William Frank Buckley Jnr. was an American author and commentator. He founded the political magazine National Review, hosted the television show Firing Line from 1966 until 1999, and was a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist.
He wrote over fifty books on writing, speaking, history, politics and sailing, including God and Man at Yale, as well as a series of novels featuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Buckley referred to himself as either a libertarian or conservative, and was a practising Roman Catholic.
He died in February 27, 2008.
Here is an interview with him from my book, Singular Encounters.
Who has been the primary influence on your life, apart from Edmund Burke?
My father, whom I found entirely admirable and in many senses unique. He was well educated but he was a self made man. His father was a sheriff in Texas, which was a pretty high position after the Civil War. But there was no wealth in the South, none whatsoever, so he worked his way through university, and when his father died, put the entire family through university too. He went to Texas, started a business, married at the age of thirty-six, had ten children, educated them all, and we grew up a happy and well-informed family. He was an intellectual by inclination, a successful businessman, a wonderful father and husband. That’s pretty unusual. The responsibility of ten children when you are in the oil business and knowing great fluctuations of fortune is something I’ve never had to go through, thank God.
What is it exactly that and American conservative seeks to conserve?
American conservatives are guided by the notion that there are some stable insights in the idea of America which are not subject to essential change. They might change in respect of modality, of emphasis, but not otherwise. In that sense we take the word conservative and use it a little bit differently from the way it might be used, say, in Russia, where they speak of the conservatives who want to restore Stalinism. What we want to retain is understandings having to do with the division of power politically, and other understandings having to do with the recognition of two cities – the city of God and the city of man – as coexisting in modern society and each commanding a loyalty.
Many might regard your conservatism as a natural consequence of being rich. Is there any reason why a poor man should be a conservative?
I should think so. The value of conservative arrangements to a rich man is pari passu valuable also to a poor man. A poor man suffers much more than a rich man from inflation, for instance, and a poor man has a much greater chance to change his own status in society with the upward mobility the conservatives emphasise. Nineteen percent of the people in the lowest quintals in America moved to different quintals during the 1980s, which is a significant achievement. We’re talking about a society in which, by current standards of poverty, 90 per cent of the American people were poor in 1900, a figure that has reduced to somewhere between 13 and 14 percent. That shows a tremendous upward mobility, which obviously caused a broad prosperity to a lot of people who didn’t have it. But just as you go up, so you obviously have a chance to go down. Now, if you say that rich people are better off than poor people, I’d day that that is so obvious it’s hardly worth commenting on. But if I may say so, there seems to be more interest in genuine upward mobility in America than there is in Britain.
But do the rich become richer and the poor poorer?
No, it’s not true. I had a n interesting argument on this point with Kenneth Galbraith’s son, who said that, in nineteenth-century England, who said that the disparity between the most and least rich was greater even than in America today. The answer to your question is that more people are getting richer, but there is a compensating elevation in the lowest quintal. What you really have is a structure to be compared with a mobile, a string to which various things attach. The whole string goes up. There is no other way to account for a reduction from 90 per cent to 13 per cent in the poor over a period of ninety years, and that 13 per cent reduces to 10 per cent when you take into account the market value of perquisites or necessities handed over by the state. The static analysis from which Liberals tend to suffer is the assumption that, every time you earn one dollar, somebody else loses a dollar. It doesn’t work that way. If you earn one dollar, it’s likely that somebody else is also going to earn one dollar.
Milton Friedman says that he’s no longer willing to say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch, this being the aphorism most associated with Miltonic economics. The reason he’s not now willing to say it is that, if I give you a sweater in exchange for a shoe, we’re both better off. Applying that dynamic analysis is distinct from the static analysis; you find a general elevation of standards. Obviously there are lacunae, but these don’t affect the secular drifts.
You and Galbraith are friends, yet the public perception is that you are miles apart politically.
The common ground is civility, geniality. The public perception that we’re miles apart is correct, he would be the first to emphasize it and I would be the next. If Kenneth’s views had prevailed in American policy in the last forty-five years, first, we’d be broke, and secondly we’d be a Soviet satellite. But he happens to be a wonderful writer, a wonderful friend, wonderfully genial, very gifted, and has a nice sense of humour, therefore I delight in his company.
It seems you have made only one attempt to enter active politics, when you stood for mayor of New York.
I stood for mayor only to make pedagogical points. I was never a candidate in any serious sense. In fact I predicted that my vote would be one per cent or less the day I announced my candidacy, but it was an opening to ventilate points of view that I had been ventilating for years through other media. If, from time to time, through direct political exposure, you can get free access to the media to put forward points of view, it doesn’t make sense to turn it down. It can’t happen frequently. For that reason I ran, but I considered it then, and still do, to be an act of criticism rather than an act of political candidacy. In Britain can be simultaneously a critic and a politician, but not here, here we have no safe seats.
Is the impression accurate that the very talented tend not to enter politics and that consequently our lives are ruled and shaped by the best of the mediocre?
I think it is, but I’m not entirely certain that this is upsetting. If one makes the general commitment to democracy that most of us are prepared to make, one has to recognize the virtue of temporizing. The intellectual and the very gifted man tends in the direction of hubris, total self-absorption and the conviction of his own correctness. For that reason he is probably a little less flexible than a democratic politician ought to be. I know that I always have to guard in National Review against judging a politician against the pragmatic measure, because the tendency is to insist that the paradigm is the correct way to judge him, and if you do that, you are engaged in the politics of evangelism, and that isn’t very productive. You do get extraordinary figures that come in, but they tend to extraordinary with reference to criteria other than those which singled out a Churchill or a Lincoln. Nixon is an extraordinary man. Reagan is an extraordinary man. Yet they are extraordinary in a strictly political context. They wouldn’t be extraordinary in an academic context, or in most other secular contexts. So you do find among the so-called mediocrities remarkable men.
It sometimes seems that the politician able to give the best performance on television is the one who wins the day.
There is no question that a lack of success on television can be critical. One doesn’t necessarily have to be telegenic, but if one repels on television, then that puts a quietus on a political career, even as it would in Hollywood. Most American voters get their news from television. You may have sent eh recently published report that fifty percent of voters did not know the name of a vice-presidential candidate on a Democratic ticket. Pretty disappointing. So the capacity of television to influence public opinion is a thousand times as high as any previous competitor, and that works, I think, mostly against the common weal. Demagogy tends to attract more attention that statesmanship. Therefore I would guess that, given the rapidity with which the public can be influenced, it can more easily be influenced in a negative than a positive direction.
Has there been a degradation? The philosophical and political argument here tends to centre on the constitutional amendment that changed the composition of the Senate. After 1912, the responsibility devolved from the legislators to the people. Ken Galbraith is very insistent that the quality of the Senate is improved. I tend to resist that, making, however, a concession for the fifty years after then end of the Civil War when senators were very much the creatures of big-business bullies who were buying up legislators. But if I were to take the period between 1800 and 1850 and the period between 1900 and 1950, I would certainly prefer the quality of the first to the second. My reason is that the sense of security that came with being selected by the legislators – allowing you to have a name for yourself and be less dependent on whim – encourage people of a certain character to think of themselves in the Roman sense as having a patriarchal responsibility to discharge. Remember that, in those days, people didn’t think of politics as a full time career. There were a few like Clay and Calhoun Webster who did, but it was a little bit infra dig. As a matter of fact, when Lincoln wondered if he would go back to Congress, he actually consulted his friends about whether it would ruin his reputation to look so greedy as to want to go to congress for a second term. A single term was considered about right, but certainly not three or four terms. Now it’s a vocation.
In what important respects does American conservatism differ from the conservatism of the British Conservative government?
Conservatives in the British government are much more influenced by class than we are. In America we conservatives tend to welcome change which would cause a little alarm in Britain. Here, if we find out, let’s say, that sixty-five per cent of the upper quintal have arisen from the third quintal or the second quintal in the past generation, we would feel that is terrific. No corresponding sense of pleasure communicates itself to me from reading the British press. That’s one reason why Thatcher is not really all that popular with the old-time Conservatives in Great Britain, who think of themselves as guardians of a perpetual caste into which only a certain rash of newcomers is welcome.
How do you evaluate Mrs Thatcher?
I am very much in favour of Mrs Thatcher. I was an early enthusiast. It’s true of her, as it is of anyone who is around that long, that they develop, and what was once a rather amusing affectation becomes a horrible affectation. So certain of her traits – and I’m talking now not only about personality but about her traits as a leader – rasp in a sense that they didn’t five years ago. But she has been a clear and positive leader, her priorities have been acceptable, and she has moved with uneven but general success in their direction. Inflation and unemployment are now going down a little bit, so I think history will think of her as somebody who did a lot to revitalize an economy that had lost a lot of faith in itself.
Many would say that the problem with Mrs Thatcher is that she doesn’t appear to have compassion.
They’re right. She doesn’t. Interestingly enough, the same charge has been made against Ronald Reagan, even though he is an effective populist speaker in a way she is not. I have found it extremely difficult, in my personal experience, to know the extent to which someone is compassionate generally from the public behaviour. I know men and women who seem icy cold but they are very philanthropic, but she doesn’t give an impression of being one of those.
She had a very good working relationship with Reagan. The same chemistry doesn’t seem to operate with Bush.
That’s probably because Thatcher and Reagan thought of themselves as compelled by and ideological appetite to reorient their countries in a direction they thought correct. They were missionaries. George Bush is not a missionary, he is a consolidator. Thatcher and Reagan said that their countries had been going in the wrong direction for a number of years and they’d got to do something real fast to turn them around. That created an affinity of purpose compounded by what turned out to be a rather unexpected affinity of temperament, for they’re very different people, she so precise and meticulous, he sort of sprawly and communicative almost by osmosis sometimes. Yet I know from conversations that there was a genuine sense of I like her and I think she likes me. That was absolutely genuine. It was not put up for public display.
As to which of them was dominant, Reagan’s just a subtle creature in that he tends to agree as a matter of manners but two weeks later will simply take his own course. The notion that Reagan was a creature of other people’s thinking is historically incorrect. I’m not saying that he wasn’t influenced in the general sense in which everybody’s influenced, but he genuinely made up his own mind. Once when he was briefing the congressional leaders at six o’clock while American parachutists were in the air, Mrs Thatcher came on the line and said, ‘Ronald, I’ve done a lot of thinking about the situation in Granada, and we must do nothing for at least three months.’ He said, ‘You’re quite right, Margaret,’ but he was moved exclusively by the possibility that the Cubans were listening in to the conversation. He wasn’t going to have American paratroopers shot down by Cuban fighter planes. Her feelings were hurt on that occasion. She was rumpled. However that would be an example of him giving her the general impression that she was a dominant figure in any action, when in fact he was perfectly prepared to act.
Is the ‘special relationship’ fact of myth today?
I think it’s a fragile fact. It’s a fact that we speak the same language, that we haven’t warred against each other for 150 years, and the slight geographical isolation of Great Britain, gives it just that little detachment from continental embroglios that makes for an affinity with our much more general geographical isolation. It is fragile in the sense that we are the great super-power and Britain is one no longer, yet Britain considers itself in almost every respect brighter than America: more stable, more mature, more at home with democratic institutions, and more at home with the stability of the cast or semi-cast system; which causes a certain amount of friction. Now the Brits are prepared to make certain broad concessions. For instance, in the new introduction to the OED, they concede that all the important work of a lexicographical character is being carried on by Americans and recognize the great resources of America. But with that recognition goes a very considerable contempt for what are considered distinctively American manners, vulgarities, excesses, violence, so that the admiration that makes for the special relationship with America is a detached admiration and one that is really condescending. Still, it’s useful and practicable and is to be encouraged. It occasionally figures very strongly, as, for instance, during the high-point of the Macmillan-Kennedy association.
Is the British Conservative party right to resist the level of freedom of information you now have in America?
Yes, it is. I oppose the idea that an extension of democratic government presupposes instant familiarity with details of government which are not crucial to the general understanding. Your fifty-year rule strikes me as much more sensible than our overnight rule. Our overnight rule, of course, has limitations, but we have been permitted, for example, to read conversations by Richard Nixon which are useful to the Trollopes of this world but I wouldn’t say they were useful in enhancing a kind of alarmed and democratic society in which , while acknowledging that certain things go on, some measure of satisfaction should be taken in the fact that knowledge is not documented every day. To read fifty or thirty years after Churchill’s death about some of his unattractive vanities is, I think, a satisfaction to which I’m entitled because I’m historically curious, but I do no feel that democracy functions better by having freedom of information that could have told me about Churchill’s private conversations while he was still living and contending for office. So privacy has public usefulness which is, I would say, better guarded in your country than in mine.
The Practice as opposed to the theory of conservative values in Britain seems to have entailed poverty at the level of living in cardboard boxes and beggars in the street. How is that to be avoided in a conservative scheme of things?
My information is different from yours. My information is that in Great Britain people are thinking that political class recognizes that England is subsidizing on a perpetual basis an indolent non-working class and chooses to do so rather than stoke up economic energy. We had that attitude here and there, towards Appalachia, for instance. I once wrote, thirty years ago, that John F Kennedy went to West Virginia and guaranteed the coal miners that they could continue to not make coal for a living- which was what it amounted to. I see that happening on a larger scale in Britain. It brings about a certain tranquillity: we’ll have ten per cent unemployed an we will just bear the burden. Now I may be completely misinformed, but if so, so are some of my English friends who have told me that this is pretty well the way it’s going. I happen to think it is wrong for psychological reasons, and it is obviously wrong for economic reasons because somebody who is unproductive is not adding to the common pool. I tend to be enough of a puritan to believe that people are not happy unless they’re producing something. It can be an intangible, like mother love, they’re producing, but it has to be something. And the answer, of course, is that to get movement going in that direction, you’ve got to put people on the assembly line towards productivity.
They’ve got to find this out in East Germany very soon, because that engine is going to be pushing right at them in a way it’s not going to push in Romania or Poland, which both have more lackadaisical habit. In East Germany, with $125 billion invested in equalization of the mark, people are going to find out that the working day is much closer to eight hours than three. Mutatis, mutandis. Applying that to Great Britain, you would certainly simply not tolerate the perpetual dole without some effort to cause people to seek out work where work’s available. By American standards the British are lazy. Not by Indian standards, or East European standards, but then even the Japanese are lazy by American standards.
Has your Catholicism had a significant effect on your political thinking?
I hope so. Catholicism, somebody once said, has everything to say about some things, and something to say about everything. I don’t think that’s true. I don’t think it has much to say about peanut butter. But I think that a believing Christian always has a second perspective. I’m going to write a book the year after next on why I’m still a Catholic, and by my standards, I will spend a fair amount of time on it. It’s a faith that I have never attempted to conceal. I think it’s simply incorrect to wed that faith to particularities of political positions. For example, the notion that we should stand up under all circumstances against the Soviet Union is highly rooted in my belief in Christianity, and I quarrelled very openly with the Bishops who argued against a nuclear deterrent, and quarrelled with the Pope on that silly speech he gave on capitalism in Mexico. But on the big issues – the incorrectness of a political society attempting to occupy the place of God – I think that’s a very liberating concept.
Have I ever been disillusioned with Catholicism? I’ve often been disillusioned with what the Catholic Church has done or not done, but if you mean have I ever felt a weakening of faith, well, I lie down until I get over it. Christians call it Grace. And Grace is not earned, it’s adventitious.
In your new introduction to God and Man at Yale, you suggest that the interests of the state and those of civilisation were sometimes at odds. What brought you to this conclusion?
I think it was the indecision of prominent American universities to act in the way that Swiss universities had acted during the crisis of 1948 over Czechoslovakia, or as they did subsequently in Hungary. There were affirmations by the faculties denouncing this new act of Soviet oppression and servitude, whereas we were bound by the protocols of academic freedom against that kind of action. I remember the president of Yale never spoke to me again after that. He was a classicist, became a baseball commissioner, and died tragically of a heart attack a couple of years ago. He declined to permit the Yale University Glee Club to sing in a one-hour ceremony celebrating the birthday of Solidarity, on the grounds that it would commit the university to a political cause. I thought that so flatulent and silly that I was provoked to write that book, which amusingly enough is referred to as my novel in the current Spectator. You can see how serious that interviewer’s research was. The offence I took that provoked this book was a John Stuart Millsian notion that, as long as one believed in a position, one could not consider that position as having been fatally condemned. It would mean presumably that if one person believed the genocide against the Jews in Germany was excusable, one must consider that an open position. I thought that nihilistic.
The Notion that a student going to Yale oughtn’t to be helped in the direction of civilised thought but is told there is no distinction between the Declaration of Independence and the Communist Manifesto as to which is the more virtuous, the more enlightened instrument, I find more a pose than a serious and thoughtful position. They took the view that any position taken by a faculty was not of anyone’s concern. That may be true in graduate school, where you’re hiring a researcher, but and undergraduate school should undertake to teach some of those values which were learned by a civilisation after very hard work and to assume that a society doesn’t have an interest in projecting what it has developed over two millennia is simply a dereliction of duty.
How does one apply in the political arena principles derived from faith?
Well, you don’t. It’s not a simple exercise. If there are certain tings you shouldn’t do, you’ve got to ask yourself why you should not do them and who said not. Kant can plead his autonomous idea of ethics, but overwhelmingly we are taught these are religious prescriptions, whether under the Koran, the Talmud, the Old Testament, or the New Testament. Certain kinds of behaviour are not tolerated. You have to refine the question a long way to decide whether you have crossed that line, but to be preoccupied with that exercise is the important thing.
What do you feel about the aftermath of Vatican II?
I think it was a terrible mistake. Having said that, I accept Vatican II as probably divinely instituted, but the lengths to which Vatican II has been taken are not the responsibility of Vatican II. For instance, there is nothing in Vatican II that says you should forsake the mass in Latin. There’s quite a lot in Vatican II which says you ought not to forsake the mass in Latin. In fact it has been almost universally forsaken. That was the doing of the bishops. There’s nothing in Vatican II that says the suspension against eating meat on Firday shall end, but it did end. There seemed to be no constitutional resistance built up in the clergy to these huge changes in the liturgy, and that surprised a great many people. Certainly the notion that the vernacularization of the religious language would breed more Catholics is simply wrong – wrong judged against any criterion. The loss of vocations, the laicizations, the diminishing number of people in church stabilized at about sixty per cent of the level of 1963.
What is the chance of unification of the Christian churches?
Slight, in part because faith has been highly diluted. Paradoxically I think the unification of the Christian Churches is a development that would more likely come about after a maximisation rather than a minimisation of faith. To the extent that you become a fervent Methodist, you become a little bit more anti-Catholic tan you were before. If you become pro-Harvard, you become a little bit more anti-Yale. That’s true through a certain stage but if you then reach beyond that stage, your common concern is for the teaching of Christ more than for the denomination differences that divide. We certainly haven’t reached that second latter stage, and we’re not far advanced into the second stage. There are still denominational enthusiasts. Southern Baptists in America are one example. The Mormons would be another.
Does the new religious fundamentalism in America and what might be called the church of the extreme right worry you?
It doesn’t worry me at all. In the first place, the so-called extreme-right fundamentalism was the workaday understanding of America throughout most of my life. I had the big deal in the moral majority on my programme, begging to find out what it is that I could be furious with him about. Did he believe in persecuting homosexuals? No; but he didn’t believe a homosexual should teach in a situation in which peer pressure was an aspect. Well, I agree with that. Pretty soon I fond myself thinking, what is is that these people want that Americans think of as extreme? It suddenly occurred to me. What they think of as extreme is what they totally accepted up until I was about forty-five or fifty years old – you know, people had a right to teach religion in schools, if it was acceptable to the community; pornography was not available at the local kiosk; commercial establishments were closed on Sunday. All that stuff considered absolutely preposterous was absolutely routine and acceptable right up until 1955, 1965, so I’m not in the least worried about it.
A lot of people regard sex as the as the motivating force in their lives, whereas the Catholic Church regards it as a means of procreation, not to be used for gratification.
What you say is not so in the Catholic Church. The Church has no ban against sexual congress during pregnancy. To say that procreation’s a primary objective of the sexual act is no different from saying that the primary purpose of eating is to stay alive. It is, but that isn’t mostly why you and I eat. We have to do that to stay alive but that doesn’t dictate in the least our appetite for cuisine. I would say it’s rather healthy of the Church to the extent that it indirectly attempts to diminish the sex act as the principal Freudian compulsion in one’s life. Individuals are often moved primarily by the sexual drive, but (a) it doesn’t mean they ought to be, (b) it doesn’t mean they can’t be persuaded from being so. After all, there are celibate orders that are very successful, and it by no means suggests that subordinating the sexual drive is to deprive it of importance or that there isn’t great joy or gratification to be got from it.
But isn’t it a fact that the Church appears to begrudge sexual gratification?
On the surface it gives that impression, especially, for instance, in the Humani Vitae encyclical where it suggests that, if you’re not willing to run the risk of pregnancy, you ought not to have sex. In that respect it certainly does. But it’s simply not practised, even by Catholics who have no reluctance about going to communion.
At one point you were part of the CIA, which has had a bad press over the years in connection with such events as the murder of Allende in Chile.
Criticism of the CIA should restrict itself to things it didn’t do well, but I don’t think it ought to be criticized for anything it may have sought to do. In my judgement, the historical records are very clear that the assassination of Allende had nothing to do with the CIA. I’ve written nine novels about the CIA, and if I had to summarize in a sentence what I sought to say about them, it would be that, in an apocalyptic world, the nation and mandate of counter-intelligence is a moral need which can’t be quantified. I mean by that that certain challenges arise which require and indicate the advisability of a certain action being taken which cannot discreetly be applauded. An assassination, for instance. Supposing you have Idi Amin, who’s got hold of an atom bomb, and the CIA in the field finds out that at midnight he’s going to dispatch a bomber with instructions to drop it over Jerusalem. The CIA man says he’s got a man there wit a sniper rifle. Does he pull the trigger and abort the mission? If I were US president, I would tell him to go ahead and do so, but under no circumstances would I, as a theorist, ask you to come up with a set of conditions under which it is Ok to order a private assassination, because there are too many imponderables to make it possible to quantify such a thing satisfactorily. For that reason, I think counter-intelligence is an art form and has to be judged more pragmatically than aprioristically.
There are people all over the world who are astonished by an American government committed to democracy at home yet seemingly eager to league itself with the most repressive dictatorships.
There’s absolutely no question that the containment policy of the United States invited abuse. There are even jokes about it: the president of Venezuela in 1956 is told that he doesn’t qualify for more US aid than he is getting because it isn’t enough of a communist problem, so he goes out and imports communists. At a more serious level, I’ve always found very liberating a distinction drawn by Senator Fulbright, and he was speaking from the other side of the political fence from my own when he said it. He said that the American government has no proper quarrel against the practices of any government in the world; however odious, unless it’s a government trying to export it’s policies. I apply that, for instance, to the landing of the marines in the Dominican Republic in 1965 on the orders of Lyndon Johnson. Lyndon Johnson was convinced that Juan Bosch was going to make the Dominican Republic another Cuba. So the marines landed there, cleaned that situation up, but ignored entirely the western half of Hispaniola where Papa Doc was torturing people to death every night. We don’t have the power to follow the Wilsonian mandate of making all the world safe for democracy. The logical distinction is to contain aggressive hideosities, such as the Soviet Union has been foremost in committing during the past forty years, and that seems a clean division on the relevant possibilities of the state.
What about the moral dimension, especially where one is preaching morality in one’s own country?
I’m glad you use the word preaching. The American people have very definite moral responsibility. John Quincey Adams said the American people are friends of liberty everywhere but custodians only of their own. He said that in 1828, so he was reminding us that we are for good people everywhere, but cant and don’t have the power to take responsibility for them. For instance, I am very sympathetic to the idea of any American who refuses to buy any product from South Africa. It may be mistaken as a mater of policy, but I’m sympathetic with the idea. I’m totally unsympathetic with the American government attempting to boycott South Africa. There they are violating the Fulbright distinction in a way that is impractical and wrong. So the moral impulse to preach, inveigh and hector is and ought to be exactly that: a moral backed by whatever economic power and individual has, expressed usually through boycotts.
Yet it sometimes seems to the outside world that no degree of violence or repression is enough to cut off American aid.
It happens in part, I suppose, because of a notion that we recognize de facto power. If Perón is in charge of Argentina, we do business with Argentina. This is in part because that is the way nations work. It’s also in part because there are mutual interests. We want to import certain Argentinean things; they want to import certain American things; so the question becomes, is the United States going to stand in the way of this exchange?
In fact we’re required under law to pass judgement once a year against individual countries as to whether they are or are not free. If a country is not free, the president must suspend all aid to that country unless, in the exercise of hi judgement, it is strategically necessary to override this recommendation. They can go further and have what they call state-specific prohibitions which are levied against south Africa, against Vietnam, against Korea – countries with which even the president doesn’t have the power to authorize trade. This strikes me as a not ill-considered way of doing things, as long as the president does retain the power in ambiguous cases to continue to do business. For instance, our handling of Pinochet’s situation in Chile, however long his reign, was I think sensible. Chile regraduated into a democratic situation. There was damage done, but in historical terms, not huge. It was a comparable state to Franco’s Spain. It would have been very wrong to have attempted to slow down the economic rejuvenation of Chile, which made it’s return to democracy likelier.
Have the lessons of Vietnam been adequately learned by America?
I don’t think they have. I wrote a piece recently in which I said that President Bush, in going slowly on Lithuania, is probably correct in saying he is reflection the will of the American people. I think he is making a mistake, strategic and moral, but he is undoubtedly influenced by Vietnam: that is, if the American people aren’t a hundred per cent behind you, don’t do it. The lesson of Vietnam is incompletely learned in part because it became so complicated along the line. The relevant school of thought was, if you want to win the war you can do it, but be tough. The second school of thought was that there was no way to win the war because it was a war that pitted you against indigenous forces. And the third was, it’s a war you should never have gotten into in the first place. A little bit of each of these lingers in the American mind. They haven’t sorted it out, nor are they likely to, given the recent retrenchment of the communist empire.
At the time of Vietnam, I felt we should get on with it, and I felt it important for two reasons. No. 1, strategic, and No.2, that our commitment to Vietnam, having been made by three presidents in such unmistakeable accents, meant the credibility of America’s guarantees everywhere in the world was very much at risk. Every guarantee that we made in NATO could in the future be held to be of no account, given our failure to make good our guarantees to Vietnam. What we tried to do, in effect, was blame it on Vietnam: they were the ones that collapsed, we didn’t desert them. In fact we did desert them.
Oh, yes, I do believe it was a war we could have won. And I believe it all the more now. It is increasingly documented that the war against Vietnam was against an invading force. The notion that it was a war against an indigenous force is simply incorrect. It became increasingly a war against an indigenous force as communist pressures against the peasants began to work. If you start executing everybody who doesn’t co-operate with you, you get a lot of co-operation. There were a lot of Lidice operations that took place in South Vietnam, but the time to move would have been very early, in 1965, 1966. After that it became progressively difficult. But the great risk was China. We now know that china would have welcomed an American victory, but, of course, neither Lyndon Johnson nor Nixon was willing to bank on that, and therefore we exercised certain restraints we would not have exercised otherwise.
What led you to the imaginative work of writing fiction?
What led me specifically was an offer of a contract by a publisher. I had no reason whatsoever to suppose I could do it successfully, but I didn’t want to do it on a gamble of which I was the only creditor. Therefore they gave me an advance on the following terms: I would send them the first 100 pages. If they liked what they read, they would guarantee the full advance. If they didn’t, I’d keep one third. They did like it and it was a bestseller. That was Saving the Queen.
One review spoke of Saving the Queen as ‘a hotchpotch of snobbery and twaddle’ are you wounded by such criticism?
Criticism like that would not wound me, because it’s utterly incorrect. If it was subtle criticism and I thought it correct, that would very much arrest me. But I’m utterly unaffected criticism that I think is motivated either by ignorance or malice. I pay no attention at all.
Your book Overdrive was attacked by critics and readers, not on literary grounds but more for the personality that came across. Even friends like John Leonard called it a piece of self-indulgence. You seemed unaware of the offence such a book might cause. Was it a miscalculation? Did you regret it? Were you chastened by the experience?
No to all of those. It was self-indulgent in the sense that it was easy to write in terms of research required, but it was bought by the New Yorker, where it was thought to be an interesting book. I had a tremendous amount of mail, all of which was very gratifying.
As one of the top journalist in the United States, your column is syndicated to over 300 publications. Journalists often see themselves as opinion makers, but can they form opinion in any real sense?
I don’t think you can form opinion, but what you can do is open doors. I’ll give you a recent example: how to handle drug policy. When I wrote The Unmaking of a Mayor, I was resolute that drugs should be proscribed. In the past eight to ten years I’ve come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t work. Now, this is very different from coming to a position saying I had no write to proscribe them. I continue to reserve the right to proscribe, but empirically I’m instructed this doesn’t work, so I have been talking in the last few years about examining the possibility f legalizing drugs under certain circumstances. What I have done is not so much form opinion as open a door to ventilate that alternative to people who might not otherwise examine it.
Have you reached a stage in life where because people expect you to say something controversial, you do it for effect?
No, I certainly haven’t reached that stage, because I have a Weltanschauung, and certainly won’t spend any of my time trying to make an awkward fit. If I take a position simply to be mischievous and am forever asked to integrate that opinion in that Weltanschauung, it would cause me much more pain than the momentary satisfaction I got from it the day before. So I just don’t do it.
A lot of Jewish voters in the United States identify the right with anti-Semitism. Was that a factor when you ran for mayor of New York?
That’s an interesting question. It’s certainly a factor that, in 1965, the Jewish vote was very -conservative. I think three percent of Jews voted for me – a very small percentage. I would guess that the automatic assumption in the Jewish community that the right was anit-Semitic had begun to attenuate around the late 1950’s. We had something to do with that in National Review. By 1965, I don’t think it was by any means the universal conviction. In 1965 maybe a third or a half of the Jews thought there was a lurking anti-Semitism in the American right, but no more.
But was there an anti-Semitism in the American right?
I would say yes, among older people. You see, the cultural anti-Semitism, which was almost universal, was killed among middle-aged and younger people by Hitler, but persevered among those in their seventies. My father, for instance, as a cultural anti-Semite, and so, I hate to say, was just about everybody. But that, I think, was simply turned around by the experience of 1942-45 among people in who it was so deeply set.
Are you at all optimistic about peace in the Middle East?
I’m not an optimist. It seems to me that we aren’t really any closer to a natural solution than we were three years ago, and the unsettled state of Isreali politics makes a movement there extremely problematical. I predict at least another four to five years of stalemate. After that I can see one of two things happening: either Isreal, through a cheer sense of fatigue, attempts to come to a solution, or the Arab states in effect abandon the whole Palestinian cause on the grounds that it costs them too much time and effort, and the Palestinians become a nomadic people. The existing animosity is extremely expensive and time-consuming, and if there is no sense of progress, it might simply go in a different direction. Now obviously there are factors that are weighing in on the scene. The great Isreali night mare had been that the Arabs would simply exceed them in population, which is the source of Rabbi Kahane’s party. That seems to be temporarily relieved by the present prospect of 500,000 Jews coming in from the Soviet Union, which should greatly help redress that balance within Isreal. But it’s not going to bring about the kind of comity people want. A lot depends on the attitude of the younger people.
Your proposal in the New York Times that, to stop the spread of Aids, victims should be tattooed on upper forearm and buttocks, produced a predictable outcry, but your biographer suggests you delighted in the resultant tempest.
Not at all. This is one of the thousand instances in which dear John Judis didn’t exercise elementary perspective. In the first place, it came from an open conversation between me and Alan Dershowitz, a professor of law from Harvard. The question was how do you protect people who are uncontaminated from people who are contaminated and know they are? He said, well, the way, of course, was to prosecute them, make it a felony for anybody to have sex or exchange blood, exchange needles, share needles if they knew they were contaminated. I said that is hardly going to help the uncontaminated community because, by the time you prosecute, those people are going to be dead anyway. I went on to say that presumably you’ve got to have some way of warning the uncontaminated person that this other person has this communicable disease. In the old days there was a sort of smallpox mark that made it easy for nurses or doctors to know tou had had a smallpox vaccination, so I suggested you might, for instance, have tiny tattoo marks. This was interpreted as wanting to tattoo people who had the disease for purposes of exhibitionism. My only motive was to give them a mark which could be inspected in private by somebody who might then be spared. But after I saw the fuss, I said, OK, I withdraw it, because people who can’t distinguish between the use of barbed wire in Auschwitz and barbed wire to keep cows away from bulls can’t distinguish between the use of a tattoo do damn somebody and the use of it so save somebody. I wonder how many people would be alive today who are now dead because my idea wasn’t accepted.
In 1971 you pretended you had a further set of Pentagon papers. Why did you indulge in a game like that when it was something you couldn’t sustain for more than a few days?
It was to make a particular point. Reading the Pentagon papers we were convinced that the there were other papers that were not exhibited, and the idea came to me, let’s forge these papers, simply make them up. I couldn’t have believed that they would be so successful. I had six papers for instance, ostensibly addressed or written to Admiral Radford, and when he read them he said, I don’t remember these in particular, I cant say they’re not true.’ In that sense it was almost dangerously successful. Whereas I had thought it would last about six hours, it lasted five days before I finally had a press conference. But I perhaps overproved my case, because attention turned to the scandal rather than to the pedagogical point we were attempting to make.
Were you shocked when the truth about Nixon became apparent?
By the time the truth became apparent I was not surprised at all, I thought the accumulation of evidence, showing he was implicated, had become overwhelming. I came out in favour of his resignation five months before the so-called burning tape. George Bush, then head of the Republican party, and I made a gentlemanly bet: George Bush said that Nixon would still be in office at the end of the year, I that he would not. Gerald Ford swore on my programme that Nixon was innocent nine days before he became president, so that was the part of the loyalist wing in the Republican party that, in my opinion, refused to see the evidence.
We spoke about your admiration for Ronald Reagan, but your biographer, John B. Judis, writes: ‘Privately Buckley despaired over Reagan and the last years of his term’, and goes on to suggest that the Iran-Contra scandal ‘incapacitated Reagan. Was this a temporary crisis of faith or did your view of Reagan change radically?
I thought the Iran-Contra mess a terrible lapse in Reagan’s own record. Irrespective of his not having had person knowledge of the details,that I should have happened in his administration was definitely a blight on his record. But I don’t remember ever saying that this caused a revision in my general attitude towards Reagan. I think he was incapacitated from November 1986 until the general pick-up in his popularity began about twelve months later. On account of that, 1987 was a lost year for Reagan.
You are regarded as an opponent of so-called Women’s liberation. Why?
The part of the feminist movement that upsets me is the part which urges and indiscrimination which is extra natura. To suggest that men and women are in every sense equal is in my judgement correct before the law and in terms of opportunity, but it’s absolutely incorrect to suggest they are organically equal. Men and women are just different. It has nothing to do with equality. Under the circumstances, a certain attitude towards women is logical and appropriate, and that includes a disposition to agree that certain occupations aren’t appropriate to women. I don’t think women in trenches are a civilised idea. And, as an aesthetic matter, I hate the approach towards genderless nouns such as ‘chairperson’. The disappearance of the masculine as doing double gender duty is an aesthetic affront against literature.
Many American men, as compared with European men, seem dominated by their wives. What is the principle reason?
I think what you say is right if you compare it to Europe. I’m no sure it’s all that right compared to England. At least, my impression is that there are henpecked men in England as there are here. American women tend to be more strident in marriage. Americans are more outspoken ant every level, and there is no reason why that shouldn’t be so amongst American women. But the nature of marriage imposes more natural commitments on the man than on the woman. It’s a very stupid man who doesn’t take fully into account what his wife wants to do, but a marriage tends to be unsuccessful when the sense of authority is so disputed that there isn’t a natural dominance by the women over certain aspects of the marriage, or by the man over certain aspects of the marriage.
Isn’t the movement for the renewal of the idea of family unity doomed to fail in a modern context?
No. it’s having a hard time, but marriage as an institution has been rediscovered in America. In the last two or three years, liaisons that would otherwise have tended to be simply that, have ended in marriage; so there continues to be in civil and religious marriage some sense of satisfaction that apparently couples don’t get from cohabitation. There are a lot of civil accretions around cohabitation that may have something to do with influencing matters in one direction or the other, but by and large the idea of marriage continues to exercise a certain romance and certain sense of security.
What do you see as the basic cultural differences between America and Europe?
The basic cultural difference is a completely different historical tradition. The memory of the European is much longer tan the memory of the American. America is far more transient in its habits. I read somewhere that, on the anniversary of the liberation of France, somebody asked a farmer what life had been like under the Nazis. He said, ‘Very bad, very bad,’ then paused and added, ‘but nothing like what it was under the Swedes in the seventeenth century. That was terrible.’ That kind of thing is amusing to an American. We couldn’t remember conditions fifty years ago, let alone three hundred years ago. The distillation of tradition in Europe is responsible for attitudes, loyalties and hostilities that tend to wash out more in America.
In 1984 you met Neil Kinnock, whose views on nuclear disarmament you found naïve. Have your own views changed in the light of Mr Gorbachev’s initiative on disarmament?
Not at all. They’ve been re-enforced. If Mr Kinnock had had his way and other countries had imitated him, there’s no reason at all to suppose that Gorbachev would have released Eastern Europe. He would have had every incitement to do the contrary and to renew the passionate goal to subjugate Europe. And Kinnock would not repeat today the arguments he used then, because he knows, among other things, that they lost him an election.
Might the trend towards disarmament in the Soviet Union reinforce the perception of those who see America as the greater threat to world peace?
It’s so Orwellian in its stupidity to suppose that we are a threat to Europe that it’s hard to answer on a rational level people who make the charge. God knows, a lot of them do. I simply have to believe there are Europeans – I’ve not met them – who think the United States has a dark design to subjugate Europe or start a war because wars are such fun. They must exist, but they can’t occupy me intellectually because the idea is so perverse. When we called the Reagan administration’s contemplation of an arms agreement with the Soviet Union a ‘suicide pact’, we were much concerned with getting talked into a situation which a credible nuclear deterrent no longer existed. That threat has now disappeared. As Richard Pearle has said, the Russians are angling to get a situation in Europe from this total détente which they haven’t succeeded in getting in forty years: the absence of the nuclear deterrent demanded by NATO.
With the prospect of German Unification, the collapse of the Iron Curtain and the emergence of Japan as an economic super-power, do you see American influence waning in the world?
Yes, I do. After the war we were consuming fifty per cent of international production.
That’s already cut in half. The Economist reminds us that we are still the most productive nation. It takes the American thirty-one minutes to make what it takes the Japanese and hour to make. So we’ve got a lot f resources, but it’s true that we’re very self indulgent and the young generation is not being taught to work hard enough or learn industriously. You can’t be all that optimistic about the per capita competitive situation between a country whose schoolchildren work three hours a week on homework and a country whose schoolchildren work thirty hours a week.
You are said to have a long-running feud with Gore Vidal, who characterized you as ‘the Marie Antoinette of politics’.
It’s not really a long-running feud since I haven’t mentioned his name in twenty years, nor he mine that I know of. The reference is to an exchange we had on television in 1968, followed by a law suit. His case was thrown out of court; mine was sustained. I accepted damages and an apology from Esquire magazine for publishing his piece, but I wrote a long essay on that whole episode, published it in 1969and said I wouldn’t speak any more about it.
I have seen it suggested that you are most disliked, not for your views, but for the figure you cut; for applying conservatism ‘with the fastidious grace of a Regency man against a mantelpiece’.
I don’t give much time to that because I am as I am. Judis talked to a lot of people who knew me when I was ten years old, and none of them charge that between ten and thirty I tried to ape anybody or anything. I had a cosmopolitan education, for which I had no responsibility. I too have read this business about me, as being a conservative, casting a sort of non-proletariat figure. I don’t know how I capitalized on it, except by here and there writing autobiographical essays acknowledging how I live. If you drive around in a limousine, there’s no way of disguising it.
Why do you so vigorously oppose the idea of Utopia as an ideal to strive towards?
The idea obviously is to live commendably in the eyes of the Lord. Utopia is not of this world, in my judgement, and I think we are all going to be judged with some reference to how hard we tried and how honestly we behaved. Given the human predicament, none of us is going to do too well on that, but certainly the struggle ought to be to do as well as you reasonably can.
You’ve sailed the Atlantic, been down to the Titanic, have even played the harpsichord in the concert hall. What drives you to do these extraordinary things?
I’ve sailed the Atlantic twice and the Pacific once, and will sail it again in November. That’s a combination of adventure plus something that I can write a book about. I’ve sailed all my life. Going down to the Titanic was an invitation that few people have had so I didn’t think twice about it. Playing the harpsichord is a great strain, because we don’t have the time of the natural talent to learn quickly and I’m struggling now with a chromatic fantasy, which is rough. I’ve played all my life, but only sort of episodically, yet the dream of playing something tolerably well in and exigent situation is a challenge.
Would I be right in thinking that underneath the polemical controversial exterior there is a less self-confident and more mellow William Buckley waiting to get out?
Well, I don’t think those are contradictions. A lot of people have observed that my public persona is different from my private persona. All I can say is that, when I appear in public, I try hard not to be demagogic, and a failure to be demagogic may suggest that you don’t care about what people think, though obviously I do care. That’s why I’m in this business to begin with. Inevitably people are a little different in private from the way they are in public. All I can say is that this is not intentional.
Have you any regrets in your life?
No. I can’t imagine having elected any other profession. Somebody once said, ‘If you had worked in this other direction, might you not have become president of the United States?’ The answer is that the chances of it happening are so infinitely small that I really can’t take seriously people who plan to be president. That’s simply a star falling in a particular direction. And I don’t think I’m temperamentally suited to have been one. I’d like to have been one in the sense that I have confidence in my own judgement, so that would have been good. If you feel you know the correct approach, it gives you a lot of confidence. On the other hand, you might feel that in a democracy the correct approach would be politically unpalatable. In that event you’d be frustrated, so you go back to your little typewriter and think, at least I feel I want to be here.