William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and one of the foremost intellectuals of the 20th century, died on Feb. 27, 2008. To mark the third anniversary of his passing from this world, National Review’s Kathryn Jean Lopez talked with Linda Bridges, a longtime colleague of WFB’s who has compiled, along with Roger Kimball, a collection of his work, Athwart History: Half a Century of Polemics, Animadversions, and Illuminations: A William F. Buckley Jr. Omnibus.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: How often every week do you think, “What would Bill think of this?”
Linda Bridges: Oh, ten or twelve times a day.
Lopez: There was a whole to-do about CPAC this year and what groups were co-sponsoring and what that means for conservatism and its three-legged stool. Does it surprise you that we’re still arguing about what exactly conservatism is?
Bridges: No, it doesn’t. As Bill might say, Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, new issues come to the fore, and someone suddenly finds himself at odds with former allies. The issues that roiled CPAC this year aren’t the same ones that divided Young Americans for Freedom in 1969 — but there will always be something to cause shifts in allegiances.
Lopez: There’s been a lot of talk about Ronald Reagan recently. Is there anything you find people are surprised to learn about the relationship between Reagan and WFB?
Bridges: Basically, its closeness and easiness. There has been a lot of talk about Reagan’s “aloofness,” but he and Bill seemed totally comfortable together, despite the differences in their upbringing and some of their interests (think: skiing vs. baseball).
Lopez: How did you put together this omnibus, when he was as prolific as he was?
Bridges: First, read read read. Even though I mostly didn’t have time to do more than skim, the summer of ’09 was all Buckley, all the time, for me as I prepared the initial list of candidates.
Then I had various conversations with Roger Kimball, my co-editor and publisher, about how we were going to shape the book. We decided, for example, that we would arrange the pieces in categories — the way Bill himself typically did in his collections — and then chronologically within categories. And we decided that it would be fine to use items that had appeared in long-out-of-print collections, such as The Jeweler’s Eye and The Governor Listeth, but that we would leave out things that appear in the speech collection, Let Us Talk of Many Things, or the “literary autobiography,” Miles Gone By; we see those as sort of companion volumes to Athwart History. In fact — and we’re quite pleased about this — nearly half the pieces in Athwart History had never been collected before.
And then, with the help of a young man named Stefan Beck, who had worked for Roger before, we worked like the devil to get it all into the computer and ready to go.
#Lopez: Do you have a favorite essay among them?
Bridges: As I wrote a while back when John O’Sullivan asked me what was my favorite restaurant, I’m not good at favorites: I can never pick just one. But I’ll try to keep the list short. There’s “Dead-Red,” which resonated with me when I first read it in the Sixties — long before I was a Christian — and which has lost nothing over time. At the opposite end of the emotional scale, there’s “Hallelujah!” a joyous romp over the fall of the Berlin Wall. There’s “The Conservative Alternative,” one of the less-well-known passages in Up from Liberalism, lyrical and bracing. And I have to mention a couple of the obituaries: “Douglas MacArthur, Missing but Well Accounted for”; “Princess Grace, R I P”; “Remembering Russell Kirk.”
Lopez: Do you have a favorite WFB writing, period?
Bridges: No. If I said Stained Glass or See You Later Alligator, I’d be dissing the analytical essays. If I said Four Reforms, I’d be downplaying the wonderful stories in Airborne. So, no.
Lopez: You include an essay about a pamphlet on how to argue about abortion. WFB told readers he would be happy to send a copy of the John Noonan how-to pamphlet to anyone who asked for it. Why was this that important to him? Why was it the hows of arguing, which he, of course, tended to do so well? So much better than we tend to see today!
Bridges: Well, because he was concerned not just with winning some immediate political battle, but with changing people’s way of thinking about the humanity of unborn children. As he reminds us, it was some of the rabble-rousers who brought about the end of slavery in America — but only through the hell of the Civil War. It was thoughtful argumentation, such as Lincoln’s, that eventually brought about the realization that blacks are as human as whites. Similarly, he saw that the “blood-curdling clichés” used by both sides in the abortion debate were good at stirring up passions, but it was quiet analysis like Professor Noonan’s that might actually cause people to realize that unborn babies are as human as the adults arguing about them.
Lopez: Why they heck would you ever put the words Animadversions and Omnibus in a book title? Even WFB never did that!
Bridges: Since it wasn’t I who came up with that title (it was Roger), I can say openly what I think of it: I love it. It rolls beautifully around the tongue. And it’s very Bill. You’re right, he never used those words in a title — but “animadversions” was a favorite word of his, and I think he would have liked this title.
Lopez: Is there advice in Standing Athwart for potential 2012 presidential candidates?
Bridges: By implication, follow Ronald Reagan. Don’t try to play to one part of the conservative movement — you have to appeal to all sorts of conservatives, and all sorts of people who don’t call themselves conservatives. Bone up on the issues; you don’t need to sound like a nerd, but you do need to be better-than-averagely well informed about everything from the marginal tax rate to Russia’s designs on Central Europe. But don’t be like Barry Goldwater. Goldwater’s candor was refreshing — but he knew he couldn’t win anyway, against the ghost of JFK. A candidate who does have a chance must use a little basic caution.
Lopez: Is there advice for young writers?
Bridges: Not advice so much as an example. First, be yourself. Don’t try to copy WFB’s sentence structure or vocabulary; find your own. Now, you may need to work on that self a bit before going public with it — like the candidates, you need to inform yourself; and you need to listen to yourself and watch out for signs of ranting or sloppy thinking.
Second, be specific. WFB never went far in generalization before he brought in an example to make it vivid for the reader. That’s what I found so memorable about “Dead-Red”: sentences like “An individual human being can sustain only so much grief, and then bereavement becomes redundant. If my wife, son, mother, brothers, and sisters are killed, I have little capacity left to grieve over the loss of my college roommate’s uncle.”
Lopez: Is there advice for the Tea Party?
Bridges: Don’t be too hard on politicians who don’t deliver everything you want. As the Italian economist Antonio Martino put it, Rome wasn’t burnt in a day. Ronald Reagan had great hopes, and we had great hopes for him. He did much. But he didn’t reform Social Security; he didn’t introduce the flat tax; and the Department of Education still stands. So hold your candidates accountable — but don’t banish them to outer darkness if they don’t try to achieve their, and your, goals in one legislative session.
Lopez: When you read what WFB wrote about Jimmy Carter, do you see Barack Obama at all?
Bridges: Not so much in the pieces in this book; we actually didn’t include that much on Carter. WFB’s great demolition of Carter’s “inordinate fear of Communism” speech — which some of Obama’s remarks about foreign affairs certainly bring to mind — is in Let Us Talk of Many Things. Bill did, just weeks before he died, hear a speech by Obama that led to a column about the candidate’s “mischievous” dishonesty in suggesting that government could give every American child a chance to replicate Obama’s own success.
Lopez: What does George Will mean when he writes that Bill helped “unmake history”? Do you agree?
Bridges: He was talking about History, the concept invented in the 19th century to mean that the world is controlled by vast impersonal forces, and that there is very little that individuals can do about it. George Will is saying that individuals can “make meaningful choices” — as Bill did in founding National Review. And speaking, as we were a minute ago, of making your argument vivid, here is what Will writes in the Preface: “When he, in effect, rolled up that first copy of National Review and swatted History on its upturned nose, he was saying: You are not all that you have been cracked up to be.” Wish I’d said that!
Lopez: This is reflected in the book a bit: Bill was remarkably comfortable with piety, for such an intellectual, wasn’t he? What accounts for that?
Bridges: I suspect because it was so much a part of him, so much a part of the world that shaped him. His parents were both devout, and besides loving them deeply he had a very high regard for them. So it always seemed natural to him that very bright people should be religious. He later, of course, came to meet many who were not, but that never shook his own faith. He didn’t proselytize, but if a reference to God or to Christian teaching was relevant to his argument, I suspect it never occurred to him not to use it.
Lopez: What do you miss most about Bill?
Bridges: Personally, his vibrant energy, his sense of fun, his generosity. Publicly — that is, as an American conservative — his sense of perspective, and his ability to help others see things in a proper context. His ability to cut through nonsense, and to express things in a way that at least got other people to listen. And his ability to steer a straight course when others were urging tactical deviations.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.