In William F. Buckley: The Maker of a Movement (excerpt here), Lee Edwards writes: “William F. Buckley was the St. Paul of the conservative movement, proselytizing tirelessly across America, fighting the good fight against liberal heretics, exhorting and, when necessary, warning the conservative faithful to mend their ways, knowing the race was not over, even with the coming of the Reagan presidency.”
That image captures Bill well, and it gets to the heart of the fusionist spirit he brought to National Review; his magazine was a place of principle, but also a place where friends were debated and criticized when they went astray.
The Saint Paul metaphor could even be taken a step farther. From his Catholic faith to his patriotic devotion — he wrote a book titled Gratitude: A Reflection on What We Owe to Our Country — WFB had an intense “idea of personal obligation” (Edwards’s words). His many hats — public intellectual, editor, newspaper columnist, TV host — were more than a series of jobs; they were his calling. He did not try to reinvent the wheel (conservatives didn’t need a new wheel then, nor do they now); he simply fulfilled his calling with humility and generosity.
Those who enjoy parlor-game speculation about what the “next” Bill Buckley will look like should heed Lee Edwards’s new book, as the kind of biographical study that he has done can provide simple insights into how Bill Buckleys are made: Know who you are and what you believe, and go forth with love for humanity and truth. Men who are animated by their principles rarely sell them out.
His book is also worth attention because its author is so accomplished: Lee Edwards is a distinguished fellow at the Heritage Foundation, an adjunct professor of politics at the Catholic University of America, and the author of many books on conservatism. He was kind enough to answer NRO’s questions about his latest book and its larger-than-life subject.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What was the “debt” William F. Buckley was paying throughout his life?
LEE EDWARDS: Bill’s father, William F. Buckley Sr., stressed to all his children from an early age that they had an obligation to give back to the country that had given them so much. Bill even wrote a little book, Gratitude, in which he suggested how Americans could repay their country, including a period of voluntary service.
LOPEZ: What do you think he might think of your “maker of a movement” designation? He never presented himself as such, did he?
EDWARDS: I’m sure he would make light of it — perhaps suggesting that more likely candidates for the title would be Ronald Reagan or Barry Goldwater. But, as George Will once said, before there was Reagan and Goldwater, there was Bill Buckley, who committed a series of political acts — including founding National Review – that made the movement. Can you imagine American conservatism without NR and Bill Buckley? Impossible!
LOPEZ: You quote his description of conservatism as a “force” rather than a “political movement.” What was the distinction? Would he ever have changed his mind?
EDWARDS: In the beginning, his focus was on the intellectual dimension of conservatism, but as the movement grew, he saw the necessity of NR becoming a political instrument. Nixon understood its influence, and Bill Buckley’s, which is why he courted them ardently prior to the 1968 presidential race. Ronald Reagan openly acknowledged NR’s substantial impact on his thinking and the course of the nation.
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.
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.
LOPEZ: Why was WFB so drawn to Margaret Thatcher in 1979?
EDWARDS: He loved her commitment to free markets, the fact that she challenged the establishment, her way with words, and her obvious love of America.
LOPEZ: “Buckley and Reagan saw each other during the 1980 campaign and frequently talked on the telephone, but rarely discussed political strategy.” How is that even possible? What did they talk about?
EDWARDS: Remember that by this time they had been friends for nearly two decades, and Pat Buckley and Nancy Reagan had become quite close. Reagan’s son “Skipper” wrote letters to Buckley that started, “Dear Uncle Bill.” It was natural that the two conservatives would stay in touch, even during a campaign. Buckley was careful not to abuse the friendship.
LOPEZ: How important was that relationship in the intellectual development of Ronald Reagan?
EDWARDS: We know that starting in the mid-to-late 1950s, Reagan read National Review carefully and consistently. You can see evidence of this in Reagan’s speeches during this period.
LOPEZ: You write that “William F. Buckley was the St. Paul of the conservative movement, proselytizing tirelessly across America, fighting the good fight against liberal heretics, exhorting and, when necessary, warning the conservative faithful to mend their ways, knowing the race was not over, even with the coming of the Reagan presidency.” What might St. Paul say? By which I mean, does this in some way distort or underplay the role of actual Christian faith in his intellectual evangelization?
EDWARDS: I describe Bill Buckley as a St. Paul because he proselytized almost non-stop for 50 years, he bravely debated non-believers (i.e., liberals) in a thousand hostile venues, and he never wavered in his faith (asked what he wanted as his epitaph, he replied, “I know that my redeemer liveth”). I think St. Paul would approve of Buckley’s conservative evangelization because, at its root, it rested on a belief in God.
LOPEZ: Do we need this today? Or is it another metaphor in Christian history we should be moving on from?
EDWARDS: Look around at our secular, postmodernist world, one in which Mother Teresa is derided for assuming the “missionary position” in theory and practice, and you will see how urgently we need something other than ourselves on which to base our lives.
LOPEZ: What was Bill Buckley’s role as a Catholic intellectual? Is this, too, something that is underappreciated or misunderstood?
EDWARDS: Read Nearer, My God and you will appreciate how deeply, profoundly Catholic he was. When I interviewed him in the early 90s for a profile I was writing for Crisis magazine, he said two things I will never forget: that he prayed the rosary every day, and that he had had a “love affair” with Jesus Christ since he was eight years old, when his prayers for his mother, going through a difficult pregnancy, were answered.
LOPEZ: How did his deep Christian friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge come about?
EDWARDS: I believe it was a case of the convert and the cradle Catholic reaching out and finding each other through the grace of God.
LOPEZ: Am I wrong to say that WFB was quite humble and open about his mistakes?
EDWARDS: He was humble and honest about his mistakes and also willing to accept suggestions from others about his writing.
LOPEZ: Did you learn anything about how he managed to do what he did, productivity wise, while putting the book together?
EDWARDS: He was, at the same time, a control fanatic who plotted every minute of every day and a free spirit who loved to take risks — from four oceanic voyages in a tiny boat to starting a conservative magazine with minimal financing, to running for mayor in the most liberal city in America.
LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite episode of Firing Line, favorite WFB book, and favorite column?
EDWARDS: Such a bountiful feast. Perhaps the Buckley-Muggeridge programs on Firing Line, or the Buckley-Reagan debate on the Panama Canal. Perhaps Bill’s anti-Khrushchev speech at Carnegie Hall, when he said, “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against us. Even out of the depths of despair, we take heart in the knowledge that it cannot matter how deep we fall, for there is always hope. In the end, we will bury him.”
LOPEZ: Do you have a favorite WFB story from your own life?
EDWARDS: When I asked Bill in early 2007 to join us for the dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, I did not know how ill he was. He wrote he wasn’t sure he could make it, but there he was that evening laughing and joking with Joe Lieberman and Jack Kemp, enjoying a glass of white wine and then telling us about one of the best movies he had ever seen, The Lives of Others — the award-winning German film about the stasi agent who does not report the “illegal” activities of a young artistic couple. I would have understood if he had not joined us to receive an award, but he had given his word, and the cause — the cause of freedom and resistance to tyranny — was at the core of his conservatism.
LOPEZ: If I’m new to WFB, what should I read first? Well, after reading your book and subscribing to NR, that is. Is there a book with special relevance to our current moment?
EDWARDS: Start with God and Man at Yale, strap yourself in for Cruising Speed, kick back with Stained Glass, and enjoy a personal summing up in Miles Gone By.
LOPEZ: You note that his style was more combative in the 50s and 60s than in the 80s. Is this a moment for 1950s WFB, not 1980s WFB?
EDWARDS: And 1960s WFB, who said, “The socialized state is to justice, order, and freedom what the Marquis de Sade is to love.”
LOPEZ: Did you learn anything that surprised you about Bill during the course of writing this book?
EDWARDS: How fully formed he was by the time he graduated from Yale. His editorials in the Yale Daily News could easily have appeared in National Review.
LOPEZ: As you note, other books about WFB will be written. Which one are you most looking forward to? (I’m looking for you to conceive a book idea or two here, of course.)
EDWARDS: I would like to read an in-depth examination of Bill Buckley the Catholic, because I do not believe you can understand the man without understanding his faith. I am not in any hurry to read Sam Tanenhaus’s long-delayed “authorized” biography. Take your time, Sam.
– Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.