It’s been five years since the death of William F. Buckley Jr., but the tributes, the reading, and the writing continue. Alvin Felzenberg, currently at work on a biography of National Review’s founder, discusses with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez some of what he’s learned.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: What is so glaringly missing from a world without William F. Buckley Jr. living in it anymore?
ALVIN FELZENBERG: The greatest void Bill Buckley left behind is the absence of humor in public discourse today. All day long we see pundits making their case from both right and left. They go in with their talking points and go out having reassured their respective “bases.” But how many could be considered true wits? I hope Buckley was not the last of these, even though he was truly one of a kind.
LOPEZ: What’s your favorite Buckley book and why?
FELZENBERG: My favorite Buckley book is The Unmaking of a Mayor. In addition to the sidesplitting humor, he put forth proposals that other conservatives subsequently advanced. School choice, urban-enterprise zones, creative policing, tax incentives to lure industry to economically depressed areas, creative transit suggestions, and other ideas that “hope, growth, and opportunity” conservatives such as Jack Kemp, Ronald Reagan, and Newt Gingrich later advanced — all are in this wonderful book. And, as my friend Kate O’Beirne reminds me, there were Buckley Democrats before there were Reagan Democrats. The 13 percent of the vote he captured came largely from Democrats. Buckley’s campaign marked a true turning point for the conservative movement. Running on a similar program, Reagan was elected governor a year later.
LOPEZ: What’s your favorite Buckleyism?
FELZENBERG: There are so many Buckley quotes that will long survive. His suggestion that he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston telephone directory than by the 2,000 faculty members of Harvard stands out. So does the comment he made to John Kenneth Galbraith after the liberal economist broke a leg skiing. Buckley inquired how long his friend had indulged in the sport. “Oh, about 35 years,” was the reply. “About as long as you have been teaching economics?” Buckley inquired. My personal favorite was Buckley’s rejoinder to comments Arthur Schlesinger made about National Review’s editor in a debate I happened to attend. “Lord Acton told us,” Buckley said, “that power corrupts. Arthur Schlesinger is living proof that the lack of power also corrupts.” Now with both of them gone, the question remains as to which of these men exerted the greater influence in shaping today’s world?
I think we know.
LOPEZ: How did you know him? How do you remember him?
FELZENBERG: When other teenagers were standing in line to get a glimpse of the Beatles, I was going to hear Buckley lecture. I first became aware of him when I watched him debate John Lindsay and Abraham Beame when the three ran for mayor of New York. I began writing Buckley fan letters. In response to one, WFB invited me to join him and his fellow editors while they put the next edition of NR “to bed.” I still have the photo John Coyne took of us on an old Kodak instamatic camera! Sometimes, I was tasked with finding students to populate the audience of Firing Line tapings. (There always seemed to be eager fraternity pledges around.) The letters and the visits continued through the decades. There were a few telephone calls and, later, some e-mails. WFB delighted in the company of young people. His work very much lives in that of those he mentored. I have tried in my own way to follow his example.
LOPEZ: How did you get involved in writing a biography of the man?
FELZENBERG: I had wanted to write a book about WFB for some time. I took the leap when I realized that, after their passing, most journalists and commentators fade from public memory and go unknown to future generations. Names such as James Reston, William Safire, David Broder, all of whom I read in my undergraduate years, are unknown to my students. I did not want this to happen to WFB, given the extraordinary influence he exerted both in what he wrote and what he did.
LOPEZ: At what stage is your work?
FELZENBERG: I am a little past halfway through what for me has been a fascinating journey.
LOPEZ: What have you been surprised to learn?
FELZENBERG: While I knew that Buckley exerted considerable influence on his times, I was surprised to see on how many different levels he operated. Of these, print, television, and public appearance were only a few.
LOPEZ: Can you give me an interesting random fact you’d love to include in the book but will probably have to leave on the cutting-room floor?
FELZENBERG: I will take a pass on mentioning “random facts” I think might wind up on the cutting room floor. One of the tasks before me is to persuade my editor that everything about WFB I know or uncovered belongs in the book!
LOPEZ: What do you hear about him the most?
FELZENBERG: The response I get from people who discover that I am writing about WFB is universal: “What an extraordinary personality. What fun you must be having!” They are right on both counts.
LOPEZ: Who misses him the most?
FELZENBERG: Conservatives certainly miss Buckley. He occupied a preeminent place in the movement. As George Will says, “Before Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review, there was Bill Buckley, with a spark in his mind.” Liberals — at least the smart ones — miss Buckley because he forced them to justify what they believe. People interested in ideas miss him because he had so many good ones. His friends probably miss him the most because he was such a good one.
LOPEZ: How important was National Review to him? Firing Line? How were these different and the same?
FELZENBERG: After God, his country, and his family, National Review was the most important thing in Bill Buckley’s life. He took great pride in it and wanted it to be the place conservatives of various points of view went for guidance, validation, and information. He saw its function as that of a “tablet keeper.” Buckley certainly enjoyed Firing Line. But, television at its best, which Firing Line certainly was, is ephemeral. Topics changed with the news. Primarily a man of print — despite his love of gadgets — Buckley wanted people to return to some of the longer essays in his magazine. Many have stood the test of time rather well.
LOPEZ: As important as politics was to him, religion, culture, friendship — these were fundamental, weren’t they?
FELZENBERG: I would think that politics was less important to WFB than were religion, culture, and friendship. Buckley’s Catholicism shaped his politics and informed his opinions. What drew him to politics was his (to paraphrase Jefferson) “eternal hostility” to the very idea of moral equivalence. Something was right or wrong. Dueling armies and intelligence agencies, while they used similar tools and methods, were employed to achieve different ends. He took on the “ideological egalitarians” as early as in his first book, God and Man at Yale. Buckley began writing novels that featured a CIA agent as their hero because he was concerned that too much of what he was reading created the impression that the U.S. and USSR were morally equivalent. To WFB, the Cold War was a continuation of the struggle between good and evil. In Ronald Reagan, he found a kindred spirit.
LOPEZ: What might he recommend we read right about now in our history?
FELZENBERG: I think WFB would have liked the Spielberg film Lincoln. He made many references to Lincoln and empathized with the moral choices Lincoln had to make. He would be glad to see that even liberal historians, who so maligned Ronald Reagan while he was in office, recognize Reagan’s historical importance. Barack Obama’s comment about Reagan being a “transformational president” would have been catnip for WFB. He would also be pleased by the Coolidge revival that is currently in full swing with two new books out. Coolidge was in office when Buckley was born. That, of course, was a time when free-market economics, rather than Keynesian economics, was the order of the day. I can visualize him grinning at the very thought of that.
LOPEZ: What’s the lesson from him that we might benefit from learning right about now? As conservatives? As Americans?
FELZENBERG: Bill Buckley taught us the importance of humor in public debate. He showed a generosity of spirit to all he encountered. And, however vigorously he engaged with people with whom he disagreed, he never let go of the possibility that he might convert political opponents and antagonists into personal friends. I could not find an instance where he carried a personal grudge against anyone for very long. He would tell his fellow Americans that the battles he fought in his day continue in ours, but in different forms. He would argue that there was no moral equivalence between the democratic state of Israel and those who seek it harm. He would insist that there is a moral distinction between the United States of America, which was founded on Judaic-Christian principles, and those who embrace terrorism in the name of religion. And, if given time, he would urge us to continue reading his beloved magazine.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.