Lee Edwards on His WFB Biography
Edwards, a professor and Heritage Foundation fellow, explains to NRO why he calls Buckley "the maker of a movement."


Kathryn Jean Lopez

LOPEZ: You describe Bill as skeptical and pessimistic. Why do you say that, and how did that manifest itself?

EDWARDS: Despite his marvelous showing as a candidate in the 1965 mayoral race, he writes in The Unmaking of a Mayor that conservatism lacks “mass appeal” and that the Republican party would not survive as a “major” party. Such pessimism is consistent with his Augustinian belief that we should be more concerned with the City of God than with the City of Man. He tempered his skepticism considerably when Reagan was elected governor of California and later president. Still, he endorsed T. S. Eliot’s stern reminder that “there are no lost causes because there are no gained causes.”

LOPEZ: Was this skepticism consistent with his latter-day skepticism about the Iraq war?

EDWARDS: Yes. After his early and emphatic endorsement of taking action against Saddam Hussein, he called Bush’s nation-building utopian and unconservative. He did not support the surge in Iraq. However, in his very last comment on the war, he said we should “stick it out.”

LOPEZ: Ronald Reagan said at NR’s 30th anniversary in 1985 that WFB “didn’t just part the Red Sea . . . [but] rolled it back, dried it up, and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism.” Is that Reagan playing to his audience, or did he really get what Buckley was doing? (Even if “The Week” did criticize him many times during his presidency!)

EDWARDS: Oh, Reagan knew what Buckley was doing and endorsed it. When Bill and National Review evicted Robert Welch from the conservative movement in 1962, Reagan wrote a letter to the editor in which he called Bill the “conscience” of conservatism. As to criticism, Reagan and Buckley disagreed on several major issues, including the Panama Canal and the INF treaty.

LOPEZ: What drew WFB so early in life to defending free enterprise against socialism?

EDWARDS: His father lost a fortune in the Marxist revolution in Mexico, and Bill never forgot it. He was also influenced early on by the writings of the arch-libertarian Albert Jay Nock and classical liberals such as F. A. Hayek.

LOPEZ: Establishing and taking the helm of NR, he was, you write, “the commander that conservatism had lacked.” Why is “commander” the right word?

EDWARDS: The conservative movement was a congeries of opinionated individuals until Buckley came along and united them by focusing their energy against liberalism rather than each other. A commander is someone who leads by example as well as command, and Bill Buckley provided example after example of the impact that a united conservative movement could have on ideas and politics.

LOPEZ: Could you explain this almost contradictory sentence? “[He was] an elitist . . . notwithstanding his witticism, ‘I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University.’”
EDWARDS: Bill was never happier than when poking fun at liberal elitists — thus the above quip. He was an elitist himself, but also a fusionist who understood that a political movement needs brawn as well as brain. Thus I think he would welcome the energy and enthusiasm of today’s tea-party movement.