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Mark Steyn remembers William F. Buckley

Thursday, February 28, 2008

with guest host Austin Hill

AH: Right now, as we do every Thursday at this time, we are joined by the man that my friend, Hugh Hewitt, refers to as the Columnist to the World, and I would certainly concur with this. I’ve had the pleasure of sitting and listening to him speak in a lecture format. You’ve heard him on the radio many, many times. We love his blogging and writing at Mark Steyn joins us now, actually, I believe, this time from London. And Mark, it’s great to have you here on the program as always. And you are so well known and so well loved, frankly, for having written some eloquent eulogies of some profound people that have walked the Earth in our lifetime. We just lost a giant earlier this week, William F. Buckley. Where do you begin with that?

MS: Yeah, I usually find myself writing obituaries for people I haven’t met, or I knew casually. And Bill was a great figure, but he was also, he was an immense influence on Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan…

AH: Yes.

MS: …and the modern conservative movement. But he was also very good to a lot of younger writers, including me. And I will miss him for that, for the personal kindnesses he showed me. When I moved to New Hampshire many years ago, my postmistress asked what I did, and I said I was a writer. And of course, she immediately marked me down as a loser, which is a reasonable thing when someone tells you they’re a member of that profession. And then I remember how her face lit up with a kind of shared pride a couple of years later, when a card in the mail from Bill Buckley arrived. And Bill had written something very kind in kind of very spidery scrawl, saying something nice about one of my columns. And my postmistress handed it to me with pride.

AH: Yeah, and this was a card sent to you from Bill Buckley, and this lady was delivering it to your residence. Is that how we understand it?

MS: Yeah, and she basically slid it across the counter at the post office, and was…my status went up immeasurably, basically because Bill had been kind enough to say something nice about me. He was very kind to a lot of young and up and coming writers that way.

AH: About how long ago was that? Can you place a rough date on that, Mark?

MS: Yeah, that must have been, I would have guessed the mid-90’s, shortly before I wound up writing for National Review. I mean, he kept on…that was a characteristic of him, really. He was someone who was very forward looking. If you wanted to talk to him about the good old days, the 1950’s, building the conservative movement, going on to win the Cold War, he was happy to do that. But he was always wanting to look on to the next thing, to where the future was, and the people who were going to help build the future. And even at the end of his life, these last couple of years, he was very frail, he had emphysema, he wasn’t well. I did a panel with him that he chaired about a year ago, and he seemed very obviously frail and ill before the panel. And I thought oh, my goodness, is he going to get through this? And the minute he walked out on stage, he sat in the swivel chair, he began his introduction, the lights were on. It was like the old Firing Line Bill. He was sharp, he was witty, he asked rapier-like questions. And even at the end of his life, when he was exhausted and ill, he could still kind of pull it out of the fire, and give people a classic Bill Buckley performance.

AH: That’s extraordinary. And Mark, as you describe this, I’m scrolling through my memories in my mind as I listen to your voice in my headphones, recollecting the many, many times, even back in my early childhood days, when I watched William Buckley on that very show, Firing Line, just as you’re describing. I can picture him now. If you’ve just joined us, this is the Hugh Hewitt Show. I’m Austin Hill filling in as Hugh Hewitt is on vacation. Our good friend, Mark Steyn, from, he’s with us from London. Mark, I wanted to get back to something you raised just a moment ago, the forward thinking nature of William F. Buckley, the man who had a vision for the future, and cast a vision for the future. If he were well, if he were alive and among us today, if he were of completely sound mind and good physical health, what do you believe would be his take on what the future holds, and what it ought to hold? Can you comment on that?

MS: Well, yes. He was troubled, I think, at the way the coalition appears to be fracturing. I mean, in a sense, what we think of as the modern conservative coalition, which is economic libertarians, moral traditionalists, and foreign policy hawks, that three-legged stool was something that he built in the 1950’s, and not entirely single-handedly, but under his direction. And if you go back to the way the Republican Party had been during the Franklin Roosevelt era, under FDR, the Republicans had dwindled into these essentially isolationist and genuinely reactionary types. And Bill, in effect, built the three-legged conservative stool as we know it today in the 50’s. Now what we’ve seen during this primary season is the legs coming off the stool, as it were. And Bill was concerned about that.

AH: I believe you’re absolutely right. Sure. Did you ever have a conversation, Mark Steyn, with William Buckley to the effect that maybe he expressed to you concern that he might have had, way back when, perhaps before either you or I were born, concern that just as he had formulated these ideas and created the three stool legs, as you call it, and so forth, there might not ever come a leader who embraces it and carries the torch? We know Ronald Reagan did that. We know that he transformed the country. But did he ever have concerns when he was being the idea guy, so to speak, and igniting a movement, that a leader, to carry the movement to the masses, would never emerge?

MS: Yeah, I think Bill understood that he was not someone who was going to be the great executive authority. And in effect, he was the sort of intellectual wrangler of the conservative movement. I was told by someone in a position to know that President Reagan offered him the position of ambassador to London in 1981.

AH: No kidding?

MS: And Bill turned it down, in a sense, because he understood it wasn’t where his talents lay. And I think that is a real difference. You want…Ronald Reagan, who was the perfect executive, and nevertheless, was also the political, the presidential candidate with the most well-grounded and through thought political philosophy of any presidential candidate in the modern era. And he was that man, because he, by the time he became president, he’d spent 25 years reading National Review.

AH: Sure. Mark, let me get real specific with you. If Bill Buckley were with us, even at this very moment, what would he say about the three people contending for the presidency right now? And as I ask that, it’s, I guess, at the forefront of my mind, that through the entire Republican primary process, we’ve seen just about every candidate that was standing, even 90 days ago, trying to grab onto the mantle of Ronald Reagan, trying to out-Reagan one another. John McCain has claimed that he is most like Reagan than the other candidates who were running against him. And for all intents and purposes, he’s the last man standing. But what would William F. Buckley say today about Mr. Obama, Mrs. Clinton and Mr. McCain?

MS: Well, I think there’s no doubt that Bill had great differences at the end of his life on the Iraq war with John McCain. Nevertheless, you know, Bill was a patriotic American. He’d come to conclude that the Iraq War was a disaster, but he would have supported a President McCain in trying to, in recognizing that America, for credibility’s sake, had to win that war. I think he would have far more problems with Obama and Mrs. Clinton. But the fact is, though, you never get the ideal candidate. You know, conservatives are great people for making the perfect the enemy of the good. In other words, every couple of years, every couple of Novembers, we moan that this candidate isn’t pure enough and that candidate isn’t pure enough.

AH: Sure.

MS: But the fact is, you can’t build a movement that way. You can’t just be an ideological purist, and he understand that, that in a sense, you’ve got to be driving the movement with the ideas, but there have to be people running for election on the ballot who can get elected.

AH: Mark Steyn, let me ask you specifically about this philosophical purity issue that you’re raising here. Let me ask you specifically about the nature and essence of the rhetoric here in the United States right now, as it regards economic policy. We’re in a period of economic slowdown. A lot of people are very frightened about that. President Bush even spoke to the issues of the economy earlier today, and he stated again, in his view, we are not in a recession, but things have slowed down. There’s a degree of uncertainty in the air that did not exist even nine months or twelve months ago. It strikes me as interesting that when Ronald Reagan was running for president, he made it very clear that government is not the solution to our problems, government is the problem. I would say that coming from both Democratic and Republican candidates over the last many months, we’ve heard a whole lot of talk about all of the good things that government can do for us, to protect us and save us. Where are we headed in this milieu, do you believe?

MS: I’m speaking to you from London. Britain and America are basically in the, beginning their second quarter century of the Thatcher-Reagan boom. On Continental Europe, where they take the view that it’s the government that creates a successful economy, they’ve had sluggish economic growth throughout that entire period. They’ve had unemployment rates, I mean, people are moaning about the little uptick in unemployment in the United States. And that is nothing compared to Continental Europe.

AH: Mark Steyn, we’re short on time. And I appreciate you checking in from London., the place to hook up with Mark Steyn.

End of interview.

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