BRIAN LAMB, HOST: William F. Buckley, Jr., on the cover of your new book it says "Reflections of a Libertarian Journalist." Have you always called yourself a libertarian?
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, Jr.: Off and on. Of course, you know, something called the fusion movement was encouraged by me and by National Review during the late '50s. The idea was to point out to the straight libertarians and to the conservatives how much they had in common and how effective the symbiosis would be between them. So from time to time I stress the fact that I'm conservative and, every now and then, that I'm a libertarian. And there's a certain amount of libertarian -- well, in most of what I write there's a certain amount that is oriented to, "Does this augment or diminish human liberty?"
LAMB: Do I remember you saying, maybe when you ran for mayor of New York, -- -- this may not be you -- that as far as you're concerned, you would just as soon ... you would throw the garbage out the window and let people pick it up and deal with it rather than having the government deal with it?
BUCKLEY: No, your memory is of an exchange I had with James Baldwin, in which he was defending the littering of the streets, on the grounds that it was a form of protest against the city for not paying close enough attention. And I said, "Look, it isn't very helpful to use that as a means of protesting. Should I throw my garbage out into the street when John Lindsay walks down, since I don't think he'd make a good mayor?" So it was really just sort of a rhetorical joust-about.
LAMB: If somebody buys this book, what do they get?
BUCKLEY: Well, they get the best I can give them, in various modes. Over the past eight years I have -- those were very eventful years because they covered the collapse of the Soviet Union; they covered the death of some very important people, plus a certain number of personal episodes. What I do, assisted by my sister, who serves as the editor, was to attempt to divide into appropriate sections the moods in which I write.
The first she calls assailing, where I'm rough on Carl Sagan and Jesse Jackson, Mario Cuomo, Teddy Kennedy, Lowell Weicker, Elizabeth Taylor and so on; then analyzing specific problems, I hope shrewdly. And then a section on commenting, a section on reflecting and then ending up celebrating and appreciating various people and a sports activity or two. So it's a wide-ranging collection. It's my ninth. And the rest have been well received, so I hope this one will be.
LAMB: Do people ordinarily buy former columns and former articles and stuff like that when you put them in a kind of a compendium like this?
BUCKLEY: The operative word in your question is ordinarily, and the answer is that ordinarily people don't buy anything unless they are a part of the hard constituency. Robert Ludlum can count, the day after tomorrow, on selling 400,000, 500,000 copies of his new book. But if a publisher brings out your ninth collection, that usually means that people bought the first eight.
LAMB: What's this, in numbers of books, that you've written?
LAMB: Of all those books, which sold the best?
BUCKLEY: The book that sold the best was the second of my four sailing books called, "Atlantic High." And then the mystery books all came in somewhere, you know, between 75 and 100, except the very last one, which came out shortly after the end of the Cold War and suffered -- I was a casualty of the end of the Cold War. And then the others -- well, most of the books I've written have been on the best-seller list.
LAMB: Which ones did you enjoy the writing part of it the most?
BUCKLEY: This is going to annoy you, but I really don't like to write. It's terribly hard work. That may be one reason why I have managed to develop the facility to write quickly. If I had the same kind of languorous pleasure in writing that my younger brother has or that, say, Eudora Welty has, who just gets up with a light in the eye, thinking, "My God, this is a day in which I write," then I could answer your question with a greater sense of hedonism. You know, George Will once said to me, "I write three times a week, and when I wake up in the morning, the first question I subconsciously ask myself is: Is this a day in which I have to write a column? And if the answer is affirmative, I wake up bright and happy." It happens exactly the reverse with me.
LAMB: Do you then write for an end instead of ...
LAMB: I mean, what are you trying to do?
BUCKLEY: Also, you know, a lot of us do things for the after-pleasure of it, even weeding your garden -- the after-pleasure of seeing the roses and the grass come up; or practice your scales for the after-pleasure of helping to develop your technique. As Whittaker Chambers once put it to me, "I like to have written." And that's a nice feeling, to have written, in part because it is so onerous.
LAMB: Other than the big names, the ones that would be obvious -- the Ronald Reagans and the Richard Nixon -- do you know -- I went through and counted, so I think I know this, but do you know which person you quoted the most or talked about the most in this book?
BUCKLEY: No, I don't.
LAMB: Would it surprise you if I said Whittaker Chambers?
BUCKLEY: Well, you obviously surprise me. On the other hand, I'm weighing what you said. Whittaker Chambers, during the period where we were very close friends, which is about seven years, wrote me -- in fact, he wrote me such beautiful letters that they were published as a book. And he kept saying things that were very arresting both in what he said and in the way that he said it.
As a matter of fact, the novel I have coming out next January, one of the high points in it has to do with the discovery by young veterans of the Afghan war in Moscow of the description by Whittaker Chambers, in one of his letters to me, of the Narodniki. They were the group of young people who met silently in the czarist days and swore to give their lives over to the assassination of a tyrant.
So Lenin celebrated the Narodniki, as Whittaker Chambers pointed out, but then discovered that they were pretty dangerous because people could get the same idea as being applicable to Lenin and therefore all trace of them was removed from Soviet literature, so that you had to turn to Whittaker Chambers to find out about this enormously important and romantic development in Russian history.
LAMB: What kind of an impact did he have on you, and when did you know him?
Let me just throw in this one, for somebody that's never heard of him ...
LAMB: Who is he? Who was he?
BUCKLEY: Well, Whittaker Chambers was the Time magazine senior editor who, in sworn testimony, named people he had known while working as a secret intelligence agent for the Soviet Union, and one of those was Alger Hiss. There ensued the greatest ongoing division, I guess, in American cultural history on the question of who was lying. The evidence is pretty overwhelming that the person who was lying is Alger Hiss, who is still alive, by the way. But we became friends in 1954, and he became, actually, formally a senior editor of National Review, though he came up very infrequently. And he died at a very young age, 61, of a heart attack.
But he had an enormous impact when his book, "Witness," was written. They ran the first chapter, which was a letter to his children -- the famous letter in which he said, "When I left the Soviet Union, left the Communist cause to join the cause of the West, I couldn't help but feeling that perhaps I was leaving the winning side to join the losing side." So there was that great sense of melancholy in much of his writings.
I was about to point out that they serialized the first chapter of his book, "Letters to his Children," in the Saturday Evening Post and sold 500,000 more copies than normal. So it had a huge impact on everybody who read it. And from that moment on, he became something of an American legend and probably still is. So I don't think any quotation of him is likely to bring on tedium in the reader.
LAMB: I saw a reference a couple of months ago to the fact that in August of 1948, in that hearing, that it was the first ever televised hearing.
BUCKLEY: I didn't know that.
LAMB: The Alger Hiss, the HUAC -- the House Un-American Activities Committee. I want to go back to that, to ask you what impact -- Richard Nixon was on that committee? Was he on that one?
BUCKLEY: Yes, he was. As a matter of fact, that was the first episode in Nixon's career that gave him an enormous launch because the committee was a little bit dazzled by the firepower of the pro-Hiss forces. And they were about to pull away and say, "Hiss was right and Chambers is a liar," when Nixon moved in, mobilized the evidence and persuaded the congressional committee that, in fact, Hiss was probably lying, not Chambers.
So he became very conspicuous during that period, and it was that that gave him the reputation that awarded him a seat in the Senate two years later; and two years after that the vice presidency of the United States.
LAMB: Where were you then?
BUCKLEY: Well, he was elected vice president in 1952 and I graduated from college in 1950, so I was sort of around. But the Hiss-Chambers drama was a very significant episode when I was in school. Liberals tended to assume that Hiss was correct because of his pedigree. It was so formidable. He had gone to Johns Hopkins, then he had gone to the Harvard Law School, then he had clerked with -- who was it? -- in the Supreme Court, the famous Jewish liberal...
BUCKLEY: Frankfurter -- yeah, Frankfurter. And then Dean Acheson had sort of testified to the nobility of his character. And all this time he was piping out secrets to the Soviet Union with his wife, Priscilla Hiss. So he was a tremendous blow to the liberal establishment. This shining legacy of the New Deal was, in fact, a traitor. Now most people who are identified with the New Deal years ago conceded that that's what he was -- Arthur Schlesinger, for instance. But some people are still hypnotized with the subject ... sort of like the grassy knollers on JFK. It's more fun to believe that there was a conspiracy beneath the conspiracy.
LAMB: Do you remember, back in those years, who was influencing you the most, back -- you went to Yale?
BUCKLEY: I went to Yale. Well, you know, I had a few professors who you probably wouldn't have heard of, who were influential. I've always found it hard to answer the question, "Who influenced you the most," because it seems to me that in retrospect, it is a kind of a collage of people and it's very hard to sort out what it was that influenced you in respect to this particular thing.
My colleague for 25 years in National Review is James Burnham, who is probably the best-known American geophysical strategist, by training a philosopher, first in his class in Princeton, so on. And he influenced me enormously. But I didn't meet him until the magazine began.
LAMB: What year did the magazine begin?
LAMB: In the back of your book is the section called Appreciating. A number of people that you write about are no longer alive. Let me pick a couple of these -- some of them are alive -- and ask you about them.
LAMB: Malcolm Muggeridge. Who was he?
BUCKLEY: Well, Malcolm Muggeridge was, I think it's probably safe to say, the best-known British journalist, up until, say, 10 or 15 years ago. He was married to the niece of Beatrice Webb, and he went to the Soviet Union as sort of a committed young socialist, pro-Communist. And he was there for about one winter and wrote a devastating critique of life under Stalin. This was in the early '30s.
He still stayed over, pretty much, on the socialist side of the world, and he wrote industriously for the Manchester Guardian and others. There's several books. Then during the war he was very active, and then after the war he was the editor of Punch magazine. One had to be sort of a humorist to do that, plus a very skillful journalist. Meanwhile, he was simultaneously editing the book section for Esquire magazine.
But little by little he began a march that would turn out to be ineluctably directional towards Damascus. He became a Christian and his perspective changed, but not his idiomatic powers, so that when he was talking about Christ or about the commandments or about our duty to one another, he would manage to do so as a humorist. And it, under the circumstances, gave a kind of a lift to his evangelism that was quite distinctive.
I saw him, believe it or not, speak to the ASNE -- the American Society of Newspaper Editors -- in Washington, the editor of every principal newspaper in the United States. He was just the after-dinner speaker, and he ended up with a paragraph that embellished the idea of the meaning of the star over Bethlehem and had these pagans absolutely stupefied by the sheer beauty of it. So, anyway, he became probably the most influential English-speaking intellectual evangelist.
LAMB: How well did you know him?
BUCKLEY: He was on "Firing Line" actually quite a lot of times, seven or eight times, and we became very close personal friends. As a matter of fact, he and I once did a program in the Vatican on the Sistine Chapel. And he called me up, he said, "You know, I hate famous people. I've known them all and they're always a disappointment, but I want to meet this pope." So I said, "Well, you crank up your muscle, I'll crank up mine." So he and I and David Niven and my wife had a private audience with the pope, which was very amusing because the pope hadn't been briefed on who we were. So when he came to Malcolm Muggeridge, he looked at him with that sort of benign face ...
LAMB: This is the current pope?
BUCKLEY: The current pope, yes. He said, "You are radio?" Now, however often do you ask yourself the question: What is the appropriate answer to "You are radio," so it's hard to come up with one. So Malcolm Muggeridge just said, "Yes, your holiness, I do a certain amount of work on radio." Then he turned to David Niven, and he said, "Ah, you were the great friend of my predecessor." Now dear David had probably never even heard of Pope Paul the VI, but, you know, it quickly became plain that the pope thought we were visiting basketball managers or something. At any rate, Muggeridge was vastly amused by that episode.
LAMB: Did he know who you were?
BUCKLEY: No, but I thought I'd tip him off because here we had access to the Sistine Chapel, the first time in history, as a result of an intermediary who had gotten permission for us to use it for 48 hours to make a documentary. So I thought I'd tip him off. So I said, "Your Holiness, it's going to be very hard for me to get used to my private chapel when I get home after having had access to yours," thinking, "You get it?" -- thinking that would flash back.
Well, he was so alarmed by what I said that he sort of snapped his fingers and the monsignor showed up, pictures were taken and we said goodbye. But, anyway, after that Muggeridge said to me, "I want to do a show with you called 'Why I Am Not a Catholic."' I said fine. So we did it, and he gave all the reasons why he wasn't a Catholic. And two years later he called me up and said, "I want to do another show with you." I said "What?" He said, "Why I Am a Catholic." He had "poped," as they say in England, in the interval. He was a wonderful, wonderful, wonderful man, a great wit and a brilliant, brilliant analyst.
LAMB: I want to ask you about a quote that you put in your column, by the way, when you -- how often do you write, about -- with an R...
BUCKLEY: Three times a week.
LAMB: No, I'm sorry, with an RIP after it -- a Rest In Peace? Do you often do that?
BUCKLEY: I do a fair amount. I've been doing it for National Review for years and years and years. I mean, I don't know how many I've done. Maybe 500. I don't know.
LAMB: In other words ...
BUCKLEY: I'm not an obituary writer. I mean, that's not my profession.
LAMB: But is there some way to describe what it takes to get you to write somebody's obituary? I mean, do you have to like them?
BUCKLEY: Or dislike them, one or the other, or they have to have been a friend of the National Review or of mine or have had some historical importance. When I was editor of my own journal I wrote about them when I assigned them. Now that John O'Sullivan is the editor, I write them when he asks me to and when I agree to do so. And occasionally I send one out as a regular column, as I did in the case of Muggeridge, and I don't know whether -- maybe he's the only one here that I sent out as a column.
LAMB: Let me just read you this quote and ask you whether you agree with it.
"As an old man" -- this is Malcolm Muggeridge -- "As an old man, Bill, looking back on one's life, it's one of the things that strikes you most forcibly, that the only thing that's taught one anything is suffering -- not success, not happiness, not anything like that. The only thing that really teaches one what life's about -- the joy of understanding, the joy of coming in contact with what life really signifies, is suffering."
BUCKLEY: Well, let me comment on that by saying two things: number one, I understand the historical discipline that caused him to write that way. It is, you know, the lesson of Job, that Job taught us that suffering can be ennobling. And in the case of Malcolm Muggeridge, he seemed to feel that impulse very sharply.
But it may have been part of his weltschmerz -- there was a certain sense in which his sort of gloom about the materialism of man and man's failure to be inspired by that particular part of our patrimony that should inspire us, caused him to feel that an expiation, of sorts, was in order. For instance, he became a vegetarian and he didn't drink any booze, any wine or anything. He didn't used to be that way, but one had a sense that he was taking some sort of a pleasure from the mortification of the flesh, but that pleasure never affected his mood.
John Leonard, in his introduction, in thinking back on his days at the National Review, was listing the various things he did. He said, "I had lunch with Whittaker Chambers, which was like lunching with 'The Brothers Karamazov.'" And although it's incorrect to say of Whittaker Chambers that he emanated melancholia when you were with him, it's not incorrect to say about him that you felt the palpability of his melancholy. With Muggeridge, you didn't. Muggeridge was a consistent entertainer, without in any way getting in the way of his own message.
LAMB: Do you feel that people expect you to entertain them all the time?
BUCKLEY: Well, I think it's a terrible sin to bore people, and I'm easily bored myself. I mean, I'm perfectly prepared to admit that if I attended a lecture by Immanuel Kant, I might very well go to sleep. But that's my fault, not his. So under the circumstances, when I write, I do make an effort to please the reader in the same way that, oh, a pianist at a dive, a boite, wants to use chords that please the listener. If you sit down to play a musical repertoire and limit yourself to a dominant or subdominant and a tonic, you're never going to give music the kind of variety that makes it so special.
By the same token, it seems to me that if you deny yourself the hard work and at the same time the pleasure of using the language exploitatively, you shouldn't really be writing professionally.
LAMB: You've got a bunch of letters also in here, letters that have been sent to you -- "Dear Mr. Buckley" -- this is from Hamilton Morgan of Harrison, New York -- "regarding your "Firing Line" interview with Henry Kissinger, from a qualified TV professional objectively concerned American:" -- colon, number one -- "The manner in which you sit is rude." Do you remember this?
BUCKLEY: No, but ...
LAMB: Can't you sit upright in an adult fashion? In single shots you appear tilted; in two shots, you sit as if your guest has BO. Two, even in questioning, you appear rude. You don't ask questions of a guest, even one whose opinions you favor, but your questions come in a long form of interrogation. Three, you always come up with the personal insecurity of a long preface, attempting to show what you know."
You answer him. The first thing you say is, "No, I can't think straight -- congenital" -- but when you get a letter like this, first of all ...
BUCKLEY: What was my comment?
LAMB: What is your comment? "Most people don't talk about it out loud. If you think my questions are long, try Socrates. Three, of course I want to share what I know about the subject -- after all, I spend three hours reading up on it at night before. Have you ever jumped out of an airplane at midnight with a parachute" -- question mark -- "with the mission of eliminating the guard at the end of the bridge? Well, I haven't either, but if I did, I would certainly want detailed introductory instructions," and on and on.
BUCKLEY: Oh, well, I took it more seriously than I remember having done so. Having brought the subject up, which you just did, I don't usually appear on television dressed this way, but I've just finished a 2,000 mile hike, so I asked your permission not to have to go and change and you kindly gave it to me.
The answer is we all have our idiosyncrasies, but he's actually wrong on points five and point six because in my program been going on for 29 years. It's the longest-running program with the same host in America. I have one complaint in those 29 years from my guests that I didn't give them all the time they wanted to say, in the way that they wanted, what they wanted to say. So that's not bad.
Number two, on the matter of introducing the guests, since I often have people who are not widely known -- you know, philosophers or poets or whatever -- I feel an obligation to acquaint the listener with them. And if you take a couple of minutes to do that, I don't think that's inordinate, especially back when the program was one hour rather than the half-hour it is now.
LAMB: When you get a letter like this, what's your first reaction? Do you smile or do you ...
BUCKLEY: Well, when I get a letter, the first thing I ask myself is: Is this a letter I should publish in National Review, where I have a column called Notes on the Sides, which is a column of letters directed to me, are they instructive or bellicose or interesting in whatever way.
In respect to the one you just read me, obviously my reaction was I ought to tell this guy a couple of things. Plus, also, I shouldn't shield from my readers the fact that some people react this way, with that kind of hostility to everything from my comportment to my behavior on my own program.
LAMB: Here's another one. You wrote this letter, and this is to the editor of the Baltimore Sun. By the way, on these letters, did your sister pick all these herself?
BUCKLEY: She nominated them and I OK'd or didn't OK.
LAMB: You say, and you're commenting on what the Baltimore Sun said in an editorial about you, and then you write -- you're talking to the Baltimore Sun, "William F. Buckley Jr., whose elegant arrogance" -- first of all, do you think you have elegant arrogance?
BUCKLEY: Is this a quote from them?
LAMB: From them -- "and affectations of a British accent has won him fame and fortune."
BUCKLEY: Well, that's kind of dumb because of people with a fake British accent don't necessarily have fame and fortune, do they?
LAMB: You go on to say at the end here, "Arrogance and affections being separate modifiers, they require the use of a plural verb," so you were shooting back at the editor.
BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah. Well, is that all I said?
LAMB: Yes. Well, you have a list of stuff earlier than that, but it was that -- I just wanted to ask you, when people write you and talk about the tilt and your presence on the set or your so-called affectation of a British accent, do you know that that's the way you look to people on the outside?
BUCKLEY: Well, somewhere -- and maybe in this book or somewhere, I say, "Look, up until age six I spoke only Spanish. That was the only language I spoke. Then I went to my first school in Paris, where, of course, they spoke French. Then at age seven I went to London, and that's where I learned English for the first time. Now what ought I to sound like? You tell me." So, incidentally, nobody who's British thinks I have a British accent, so it's just, you know, occasionally people would say to me, in Minnesota, "Where are you from?" I say, "I'm from Connecticut." And they say -- well, they say, "Well, maybe that's how they speak in Connecticut." But there's nothing cultivated in my accent, as my family and friends would tell you.
LAMB: What were you doing in all those places?
BUCKLEY: Well, my father was in the oil business, and he had a very large family, so he had a Mexican -- he was bilingual himself, and he had a family staff who spoke French or Spanish.
LAMB: How many brothers and sisters did you have?
BUCKLEY: Ten -- 10.
LAMB: How many of them are alive?
BUCKLEY: Seven -- I was the sixth.
LAMB: And you have a brother that's a federal judge, Homer.
BUCKLEY: Yes, he was a senator from New York. He was beaten by Moynihan in '76.
LAMB: You ran for mayor once and lost. Do you wish that you had won?
BUCKLEY: No, I didn't run thinking that I would win. I ran under the conservative label, which up until then, the most they had gotten was 1 1/2 percent, so I got 13 percent. By my joke, made for the benefit of the people who teased me about having done so poorly, is that I think if you ran for mayor of New York and you get 13 percent, it's dangerously close to winning, so that if I were to win again, my campaign slogan would be "Voting by invitation only."
LAMB: What's your life like today? You're no longer running the National Review.
BUCKLEY: No. I am no longer the editor of National Review, but I'm the president of the board and the owner, and I rejoice every day that John O'Sullivan is such a brilliant editor. I have a book about -- which you were discussing -- a novel coming out in January, and I'll write another one in Switzerland. I have a piece coming out in the 40th anniversary of Playboy and one in the 60th anniversary of Esquire. I'm reviewing a 1,600-page travel book by Henry James for The New York Times. And I lecture a lot, so I keep busy.
LAMB: Where do you live?
BUCKLEY: I live in Stamford, Connecticut.
LAMB: Where do you spend most of your time?
BUCKLEY: Well, there and on boats, and then traveling around. But my wife and I go to Switzerland, and that's where I do my book-writing in February and March.
LAMB: And how long do you plan to do "Firing Line"?
BUCKLEY: Well, put it this way: I don't plan not to do it, so presumably it will continue to go on as long as it serves a purpose.
LAMB: Has the fact that "Firing Line" is on a public television network, tax-supported, ever bothered you in relationship to your politics?
BUCKLEY: No, because I came to terms very early with the proposition that a minority in a democracy lives by the rules of the majority, and even if I wanted to see the post office privatized, I'm not going to protest it by not using the facilities of the post office.
On this I agree 100 percent with Milton Friedman, and as recently as a few months ago he wrote a letter to National Review, agreeing with a position I took against a former editor of National Review who hadn't wanted to take Social Security because he was opposed to the Social Security law. And his answer was though Social Security was voted in, continue to criticize that aspect of it that you think is wrong or how it's run, but to fail to participate in it is a failure to live by the verdict of a majority which dominates -- which runs a republic in which you are a participant and whose rules you agreed to abide by unless they become tyrannical.
LAMB: Has National Review ever made any money?
BUCKLEY: No, no, no. I don't know of any journal of opinions that ever made money, with -- perhaps with the exception of The New Republic, when it was the house organ of the Progressive Citizens of America, which was then a fellow traveling outfit designed to make Henry Wallace president of the United States. Journals of opinion tend not to make money. But we're doing better than ever before.
LAMB: How do you keep it going then?
BUCKLEY: Through an annual fund appeal, plus directing a certain amount of my own income in its direction.
LAMB: Back to the back of the book again. William Shawn ...
LAMB: ... this is a column, January the 18th, 1993 -- or it was, I assume published in National Review. Who was William Shawn?
BUCKLEY: Well, William Shawn became the editor of The New Yorker in 1953, right after Mr. Ross died, and he was its editor for about 35 years, up until three or four years ago. He was a man of spectacular talent and of very idiosyncratic personal manners. He was terrifyingly shy and very reclusive, enormously well-organized. And when I sent a manuscript of a book in which I simply recounted what I had done during a week of that year and he accepted it for publication, I couldn't believe it because, see, I'm a conservative and The New Yorker was pretty liberal.
LAMB: What year is this?
BUCKLEY: This was in 1970. So then I sent him a second book and he accepted it, and then a third book and he accepted it and then a fourth book and then a fifth book, so that I had this extraordinary hospitality by this extraordinary man. Now about once a year he assigned himself the job of editing, line by line, a book that had been accepted by The New Yorker. And it fell to me to fall under his personal direction for the first of these books, which meant having a lunch with him. Having a lunch with William Shawn was -- well, the next thing to a defloration.
BUCKLEY: Because you felt that you were getting in the way of his privacy. And he was very formal and very genial, always, "Mr. Buckley" -- I mean, he wouldn't think of calling me by my first name. But it was an enormous experience because of the care and love that he devoted to every single sentence. He once said to me, "Mr. Buckley, I really don't think that you know the proper use of a comma." Enormously amused me, and it's true that I take sort of liberties in the use of the comma, intending certain effects which every now and then dismayed him. But he would never publish anything except after your approval of exactly the way it appeared. He was very fastidious on that point.
So my association with him was wonderful. And then when he retired, as I recount in this obituary, I thought, "Gee whiz, now he's no longer a man who's sort of in charge of my literary fortune. Should I ask him to lunch?" I would never have asked him to lunch while he was still editor. So I did and he accepted. So we had a lunch. Then another year go by, I thought, "Now should I ask him for lunch again?" The arguments against doing it are -- you know, respect his privacy; the arguments for doing it are that I might, by having had lunch with him just one time, have given him the impression that I was discharging an obligation and now, thank God, having discharged it, I could let him go ahead and rusticate.
So I did and he accepted, but didn't make a date. And then I received the day that he died a letter that he'd written me the day before, making pleasant references to a couple of books that I'd sent him. So he was an unusual man who had an enormous influence on American letters and a great patron of people like John Updike, whom he discovered.
LAMB: Did you also say that he would call up months in advance and, with your secretary, make sure that when you're trying to get a date set, he's -- "Well, we'd better do that off a couple months from now" -- at the end?
BUCKLEY: Yes, he loved to talk to your secretary, as distinguished from speaking with you, and he would almost be -- by his standards, informal with a secretary. But he would say, "Oh, yes, I would like very much to have lunch with Mr. Buckley, and I will call back and suggest a date, and see if it's all right with him" -- that kind of stuff. And he wasn't at all shy about talking with a secretary, but was much more reluctant to call you.
LAMB: You have a tribute in the back here, under the Appreciating section, to Nancy and Ronald Reagan. And at some point I think I remember you writing about their dancing together. Do you remember that?
BUCKLEY: Well, that was a piece I did for Vanity Fair and they ran it on the cover -- a picture. They got an interview with the Reagans, Tina Brown, and the interviewer -- this was in the private quarters of the White House -- they'd only been there a couple of years -- and said, "Would you consent to dance for us?" -- meaning for the photographer.
And instantly he said, "Well, of course." So the music went on and they started to dance. The photographer took his pictures, thinking he'd have 15 seconds to do it, but they just kept on dancing. And, you know, Vanity Fair isn't used to situations like that, where the president of the United States and his wife dance as though they had just exchanged a commitment to marry each other.
But that's the way they are, and nobody who has seen it close thinks it's phony. It isn't phony. It's a case of perpetual, abiding devotion.
LAMB: And another ... and I'm just looking ... I underlined it. As I mentioned earlier, the name that I saw the most often was Whittaker Chambers. It's in that piece where you say, "The last time I heard the legend of Philemon and" -- is it Baucis?
BUCKLEY: Baucis, yes.
LAMB: "Educed seriously was in the final paragraphs of Whittaker Chambers' book, 'Witness.' Chambers was given to melodrama, but those who knew him and his wife, Esther never doubted that it was so between them." It...
BUCKLEY: That's such a beautiful story, isn't it? You want to read it or you want me to say it?
LAMB: No, go ahead.
BUCKLEY: Well, a god -- well, I feel it would be a Greek god, dressed like a beggar, appears in this humble little shed where this old couple are looking with some longing at the little porridge that they have saved to eat that night, and he says -- can he have something to eat. Without hesitation they take half of it and give it to him, whereupon, having tested their capacity for charity, he transfigures himself. And they see that he is a resplendent god. And in Whittaker Chambers' face he raises his caduceus, which is the great imperial staff, and he says, "Tell me what one
wish you desire."
And they stammer out the wish that they wish to die at the same time. No one wants to outlive the other. So with his caduceus he touches them on the head, and suddenly they are transformed into two trees, which nestle together in the breeze and leave the impression of a continuing perpetual symbolism, of a tender and beautiful love.
It's a beautiful story.
LAMB: Theodore White -- Teddy White?
BUCKLEY: Well, Teddy White once said to me, "You know, I'm probably the most expensive journalist in America." And I said, "Well, Teddy, that's terrific." He said, "Well, as you know, I don't like to boast, but it's probably true." This was about 10, 15 years ago, and I think he was probably correct. He was the most sought-after journalist and for several reasons. One, he was a terrific writer; second, he was a terribly industrious reporter; three, he knew everybody. He also had a capacity to make you talk to him and say things that probably you weren't really predisposed to tell him. He had that extraordinary quality -- Bob Woodward has the same gift. But anyway, Teddy White was sent by Life magazine to do a piece on John Lindsay when he was running for mayor, which required him to do a piece also on me at the same time because I was running for mayor.
And so he came to see me, and I said something pleasant to him. He said, "First, business; we'll become friends later." And we became very good friends. In fact, we both followed Nixon to China. We were two of the journalists who went to China in 1972 and spent a lot of time together. And he and I and three or four other friends met always, six or seven times a year, for lunch. So he was a dear, wonderful, talented human being.
He came from a very poor Jewish ghetto in Boston, which he liked to write about; sort of worked his way through Harvard; became a Sinologist, was entranced by Mao Tse-tung for a while -- a little bit of a fellow traveler on the Chinese question; saw the light of day a few years later; was very, very high up in the Luce organization, a very close friend of Henry Luce. But then they had an ideological parting of the ways. So he had a very vivid, wonderful productive life.
LAMB: What do you mean by fellow traveler?
BUCKLEY: Well, he tended to think that everything that Mao Tse-tung came up with was probably correct. I'm talking about the late '30s and early '40s, during the period when Chiang Kai-shek was sort of withering on the vine and there was a lot of corruption. But his hospitality to the Maoist movement alienated Henry Luce, who was very fervently on the other side, and caused that resignation.
LAMB: We're used to seeing you play Bach at the Phoenix Symphony or write about Bach, but in this Appreciating section you have a column that is Beethoven, A Monument. What's that all about?
BUCKLEY: Well, that's a very interesting point. Adam Smith said that the state can legitimately do certain things. And those are a very short list. It can look after the common defense and it can be the custodian of monuments. So I asked myself the question: Does the authority of Adam Smith attach to a state enterprise that takes dead musicians and makes their music available? I had specifically in mind something that happens in Switzerland. In Switzerland, for about, like, a buck a month or whatever it is, you can plug your telephone line into six channels, and one of those channels, if you push button number three, has nothing but classical music day and night.
It is simply a marvelous amenity. So I was trying to manipulate conservative orthodoxy in such a way as to suggest that a monument need not only be something chiseled in marble, sitting in the middle of a park, but might also be keeping alive a musician and providing the wonderful amenity of access to him cheaply.
LAMB: Of all the things you do in the public -- speak, interview on television, being interviewed, writing books, writing columns, what brings the most fun and joy to you, and what's the most difficult?
BUCKLEY: Well put. What brings, I suppose, the most and the easiest pleasure is sailing. I sail a lot and I've done it since I was 13 years old. And it's, to me, a marvelous, marvelous form of recreation, but it is a recreation. I used to ride a lot when I was a boy, but I don't do that anymore. In terms of what's most difficult, there is nothing for me as difficult as trying to master a piece of music on the harpsichord, in part because I have very bad fingers, so they don't behave well and they are insufficiently disciplined.
LAMB: What about in the more public policy area, like ...
LAMB: ... the things like -- would you rather be interviewed or would you rather do the interviewing?
BUCKLEY: I think it probably depends on the person. Sometimes one has a guest whom one feels one ought to have on because he is on to something important that we want to talk about, but he might be an awfully boring human being. And after one hour you're sweatily glad that it's over.
By contrast, now with some people -- I think, for instance, of Harold MacMillan. At the end of 42 minutes he said, "I say, aren't we through yet?" And I said, "No. We have 17 more minutes to go." He said, "Very well." Whereupon he told some more marvelous stories about what he said to Churchill, what Churchill said to Hitler and so on and so forth. So that was a sheer joy.
So I think it depends completely on the person. An interview by somebody who really doesn't follow what you're saying is hell because you feel that you have explained something, and the next question absolutely establishes that they haven't the remotest idea what you said or if they heard it, they didn't understand it. And that hurts.
Sometimes they're people who have -- "OK, there are 30 questions I want to ask Mr. Buckley." So they ask question number one; you give a reply to it, but it's a reply that obviously takes you through Act 2, not Act 3 of the exchange, but they don't know enough to lead you into Act 3; they go right to the next question. And that shows that it is a discontinuity there that makes the whole thing terribly abrupt and
LAMB: Did you ever have anybody get up and walk off a set on "Firing Line"?
BUCKLEY: No, no. I think it's very bad manners to do that, you know, unless someone engages in a profanity or I could -- as a novelist, I could write a situation in which my guy would walk off the set and people would applaud him for doing so. But I've never walked into such a situation.
LAMB: What year was it that you and John Kenneth Galbraith slugged it out on -- was it the "Today" show?
BUCKLEY: Yeah. Well, we did it in 1972 and in 1976.
LAMB: As I remember, and it's a little bit -- a few years have passed -- that you really got at each other.
BUCKLEY: Well, let me tell you something. It was a very interesting debate. In 1972 we were in Miami. We were there for both conventions. We had 25 minutes, and in 25 minutes you can get a certain amount done. By 1976 all the format in the morning news shows had changed, and to have more than seven minutes, you had to have a meeting of the board of directors. So in seven minutes neither of us could unwind. And, you know, our specialty is not the Johnny Carson jab, but something which, to the extent that it has a point, might require a minute of analytical overture. And both of us agreed that we simply didn't work attempting to exchange views in seven minutes, so we never asked to do it again.
LAMB: Was that ever personal, though? I mean, for people who haven't seen it, they can't remember, but you were, as I remember, you were saying some pretty strong things at one another.
BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah. He and I almost arrived at a mutual covenant that because we were close personal friends, we would under no circumstances going to permit that friendship to mitigate the harshness that we feel for the other person's position.
I mean, I remember saying to him, "Ken, if you'd been president of the United States, by now we'd have been a Soviet republic,' which is absolutely correct. And he says complimentary things about my ...(unintelligible)."
LAMB: Some conservatives have criticized you for living in two different worlds. I mean, I've seen, various times -- and, matter of fact, I think I interviewed Bob Tyrrell in his book, where he talks about a dinner or something he had up here in New York with you, when they criticize you, they criticize you for being a pal of the liberals.
BUCKLEY: They what?
LAMB: A pal of the liberals.
LAMB: You go to dinner with them and you have lunch with them and you have friends at The New York Times and things like that. You've undoubtedly observed these criticisms.
LAMB: What do you say to somebody that criticizes you for being friends with the other side?
BUCKLEY: Well, I say, frankly it's odd, because you can disagree very pointedly with somebody and still have an enormous bond of friendship. Curiously, this is absolutely routine in England. The editor of The New Statesman and Nation might be the godfather of the new child of the editor of The Tablet. Nothing there's considered unusual about a member of the Labour Party and a member of the Conservative Party being very close friends.
And so I don't think that's unusual to have somebody with whom you disagree -- in the first place, I don't spend my time talking politics. I go to London tomorrow. I have to talk politics three days from now because it's a political seminar, but I doubt very much between now and then I'll talk about politics to anybody -- not to my wife, not to my hosts over there because it's not the kind of thing that interests me that much. You see, there are other things to talk about that -- so that in -- I could spend time with Ken Galbraith, as I have, hours after hours after hours, in which political discourse never come up.
LAMB: Well, what do ...
BUCKLEY: When they do come up, we just do this sort of form of calisthenics.
LAMB: What do you talk about?
BUCKLEY: Trollope -- skiing, what he did when he left Canada and came over here as a scholar ... there's nothing we don't talk about. There's no problem at all. In the first place, when you talk with Kenny Galbraith, mostly he talks, but he's so entertaining that one doesn't mind.
LAMB: On the cover of your book and inside the flap it's an introduction by John Leonard -- the same John Leonard that we see on CBS on Sunday morning?
LAMB: Isn't he a liberal?
BUCKLEY: Oh, yeah, very much a liberal, and once in a while, when he confesses, but when I started National Review I saw a magazine called Ivy, in which I had an essay -- which was 1955 -- and there was an essay by John Leonard. So I called him up because it was beautifully written, and said to him -- would he like to take a summer job with National Review. He said, "I'll take a job anytime with anybody, since I've just been kicked out of Harvard."
So he worked for us for a year and a half, did marvelous work. Then he went off to Berkeley to be radicalized, which was very completely done. But he's a brilliant, brilliant writer.
LAMB: In the acknowledgments in the beginning -- we're just about out of time -- you say, "I'm indebted primarily to Mrs. Bozell, senior editor of Regnery Gateway." Who is Mrs. Bozell?
BUCKLEY: She's my sister and she's a full-time editor for Regnery Gateway.
LAMB: How did she ...
BUCKLEY: Regnery published my first book.
LAMB: Oh, I see, and this is Random House.
LAMB: She was doing it just as a friend, or just as a brother -- sister?
LAMB: Well, you say in here, "I would not give out the date of the Declaration of Independence without first checking with her."
BUCKLEY: No, it was with Dorothy McCartney ...
LAMB: Oh, I'm sorry.
BUCKLEY: ... who is chief researcher at National Review, so I was paying her a compliment that she's owed.
LAMB: Other than the novel that's coming out in January, what's next in non-fiction?
BUCKLEY: In non-fiction. Well, I'm about one-third of the way through a book on the Catholic religion, which I suspended because I didn't have enough time to do the reading I felt I had to do. Whether I will crank that up or not, I don't know. There are a couple of other ideas floating about which I haven't yet decided. But I will write a book, though.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1996. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.