In July 2002, The Candid Review‘s Robert Sirianni, Jr .and Ryan Lambert traveled to New York City to conduct an interview with one of America’s leading figures – author and journalist, William F. Buckley Jr, Our discussion with Buckley was as wide-ranging as one might suspect with a gentleman who has earned world-class status in speaking and sailing, writing, playing the harpsichord, and a plethora of other endeavors.
Buckley’s life includes military service and a brief career with the Central Intelligence Agency, the founding of National Review the premiere conservative opinion and news magazine, candidate for the New York City mayoralty and inspiration to a thousand other political leaders, writing several dozen books and a nationally syndicated column, yacht racing and long-distance sailing, and through his glamorous, sophisticated, and erudite manner, he has generated a long history of putting the best possible face and most robust exposition of a body of ideas and opinions that have won much of the world over.
Buckley’s long-time assistant, Francis Bronson, gracefully arranged our meeting. We were to interview Buckley in his National Review office, and our proposal expressed a desire to discuss his newest novel – Nuremberg: The Reckoning- a historical fiction work that explored the famous war trials from the perspective of Sebastian Reinhard, a US Army translator of German extraction. The book was the most recent in a very long series of Buckley’s work that had conveyed reality to the reader in an intensely satisfying way. Buckley’s writing can present a point, tell a story, or create a dialogue that stretches the mind with its depth and insight, explicates an event or relationship with imminently fair judgment, and brings a chuckle and gin for its cleverness. In short, it is a joy to read his work – especially the collections of his columns from the past four decades – and after almost a decade of consuming the product, an opportunity for me to meet with the source took special significance.
We arrived at the Manhattan offices of National Review eager for the experience, but somewhat apprehensive with regard to the magnitude of the event. The individual we were about to interview had been the host of television’s longest-running show: Firing Line, a program which presented Buckley in a discussion with leading intellectual, cultural, and political figures. For much of his life, Buckley had been going head-to-head with the most accomplished members of a thousand fields – surely his standards for satisfying conservation were quite elevated. Buckley wrote his first book God and Man at Yale – a highly critical look at his alma mater’s surrender to secularism and acquiescence to left-wing nonsense at age 25. At 30 he founded National Review. In the years since these skills and ambitions have been honed.
However Buckley’s rise to the top has not been without dissent. During our conversation, we discussed the rise of liberalism, especially on college and graduate campuses. He opined a short story about a situation occurring during a commencement address he gave at the University of California. A student approached Buckley and placed a box on his lap. Inside the box was a small pig. The pig leaped from Buckley’s possession, scampering across the stage. Buckley responded to this situation not with resentment, but rather, with a smile and an acknowledgment that it is nearly impossible to please everyone. In any event, the story illustrates why Buckley is such a success – he has a judicious sense of professionalism, coupled with a large dose of common sense and a respect for competing points of view, unparalleled within his industry.
After receiving notice of our arrival, Buckley leaves his office and comes to the reception area of the National Review offices to meet us. In the first few seconds of conversation, it is abundantly obvious that this is a man of considerable charm, and fully capable of putting his audience at ease. We are led through the complex, passing along the way offices of National Review writers who we’d been enjoying and learning from for years.
1Mr. William F. Buckley, Jr. and Ryan Lambert – (graduate student Harvard University Kennedy School of Government) – discuss journalism and Mr. Buckley’s book, Nuremberg, at National Review headquarters in New York City
Buckley’s office is much smaller than one would suspect. It overlooks Lexington Avenue, and the bustling street below sends its sounds and energy into the office. On the left wall hang dozens of pictures, certificates, and letters. They are visual representations of 50 years of history. Images with presidents Buckley inspired and advised – Indeed, Ronald Reagan commented that reading Buckley in National Review was responsible for his becoming a Republican – sketches of sailing ships that Buckley has captained, and others. To the right of Buckley’s desk is an old black typewriter. On the left: a computer. Behind his leather chair: a knob thermostat he gives constant attention to. His speech and mannerisms are familiar to those who have watched Firing Line or seen him in action in other forums. The dominant observation would be that this man contains boundless energy and not being constantly active is a minute-to-minute struggle.
Yet, Buckley is patient. Words and ideas are of great concern to him, and he willingly pauses his communication in order to create the perfect phrase and craft the point- even a minor one – in a way few do even with their most important. One might remark that every sentence Buckley creates is presented in a manner befitting one’s last words. The variation between his speech and his writing is minor and this reflects a life of constant improvement to a point where all forms of address are highly refined. Stories are told about Albert Einstein’s time at Princeton – obsessive bunches of graduate students would follow him around campus, desperately dictating every Iastutterance in hopes of recording some thought that might be the next gem of science. While listening to Buckley prescient observations come with the territory, it is the breadth of his experience and insight that inspires such awe.
For many, Buckley and conservatism are synonymous. He has been the leading intellectual of the Right, the man who helped create the modern movement through opinion creation, distribution, and consultation through his mass audience and personal relationships, and a person who reflects the values and traditions his ideology seek to preserve. His book Nearer, My God, To Thee, explores a life of faith. His close friendship with liberal economist John Kenneth Galbraith is indicative of a man who values others for qualities other than their political position and the willingness of thousands to appear on Firing Line provide evidence of civility and desire to engage so rare in our turbulent age. Finally, William F, Buckley‘s optimism – his quest in continuing to advance his view of the world, is an inspiration to all who dare to dream. In his life, Buckley has wielded incredible intellectual firepower combined with a zest for life and perhaps the most highly developed use of the language of any writer. His career began with a brilliant identification of the communist menace – a totalitarian system that threatened to destroy the values we hold sacred. In the first issue of National Review November 19, 1955 – Buckley wrote “[National Review] stands athwart history yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so or to have much patience with those who do.” Decades later, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and communism, Buckley’s National Review spoke again in 1991, clearly and correctly: “We ‘Won.’
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