William F. Buckley Jr., the leading political and cultural symbol of American conservatism for almost 50 years, died Feb. 27 at age 82 at his home in Stamford, Conn. He had been ill with emphysema. Buckley, who I spoke with by telephone on Nov. 14, 2007, is universally credited with godfathering the ideological revolution that carried Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980. Author, lecturer, debater and host of "Firing Line" on PBS from 1966 to 1999, Buckley founded National Review magazine in 1955 and turned it into the country's leading conservative journal of opinion. He retired as its active editor in 1990. But his syndicated newspaper column, "On the Right," which he began in 1962, continues to appear twice a week and he has written 10 novels featuring CIA agent Blackford Oakes. Despite his poor health, during our 15 minute talk about the state of conservatism, the 1991 Presidential Medal of Freedom recipient was erudite, gracious and cheerful.
Q: What's become of the conservative revolution that you fathered 50-some years ago?
A: Well, all revolutions have to either keep moving or else be consolidated. Ours is a little bit of each. I think that there is less appetite now, or patience, for revolutionary dogmas of the kind that all Europe and America faced right after the world war. That is an aspect of a revolution that has been consummated. It doesn't mean that it mightn't reawaken but, in fact, it has not yet. So we can say that's what happened to that revolution -- we won.
Q: Do you feel today that that revolution peaked with Ronald Reagan?
A: Yes, I think it did. Viewed as a straight political trajectory, that, in my judgment, would be correct: It peaked in 1980.
Q: Can you give us a concise definition of conservatism?
A: Conservatism aims to maintain in working order the loyalties of the community to perceived truths and also to those truths which in their judgment have earned universal recognition.
Now this leaves room, of course, for deposition, and there is deposition -- the Civil War being the most monstrous account. But it also urges a kind of loyalty that breeds a devotion to those ideals sufficient to surmount the current crisis. When the Soviet Union challenged America and our set of loyalties, it did so at gunpoint. It became necessary at a certain point to show them our clenched fist and advise them that we were not going to deal lightly with our primal commitment to preserve those loyalties.
That's the most general definition of conservatism.
Q: In American politics, in the day-to-day political struggle, what is conservatism? How does it manifest itself?
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