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Hugh Hefner and William F. Buckley Jr.: Two Very Different Legacies

Young people have long wanted to change the world. The present generation is no different, though its members may be even more eager to make their mark. Recent polling data by Net Impact indicates that nearly two-thirds of the millennial generation fully expect to “make an impact” in the world. A shocking 37 percent of these expect to do so within five years of their college graduation. A more sober-minded contingent of 28 percent suspect that it will take them six years or more.

Young people intent on changing the world can take solace—and find some instruction—in the stories of two men who were still in their twenties when they made their names in the mid-twentieth century.

Born just five months apart, these men both served in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946. After World War II, each attended college, the first graduating from the University of Illinois in 1949, the second from Yale in 1950. The first became a copywriter for Esquire magazine and, angry over being denied a five-dollar raise, set off to start his own magazine. The second joined the CIA in 1951, the same year he published what would be the first of many books. Two years later he set in motion his plans to found his own magazine.

This is where the similarities end between Hugh Hefner and William F. Buckley Jr., founders of Playboy and National Review, respectively.

Hefner started Playboy on a shoestring budget of $8,000, which he acquired in small amounts from forty-five people, including his mother and brother, each of whom loaned him the princely sum of $1,000. His was a purely entrepreneurial effort, and he got off to a fast start after acquiring the rights to nude photos of Marilyn Monroe for $500 from a Chicago calendar printer.

Buckley headed a much more ambitious campaign, raising some $300,000 to begin publication of National Review. And where Hefner had Marilyn, Buckley offered a Mission Statement. National Review, he said, “stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” In short, Buckley’s National Review would confront the new, prevailing liberal orthodoxy that Hefner’s Playboy would both reinforce and foster.

The real question is this: Who had the bigger impact?

There is no way to quantify this, of course, but numbers do tell part of the story. National Review claims to be, and undoubtedly is, “America’s largest circulation and most influential journal of Republican and conservative opinion.” Its 2012 circulation was just under 167,000. In 2005, three years before his death, Buckley claimed that the magazine had lost some $25 million over the previous fifty years.

Playboy never found itself in such straits. In 2013 its circulation was 1.5 million, including eighteen international editions. Hefner repurchased Playboy Enterprises in 2009, and in 2012 alone the company made a $38.9 million profit.

Playboy is, in short, ubiquitous. National Review consciously plays to a niche market. We live in Hefner’s world, while Buckley’s legacy, National Review, still stands athwart history, yelling Stop.

What lessons are we to draw from the oddly parallel lives of Hugh Hefner and William F. Buckley Jr.?

One lesson is that pop culture is a leading indicator of what is to come socially and politically. Hefner surely pushed the envelope, but the American people were ready to have that envelope pushed. Nearly ten years after he started Playboy, Hefner was charged with selling obscene literature, but by then the magazine was an established success and the jury was unable to come to a verdict. The verdict had already been rendered by the American public.

The second issue of Playboy was perhaps even more controversial than the first, as it included a defense of homosexuality in the form of Charles Beaumont’s short story “The Crooked Man.” Here, too, we live in Hefner’s world. After decades of presentation in the popular media, homosexuality no longer requires much of a defense; it is accepted as given—so much so that most politicians debate not whether to act in defense of gay rights but how. Politics, one comes to see, is a lagging indicator of what is happening socially, exactly as pop culture is a leading indicator.

And how could it be otherwise? The American system is designed to reflect the popular mood in some ways and to trail well behind it in others. The very structure of government yields this result because it was meant to. The House of Representatives was designed to mirror the popular will most closely, but even there a two-year election cycle filters the popular will significantly. Senators serve six-year terms. The presidential term splits the difference at four years, and the Supreme Court changes at a glacial pace. As a result, politicians rarely change the world in any meaningful way. They react to changes.

Millennials who want to change the world would do well to remember these truths. Simply put, politics isn’t everything. Bill Buckley understood this: he wrote novels, appeared frequently on late-night television talk shows, and hosted his own long-running TV program on which he interviewed scholars, novelists, poets, and athletes as well as politicians. And most of those who have made the biggest difference did so by shaping cultural attitudes. Think of the impact not only of Hugh Hefner with Playboy but also of Rachel Carson, author of the seminal environmental manifesto Silent Spring, or of the creators of sitcoms like Will & Grace, Modern Family, and even The Simpsons. They all left a mark on society to which politicians could only react.

To redeem our time, we can’t limit our vista to policy battles, partisan debates, and electoral horse races. Aristotle reminds us in the Politics that “everyone does everything for the sake of what they believe to be good.” That leaves the whole of human life on the table as “political.” Those who would change the world should take that lesson to heart.


James R. Harrigan is CEO of FreedomTrust.

Image via YouTube by the Hoover Institution. 



Complement with C.S. Lewis and the art of disagreement, why conservatives need to stop politicizing culture, and what reading Flannery O'Connor reveals about American politics today.

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