TERENCE SMITH: William F. Buckley Jr. describes himself as an adventurer. At 78, the noted conservative is taking stock of his fashions as he strolls the lawn of his home on the shore of Long Island Sound. His recently released literary autobiography, "Miles Gone By," illuminates his love of family, music, sailing, skiing, wine and, of course, language and politics. For over 30 years, he was the host of public television's "Firing Line," the longest-running program in TV history with the same host.
EDWIN FEULNER JR., The Heritage Foundation: This evening we honor a man who is universally recognized as the polysyllabic patriarch of American conservatism: William F. Buckley Jr. ( Applause )
TERENCE SMITH: The applause has been coming, as one by one he has given up the principal preoccupations of his life: "Firing Line"; public speaking; and most importantly, after nearly half a century, his role as founder and editor of the National Review magazine, the bible of modern conservatism. Buckley's son, Christopher, also a writer, paid tribute to him at a Heritage Foundation awards ceremony a few years ago.
CHRISTOPHER BUCKLEY, Writer: Like his father, he grew up devout, risk-taking, and occasionally supporting the losing side. Though, ultimately, as intellectual godfather to the movement that produced the election of Ronald Reagan, I'd say he ended up a rather big winner.
TERENCE SMITH: The senior Buckley is also the author of 45 books. Bound in leather, Buckley's volumes fill a bookshelf in his Stanford, Connecticut home.
TERENCE SMITH: Your 45th book? How can anyone write 45 books?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: 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 F. BUCKLEY JR.: And then I write 1,500 words a day, and that oddly enough adds up to a book.
TERENCE SMITH: Let's talk about American politics today. How does it strike you?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: Well, it strikes me as curious. I say "curious" because it's hard for me to understand how deeply felt the antagonism is for 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 attractive-- I think of Charles de Gaulle... there's a sense that if Charles de Gaulle is a figure in town, he occupies all the space. But George Bush doesn't. So how to understand that requires a penetration I haven't achieved, but it's one of the things that makes this particular year remarkable.
TERENCE SMITH: What about the state of American political discourse? It seems to -- many people that have observed to be more polarized and more bitter.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: Well... 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, fifty 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.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you feel you can take some credit for the outcome?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: Well, certainly, naturally, you can. Yeah, I suppose I can. The conservatism that I identified myself with was an anti-communist, anti-socialist. And the principal lodestone of that was National Review magazine, which I founded and served as editor. So, in that sense, you're correct. Reagan said that he got his inspiration from National Review, words I love to hear. I hope they survive this broadcast. And Goldwater said the same thing.
TERENCE SMITH: 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 F. BUCKLEY JR.: 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 neo-cons who... neo-Wilsonians. There are the libertarians, who tend to lead rather sheltered lives. There are sort of people in between.
TERENCE SMITH: There's another element in the movement, of course, that's much written and talked about now, which is the Christian conservative movement.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: Yes, of course.
TERENCE SMITH: Have they taken it over?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: 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. Every time Jimmy Carter said grace or President Bush mentions it, there are certain people who wince.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: No, not at all. 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 separate, I think that's a terrible idea because the principal animus for a harmonious polity, I think, is religious.
TERENCE SMITH: Buckley enjoys bringing new blood into the conservative ranks. He has appointed Austin Bramwell, 2000 graduate of his alma mater, Yale University, to help run National Review.
AUSTIN BRAMWELL, National Review: This did he awaken their minds to the possibility that liberalism is not the philosphia ultima, but just another item in the available catalogue of modern ideologies. Many of Buckley's other qualities are equally well- known -- his wit, grace, prolificacy, his intellectual ecumenism and his joie de vivre.
TERENCE SMITH: That joie de vivre plays out on his harpsichord, and in his office, where he still writes a twice-weekly syndicated column. The scene of a young Buckley surrounded by books in this photo doesn't look much different from his work environment today. He's drafting another novel scheduled to be published early next year.
TERENCE SMITH: Do you still feel you have a lot to say.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: I think you have a lot to listen to. (Laughs) Sure. I've never found a day in which I write a column-- as recently as three hours ago-- in which I felt there was nothing to say because there's something always there to stimulate you.
TERENCE SMITH: Thank you very much.
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR.: Nice to talk to you.