, because Yale would not only be his stage, but also his subject and object of his grand political assault.”
Tanenhaus said he came to campus in part to see how Yale today compares with Buckley’s Yale. He said he feels devoted to his subject and has a responsibility to talk about it.
“I as a journalist and as a historian I consider my beat to be American conservatism, Buckley is just that,” Tanenhaus said. “He is able to combine life of mind with life of action, and simultaneously create an entire movement out of it, all of it having started at Yale.”
Tanenhaus said Democrats should use Buckley’s methods to oppose Republicans today.
“Democrats need to step back and see how the Republican party works, and then use the same tactics that Republicans used to gain control in the ’60s,” Tanenhaus said. “They must create a bold vision in which they convince people that the current administration cannot be trusted, just like Buckley and McCarthy did.”