William F. Buckley

Buckley on Buckley

VTR Date: August 6, 1996

Guest: Buckley, William F.


Guest: William F. Buckley, Jr.
Title: “Buckley on Buckley”
VTR: 8/6/96

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on The Open Mind. And today I claim the privilege of seniority. For yesterday I turned 71, and my guest has not as yet, not quite. What William F. Buckley, Jr. can claim, however, is the admiration and affection of innumerable readers and viewers, from the political right and left alike, who for decades now have embraced this guru, this patron saint of conservatism — often because of; often despite his political views — always with thanks to his wit, his intelligence, his erudition, and a writing style that one critic summed up as “Eloquent, syllogistic, and full of the unflappable patrician self-assurance that so irritates his critics.” Our late good friend, Dick Clurman, always hoped that some day I would succeed in getting William Buckley to join me on The Open Mind. Of course, my viewers know his thinking, surely watch him regularly on “Firing Line,” though it’s still in his adolescence. (His program began in 1966, when mine was already ten years old.)

So we have both been around the track. And while I know the kind of intellectual odyssey I’ve made over these many years (something I’m trying very hard to write about now), I wonder if I may ask my guest about his own philosophical journey from there to here, from then to now. What’s changed? After all, I first knew of William Buckley through his God and Man at Yale in 1951, then his McCarthy and His Enemies in 1954, his Up from Liberalism in 1959, and I deplored them all as politically reactionary. But my liberal friends now embrace my guest, and my first question to him just has to be: What’s happened? And to whom?

BUCKLEY: Well, I think that what’s happening is that perspectives have quite generally sharpened in the past 40 years, and that that which was quite widely accepted as perfectly tolerable is no longer accepted as totally tolerable. Take, for instance, in the academic world, the notion that everyone should be treated equally, which was universally acclaimed, graduated into Affirmative Action. The notion that all ideas should start even in the race graduated into a kind of anarchy against which there is resistance. In the political world, the notion that if you sought improvement in human life you had only to summon the attention of government and extend its mandate to cover that problem didn’t work out, i.e., the problems persisted. The notion that Communists could be won around simply by sweet talking them into reason, which is what FDR and Truman for awhile thought didn’t work out. They continued to arm and to mobilize a dramatic arsenal of world-killing weapons. So all of those premises of liberalism tended to have shaky knees, as a result of which the conservative alternative took on life. You could certainly never have predicted in 1950 that there would be a national debate over the flat tax, just as an example, to give you an American example. Nor could you have predicted that the Democratic Party would, that a spokesman would, come and say “The time has come to resist big government.” All of these are changes wrought by experience.

Now, experience doesn’t teach us everything. One has to review one’s learning, which is why we’re both here. But it certainly has, I think, vindicated certain positions I took back then which were more unpopular than they should have been.


HEFFNER: That’s about Buckley and his enemies, though “enemy” is too strong a word. It’s about their shift as, can we go to their side and say, “Well, Buckley has seen the error of his earliest ways, and in this instance and in that instance he’s moved to a sounder policy.”

BUCKLEY: Well, the only position I can think of offhand that I defended then and wouldn’t now is I believed very strongly in outlawing drugs. I no longer believe that. But I can’t think of any other position in which I have changed, except mutatis mutandas, by which I mean, to the extent that the seasons change color, one states things differently, sees a longer or shorter shadows. Those differences I acknowledge, but I can’t think of any of the basic presumptions of my early books that I regret now having enunciated.

HEFFNER: Why do you regret anything?

BUCKLEY: Well, one tends, for psychologically obvious reasons, to forget whatever one did that might be socially or psychologically, intellectually embarrassing. In my case, this isn’t easy to do, because other people put them in Internet.

HEFFNER: [Laughter]

BUCKLEY: But I’ll put it this way … I can’t think of any book I’ve ever written that I wouldn’t write differently if I wrote it today. But that’s a difference in focus or a difference in accent, a difference in construction. But none of the postulates have changed, or the findings.

HEFFNER: And those postulates?

BUCKLEY: Well, I wrote very early on that, in my judgment, all that is truly important has been revealed. I say this as a practicing Christian who believes that God didn’t keep anything up His sleeve that we needed to know in order to behave correctly. It’s all there. So therefore everything that is spoken on the subject is derivative. Now, I’m very much interested in derivative exercises, but it’s very important to me that they be acknowledged as derivative. And this is something that isn’t easily reconciled with a kind of narcissistic bombast that accompanies a lot of liberal statements.

HEFFNER: “Liberal statements.” Not “conservative statements?” You mean political statements.

BUCKLEY: Well, I’m making the conventional distinction between liberal and conservative.

HEFFNER: What is that distinction? And were you making it when you wrote God and Man at Yale?

BUCKLEY: Oh, sure.

HEFFNER: And making it to your own satisfaction today?

BUCKLEY: No, no, no. I never made anything to my satisfaction. My satisfaction isn’t… My efforts aren’t up to my satisfaction, but they are as good as I could have done at the time. A liberal tended in those days to believe that the consummate doer of good is the government. The state actually. Also tended to believe that whatever is created by an individual belongs, if not de facto, de jure, to the government, and it is up to the government to decide how much that individual can retain of his own, as in the progressive income tax. And liberals also tend to believe that nothing is truly normal. John Stuart Mill put it very keenly when he said, “As long as there is a single dissent from any position, it can’t be said that a position is conclusively arrived at.” The philosophers call epistemological pessimism, and the conservatives don’t believe that. They believe two things: Number one, that some truths are preternaturally true, and that to the extent that we don’t know the absolute true position, one has to proceed on the operative assumption that that which is as true as you can get becomes something you strive after. Academic freedom back in the fifties declined theoretically to say that the Gettysburg Address is superior to Marx’s “Manifesto.” How do you know this? So I think that kind of hopelessness is an aspect of liberalism in interesting paradoxical contrast to its total self-assurance.


HEFFNER: Preternaturally, am I my brother’s keeper? BUCKLEY: No. Preternaturally, you should be. That is to say, you should feel an obligation to look after, to help look after people who are, who need looking after.

HEFFNER: Well, if one doesn’t pretend to be enthused about turning to government, but feels the need for my brother to be kept, not without his effort, but for my brother to be helped, where do we turn?

BUCKLEY: Well, we’re talking about a democracy, right?


BUCKLEY: If, let’s say, an act to help crippled children. All right. If a democratic government issues the Crippled Children’s Act, we have to presuppose, since it’s a democratic government, that the majority of the people want it. Now, if the majority of the people want it, what are they doing? They’re saying to Washington, “Tax everybody in order to finance the Crippled Children’s Act.” Now, that presupposes that they are willing to be taxed. So the instant question becomes: To what extent are the exertions of the majority aimed at the minority who wouldn’t go along? Let’s say the Crippled Children Act of 1996 is passed with a 75 percent vote in a Congress that reflects the wishes of its constituencies. Then you see 75 percent of the American people are in favor of the Crippled Children’s Act. Well, then why don’t they simply finance it themselves? Well, at the turn of the century there were 100,000 agencies in America that were engaged in officially doing good. Little church agencies, tents, mother’s helpers, whatever. The only difference that I can discover between an approach in which people do their own good through their own resources is that they want to get the 25 percent. If an act aimed at people who don’t consider that crippled children their responsibility. That’s a long way around, isn’t it?

HEFFNER: It is, indeed. And it is a democratic way. You don’t object to that.

BUCKLEY: I object very much to the government undertaking to do anything that can be done by a non-government agency. That’s the so-called doctrine of subsidiarity. No government agency should undertake anything that can be done socially, and no higher unit of government should undertake anything that can be done by a lower unit. Articulated first by Louis XIII, reiterated by four or five popes, and generally endorsed in the secular community. So if you say to me, “Okay, the work of the Red Cross can’t be done by the Red Cross; it’s got to be done by the Department of Human Welfare,” then I say, “Okay, if it’s got to be, it’s got to be. But prove it first.” And I don’t see any such proof in any of the measures that we have that couldn’t.

HEFFNER: Do you feel that if you were to scratch somewhat more deeply than perhaps we have, the American electorate, Americans generally, we would find a willingness, if not an enthusiasm, at least a willingness, to support social measures?


BUCKLEY: You make a very interesting point, because that point is that a lot of American voters have been persuaded that in order to cause a good thing to materialize, like a Crippled Children’s Act, all they have to do is vote for it. Their congressmen and their senators don’t encourage them to know that they’re going to pay for it. Something like 92 percent of all expenditures are covered by people who make less than $50,000 a year. So they are actually voting to tax themselves. So, if what you’re saying is there is an operative ignorance between what a person votes for and what he actually intends in respect to his own pocketbook, I think you’re unhappily right.

HEFFNER: Well, now I’m a little confused. “Unhappily” perhaps, in your terms; perhaps “happily” in mine. Tell me more directly: If there were a real relationship made available to the public, “You want to be generous in taking care of your brother, you have to pay so much,” Do you think that generosity would be recognized as rampant?

BUCKLEY: Well, Winston Churchill said the American people were the most generous people in the history of the world. That was back when we were financing the Marshall Plan, and so on. I think the American people are a generous people. Now, that doesn’t mean that if they would say, “Okay, you’ve just been taxed $1,800. Now, if we subtract that much of it’s going to finance foreign aid, that would reduce it to $1,745. So take those that you want to reduce,” I’m not sure how they’d stand up in individual tests of that kind. But to the extent that public policy isn’t reflected, isn’t it a reflect of their opinion? Then we are living in an undemocratic society. And we don’t want to say that, do we?

HEFFNER: But where do you think we are? Do you think we are living that way, or we’re not living that way? Do you think that if we could scratch more deeply we would find the person to our right, the person to our left, really unwilling…

BUCKLEY: I think it would depend on the acid test. You know, the ACLU people are always saying the American people would never vote for the Bill of Rights.


BUCKLEY: I.e., if you take into its little pieces, say, “Are you in favor of this? In favor of that?” it wouldn’t pass. However, I think that if a serious move were made to repeal the Bill of Rights, probably sentiment would mobilize in favor of its protection. By the same token, I think that there would be considerable mobilization of philanthropical opinion if one actually rubbed people’s noses into the consequences of failing to endorse certain public expenditures. But then you need to ask the question, “Why are these public expenditures?” In most cases they don’t need to be.

HEFFNER: Explain that.

BUCKLEY: Well, most of what you call “The Fair Society,” Lyndon Johnson’s program, didn’t exist until 1965, but you and I managed to survive that period, didn’t we?

HEFFNER: But we haven’t, in this discussion, been talking about either one of us; we’ve been talking about those who are our brothers, and who are less…

BUCKLEY: Well, they survived too.

HEFFNER: I can’t deny that.

BUCKLEY: So therefore … [Laughter] This is rather interesting. I heard Rush Limbaugh the other day, and he said, “Willie Horton” — this was the day the Welfare Bill was signed — went on and broadcasted, “I’m not going to let anybody in San Francisco starve.” And Rush Limbaugh said, “Well, gee, I’m glad to hear that. Why’d you wait until now to say it?” His point being that we didn’t need the Federal Welfare Law to see to it that nobody in San Francisco starves. So…

HEFFNER: Now, you…

BUCKLEY: I’m not suggesting it wasn’t, but, look…

BUCKLEY: …mean Brown.


HEFFNER: Willie Brown.

BUCKLEY: Who’d I say?

HEFFNER: You said Willie Horton.

BUCKLEY: Well, I’m sorry. Willie Brown.

HEFFNER: That’s the kind of slip we need too.

BUCKLEY: [Laughter]

HEFFNER: Analyze before it’s realized.

BUCKLEY: But by current standards, anybody who earns less than $7,000 a year is poor. By current standards, 90 percent of the American people were poor in the year 1900. Now, it’s no fun to be poor. And I think one of the most attractive aspects of American society is that poverty has decreased. But it decreased up until about 1967 or 8, and since then it’s wobbled at 13, 12, 11, 13, 12, 11 percent. I regret that, and I commit myself to ask the question: Is there any correspondence between that failure policy of the poverty to diminish and the intervention of society in so many public policies?


HEFFNER: Mr. Buckley, in the few minutes we have remaining: I lived too in a state of alert for too long during the McCarthy period not to ask you whether you have modified your own thinking about the role that McCarthy played in our lives.

BUCKLEY: Well, the book I wrote went to press in September of 1953. In that book, my co-author and I made, I think, between 50 and 60 criticisms of McCarthy. In fact, although we were friends, he refused specifically to endorse that book because he thought it too measured for his own taste. But having said that, I think it is true that after the Fall of 1953, he pretty much went to pieces. His charges became much reckless in the sense that they weren’t, most of them, in 1950 and ‘51. But what I most deeply lament is that the whole McCarthy experience set back the anti-Communist cause. It became so easy to denounce any measure aimed at internal security or even at external security as a McCarthyite. So he became a stigma on the anti-Communist position, which I deeply regret, even though I still think he is much less interesting than his critics, by which I mean that the lengths to which his critics went without damaging their reputation at all is, I think, the sociologically interesting datum of that period.

HEFFNER: I realize that you feel that way, and I wondered whether you’d elaborate on that just in the few minutes we have left.

BUCKLEY: Sure. The people accepted the notion that McCarthy threatened hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. I remember (maybe you’ve heard this) John Roche, who was head of Americans for Democratic Action at the time, as left-wing, non-communist as you can get, said, “People ask me if I’m scared of McCarthy, and I say to them, ‘In my scale of what I’m afraid of, he comes in about twenty-fourth. Twenty-third is my fear of college presidents. And twenty-sixth is my fear of being eaten alive by a piranha.’” Now, this is correctly to situate the extent to which McCarthy was threatening civil liberties. So I think that’s a very difficult, that’s a very difficult hurdle for sort of the professional anti-McCarthy set to handle.

HEFFNER: But you say you think it is a sociological phenomenon, that that protest, what you would consider hysteria.


HEFFNER: How would you describe the phenomenon?

BUCKLEY: Well, the phenomenon was speeches, editorials about how our liberties were threatened, how there’s no more freedom in America than there is in the Soviet Union. At that level. I quote a bunch of them in my book, even though it was only September of 1963 [sic]. The charges leveled against McCarthy are almost shocking to relate, given the relatively trivial hold that he had. Now, people who were security risks in the State Department did feel threatened, and that’s an open question whether they were over-threatened. Certainly on the basis of what we subsequently discovered about our government, and especially about the government of Great Britain, they were underthreatened.

HEFFNER: Yes, but you have to distinguish between the two governments.

BUCKLEY: Well, why?

HEFFNER: I mean, the British had it truly tough.

BUCKLEY: Look, we had Aldrich Ames as recently as two years ago.


BUCKLEY: People were shot and killed because of what he revealed to the Soviet Union, and he actually drove out in his Ford station wagon with secret papers giving the names of these poor people in Moscow. Now, let’s acknowledge the possibility that, if McCarthy had been around, that kind of slackness wouldn’t have happened.


HEFFNER: But you do think we were in danger during those years?

BUCKLEY: I know we were. They got the atom bomb. How dangerous could you be? Klaus Fuchs stole the atom bomb from the United States of America. Therefore, he passed through a security that he shouldn’t have passed through in America.

HEFFNER: Because of the sort of laxness, or because of the sort of treason that McCarthy…

BUCKLEY: Yeah. Remember, we went through a period during the war in which the Soviet Union was our ally. When you mentioned in another context a moment ago orientation films when we were in the army, one of the orientation films also was how we should love the Soviet Union, among other things, because the natives, the old ladies were so pious, and you saw them saying their beads in church. Those of them who weren’t in gulags. That part wasn’t shown. So there was a warmth towards the Soviet Union which dissipated when the Cold War came. But the appropriate actions weren’t, in fact, taken, neither here nor in Great Britain. And that’s what McCarthyism was all about.

HEFFNER: I have hysterical people in the control room telling me, “Good bye.”

BUCKLEY: I don’t blame them.

HEFFNER: Good bye, Mr. Buckley. Thank you.

BUCKLEY: Nice to see you.

HEFFNER: And thanks too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. And if you would like a transcript of today’s program, please send $4 in check or money order to: The Open Mind, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. Comments can be sent to this address, or via e-mail to: openmindtv@aol.com.

Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night, and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.