One of the best formats for encountering the remarkable mind of Bill Buckley is the long-form interview – it really gives you a sense of the breadth of his intellect and the joy with which he could move from subject to subject. In a new book, Conversations with William F. Buckley Jr., our friend William E. Meehan has assembled 15 of these interviews, ranging in date from 1970 to 2005. It’s full of nuggets, some which were entirely new to me. Buckley, for example, told Playboy in 1970 that he had decided in 1967 to challenge Bobby Kennedy in the 1970 New York Senate race.
Here’s Bill, talking in 1978 about what he likes to read: “The only people I don’t like are people who write badly. I think they should be doing something else. I read very slowly. If I read something badly written it troubles me. I can’t, for example, read a book of Agatha Christie’s – I keep gagging. It probably lies in my experience as an editor. Whatever the reason, I can read John McPhee on anything and enjoy it, but I couldn’t read a biography of me by Agatha Christie.” In the same interview, on the vagaries of literary reputation: “The success of The Godfather robbed Mario Puzo of the kind of critical acclaim he deserves. If you sell a million copies, you can’t be thought of as a serious writer.”
Here he is in 1970, talking about why he thinks prostitution should be legalized: “Legalizing prostitution would provide a ready outlet for pubescent lust and greatly facilitate the hygienic problem, pending the domination of the appetite and the restoration of morality. Also, it would cut down the profits and power of the Mafia, the existence of which enrages me.”
A quick summary. Agatha Christie: bad writer. John McPhee: good writer. Mario Puzo: good writer. Prostitution: should be legal. Each of these opinions is defensible. I’m pretty sure there was only one person who held all four of them, and he also happened to be the founder of the modern conservative intellectual movement. This new book brought back some fond memories of a man of genuine intellectual verve.