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William Buckley

August 1, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT
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TERENCE SMITH: Your 45th book? How can anyone write 45 books?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, the thing to do is to write one every year. I retreat to Switzerland every year and divest myself, to the extent possible, of other distractions, other than skiing –

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: –and then I write 1,500 words a day, and that, oddly enough, adds up to a book.

TERENCE SMITH: In this latest book, “Miles Gone By,” you actually devote only a small portion of the volume to politics. Why is that?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, it’s a book about my life, it’s a book in which the rule was that I should figure in each chapter. My only exposure to politics was when I ran for mayor of New York and I have a chapter on that. So that my knowledge of other people, my friendship with other people absorbed my time, my skiing, my music, and politics sort of receded from sight.

There’s something about politics that requires you to say, well, we’ve got to find out what’s going to happen day after tomorrow.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: And that, as you know, can become very old news. Very exciting while it’s going on, but in an autobiography, I don’t think it necessarily deserves a presumptive attention.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I wondered, as I read it, whether it was that — as you look back on the politics and public affairs that you’ve been writing about for more than 50 years — that it all perhaps paled?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, I think all politics, politics pales. You might say, well, the Gettysburg Address doesn’t. But that required a sort of a mythogenic event, that in and of itself, created a lasting, devotional literature. But almost everything, no matter how excited people get on election eve, and they, they sort of bask [unintelligible] and a year later, that was last year’s election. At least that’s, that’s the case in, in my experience.

So I didn’t, I didn’t feel obliged to spend the kind of time on politics that I might have, say, if I had been Teddy White. But come to think of it, his autobiography is not very political.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed, it’s not. Let’s talk about American politics today. How does it strike you?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, it strikes me as curious. I say curious because it’s hard for me to understand how deeply felt the antagonism is to the president. By the way, he’s not a personal friend of mine. But it’s hard to understand how people get so worked up about him. If he was somebody, however, in a sense [unintelligible] Charles de Gaulle, there’s a sense in which, if Charles de Gaulle is a figure in town, he occupies all all the space.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: But George Bush doesn’t. So how to understand that requires a penetration I haven’t achieved but is one of the things that makes this particular year remarkable.

Now with Senator Kerry saying, a few days ago, that he backed the Iraq episode, would have voted for it even if he had known what he now knows, it seems to me that it kind of deguts the Democratic offensive. So they’re, they’re going to have to parlay their, their platform into something that justifies the “body heat” that comes out of ‘em.

TERENCE SMITH: What about the state of American political discourse? It seems to, many people have observed, to be more polarized and more bitter and more personal than it was in years past.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: That’s the point I just tried to make. You have to think back when Goldwater ran.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Your memory might not go that far but there was a lot of antipathy to Goldwater, but there, there was an ideological fear of him. He would take us into a nuclear war, and so forth.

There is no such fear of Bush, that I know of, but the antipathy you point out is definitely there, and so you ask what is it? Is it some sort of personal twitches that he has, that especially antagonize people? Is it a sense that he is illegitimate, that he really didn’t win the election? All that plays into that antipathy. But even then I find it hard to account for.

TERENCE SMITH: But I’m thinking beyond George Bush and not specifically of George Bush. I’m thinking of American political discourse and the argumentative quality of it today, and I’m wondering if you, having written about it, observed it, participated in it for so many years, see it as any different in tone or quality. Is it more or less civil?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, “mutatis mutandis,” it’s distinctive. But I don’t think that the polarization is as sharp as it was 40 years ago, in part because the socialist alternative is substantially rejected.

Forty years ago, 50 years ago, the question was whether to go in the direction of a completely centripitalized society, or to preserve the free market alternative.

That fight, it seems to me, has been, in theory, won. The conservatives won that fight. People don’t lecture ardently or persuasively on how we should have government ownership of production and distribution on the — they just don’t do that anymore. Now that’s a significant change.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Now if Milton Friedman were here, he’d say, well, the left edges into it by nibbling more and more authority for the state. I think that’s, that’s a good argument, but it’s not the kind of thing that sets people aflame, and I think that’s what you’re talking about.

TERENCE SMITH: You were a voice in that argument over the last 40 years — the argument about centralization of the state or free enterprise. Do you feel you can take some credit for the outcome?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, certainly National Review can. Yeah. I suppose I can. The conservatism that I identified myself with was anticommunist, antisocialist, and the principal lodestone of that was National Review magazine, which I founded and was, served as editor.

So, in that sense you’re correct, and, you know, Reagan said he got his inspiration from National Review, you know, words I love to hear. I hope they survive this broadcast.

And Goldwater said the same thing. So I acknowledge that while never forgetting to give primary credit to the wonderful people who came and wrote for it, you know, your scholars who had been itching for a place to write when there wasn’t a journal of opinion that was very hospitable to their thought, which was the case 50 years ago.

TERENCE SMITH: You gave up editing that in 1990 and recently gave up the direct role in its management.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I gave up ownership of it; yes.

TERENCE SMITH: And ownership of it. Was that hard to do?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, it’s a little bit like selling your sailboat, an experience you may one day undertake. You dread the thought of it but having done it, it’s not all that painful.

There’s a sort of a self-adjustment that comes into play. I decided, at a certain point, I shouldn’t edit my magazine day to day. I decided at some point I should drop my television program after 35 years. I would stop public speaking after 45 or 50 years. I would sell my boat and I would give up my stock.

All this becomes, I think, easier as you do it, and doesn’t necessarily excite the kind of loneliness and remorse that I think some people feel when they leave the White House or leave Congress. If that’s what has energized them all their life.

TERENCE SMITH: What — that conservative movement that you were talking about over the last 40 years and played a role in — what’s its state of health today?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, it is a fragmentary — the conservative movement has divisions within it which keep any single one of them from being absolutely dominant. There are the neocons who … neo-Wilsonians … There are the libertarians who tend to lead rather sheltered lives. They’re sort of people in between. There’s a lot of anxiety about different issues, immigration, in some cases.

But when you consider that even under Eisenhower, the top tax was 90 percent, today, there isn’t — I mean, not even Howard Dean suggests a tax half that high –

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: — which suggests to me the consolidation of the antisocialist sentiment.

TERENCE SMITH: There’s another element in the movement of course that’s very much written and talked about now, which is the Christian conservative movement.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Yes, of course.

TERENCE SMITH: Have they taken it over?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: That’s important. No, they certainly haven’t. But certain people in politics feel that in order to engage in politics, it’s by no means necessary to forget that you also believe in religion. And to the extent that religion is emphasized, it becomes irksome for people who are skeptical about religion or even hostile to it.

Because every time Jimmy Carter said grace or — or President Bush mentions it, there are certain people who wince.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: No, not at all, no, because I like to think of myself primarily as a Christian. That’s what I seek to be. And when you consider the extent to which people feel that Christianity and politics should be completely separated, I think that’s a terrible idea because the principal animus for a harmonious polity I think is religious.

One’s concern for somebody’s civil rights, for equality, derives, in my judgment, from the fact that we acknowledge that we are all creatures of God. In the absence of that, of that kind of direction, it would be an afterthought.

TERENCE SMITH: You were speaking earlier about Iraq and I wonder what you think of America’s place in the world these days, and its relationship with the rest of the world.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, we suffer from the same problems that all superpowers have always suffered from. Athens, Rome, Great Britain. We’re the “big [guys] on the street” and for that reason we are envied and scorned. This I think we haven’t come to live with with the kind of equanimity that, say, Disraeli did.

So that, under the circumstances, that adjustment, I think, needs to be made before we can become completely comfortable with existing rivals. Take the United Nations.

People, every now and then, in criticizing America, we should defer more to the United Nations. On the other hand, deferment to the United Nations is simply not in the American tradition, and not at all easy to do when judgments independently arrived at are followed.

Even Mr. Kerry said that, you know, if he thought the vital interests of America were involved, he would proceed without any reference to any other assembly.

So anyway, that’s irritating, and the fact that we’re so bloody wealthy, it’s just very hard for people — especially when they struggle along as Germany and France have been doing, with practically zero public growth — to reconcile the fact that we consider it a bad year if we’ve had 3.5 percent increase in the GDP.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: So we have to live with that; but I’ll hold your hand if you ever get lonely.

TERENCE SMITH: Is there anything we, as a nation, should do about it? Or can do about it?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, yes. I think that the public posture is important. We should avoid arrogance and I think we’ve done it pretty well. Again, we think of Charles de Gaulle, the glory of France was so animating for him, that he considered that everybody — all should be a fellow postulant.

So our general public presentation mood should be attentive, bright, respectful, and ingratiating.

TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned John Kerry. You have a dilemma, two Yale men running for president. What does a Yale man do?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Why is that a dilemma?

TERENCE SMITH: Well, is it? You have to choose one. You have to reject a Yale man.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I see. Anybody who likes John has to dislike George, or anybody who likes George has to dislike John?

TERENCE SMITH: There are no rules, unless you set them at Yale. I don’t know.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, you know, they both have common traditions in college. The notion that that makes them singular or obnoxious in any parochial sense is simply unconvincing.

They’re very, very different people, and nobody who went to college with both of them, which if you did, people did [not] think of them as, in any sense, stereotypes.

TERENCE SMITH: What do you think of the campaign so far and the level on which it’s being conducted, the level of argument of discourse? Is it satisfying?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Nothing would satisfy me except the triumph of good reason. No. One is never satisfied if one reads a speech which, in one’s judgment, is not completely thought out, or is scornful of a correct analysis.

But these people have to go on — and give the, as you know, give these speeches, every day, these stump speeches, and almost inevitably they become populist, and abruptly thought out, so that I welcome the tradition that gives us television to weed out a lot of the stuff, so that you can get a sense of the genuine flavor of what’s happened in five or six minutes, without having to endure 45 minutes of repeated stump speeches.

TERENCE SMITH: It sounds as though you’re not learning very much from this campaign. Or you don’t feel you are.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: No. I don’t think I’ve learned a lot. If I did, I’d write about it. But I don’t think there’s anything novel in it except that there are — that each individual is singular. There’s nobody before who’s been quite like George Bush, nobody before has been quite like John Kerry.

So in that sense you have an evolving political drama, even if it’s not necessarily instructive.

TERENCE SMITH: Do you have a fearless forecast?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: No. No. [Laughter.] The only comfort in saying is that I’m never surprised by what happens. But I don’t have a “seat of the pants” feeling that a lot of people I respect do.

TERENCE SMITH: Finally, let me ask you a bit about American journalism. You’ve been active in it, a major voice in it for a long time. Has it changed?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I think, yes, the answer is it has changed; sure.

For one thing, there is a pulsating impatience among readers and listeners. They don’t want an hour or two hours. They don’t want a 2,000 word article. Occasionally they get it. Occasionally they’re grateful for it.

But I don’t know anybody who hasn’t remarked, the impact of the necessary shortening of events. In my [television] program for 25 years, it was an hour program –

TERENCE SMITH: “Firing Line.”

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: “Firing Line,” yeah. And then I took it to a half-hour, in part be — not because people weren’t staying to — a lot of people were — but the, the station managers didn’t like the idea of an entire hour occupying something, and I remember that because of two reasons.

One of them entirely selfish. If you have a half-hour program, no matter who you’re interviewing, you need to do about 10 percent of the studying than if you had an hour program, because that — you coast off what you know simply instinctively or from reading the papers.

But if you get somebody on for another 30 minutes, you’re delving into a subject in which they are acutely informed. I had — Mr. Gore was on my program.

TERENCE SMITH: Al Gore?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Al Gore’s father.

TERENCE SMITH: Senator Gore.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Senator Gore. And we were talking about the TVA. I was opposing the general idea. After about 20 minutes, he said, You know something, Mr. Buckley — this is during the commercial break — I know more about the TVA than you do. I wrote the act.

That was a dispositive way of treating me. But there was a wonderful example of where the intricacies of the TVA’s history and of its creation became very relevant after 30 minutes, and here, unless you had prepared for that, you know, you might bump your head.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, this shortening of the attention span — which is the chicken and which is the egg? Did American journalism shorten the attention span or did it respond to a shortening of it in the public?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I think the latter. I think the latter. People — I happened to notice this because I wrote a play one time, and the director said, This guy’s talking for too long. And I said, Well, you know, he’s got something to say, and this is a pretty good book, it won a prize. And he said, Take a look at a movie and put a stopwatch, if you think of it, in your hand, and you’ll find that no sequence focused on one person will last more than two seconds. The camera changes. It’s bigger, smaller, sideways. And that’s an aspect of that inattention you speak of.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, many people blame television and even the clicker, the remote control, for this sense of urgency in the consuming public.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, I think the two items you have mentioned are acquiescences in what’s going on. There are adjustments to — I don’t think that there was a director, back 25 years ago, who said, We must not have an hour of news. I have to assume that the ratings spoke that decision.

TERENCE SMITH: You mention “Firing Line.” What do you think of the television talk shows that you hear, may hear or listen to today, especially some of them, of course, hosted by some very prominent conservatives?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, I don’t listen to them regularly, but I’ve found people interesting, and that was an argument I made during my “Firing Line” days, that this particular guy, who I want on for one hour, is an interesting guy. Now who was it? John Nicholson said 99 percent of people are interesting. The 100th isn’t. But he’s interesting because he isn’t. In that sense, you can’t lose.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: But, so I think that these talk shows, to begin with, one has to know that there’s going to be repetition.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: So that you’re not expected to listen for three hours. And people make those adjustments, and some programs, you know, like wall-to-wall carpeting.

TERENCE SMITH: Rush Limbaugh is probably the singlemost widely-listened to conservative commentator today, if indeed you think he is a conservative.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Oh, sure.

TERENCE SMITH: What about his approach — which is one of, you know, of running personal commentary on the news?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, when you say running personal commentary, if you mean polemical, I agree –

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: — but I don’t think he’s — you know, he doesn’t do personal commentary in the sense that those awful weekly magazines, the — what do you call them? Enquirer…

TERENCE SMITH: National Enquirer. … So, he’s not a supermarket tabloid.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: No, no, no; no. But I thought you, I thought you –

TERENCE SMITH: No, I’m just wondering what you — forget personal commentary. … When a voice like Rush Limbaugh emerges and becomes as successful as he is, how does that strike you?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, of course I’m grateful because I’m a fan, and I believe in most of the things he believes in.

There are stylistic differences which [inaudible] the fact that he’s broadcasting 15 hours a week, and under the circumstances, has to be repetitious.

I’m trying to think whether there’s anything that you’re scratching for, that you think I should…

TERENCE SMITH: Well, I’ll tell you what. There has been, we started out talking about polarization in American politics…

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Yeah.

TERENCE SMITH: Many people have observed polarization in American media, especially in television. Fox News is cited as one example; others as well. I wonder what you think about that. If you see a polarization in American television particularly.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Well, what I see in context of what we’re discussing is the interest by listeners in personalized journalism, by which I mean that Rush Limbaugh, in attacking a particular position, or a bill or whatever, is likely to go into the guy who is taking that position. I don’t mean in the sense of unzipping him or anything but in the sense of here’s a guy who also A, B, C, and D.

So there is, I think, delectably, an interest in a news story that fastens on individuals, and takes positions on them, whether negative or affirmative.

If you think that’s an aspect of modern journalism, then you have my views on the subject.

TERENCE SMITH: Uh-huh. I mean, it’s often described as celebrity journalism of which there’s a great deal.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: There’s a lot of that.

TERENCE SMITH: Yeah. Yeah.

Finally, what’s on Bill Buckley’s near-term agenda? You’ve talked about the things you’re giving up.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Other than persuading people to read my book?

TERENCE SMITH: There’s that.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I’m just completing, now, my last novel on Blackford Oakes. It’s called Last Call For Blackford Oakes. It’ll be published in, you know, January, something like that. It’s a pretty good story and — but I don’t have a book plotted for next winter, you’ll be relieved to hear.

TERENCE SMITH: And the column? Your column?

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Oh, I’ll continue the column; yes. Definitely.

TERENCE SMITH: You still feel you have a lot to say.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: I think you have a lot to listen to. Sure. I’ve never found a day in which I write a column, as recently as three hours ago, in which I thought there’s nothing to say, because there’s something — something there always to stimulate you.

TERENCE SMITH: Thank you very much.

WILLIAM BUCKLEY: Nice to talk to you.