Bill Steigerwald

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?

A: I think it manifests itself at different levels. It is more provoked by Soviet challenges than it is by challenges in trivial quarters by local school teachers. People always continue to ask themselves are they furthering the cause of conservatism by accepting this quarrel or that quarrel and inevitably we reach a situation -- especially because of the politicization of our culture -- in which it's impossible absolutely to say whether John Jones by voting Democratic is manifestly entitled to the gratitude of conservatives rather than if he had voted Republican. So there is that diffusion and the difficulty in concentrating in a few words all the ideals involved.

Much depends, of course, on the emphasis that is placed on them, so that all of that must be kept in mind. I thought it was awfully well done by Russell Kirk in his book "What is Conservatism?," which I thoroughly recommend.

Q: Is Russell Kirk spinning in his grave at what passes for conservatism today?

A: I don't know what you have reference to. There's a lot of fanciful ideologizing which he would not approve of but I don't think of him as spinning in the grave as a result of particular irritations.

Q: Which politician best exemplifies conservatism in America today?

A: Well, I don't know more about that than you do. All I can say is that the people who write for National Review, year in, year out, in my judgment, are conservatives leading a useful and creative life. To mention them individually wouldn't do anything other than to distract from the search you are undertaking.

Q: Book publisher Henry Regnery once said, "Conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma, and conservatives inherit from Burke a talent for re-expressing their convictions to fit the times."

A: I agree with the last part of what you just said, but I've forgotten what the first part was.

Q: That "conservatism is not a fixed and immutable body of dogma" .

A: I agree, I agree. It is not.

Q: Yet it does have certain tenets that can't be thrown overboard. Is that true?

A: Yeah. It is difficult to imagine a regnant conservatism which authorized random mercy killing. Or for that matter, the taking of life lightly. But there are permutations there.

Some conservatives are against capital punishment; others are not. But I think both would agree that conservatism would frown on a flippant attitude toward life which allowed capital punishment to proceed at other than a grave level of investigation.

Q: When you look at the current state of conservatism, do you see the sun rising or the sun setting?

A: We've accomplished an enormous amount historically in the last 50 years. We emerged from the Second World War gravely threatened at many levels; threatened by a kind of an attitudinal socialism, which I think we have fought through successfully; and of course by huge, direct political talent -- and a lot of tributary talent, as in Europe and so on and so forth -- over these (threats) we have prevailed.

There is no Soviet threat. There is no tidal demand for a change in government of a kind that would ignore human rights and private property rights. A lot of problems continue -- education primary among them, the allocation of resources. But the fact of the matter is that what we have accomplished is signal, important and enduring and under those circumstances, conservatives can legitimately take some pride in what has happened.

Q: Is there any single biggest or single worst mistake that conservatives have committed in the last 20 years that you really, really wish had not happened?

A: That's an interesting question. Let me, if I may, proceed with a question and take one step at a higher level of political discourse. Anything that seeks to propound the theory of equality other than in the eyes of God is, in my judgment, unnatural. So that any emphasis that's put on equality that defies a general intelligence makes a mistake on the altar of that equality which is injurious.

If you say, "Give me an example of where that happened," you would turn to such matters as required graduation in the high schools based on one's commitment to equality; that would be a mistake. There's such a variety of those, it's hard to single one out as the principal offender.

Q: The prefix "neo" being placed in front of the word "conservative" has given conservatism quite a different spin. Many old-time or traditional conservatives are not too happy with the idea that the United States is trying to spread democracy around the world a la Woodrow Wilson, as is going on in Iraq. Is that something conservatives can be blamed for or is that something that is not conservative in nature?

A: I think it's the latter. Conservatives can be blamed to the extent that they are thought of having acquiesced in that definition of their goal in a free society. But it has been by no means unanimous in the belief that conservatism consists in that kind of evangelistic extreme.

There are people whom I enormously admire, as perhaps you do, who take a pretty Wilsonian view about the responsibility of states like ours vis-a-vis states that simply reject learning that we consider to be primary, that's true.

But I don't think that the existence of the neoconservative movement has the effect of vitiating legitimate conservatism -- or even of putting such pressure on traditional conservatives as to feel that they are missing a great historical tide.

Some people that I very much respect, like (Weekly Standard editor) Bill Kristol, disagree with me on that, but there we are.

Q: You've said that President Bush is not a true conservative -- if that's a fair repeating of what you said -- primarily because of intervention in Iraq and his extravagant domestic spending.

A: I have distinguished in the past between somebody who "is conservative" and somebody who is "a conservative."

By somebody who is "a conservative," I'm referring to people like Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, the totality of whose respect for those ideals is such as to say they are guided by them. But if you say of someone, "Well, he's 'conservative,' " by no means could it be said that he is guided by conservative lodestars. That would include President Eisenhower and President Bush.

In the matter of the incumbent Bush, the challenge is very keen because of the central role that Iraq is playing. It's a challenge not only in that we are being asked to turn toward neoconservatism in our foreign policy but also in that the acid test is coming in an area of the world in which we haven't, in my judgment, devised an arresting and persuasive stance.

We don't really know whether Islam is a consolidated challenge to Western Christianity and, as such, we haven't, in my judgment, come up with the persuasive weaponry with which to press our own field and deny theirs.

Q: Has conservatism made a bargain with the state or with government power that it should not have made over the last 50 years? Has conservatism forgotten the message of Albert J. Nock's seminal book, "Our Enemy, the State"?

A: The answer is, "Yes, it has." Accommodations have been made, the consequences of which we have yet to pay for.

Albert J. Nock, although he could express himself fanatically on these subjects, would certainly have pronounced these as major, major mistakes. So, the answer to your question is, indeed those excesses have been engaged in and they affect the probity of the conservative faith.

Q: You know who Ron Paul is -- the congressman. He's derided and discounted by many conservatives and his fellow Republicans as a kook. Yet his strong stands in favor of limited constitutional government, lower taxes, more personal freedoms and nonintervention overseas make him in many ways sound like a conservative of old -- a Robert Taft, or a Coolidge kind of conservative in some ways.

A: I agree, yeah.

Q: Is he getting a bum rap?

A: I think that people who cast themselves as presidential contenders are almost universally derided on the grounds that they don't have manifest orthodox qualifications.

In the case of Ron Paul, he doesn't have a broad enough or huge following and under the circumstances he becomes rather a quaint ideological aspirant than someone who is realistically seeking for power.

Q: You've always had a visible libertarian streak .

A: Yes.

Q: . whether it goes back to your admiration of Nock or your opposition to the war on drugs. Yet you and libertarians have always been feuding. Is there a simple way to summarize the most important argument between you and libertarians?

A: I suppose the most important argument is the dogmatic character of libertarian conservatism.

I once wrote an essay on the subject in which I said that if I were at sea on my boat and saw a light flashing I would not worry deeply whether the financing of that light had been done by the private or public sector. This became a kind of playful debate with the (University of) Chicago (economists). By and large it has to do with the tenacity with which some libertarians tend to hold on to their basic (principles).

Q: Is conservatism compatible with a welfare-warfare state that consumes so much of our national wealth and controls so much of our daily lives?

A: It's incompatible with a state that overdoes it. If the demands on the state required a devotion and a preoccupation with it to the point of standing in the way of people's devising their own preferences and their own order of preferences, then you could say it was a mortal enemy.

I don't think it's fair to say that given the percentage of the national income that's being pre-empted by the state at this time that we have lost that war. But I think it is correct to say that it's a war that we need to continue to fight and concern ourselves with.


Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald, born and raised in Pittsburgh, is a former L.A. Times copy editor and free-lancer who also worked as a docudrama researcher for CBS-TV in Hollywood before becoming a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and a columnist Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Bill Steigerwald recently retired from daily newspaper journalism..