Charles Kesler, a professor at Claremont McKenna College, was a dear friend, student, collaborator, co-editor, and so much more to the late William F. Buckley Jr. On the first anniversary of Bill’s death, he spoke to National Review Online editor Kathryn Jean Lopez about WFB, conservatism, and more.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: On what issues have you found yourself most frustrated that you couldn’t pick up the phone and call Bill, or go to your computer and e-mail him, to get his read and advice?
CHARLES KESLER: Bill must have quoted his friend Willi Schlamm’s line a hundred times: “The trouble with socialism is socialism. The trouble with capitalism is capitalists.” I’m sure he would have invoked it again in pondering the financial markets’ implosion, the stock market’s plunge, and Bernie Madoff’s high-flying fraud. At the same time, he might have been surprised, as nearly everyone was, by how soon after the collapse of Communism this putative crisis of capitalism erupted. I’d love to hear his take on it, as well as his opinion of what conservatives should learn — and how they should recover — from it. Up there in conservative heaven, he must be getting an earful from Milton Friedman.
LOPEZ: What do you miss most about Bill?
KESLER: Those misspelled e-mails with the 13 exclamation points. And of course having lunch or dinner with him was a joy. He always radiated such energy and delight. For 35 years, beginning in college, whenever I came to New York I would see him, and now New York seems gray without him. It’s lost its sparkle.
LOPEZ: Do you find yourself remembering stories about Bill you thought you had forgotten? Anything you can share?
KESLER: Bill and Pat were marvelous hosts. One summer when I came down to spend the weekend with them in Stamford, Bill announced that we would have special guests for Saturday lunch: Henry Kissinger and his wife. Our party of ten or twelve people ate at a long table on the patio overlooking Long Island Sound. Kissinger had recently left office as Gerald Ford’s secretary of state, and I was a young graduate student in Kissinger’s old department at Harvard. Bill sat me immediately to the great man’s right, and Bill sat at the other end of the table opposite the guest of honor. Through a long, vinous luncheon, Kissinger regaled the company with stories of his Paris peace talks with Le Duc Tho, as well as gossipy tales about current world leaders. Every now and then he’d ask me about the Government department, who I was studying with, and how his old enemies there were faring. Later that afternoon, after coffee, fruit, and dessert, and after Kissinger’s limousine had pulled away, Bill smiled broadly and said, like the old CIA spook he was, “Henry is terribly indiscreet, isn’t he?”
LOPEZ: WFB was so prolific, so engaged, so challenging, so kind. What was the secret to his success?
KESLER: Genius, deep faith, a colossal work ethic, and, especially as a young man, the ability to learn from — and to use what he learned from — men like Willmoore Kendall and James Burnham, who knew much more than he did.
LOPEZ: What is the state of conservatism? Is it dead or dying? Is it too divided or muddied to every rise again?
KESLER: Conservatism is an unholy mess right now. But it’s not fatally divided or compromised. It needs to reacquaint itself with its principles and think them through more intelligently than it has hitherto, which means both connecting them anew to the deepest principles of the American political order, and expressing them in a manner that speaks to today. It would also help if conservative politicians realized how much they have to learn, and how hard they have to work, to begin to accomplish this task. The caliber of the Right’s recent political chieftains, with one or two exceptions, has been embarrassingly low. George W. Bush is not one of those exceptions, admirable as he was. And then there are the books that conservatives read these days! They may be best-sellers, but no one will ever call these talk-show tomes classics. Better to go back and read Bill Buckley and the books that he read . . . as well as a few that he never got around to reading.
LOPEZ: What should conservatives be most encouraged about?
KESLER: There are elections in 2010.
LOPEZ:What should conservatives be most worried about?
KESLER: There are elections in 2012.
LOPEZ: How’s academia doing?
KESLER: Remarkably, it’s getting worse. Almost 60 years after God and Man at Yale was published, the academy is farther left than ever. Here and there a few thoughtful teachers and enterprising programs shoot up blades of grass through the concrete. But they are few and far between. We can take heart, however, that a few fields, like economics, are sounder than they were in 1950, despite the general leftward trend.
LOPEZ: Some conservatives find themselves looking for the next Ronald Reagan, the next WFB. Is that the right or wrong approach? Is there a WFB to be friends with a Ronald Reagan as he’s in his formative political years?
KESLER: With the publication of Reagan’s radio scripts, selected letters, and diary excerpts, we’re beginning to understand just how hard he worked to become the Ronald Reagan we know and love. He was constantly reading (including NR, Whittaker Chambers, Friedrich Hayek, Friedman, WFB, and other serious sources), writing, trying out arguments and putting them in his own winning words. We could certainly use another Reagan, though life never gives you such a wonder. Nor will we get another WFB, of course. Such blessings don’t repeat. But they point to standards we can shoot for and models we can emulate. Attention, Sarah Palin: Get busy and put yourself to school, if you ever hope to do great deeds for your country. The same goes for every would-be or rising conservative star.
LOPEZ: How would you hope WFB is remembered and why?
KESLER: With fondness and deep gratitude, as he should be. That means we, and especially young conservatives, must read him. Non-conservatives can learn much from him, too. He would never object to a good argument, after all.