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Joseph Sobran’s
Washington Watch

Exit Buckley

(Reprinted from the issue of July 8, 2004)

Capitol BldgOver a decade ago, a column I wrote in these pages got me fired by National Review, as I figured it would, after twenty-one years of working with Bill Buckley. Those years were mostly very happy for me, thanks to Bill’s truly sweet nature. But tensions had arisen between us, first when I criticized the holy state of Israel, and again when I opposed the first Iraq war. When Bill threatened to fire me over the latter, I felt that it was he, not I, who had abandoned the conservative cause. Since my job was hanging by a thread, I decided to cut it myself.

Now Bill too, at age 78, has retired from the magazine he founded in 1955. Since I left, I’ve sadly watched it go further in the same direction it was headed at the time. Abandoning the conservative principles it was once devoted to, its new generation of editors and writers has shilled for the Republican Party, for George W. Bush, for the Likud government of Israel, and above all for war with Iraq. In effect, it has capitulated to neoconservatism, even lending itself to smears of real conservatives like Patrick Buchanan and Samuel Francis.

I’ve often wondered if Bill was entirely comfortable with this departure. After all, the magazine’s original reason for being was that Eisenhower Republicanism had conceded far too much to liberalism — and the Bush administration is far more liberal than Ike’s by any measure. The notion, almost universal among pundits, that the country has “moved to the Right” is extremely superficial, and utterly wrong. Things once unthinkable now pass unnoticed.

Bill Buckley seems to sense as much; in an interview with the New York Times on the occasion of his retirement, he acknowledged that the expansion of the Federal Government under President Bush “bothers me enormously.” As for the Iraq war, he said, “With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn’t the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago. If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war.”

It’s a little late for such admissions. They amount to a confession that National Review, after a half-century, has failed in its mission: It has merely tailed along behind the big-government Republican Party it once hoped to recall to a conservative philosophy. Yes, lots of people now want to be known as conservatives, even if they aren’t; but this is about the only achievement Bill Buckley can claim.

To put it bluntly, he has been swept away by the very currents he once hoped to stop. And as a connoisseur of fine ironies, he may note that he is now being hailed as a great conservative by the enemies of conservatism.
The Limbaugh of the Left

Leftists have been yearning for an answer to Rush Limbaugh for some time, and they may have found him, not in radio, but in movies: the odious Michael Moore. Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is smashing box-office records for a documentary film, outgrossing the competition in the first weekend of its release.

The film has even become a news story. The Disney studios backed out of distributing it — too controversial — but it won the first prize at the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, where its anti-war, anti-Bush message got a warm welcome. Moore, capitalizing on the publicity, found another distributor.

Moore hopes the film will help tip the November election against Bush. He plans to release it on video before the election. The question is whether it will reach undecided voters, since it preaches blatantly to the leftist choir. It has the further disadvantage of featuring Moore himself, a singularly unprepossessing man — obese, unkempt, and insufferably smug even when he’s right.

The first hour of the film is largely an indignant recital of how the Bush family “stole” the 2000 election and a review of its apparently real ties to Saudi oil magnates and the bin Laden family. I don’t know how much of this is true or whether it’s as sinister as Moore makes it sound, but the Bush tribe, including Vice President Dick Cheney, certainly has a knack for combining its own business interests with public service. The 9/11 horrors do seem to have come at a remarkably convenient time for those interests; all that was needed, as Moore tells it, was to forge a propaganda link between the terrorists and oil-rich Iraq. But Moore ignores another key interest: the Israeli-neocon eagerness for “regime change” in Iraq.

The climactic part of the film is undeniably powerful: footage of the assault on Baghdad. The horror is beyond description; the sound of the bombs alone is sickening. You wonder how anyone could survive it, or for that matter how anyone could justify it. Close-ups of screaming women and mangled children make it even worse.

A good propagandist would let such things speak for themselves; but Moore insists on obtruding his own bloated ego, not only by appearing in his own person to taunt politicians, but by cutting to Bush committing verbal gaffes. This cheap satire undermines the whole effect: Not only is Bush a war criminal, but he also mispronounces “nuclear”! Moore can’t choose between moral indignation and petty snobbery.

The final part of the film dribbles off into blaming Bush for economic hardship back in Moore’s hometown, Flint, Michigan. That’s the ultimate message of the film: George W. Bush is to blame for everything. It would have been more effective to blame him just for those poor children in Baghdad. The world will little note, nor long remember, Michael Moore’s wiseacre remarks; but no viewer will forget the sight of a toddler’s face, crudely stitched back together.

If Moore’s purpose was to make Bush look like a jerk, he has succeeded, albeit at the cost of making himself look like one too. I suppose some sort of congratulations are in order. Fahrenheit 9/11 will surely damage Bush, who is, after all, the one seeking re-election. It may not convert Bush supporters, who will avoid seeing it; but it will certainly rally and intensify his opposition. And beyond its target audience, it will help reinforce the growing feeling that he has waged war for false and frivolous reasons.

Above all, it reminds us graphically what war really means, and how terrible it is to wage war for any but the most serious causes. The nature of war first began to come home to me during my first trip to Germany in 1981; as I strolled through the ruins of Berlin and Cologne left from Allied bombing in World War II, I asked myself incredulously: We did this? The same awed, appalled feeling came back to me as I watched the destruction of Baghdad in this film. Neither Bush’s gaffes nor Moore’s wisecracks added anything to it.

SOBRANS looks more closely at Michael Moore, Frank Capra, and the art of cinematic propaganda. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.

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Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2004 by The Wanderer
Reprinted with permission.

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