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Transcript:

October 30, 2009


BILL MOYERS:
After our interview, James Galbraith and I talked about how his famous father, as liberal a democrat as I've ever met, became very close friends with the icon of the conservative movement, the late William F. Buckley Jr. They had debated each other on Buckley's influential talk show, "Firing Line" which ran on public television stations for 28 years. As he left, I promised James a copy of this new book, "Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement," by Richard Brookhiser.

When Richard Brookhiser was a teenager in upstate New York, he and his family were fans of Buckley's show, and in 1969, unhappy at the protests, his classmates were mounting against Richard Nixon and the war in Vietnam, the young Brookhiser decided to protest the protest.

He wrote an article and sent it off to the NATIONAL REVIEW. That influential conservative magazine founded and edited by Buckley whom Brookhiser knew only from television. You can imagine his surprise and delight when several months later, the article showed up on NATIONAL REVIEW's cover a day after Brookhiser's 15th birthday.

That precocious beginning launched Richard Brookhiser on a prolific career. First at Buckley's side and then as the author of several acclaimed books on our founding fathers, including George Washington and Alexander Hamilton.

He was last here on the JOURNAL discussing the life and legacy of Thomas Paine. Richard Brookhiser, welcome back to the JOURNAL.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Thanks for having me.

BILL MOYERS:
What was the right time and the right place?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, for me, it was 1969 and shortly thereafter. And it was the excitement of discovering the conservative movement. Which my family did through "Firing Line."

BILL MOYERS:
Is that right? Watching?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
That was the first time we were aware of Bill Buckley, was the TV show. Then my father bought one of his books. His third book, "Up From Liberalism." And then we subscribed to the magazine. So that was how we got in the slip stream.

And then I, as you said, I had the good fortune to send him a piece which he decided to publish. So, you know, here was the thrill of being a kid who loved to write and here's this guy, who's a great writer, and he says, "I like your stuff. I'm going to publish it." It was just like getting a charge directly from the master.

BILL MOYERS:
You are not the only one who has said, of that period, that it was a pivotal moment in our political and intellectual history. What made it so?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
A post Depression, postwar liberal consensus was finally coming apart, was beginning to come apart. World War II had been won, obviously, by an exertion of the government. And the Depression seemed to have been ended by the exertions of the government.

And there was a consensus that this was the way that we should address all our future problems. And that we could do it successfully by bringing, you know, the best thoughts, and then the powers of the state to bear upon them. But, in the late 60s, for a lot of reasons, the war in Vietnam, racial troubles that the civil rights bills didn't seem to be able to address. People all across the spectrum began having doubts. And many of them were on the right. And that was really the moment that conservative criticisms of this consensus began to get traction.

BILL MOYERS:
You begin the book with the flat assertion, "William F. Buckley changed the world." How so?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
I think he did because he changed a climate of opinion in America. He made conservative ideas respectable. And the way he did that was by making sure he presented them at the highest level. You know, whether he was doing it himself, or whether his magazine was doing it and he also did it very aggressively. Especially if he felt he was being shown disrespect. And that was something--

BILL MOYERS:
Give me an example of that. What do you mean?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the great historian.

BILL MOYERS:
Liberal.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
And a liberal man all his life. And he and Bill were tussling about something or other. And Schlesinger wrote him a latter. And, in passing, he said, "National Review," or the "National Enquirer," or whatever you call your magazine."

Well, Bill was just not going to let that pass. So, when he wrote back, he said, "Now, Arthur, suppose I began a letter, 'Dear Arthur, or dear Barfer, or whatever you call yourself.'" And that's just to call a Pulitzer Prize winner to order and say, "Look, we can have a debate. But if you want to, like, call names, I'll do that too. I'll do it as well as you."

BILL MOYERS:
I always thought that the man who defined his mission as standing athwart history yelling, "Stop," was something of a utopian. Was he?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Yes.

BILL MOYERS:
Because history can't be stopped. History, that's not nature's to give.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Of course that's right. Now, Bill, you know, Bill had contradictory impulses, as do we all. He also often quoted a line of Whittaker Chambers, whom he admired maybe more than anyone else and Chambers said, "To live is to maneuver." And Bill always, he quoted that line many, many times. And you know certain battles are lost, and they're lost forever. But you don't just then go home and say, "Oh, the heck with it. The heck with the world."

You have to be out there doing the most you can. And then also, surprisingly, sometimes battles you wrote off it turns out you can win them. For instance, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Who would have thought-the "National Review" actually did run a cover with a picture of Lenin and the glass being smashed right at the beginning of that year. But that was, you know, that was a kind of, almost, a whimsical cover of ours. And, yet, then, in 1989, the Berlin Wall falls. So sometimes those old battles do end in victory.

BILL MOYERS:
He couldn't stop history. But, if he could have, he would have stopped the civil rights movement, right? I mean, I still have--

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Early on.

BILL MOYERS:
I still have some of his columns where, he not only defended segregation, 1959, but he defended white supremacy. He said the white community is entitled to prevail politically because, for the time being anyway, the leaders of American civilization are white.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
That's what he thought in the late 50s. He came to see that that was wrong. And he said that he had been wrong. Now, to his credit, he was not saying that for reasons of innate racial superiority, or that blacks were innately racially inferior, which many southerners were saying. That was sort of a cultural argument. I think it was, nonetheless, it was wrong. And it was wrong for him to have made it. But, you know, so that's an early position that he had, and that he abandoned as the 60s went on.

BILL MOYERS:
I was struck, in the late 90s, when Buckley called for decriminalizing marijuana. I mean, he published an edition of his magazine announcing the war on drugs is lost. What led him to that conclusion? Because that was not in line with the conservative philosophy of the day.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, he has been thinking about the drug problem, seriously, since the mid 60s. I mean, as early as 1965, when he ran for mayor of New York. And he had--

BILL MOYERS:
When he was asked what would happen if he won, he said, "I'd demand a recount."

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
He also said he'd put nets outside the windows of "The New York Times" to catch the editors jumping out. But he made some sort of anti-drug proposal during that race. And Milton Friedman sent him a postcard, you know, with sort of a libertarian critique, you know, "Wars on drugs are futile." And so on.

And this was a problem that Bill wrestled with. And he just saw, over the years, he came to see that resources were being wasted on this. It was a combination of the futility of it, and at a certain level, the injustice of it because enforcement has to be so capricious. You know, some people get it in the neck. Other people go blithely along. And so that's why he wrote that issue and printed that issue.

BILL MOYERS:
Just the other day on your blog, you saluted President Obama for deciding not to prosecute violations of federal laws against pot in those states where medical marijuana is permitted. What appealed to you about that?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
I think it was a recognition of the political reality that in 14 states, state laws have been passed to lift the penalties on medical use of marijuana. Now, this is something I had to do myself. I had cancer in 1992. And one thing marijuana can do is relieve the nausea that's often an effect of chemotherapy.

So that's a hobbyhorse of mine. I think it's a very important issue. And voters in 14 states have taken that position. Now, federal law prevails over those state laws. But what President Obama decided was we will not use our resources of law enforcement to prosecute medical users in states where the state laws allow them to do that.

BILL MOYERS:
And you wrote, "Law and order is not served by passing laws that bring the system into contempt. Liberty is not served by inserting the state between patients and their doctors. And morality is not served by withholding help from the sick."

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, one of the things I was struck with, when I was going through chemotherapy is that every doctor and nurse I dealt with had had patients who had used medical marijuana. Everyone of them. And none of them had discouraged this. But, of course, you know, you can't prescribe it. It's illegal. So they said, "Well, you know, smoke it in the bathroom of your room. Don't, like, do it out in the hall." And that just struck me as a crazy situation.

BILL MOYERS:
Buckley was a formidable intellect. A man of ideas. Even when some of us thought his ideas were wrong, we had to respect his grappling with ideas. But none of the celebrity standard bearers who have replaced him, as spokesmen or voices of the conservative movement, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, would last a minute on "Firing Line." What's your take on Sarah Palin's appeal as a conservative voice today?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, look, Cole Porter wrote a song, "You've got that thing, that certain thing, that makes the birdies forget to sing." Well, Sarah Palin has that. You know, you can look at certain politicians and just say, "Oh, okay." You know, that person really has something. That is a quality that she has.

I think a lot of conservatives identify with her life situation, her life story. The mother who's the governor. And, you know, the sort of the frontier aspects of Alaska, when she was on that cover, was it "Newsweek," when she had the shotgun that she was carrying over her shoulder, you know. And people respond to that very powerfully. Now, can she have the stuff to be a viable presidential candidate or a viable president? That is something we just have to see in the grinding of the mills of this process.

BILL MOYERS:
Let me ask you something that you write about in the introduction to your book. Quote, "In the age of Obama, conservatism is in retreat. Though, perhaps, its retreat began back with Bill Clinton, or the Bushs, father and son. But it will be back. And its ups and downs are of interest to conservatives, their enemies, and ordinary Americans." I mean, why should the ups and downs of the conservative movement be of concern of anyone, to anyone who's not in that movement?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
For the same reason that the ups and downs of the liberal movement are interesting to me. I mean, these are forces in our body politic that have an effect on all of our lives. You know, whether we agree with them or oppose them. They're out there. These are the places where the ideas are generated and disseminated. It's very powerful and influential. And so it's worth paying attention to.

BILL MOYERS:
Is Obama the embodiment, as you see it, of the liberalism of our time? If and, if so, what does that say about liberalism?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Obama is a complicated phenomenon because he is a great historical achievement. I mean, I covered his inauguration for the "NewsHour." And that was a moving moment. I did not vote for him. Finally all men are created equal becomes real in a way that it had not been until that moment. So that's one aspect of him. But then there also, well, okay, Mr. President, what do we do today? There's also that. And he's a very liberal politician. But, he's got, you know, at least three and half more years to go. And that's a lot of policy time that has to be filled. And we're going to see how well he does it.

BILL MOYERS:
Buckley believed conservatives had to use the Republican Party as their vehicle because there were no other choices. There's no distinction today, is there? The Republican Party and the conservative movement are one in the same.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, some places there's still a distinction. New York's 23rd Congressional District. To fill-- was it John McHugh's seat? The man who Obama named secretary of the Army. And this is up in the Adirondacks. It's a pretty conservative district. So the local Republican Party picked a woman to be the nominee for that seat. And she's pro abortion, and she's pro gay marriage, and she was for cash for clunkers, and she was for the stimulus package. And then, now, New York State has a conservative party. And they have nominated another person to challenge her. So it's a three person race there.

BILL MOYERS:
Conservative worked hard for President Bush in the 2000 election after the primaries and they worked hard for his reelection in 2004. Then after he made a wreck of things they abandoned him. Abandoned the man who had been their agent. What happened there?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
There were always things about Bush that "National Review" did not like. We never bought compassionate conservatism. It struck us partly as an empty slogan, and to the extent it had any content we didn't like it. 9/11, in our view, changed everything. Certainly changed George Bush's world.

He was not expecting to be a foreign policy president. He just wasn't. And then all of a sudden here we are. And this is the Thirty Years' War in my view. I will not see the end of it. I will not see the end of the forces that were unleashed on 9/11. So that, to me, and many conservatives, became the primary thing. And that's why we continued to back Bush. And, in terms of his making a wreck of it, I would just say, as a historian, if presidential reputations are stocks, buy George W. Bush. If it moves at all, it will go up. And I will predict he will be like Ulysses Grant who's finally being recognized as actually a pretty good president. After 100 years, 150 years of abuse from patrician historians and converted confederates.

BILL MOYERS:
What have you taken away from digging so deeply and writing so broadly about the founding era and the founding fathers?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
These were all politicians. They were just like politicians today. They made deals. They stabbed each other in the back. They did all the black arts of politics. But they were also idealists and great men. And so, into that daily world of politics, they infused something important. And they achieved something that's been going on for over 200 years. And that is still alive and valuable. And that's worth looking at. Just how does that happen?

BILL MOYERS:
Can we really know what the founders would think about our world? And should we care?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well two points. One is that they're not that far away from us. I mean, it's not like Charlemagne, right? Or Alfred the Great. A little over 200 years is not that long when you look at all the countries in the world. The other thing is the founders believed in human nature.

That what the declaration begins by talking about. About the rights that we have as men. That's what Tom Paine wrote about. That's what they all believed. So if they were right then certain, you know, the observations and the discoveries that they made have an ongoing relevance. And, of course, things change. A million things change. But we're still men. We're still men and women. We're still human. And certain qualities that we have, aspirations, needs, flaws, have not changed and never will change. And so how these men navigate all that is an ongoing interest.

BILL MOYERS:
I confess that I admired Bill Buckley, because he believed there was more to life than politics. And I think he must have been proud of the way you lived your life because you've written all of these books. And all of us who have enjoyed your books are indebted to Bill Buckley because he changed his mind about you, right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Yes, you know, he told me when I was 23, that I would succeed him as editor of the "National Review." And then he told me, when I was 32, "No, you're not going to do that."

BILL MOYERS:
He had picked you as his heir and you came back from lunch one day and there was the letter. What did it say?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, it was a long letter. But the meat of it was, "You don't have executive flare. And it would be wrong for me to inflict you on 'National Review,' and 'National Review' on you." That's in effect what it said.

BILL MOYERS:
So he gave you all that time to research and write those books on the founding fathers. Washington, Hamilton, Adams, now Madison you are working on, right?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, I had to figure that out, though. I mean, when I read that letter I was not thinking of writing founding father books. I mean, this was, like, okay, now I have to do plan B in my life. And, by the way, what is that? I didn't know. And it was a political of figuring that out. One thing I had to do was reestablish my relationship with my, you know, my hero here. Who's dealt me this very odd wild card. I mean, I was furious. I was enraged. I was furious.

BILL MOYERS:
Heartbroken?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Yes. Of course. All of those things.

BILL MOYERS:
What did you do?

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Well, I was mad. I mean, I told my wife. I didn't tell hardly anybody else. But I wrote Bill a letter. I quoted William Blake in it. I said, "I was angry with my friend. I told my wrath, my wrath did end." So I said, "Why you did was contemptible." But then, you know, then I had to figure out what do I do and how do I relate to this man? And that took a while. It took effort on both our parts.

But, you know, the other line of poetry more important than that Blake-- that was just anger. Robert Frost said, "We love the things we love for what they are." And to do that you have to know what they are. You have to really know what they are. And both of us had mistaken notions of the other one. I mean, I thought, ah, here's the perfect father. The, like, perfect writerly father. And he thought, here's my heir. Here's another me, you know. Well, we were both wrong. So then, having discovered we were wrong, then we have to figure out, okay, who is this other person really? And how do I connect with him? And I think we were able to do that.

BILL MOYERS:
The book is RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE: COMING OF AGE WITH WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. Richard Brookhiser, thanks for coming back to the JOURNAL.

RICHARD BROOKHISER:
Thank you.

NARRATOR: It's Firing Line with William F. Buckley.
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