It’s been five years since the death of William F. Buckley Jr., but the tributes, the reading, and the writing continue. Alvin Felzenberg, currently at work on a biography of National Review’s founder, discusses with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez some of what he’s learned.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is so glaringly missing from a world without William F. Buckley Jr. living in it anymore?
ALVIN FELZENBERG: The greatest void Bill Buckley left behind is the absence of humor in public discourse today. All day long we see pundits making their case from both right and left. They go in with their talking points and go out having reassured their respective “bases.” But how many could be considered true wits? I hope Buckley was not the last of these, even though he was truly one of a kind.
LOPEZ: What’s your favorite Buckley book and why?
FELZENBERG: My favorite Buckley book is The Unmaking of a Mayor. In addition to the sidesplitting humor, he put forth proposals that other conservatives subsequently advanced. School choice, urban-enterprise zones, creative policing, tax incentives to lure industry to economically depressed areas, creative transit suggestions, and other ideas that “hope, growth, and opportunity” conservatives such as Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich later advanced — all are in this wonderful book. And, as my friend Kate O’Beirne reminds me, there were Buckley Democrats before there were Reagan Democrats. The 13 percent of the vote he captured came largely from Democrats. Buckley’s campaign marked a true turning point for the conservative movement. Running on a similar program, Reagan was elected governor a year later.
LOPEZ: What’s your favorite Buckleyism?
FELZENBERG: There are so many Buckley quotes that will long survive. His suggestion that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard stands out. So does the comment he made to John Kenneth Galbraith after the liberal economist broke a leg skiing. Buckley inquired how long his friend had indulged in the sport. “Oh, about 35 years,” was the reply. “About as long as you have been teaching economics?” Buckley inquired. My personal favorite was Buckley’s rejoinder to comments Arthur Schlesinger made about National Review’s editor in a debate I happened to attend. “Lord Acton told us,” Buckley said, “that power corrupts. Arthur Schlesinger is living proof that the lack of power also corrupts.” Now with both of them gone, the question remains as to which of these men exerted the greater influence in shaping today’s world?
I think we know.
LOPEZ: How did you know him? How do you remember him?
FELZENBERG: When other teenagers were standing in line to get a glimpse of the Beatles, I was going to hear Buckley lecture. I first became aware of him when I watched him debate John Lindsay and Abraham Beame when the three ran for mayor of New York. I began writing Buckley fan letters. In response to one, WFB invited me to join him and his fellow editors while they put the next edition of NR “to bed.” I still have the photo John Coyne took of us on an old Kodak instamatic camera! Sometimes, I was tasked with finding students to populate the audience of Firing Line tapings. (There always seemed to be eager fraternity pledges around.) The letters and the visits continued through the decades. There were a few telephone calls and, later, some e-mails. WFB delighted in the company of young people. His work very much lives in that of those he mentored. I have tried in my own way to follow his example.
LOPEZ: How did you get involved in writing a biography of the man?
FELZENBERG: I had wanted to write a book about WFB for some time. I took the leap when I realized that, after their passing, most journalists and commentators fade from public memory and go unknown to future generations. Names such as James Reston, William Safire, David Broder, all of whom I read in my undergraduate years, are unknown to my students. I did not want this to happen to WFB, given the extraordinary influence he exerted both in what he wrote and what he did.
LOPEZ: At what stage is your work?
FELZENBERG: I am a little past halfway through what for me has been a fascinating journey.
LOPEZ: What have you been surprised to learn?
FELZENBERG: While I knew that Buckley exerted considerable influence on his times, I was surprised to see on how many different levels he operated. Of these, print, television, and public appearance were only a few.
LOPEZ: Can you give me an interesting random fact you’d love to include in the book but will probably have to leave on the cutting-room floor?
FELZENBERG: I will take a pass on mentioning “random facts” I think might wind up on the cutting room floor. One of the tasks before me is to persuade my editor that everything about WFB I know or uncovered belongs in the book!
LOPEZ: What do you hear about him the most?