Interview with Lee Edwards, author of
William F. Buckley Jr.
Why did you write this biography?
There are only two bios in print, one of them twenty years old and by a liberal, and I thought there was a place for a concise bio of the polymath who did more than any other to build the modern conservative movement. He is an endlessly fascinating individual.
Why should I read this book?
Because it shows that without Buckley there would be no conservative movement—which continues to dominate the Republican Party and much of American politics. Quite possibly there would have been no President Ronald Reagan without WFB and National Review.
What motivated Buckley and why?
He could have been a playboy, sailing his yacht and giving parties and skiing in Switzerland, but he chose to be a Saint Paul carrying the conservative message far and wide. He didn’t like what liberals were doing to America and Americans and because he wanted to give something back to the nation that had done so much for him and his family.
What role did his Catholicism play in his life and career?
It was a major influence, giving him the strength to weather any and all storms and to have faith in the final outcome. It accounted for the traditional side of his conservatism.
What were his most important and enduring books?
Nearer, My God (a spiritual autobiography), Miles Gone By (a literary autobiography), Stained Glass (his best Blackford Oakes novel), and The Unmaking of a Mayor (a brilliant witty account of run for mayor of New York City).
Who were the greatest influences in his life?
Whittaker Chambers, the Soviet spy turned anti-communist; James Burnham, the ex-Trotskyist and apostle of realpolitik; Albert Jay Nock, the radical libertarian; and Willmoore Kendall, the Yale professor and political philosopher.
Why was he for the legalization of marijuana?
Not because he was a pothead but because he believed in the individual’s right to smoke and drink what he wanted without governmental oversight.
Didn’t he once say about the Catholic Church, “Mater Si, Magistra No”?
Actually it was Garry Wills’s formulation that Catholics should consider the Church generally and the Vatican specifically as a mother and not a teacher. The wisecrack was more of a reaction to the Vatican’s policy of détente toward Cuba than a criticism of Vatican II.
What motivated Buckley above all else?
His anti-communism from his first to his last days. He protested Khrushchev’s visit to the US in 1960, Fidel Castro’s brand of caudillo communism, Nixon kowtowing to Mao in 1972, and Ronald Reagan’s summit meetings with Gorbachev in the 1980s. It explains his defense of Senator Joseph McCarthy and in part his admiration of Whittaker Chambers.
What are some of his famous one-liners?
“The attempted assassination of Sukarno had all the earmarks of a CIA plot—everyone was killed except Sukarno.”
Regarding the nuclear accident at Charnobyl: “The Soviet Union discovered at last how to give power to the people.”
“I would rather be governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than the members of the Harvard faculty.”
Asked what he would do if he won the NYC mayorality, he replied, “Demand a recount.”