Getting It Right by William F. Buckley, Jr.

gettingitright As I have noted before, I am a big fan of WFB (as Mr. Buckley is affectionately know). I own practically every book he has ever written (the only ones I don’t have are the ones he has co-authored or edited) and have read most of them cover to cover (I haven’t read all of his collection of columns). As you probable know by now, I am a conservative and a student of the movement. Given this, it is hard for me to be objective about WFB’s books – especially ones that deal with the conservative movement as this one does. I find them interesting because of my interest in the author and the subject. That said, however, I think Getting It Right is a fascinating and entertaining tale that captures a unique part of American history. It also carries a message about American Conservatism.

The first thing to note about Getting It Right is that it is, in essence, historical fiction. It is a look at the history of Modern American Conservatism in the form of a novel.


Here is how Buckley describes it:

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 . . . 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 writing.

So Buckley is using his front row seat in the development of the modern American Right to weave a novel. The building blocks are the actual events, conversations, and lives of those involved. The fiction is what Buckley calls the “joiner work” that knits the story together.

The focus of this fascinating story is the turbulent decade from 1956 to 1966. The plot centers on the lives of two young people, Woodroe Raynor and Lenora Goldstein, whose paths first cross in 1960 at the founding conference of the Young Americans For Freedom in Sharon, Connecticut. But as noted above, two unique sections of the American Right are highlighted through the lives of these two individuals: the John Birch Society and the objectivists centered around Ayn Rand. As the story develops, you see how the burgeoning conservative movement attempted to define itself and how its members tried to deal with the events and ideas of their times.

The story begins with Woodroe Raynor heading to Austria as a Mormon missionary. {Plot spoiler warning!} Woodroe is stationed near the border with Hungary and soon is making forays, across an unwatched bridge, into the communist country. This is 1956, a period when Hungary is struggling with the confinement and tyranny of a communist dictatorship. The students are pushing a revolution and the politicians are struggling to “liberalize” the country without pushing their Soviet masters to far. Woodroe meets up with a young and beautiful Hungarian caught up in the revolution and falls head over heels in love. Those familiar with history will know that the ending is tragic. The Soviets smash the revolution with tanks and Woodroe’s first love turns out to have been working for the Russians. For his trouble Woodroe gets shot in the hip while trying to help Hungarians escape into Austria. On the bright side, he gets to meet Richard Nixon. From this exciting beginning, Woodroe goes onto Princeton and soon into a job with the fledgling John Birch Society; committed to fighting communism wherever he can.

His female counter part, Lenora, is the daughter of Polish immigrants who fled Europe as Hitler began WW II. Lenora’s father was killed in a union battle in New York as West Coast communists sought to gain control during the Nazi-Communist pact. She too dedicated her life to the battle against communism. But instead of Robert Welch and the Birch Society, Lenora’s path led to Ayn Rand and Objectivism. Soon Lenora is in the inner circle of Objectivism, working part time for the Nathaniel Branden Institute (named after Nathaniel Branden Rand’s closest associate and intellectual heir apparent).

Woodroe and Lenora’s anti-communist activism leads them both to the Young Americans for Freedom – an anti-communist youth organization founded in WFB’s house in Sharon, Connecticut. Having met through YAF, the two develop a relationship and soon fall in love. Their lives and relationship provide the backdrop as Buckley describes the development of American conservatism. Through their lives we are shown the activities of Robert Welch and Ayn Rand but also a host of other historical figures including Barry Goldwater, John F. Kennedy, and Dwight Eisenhower. Also included are a number of figures integral to the growth of the conservative movement, figures like Russell Kirk, William J. Baroody, Marvin Lieberman, and of course WFB himself. As in his other historical novels, Buckley weaves in historical events and personalities to give the story an authentic feel but also to point out pivotal events and ideas. These vignettes are interesting and provide clues to Buckley’s perspective but the real focus remains on Welch and Rand.

Both Woodroe and Lenora struggle with how the groups they are associated with, the Birch Society and Objectivism, fit in the larger world and the Right in America. As the story develops we begin to see how each group seems to have a fatal flaw. Welch can?t seem to understand that the failures of American foreign policy and politics are not simply the result of some grand conspiracy theory wherein the communists are masterminding everything. Woodroe begins to see this when he realizes how kooky some of Welch’s associates are and how unwilling the society is to recognize progress, differing viewpoints, or even honest failure. Ironically, he begins to find himself in the course of the Barry Goldwater campaign.

If Welch’s extremism was tied to public events, Rand’s extremism begins to reveal itself in her private life. Rand’s arrogance and self-centeredness leads her to see Objectivism as her unique gift to the world; something she controls and owns. She treats the people in her life the same way. Using her philosophy as an excuse, Rand initiates an affair with Nathaniel Braden despite the fact that he is married to one of her closest associates. When Nathaniel tires of an affair with someone twenty-five years his senior Rand brings the weight of her furry and power down on him and erases him from her life. He goes from second in command and future heir to totally ostracize without so much as a complaint from his fellow objectivists.

We are left with two questions: how is the book as a novel and what is its message for conservatism? As a novel Getting It Right is on par with Buckley?s previous works. The characters are interesting and lively. The plot moves with a good pace but this is not a thriller or a mystery. No, Buckley?s novels are really a series of vignettes and character sketches. He paints the picture by describing the key events and ideas that make up a characters life. The result is interesting, if not spectacular, historical fiction. The fifties and sixties were interesting times and it is entertaining following two young people as they try to make their way through those turbulent times.

What gives this book added pleasure is Buckley?s unique perspective on the events, people, and ideas of this particular slice of history. The history involved, and Buckley?s place in it, leaves you wondering what he is trying to say with this book. In the end, I believe, Buckley is defining the center of the American Right by outlining the failings of the extremes. If the conservative movement was to succeed it had to set limits, as to what it stood for and how it would communicate and participate in the American political arena. This was, and is, an awkward and difficult process. It is a process that Buckley, as editor of National Review, was intimately involved with and concerned about. There are still those who hold a grudge because of the decisions made during that time (just ask an objectivist about Whitaker Chambers book review of Atlas Shrugged). Now that the Cold War is over, conservatism continues to deal with debates between neo, paleo, and just plain conservatives. Throw in the libertarians and things can get ugly. We seem to save our worst for those closest to us.

With this book Buckley seems to be reaffirming the decision to, in essence, cast aside the Birchers and the hard core Radians; to define the mainstream conservative movement as having limits. What proved the undoing of both Robert Welch an Ayn Rand (in Buckley?s view) is their inability to set limits in their own personal and intellectual lives. Both Welch and Rand come across as too smart for their own good. Their intelligence and charisma allows them to build a growing and influential following but their personal demons and lack of restraint soon lead them to extremes and to the edge of the conservative movement. What was missing from both movements was a sense of balance and a deeper knowledge of human nature. This search for one answer above all, this Gnostic quest for an overriding key to history, is both dangerous and inimical to conservatism. In Getting It Right, Buckley seems to be arguing that Welch and Rand abandoned conservatism rather than having been ungraciously kicked out.

If you are at all interested in the history of the Modern American conservative movement, or if you are fascinated by the characters and events of this time period, I recommend Getting It Right. It is a fascinating and intriguing historical story and Buckley?s unique brand of historical fiction brings it to life in an enjoyable and accessible way.

About the author

Kevin Holtsberry

I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season – oh, and watching golf too).

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