Taking the Measure of William Buckley

Robert Siegel talks with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times' book review and Week in Review section. Tanenhaus has been working on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative icon who died today at 82.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now from New York is Sam Tanenhaus, who is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the Weekend Review section. He's working on a biography of William F. Buckley.

Welcome to the program, Sam.

Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, The New York Times Book Review and Weekend Review Section): It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: So many of us knew William F. Buckley from his public persona. My first question is, was his private informal persona radically different from what we saw?

Mr. TANENHAUS: I wouldn't say radically different. As soon as you heard the famous voice, it was the famous voice you'd heard on television in "Firing Line," or on the radio or the many interviews he gave. His manner was more informal. He dressed very casually for one thing. He dressed in a kind of Ivy League-preppy style of the early '50s, late '40s, when he'd been there.

The most interesting thing about him was that if you spend time privately with him at his home or with friends, he never talked about politics. He was bored by it. Politics was something he was very good at talking about, and writing about, and especially arguing about, but he didn't find it fundamentally interesting. So, he talked about books, he talked about journalism, he talked about music, he talked about sailing, about his dogs. He loved King Cavalier Spaniels, but he seldom talked about politics. And he once said to me, I only talk about politics when someone pays me to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANENHAUS: And they paid him a lot...

SIEGEL: Yes. This would explain also how he managed, I gather, a great many, close friendships with a lot of people who disagreed profoundly with him about politics.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, one of those great friends who disagreed profoundly with him, the great journalist, Murray Kempton, said, Bill Buckley has a genius for friendship. Of the great people one meets in the course of one's life, I never met one who is just so much fun to be with and there was a kind of antic quality to everything he said, he just lived his life in a very entertaining way. He entertained himself and the people around him, and he wanted to be entertained in turn, which isn't to say that he ever put one on the spot, but he wanted to have interesting people around him, who told him things he didn't know.

SIEGEL: William F. Buckley played such a pivotal role in the development of post-war conservatism in America, including - we should add here - his opposition to desegregation in the American South, in National Review, which is not a warm and fuzzy position by any means. What was it that made him this conservative thinker?

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, the first thing to say, by the way, because you've raised the desegregation point, which comes up a lot, and there are few things to say about that, first is, those who use changed quite dramatically over time. As of the earlier views, Bill Buckley was the son of Deep Southern parents. His father came from southern Texas; his mother from New Orleans. The views he grew up with - in the '30s and early '40s were essentially those of progressive white Southerners of that period. What happened was he, like, so many others was overtaken by the drama of the Civil Rights Movement and was indeed slow to catch on. Although, very early on, he supported boycotts, for instance, the Montgomery bus boycott because that was a protest that actually used the power of the economy to change politics. What he opposed was, what he and many other classical conservative types saw as statism, the imposition of political change from above.

Now, that view of civil rights was one that was linked to this broader notion I've hinted at which is that a Buckley style conservatism was very much about the individual. In its early days, it was called individualism. We now think of it as libertarianism. Conservatives emerged as defenders of individual rights, of entrepreneurship - and these are values that ultimately were embraced by the broader political communities.

So in a sense, what Buckley did was to take an old style of conservatism and modernized it, and actually make the country a little bit less liberal as it began to embrace these ideals.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New Times Book Review and Weekend Review sections speaking to us about William F. Buckley Jr. He's writing a biography of him. Mr. Buckley died today at age 82.

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William F. Buckley, Conservative Bulwark, Dies

William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. i i

William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. Initially a journalist, he founded the conservative journal National Review in 1955 to air his political views. In 1973, Buckley was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly. Evening Standard/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Evening Standard/Getty Images
William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976.

William F. Buckley Jr., seen in March 1976. Initially a journalist, he founded the conservative journal National Review in 1955 to air his political views. In 1973, Buckley was a delegate to the U.N. General Assembly.

Evening Standard/Getty Images

Buckley on NPR

Listen: Buckley on 'Fresh Air' in 1989

William F. Buckley Jr., the peerless and exuberant voice of the conservative movement, died Wednesday morning at the age of 82.

His son, the author Christopher Buckley, said his father died at his desk, at his home in Stamford, Conn., from complications of emphysema and heart disease.

As a young man, Buckley parlayed his anger at the secularization of American society into a book, God and Man at Yale, and then into National Review, the magazine that became a rallying point for conservatives.

A 'Silver-Tongued, Witty' Guy

"When he burst onto the scene in the mid-1950s, the image of the conservative was someone who didn't care about ideas — kind of a cigar-chomping industrialist that only cared about his own profits," said Rich Lowry, Buckley's hand-picked successor as editor of National Review.

Lowry says Buckley offered a new champion for conservatives dispirited by the insufficiently ideological administration of President Eisenhower.

Buckley was, Lowry said, "an Ivy League-educated, silver-tongued, witty and erudite guy who could take on all comers — and he had just an incalculable influence."

In an interview on NPR's Talk of the Nation in 2004, Buckley explained his magazine's initial appeal.

"In the late '50s, when National Review was born, there were a lot of people who wanted something to read that was well-informed and staunchly and unapologetically anti-communist and anti-socialist — and National Review did that," Buckley told NPR's Lynn Neary.

Values Rooted in Christian Tradition

Buckley also argued for social values rooted in Christian traditions — and against the regulation of business and the economy. His debates with counterparts on the left — such as Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer — evolved into the long-running PBS show Firing Line, which was considered a home for lengthy, reasoned discourse and disputation.

Buckley began his career with a brief stint at the CIA. He was a sailor throughout his life, but he saved plenty of time for writing. His point of view emerged not just in the pages of his magazine, but in 45 books and 5,600 newspaper columns. In a commentary for the NPR series This I Believe, Buckley talked about his own faith — a deep Catholicism. Buckley began it by citing the story of a scholar's rebuttal to skepticism about the existence of God.

"The imperishable answer was, 'I find it easier to believe in God than to believe that Hamlet was deduced from the molecular structure of a mutton chop,' " Buckley said. "That rhetorical bullet has everything — wit and profundity."

Remaking the Conservative Movement

Above all, his son Christopher Buckley recalled Wednesday, William Buckley sought to make it respectable to be a conservative.

"He drove out the kooks of the movement," Christopher Buckley said. "He separated it from the anti-Semites, the isolationists, the John Birchers. He conducted, if you will, a kind of purging of the movement."

Buckley helped establish Young Americans for Freedom — who formed the core of Barry Goldwater's unsuccessful bid for the presidency in 1964. But the movement found a new standard-bearer in Goldwater's ally, Ronald Reagan, who won the White House 16 years later.

"I have heard it said on many occasions — if there hadn't been a Bill Buckley, there would have been no Goldwater — and if no Goldwater, then no Reagan," Christopher Buckley said.

William Buckley later regretted some of his positions — such as his unyielding opposition in the mid-1960s to landmark voting rights bills. But Buckley took pride in seeing his influence spread as the modern conservative movement took hold.

Over the past year, as his health declined and as he mourned the death of his wife, Pat, Buckley's life became much tougher. Christopher Buckley paraphrased Shakespeare in thinking about his father's life and death.

"I sent out an e-mail this morning to ... his friends," Christopher Buckley said. "And I found myself unable to resist quoting that line from Hamlet: 'Take him for all he was worth, Horatio. He was a man, and I shall not look on his like again.' "

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