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: What role did Willmoore Kendall play in WFB’s life and mind?

EDWARDS: Kendall had direct intellectual influence on Bill Buckley as his professor at Yale. Buckley’s first intellectual mentor was Albert Jay Nock, but that was mostly through Nock’s books. Kendall was a hands-on mentor whose philosophical importance Bill has acknowledged. Kendall, a scholar of the first rank, did some serious editing of Bill’s first book, God and Man at Yale.

LOPEZ: And James Burnham?

EDWARDS: James Burnham was first among the senior editors of NR, someone to whom Bill Buckley would literally turn during editorial meetings. Burnham was a realist who tempered Buckley’s idealism. Only Whittaker Chambers commanded deeper respect from Bill Buckley.

LOPEZ: What was Whittaker Chambers’s role in WFB’s life and mind, and why was it unique?

EDWARDS: Bill was mesmerized by Chambers’s autobiography, Witness. He tried every way he could to persuade Chambers to join NR at the beginning. Chambers declined, but later joined the magazine as a senior editor, contributing some of the magazine’s finest writing. Like Burnham, Chambers was a political pragmatist, but he nevertheless portrayed the U.S.–Soviet conflict in the starkest language, calling it a transcendent crisis, thereby reinforcing Buckley’s anti-Communism.

LOPEZ: Do conservatives need to read more Nock?

EDWARDS: Yes, because Nock is one of our finest writers, insightful, witty, uninhibited — more than a little like Bill Buckley.

LOPEZ: Are there other influences on Buckley that are currently underappreciated?

EDWARDS: He was remarkable in the way that he would ask friends, colleagues, and experts in various fields for helpful criticism of his latest book or major article. Going through his papers at Yale would produce many of their names, although a researcher should take along lots of provisions: There are hundreds of boxes.

LOPEZ: This seems like an underappreciated note about WFB: You write that, around the time of his mayoral campaign, “he anticipated Representative Jack Kemp’s enterprise-zone proposal of a decade later” and offered “the first conservative enunciation of the workfare principle.” Are there lessons for conservatives today here?

EDWARDS: First, do not leave the drafting of conservative ideas to professional politicians; second, dream impossible dreams.

LOPEZ: How did Buckley tap “into a new constituency for American conservatism — middle-class Catholic Democrats”?

EDWARDS: After co-authoring McCarthy and His Enemies, Buckley was asked by many Catholic groups to talk about his book and the senator. When he later ran for mayor of New York City, he again reached out to these groups. Kevin Phillips recognized what Buckley had done and wrote in The Emerging Republican Majority that Buckley’s showing was a “harbinger” of that new majority. Don’t forget that Reagan carried New York City in 1980 and 1984.

LOPEZ: Have we lost them? How might we get them back, if so?

EDWARDS: I think they are to be found in the tea-party movement and can be brought back with a sensible conservative platform of limited government, individual freedom, personal responsibility, and traditional American values such as the central importance of church and family.


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