He Stood Athwart History
Happy days were here again.

WFB in the National Review office, c. 1969


FELZENBERG: The response I get from people who discover that I am writing about WFB is universal: “What an extraordinary personality. What fun you must be having!” They are right on both counts.

LOPEZ: Who misses him the most?

FELZENBERG: Conservatives certainly miss Buckley. He occupied a preeminent place in the movement. As George Will says, “Before Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley, with a spark in his mind.” Liberals — at least the smart ones — miss Buckley because he forced them to justify what they believe. People interested in ideas miss him because he had so many good ones. His friends probably miss him the most because he was such a good one.



LOPEZ: How important was National Review to him? Firing Line? How were these different and the same?

FELZENBERG:  After God, his country, and his family, National Review was the most important thing in Bill Buckley’s life. He took great pride in it and wanted it to be the place conservatives of various points of view went for guidance, validation, and information. He saw its function as that of a “tablet keeper.” Buckley certainly enjoyed Firing Line. But, television at its best, which Firing Line certainly was, is ephemeral. Topics changed with the news. Primarily a man of print — despite his love of gadgets — Buckley wanted people to return to some of the longer essays in his magazine. Many have stood the test of time rather well. 

LOPEZ: As important as politics was to him, religion, culture, friendship — these were fundamental, weren’t they?

FELZENBERG: I would think that politics was less important to WFB than were religion, culture, and friendship. Buckley’s Catholicism shaped his politics and informed his opinions. What drew him to politics was his (to paraphrase Jefferson) “eternal hostility” to the very idea of moral equivalence. Something was right or wrong. Dueling armies and intelligence agencies, while they used similar tools and methods, were employed to achieve different ends. He took on the “ideological egalitarians” as early as in his first book, God and Man at Yale. Buckley began writing novels that featured a CIA agent as their hero because he was concerned that too much of what he was reading created the impression that the U.S. and USSR were morally equivalent. To WFB, the Cold War was a continuation of the struggle between good and evil. In Ronald Reagan, he found a kindred spirit.

LOPEZ: What might he recommend we read right about now in our history?

FELZENBERG: I think WFB would have liked the Spielberg film Lincoln. He made many references to Lincoln and empathized with the moral choices Lincoln had to make. He would be glad to see that even liberal historians, who so maligned Ronald Reagan while he was in office, recognize Reagan’s historical importance. Barack Obama’s comment about Reagan being a “transformational president” would have been catnip for WFB. He would also be pleased by the Coolidge revival that is currently in full swing with two new books out. Coolidge was in office when Buckley was born. That, of course, was a time when free-market economics, rather than Keynesian economics, was the order of the day. I can visualize him grinning at the very thought of that.

LOPEZ:  What’s the lesson from him that we might benefit from learning right about now? As conservatives? As Americans?

FELZENBERG: Bill Buckley taught us the importance of humor in public debate. He showed a generosity of spirit to all he encountered. And, however vigorously he engaged with people with whom he disagreed, he never let go of the possibility that he might convert political opponents and antagonists into personal friends. I could not find an instance where he carried a personal grudge against anyone for very long. He would tell his fellow Americans that the battles he fought in his day continue in ours, but in different forms. He would argue that there was no moral equivalence between the democratic state of Israel and those who seek it harm. He would insist that there is a moral distinction between the United States of America, which was founded on Judaic-Christian principles, and those who embrace terrorism in the name of religion. And, if given time, he would urge us to continue reading his beloved magazine.

— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.