Here are some of the most important books to understand the evolution of modern American conservatism--the movement that William F. Buckley helped define:

    • George Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America. A comprehensive and lucid account of all the major (and obscure) thinkers, from the libertarian Albert Jay Nock (Buckley's intellectual and literary hero) through the neocons. Best to read the updated edition, published in 1996, which carries the story up to the brink of the Bush II years.
    • William F. Buckley, God and Man at Yale. His precocious debut, published in 1951 just before Buckley's 26th birthday, is the movement's Book of Genesis. Though the argument is narrowly focused, it nonetheless formulated, with polemical brilliance, a new conservative line of attack, more cultural than economic, that identified the enemy as an entrenched liberal establishment bent on promulgating the "orthodoxies" of atheism and socialism. The 1977 reprint has a "how-I-wrote-my-book" introduction that Buckley considers, rightly, one of his very best essays.
    • Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays. Hofstadter, the great Columbia historian, was the first serious thinker to recognize (in 1954!) that a new "dynamic of dissent" in American politics had come into being via Sen. Joseph McCarthy and that the forces he unleashed were "powerful enough to set the tone of our political life" for years to come. Hofstadter revisited the new right in his illuminating essays on Barry Goldwater's presidential candidacy a decade later.
    • Garry Wills, Nixon Agonistes: The Crisis of the Self-Made Man. To my mind, the most exciting book ever written on American politics. Not many remember that Wills began as a Buckley protégé and was the wunderkind of National Review in the late 1950s and early 1960s. This book reflected his knowledge of the movement and his evolving disenchantment with the right. Wills's subtle and imaginative portrait of Nixon and the forces he tapped into ranges over the whole political scene during the tumult of the 1968 presidential campaign and identifies Nixon, paradoxically, as the last spokesman for the attenuated traditions of American liberalism.

By Sam Tanenhaus