Linda Chavez

Conservatism lost one of its most influential voices this week. William F. Buckley Jr. -- author, editor, television host, and one of America's most important public intellectuals -- died in his home Wednesday at 82. Buckley shaped the modern conservative movement into a force in American politics, and he so did with equal measure of charm and intellectual rigor.

Like many conservatives, I was influenced by Buckley, although as much in a personal as political fashion. I remember the first time I met him. I had recently been nominated by President Ronald Reagan to be director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, along with three new commissioners. All of us were Democrats who shared President Reagan's antipathy for racial preferences, but our nominations were in trouble. Liberal interest groups were fighting tooth and nail to keep us off the commission, and the White House decided we should take our case directly to the American people via television appearances. Buckley obliged by inviting me and two of my fellow nominees on his popular show, "Firing Line," which was then taped in New York.

I was very nervous, never having been on national television before. But Buckley was disarming, with his characteristic wide-eyed grin -- that is, until the interview started. Suddenly, he was transformed into this intimidating presence on stage. He peppered my colleagues with questions, and then turned his attention to me.

While I heard words coming out of his mouth, I had no idea what he was asking because most of the question was in Latin. I must have looked like a deer in the headlights, but I managed to say something about the importance of judging people as individuals, not as members of racial or ethnic groups.

Afterwards, he complimented us on our performances. "It would have been a lot easier if all the questions had been in English," I bantered.

He raised his eyebrow, with that famous twinkle in his eye, and said, "Linda, I've taught you the most important lesson you will ever learn about being interviewed. Ignore the question you're asked and make your best argument. Your aim isn't to please the interviewer but to influence the audience."

It was great advice. And Buckley was certainly a master at influencing audiences. For years, Buckley entertained Americans -- even those who vehemently disagreed with him -- by making them think. But perhaps his greatest contribution to American conservatism was in taking on the prejudices and bigotry that occasionally infect the Right.

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .

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