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Taking the Measure of William Buckley

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Joining us now from New York is Sam Tanenhaus, who is the editor of The New York Times Book Review and the Weekend Review section. He's working on a biography of William F. Buckley.

Welcome to the program, Sam.

Mr. SAM TANENHAUS (Editor, The New York Times Book Review and Weekend Review Section): It's good to be here.

SIEGEL: So many of us knew William F. Buckley from his public persona. My first question is, was his private informal persona radically different from what we saw?

Mr. TANENHAUS: I wouldn't say radically different. As soon as you heard the famous voice, it was the famous voice you'd heard on television in "Firing Line," or on the radio or the many interviews he gave. His manner was more informal. He dressed very casually for one thing. He dressed in a kind of Ivy League-preppy style of the early '50s, late '40s, when he'd been there.

The most interesting thing about him was that if you spend time privately with him at his home or with friends, he never talked about politics. He was bored by it. Politics was something he was very good at talking about, and writing about, and especially arguing about, but he didn't find it fundamentally interesting. So, he talked about books, he talked about journalism, he talked about music, he talked about sailing, about his dogs. He loved King Cavalier Spaniels, but he seldom talked about politics. And he once said to me, I only talk about politics when someone pays me to do it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. TANENHAUS: And they paid him a lot...

SIEGEL: Yes. This would explain also how he managed, I gather, a great many, close friendships with a lot of people who disagreed profoundly with him about politics.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, one of those great friends who disagreed profoundly with him, the great journalist, Murray Kempton, said, Bill Buckley has a genius for friendship. Of the great people one meets in the course of one's life, I never met one who is just so much fun to be with and there was a kind of antic quality to everything he said, he just lived his life in a very entertaining way. He entertained himself and the people around him, and he wanted to be entertained in turn, which isn't to say that he ever put one on the spot, but he wanted to have interesting people around him, who told him things he didn't know.

SIEGEL: William F. Buckley played such a pivotal role in the development of post-war conservatism in America, including - we should add here - his opposition to desegregation in the American South, in National Review, which is not a warm and fuzzy position by any means. What was it that made him this conservative thinker?

Mr. TANENHAUS: Well, the first thing to say, by the way, because you've raised the desegregation point, which comes up a lot, and there are few things to say about that, first is, those who use changed quite dramatically over time. As of the earlier views, Bill Buckley was the son of Deep Southern parents. His father came from southern Texas; his mother from New Orleans. The views he grew up with - in the '30s and early '40s were essentially those of progressive white Southerners of that period. What happened was he, like, so many others was overtaken by the drama of the Civil Rights Movement and was indeed slow to catch on. Although, very early on, he supported boycotts, for instance, the Montgomery bus boycott because that was a protest that actually used the power of the economy to change politics. What he opposed was, what he and many other classical conservative types saw as statism, the imposition of political change from above.

Now, that view of civil rights was one that was linked to this broader notion I've hinted at which is that a Buckley style conservatism was very much about the individual. In its early days, it was called individualism. We now think of it as libertarianism. Conservatives emerged as defenders of individual rights, of entrepreneurship - and these are values that ultimately were embraced by the broader political communities.

So in a sense, what Buckley did was to take an old style of conservatism and modernized it, and actually make the country a little bit less liberal as it began to embrace these ideals.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, thanks a lot for talking with us.

Mr. TANENHAUS: Thank you.

SIEGEL: Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New Times Book Review and Weekend Review sections speaking to us about William F. Buckley Jr. He's writing a biography of him. Mr. Buckley died today at age 82. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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