William F. Buckley, Jr., says: “It’s going to take some very harsh, not characteristically American activity toward some dissenters”

April 1 1969


William F. Buckley, Jr., says: “It’s going to take some very harsh, not characteristically American activity toward some dissenters”

April 1 1969



William F. Buckley, Jr., says: “It’s going to take some very harsh, not characteristically American activity toward some dissenters”

William F. Buckley, Jr., and Larry Zolf : like gin and vermouth, a combination to be reckoned with. Buckley, wealthy editor of The National Review and frivolously unsuccessful New York mayoralty candidate, long ago earned the title, “most articulate U.S. conservative.” Zolf, a journalistic gadfly currently associated with CBC television’s The Public Eye, had contributed a chapter

to The New Romans, a jaundiced look at the U.S., that had caught Buckley’s intrepid eye. Zolf and fellow contributors Al Purdy, the poet, and Dennis Lee, a Rochdale College professor, were invited to appear last October on Buckley’s New York television show, Firing Line. Scarcely a peep was heard from liberals Purdy and Lee, but Zolf acquitted himself so nobly that he was asked to drop in any time at Buckley’s New York residence.

Maclean’s arranged the next meeting. “I wandered into his private three-story apartment on East 73rd Street thinking it was an office building,” says Zolf, “and was attacked by a fierce chihuahua. I was rescued by Mr. and Mrs. Buckley, shown through a room full of Mexican-motif paintings and abstracts and ushered into Buckley’s office-cum-study, where I was fortified with copious martinis.” Zolf discovered that Buckley has Canadian connections. The family has investments in Saskatchewan, his wife is the daughter of Vancouver industrialist Austin Taylor, and his executive secretary is a former Montrealer. Buckley was intrigued by Trudeau and, apparently, the feeling was mutual: he had been invited to dine at the Prime Minister’s Ottawa residence.

“During our conversation I found Buckley to be far less outrageous than people claim,” says Zolf. “I found myself sharing his outlook on many occasions. Sometimes he speaks for effect and if you go along with that he will get serious and tell you what he really thinks.” Buckley started by telling Zolf what he really thinks of writer Gore Vidal, with whom he tangled on ABC-TV during the Republican and Democratic conventions and on U.S. election night last fall. Their political and personal popularity led to a spate of bitter name-calling and, during one notorious encounter, threats of combat. Finally, at Buckley’s insistence, the two pundits were separated in the studio by a physical barrier and their dialogue became twin monologues.

Maclean’s: What is the basis of your celebrated dispute with Gore Vidal?

Buckley: I don’t think he feels any compulsion to be accurate.

He also — I suppose it’s part of a guerrilla-warfare technique — made it a habit to confess his contempt for me to TV critics all over the country.

Maclean’s: His contempt for you as a television performer?

Buckley: No, as everything. So I did not anticipate that this would be a successful debate.

In fact, when the ABC network people asked me whom I should debate I named the known people, Schlesinger, Galbraith, all those people, and they said, well, can you think of anybody who in your opinion would not make a good partner? I said, well, only one: Gore Vidal.

Maclean’s: Fatal error. Did you enjoy the encounter?

Buckley: I did not enjoy it at all. I finally refused to debate with him. I won’t debate with anybody who feels free to call you a Nazi in front of 50 million people. His only deeply held conviction is the notion that bisexuality is the normal thing, and heterosexuality is a dying convention. The rest of it is just melodrama and attitudinizing. His whole business about how, unless America elected a president who would renounce the Vietnam war, he would renounce his citizenship turns out retroactively to have been melodrama, since he hasn’t renounced his citizenship. His whole switcheroo on the Kennedys was obviously motivated by a personally distasteful encounter at the White House one night, so that he switched from being violently pro-Kennedy to being violently anti-Kennedy.

Maclean’s: Why go on with him at all?

Buckley: Contract. As a conservative I have to fulfill my contract.

Maclean’s: When the term radical conservative is applied to you, do you object?

Buckley: No. In fact, I suggested it be applied. It’s a term I borrowed from Max Eastman.

The implication is a root attachment to certain ideas, irrespective of whether those ideas are popular.

Maclean’s: One unpopular idea today is the Communist conspiracy. Do you still take it seriously? Are the Yippies, for example, part of some Red web?

Buckley: The post-conspiracy is metamorphosed into a more dangerous direction, in my opinion, because even during the McCarthy period everybody was running around protesting his devotion to the United States. But now you have professors and students by the hundreds, saying they hope the other side will win. You will find them saying, T hope the Soviet Union does conquer.’ A spontaneous conspiracy abounds which is much, much more serious than the one before. Now, to what extent that has had practical consequences is an interesting question. How many people now work in sensitive agencies in the government who feel themselves members of the New Left? Although they don’t feel themselves disciplined members of the Stalinist apparatus, nevertheless, because their emotions are with the other side, I feel that they could very blithely betray American interests. I don’t know, but I suspect many, many more than 15 years ago. Maclean’s: How do you regard Canada? Do you feel that we’re properly fulfilling our responsibilities as a power in this whole crisis — as you see it — of Communism and anti-Communism?

Buckley: Obviously, I’d like to see a little bit more sympathy from Canadian intellectuals for some of America’s problems, particularly Vietnam. Having read a book to which you contributed an eloquent chapter [The New Romans], I didn’t find much of it there and what I did find was rather hesitant and apologetic. Now I understand the psychological conditions that make this almost necessary. I don’t doubt that Canadian intellectuals resent many of the vulgar effronteries of Americans and of American institutions and culture. But still . . .

Maclean’s: Well, we intellectuals might reply to you that when we went to war back in 1914, you waited for three years and

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didn’t do anything and . . .

Buckley: In my opinion, we shouldn’t have gone to war at all.

Maclean’s: A Canadian may argue differently on that score.

Buckley: Yeah, we stopped taking orders from the Crown 150 years before you did.

Maclean’s: Again in 1939 we went to war. You waited for two years. And some Canadians would feel that we have the right now to stay out of the war you’re in.

Buckley: Well, you’re certainly exercising that right. It’s a question really of whether there is an identity of interest. I don’t deny you your right to stay out of this war, or even your right to expect the rich, noisy neighbor to be carrying most of the burden. I think that’s quite natural. But there were many more people in 1939 and 1914 in America arguing the necessity to go to war on the same side as Canada, than there are Canadians arguing about going to war now on the side of America.

Maclean’s: Perhaps the wars are different. The war you’re fighting looks to people like poor little Ho Chi Minh and his group over there in North Vietnam. Buckley: Of course, if it were just Ho Chi Minh, I wouldn’t think you would find three supporters in America for that particular war. We view this as the current salient. Do you think the war against Ethiopia simply involved the loss of Ethiopia? It involved, in my judgment, far larger things.

Maclean’s: Do you think that Canada can serve America’s interest and the interest of peace better by being a nuclear power, by contributing a nuclear role to NATO and NORAD? Or could it contribute better by being a non - nuclear power and having perhaps in this way some influence in Africa and Asia? Buckley: If I were a member of parliament in Canada, I would not sign the non-proliferation treaty, simply because I would want to reserve the right for Canada to develop a nuclear capacity if the time came when the United States would not defend Canada. I would not want to make any irrevocable gestures that committed me, a Canadian, to ultimately depend on America. Which is why I have a certain sympathy for France’s force de frappe. And why I would like to see Japan developing a nuclear deterrent. Maclean’s: How do you feel about Canada harboring U.S. draft-dodgers? Buckley: Well, ah, I believe in sanctuary. The only thing that I would disapprove of is government-sponsored effort in Canada to stimulate sedition in this country. This I would consider intolerable. It’s up to Canada to decide who it wants to admit and it’s up to America to decide what the appropriate penalties will be for people who break the law. Maclean’s: Pierre Trudeau, our Prime Minister, at Queen’s University delivered a rather interesting speech a while back. I don’t know if you heard about it. He suggested that America falling apart from internal disorder is a greater menace to

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Canada’s security than the Communist menace in Europe. In other words, if Canada were seeking to protect its own interests, it had better keep an eye on what’s going on in North America before we worry about what’s going on in Europe. Would you care to comment? Buckley: First of all, let me say that I very much resist quantitative comparisons of asymmetrical situations.

Maclean’s: In English, what does that mean?

Buckley: These two things are so very different. The reason there isn’t much of a threat to Europe is because America exists. Now if America were slowly dissolved as to constitute a threat to Canada, it would also very definitely cause the collapse of NATO, in which case Europe would really have something to worry about, so that Mr. Trudeau is sort of self-justifying logically. If America collapses, everybody else has a great deal to worry about. If America does not collapse, Europe does not have very much to worry about because our intentions are pretty firm in defending Europe, and I don’t think Canada has anything to worry about. So that Mr. Trudeau’s formulation therefore comes down to: will America collapse? Trudeau fears that it might. And I agree with him. There is reason to see that the disorders have got out of hand. There needs to be resolution on the part of America to save itself. And in order to save itself it will have to do some very unpopular things toward its unlawful dissenters, treat them perhaps as vigorously as Canada treated its Communists in 1939.

Maclean’s: From the statements and speeches and the publicity Mr. Trudeau has been receiving here in the United States, how do you feel about him? Buckley: Nobody has pointed out to me any sustained statement of his position. I don’t know where one turns to find out about Trudeau. I know about his sort of radical past. I have heard from somebody who has known him ever since he was 17 that he is essentially apolitical, that he is a confirmed intellectual and aesthete, that he approached government as inquisitively as a professor teaching at graduate school at Harvard University. I have also heard that he has no true convictions about government. I find this dangerous, but nothing in what I have said suggests he is an apostle of any system of government toward which I maintain hostility. He is a dilettante. Now understand, when I say dilettante that as much might be said about Michelangelo. But in government I think he is essentially a dilettante.

Maclean’s: There are two alternatives facing Richard Nixon as President. These are cleavage and consensus. His presidency may perpetuate the cleavage. The students may get more and more radical. The Negroes may become more and more riotous and rebellious, and the frightened working class may become more and more authoritarian. That’s one theory. The other is that Nixon could stop all these things and bring a con-

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sensus in the United States. How do you feel about these alternatives?

Buckley: I think it’s unlikely that Nixon will be able to achieve a consensus, in part because consensus-breaking has become a national activity and is the sole source of satisfaction to the consensusbreakers. The question is, are we going to achieve a continuation of majority rule? This I think we will do, but it’s going to take some very, very harsh and not characteristically American activity toward some of these dissenters. I think Mr. Nixon will be capable of this. And he will find perhaps surprising support from such people as James Reston [the liberal associate editor of the New York Times], who now knows firsthand what it’s like to try and cope with unruly students. They prevented him from completing a lecture he was invited to give at New York University. The one thing that would bring that consensus is a world war — which, God knows, we do not want. Under the circumstances I think we are going to be driven — even as England was driven in the 1930s — but my own guess is that order will prevail. I say guess, because I share some of Mr. Trudeau’s misgivings.

Maclean’s: What would you consider to be the greatest threat to world peace? Buckley: Accidental war. There is a brilliant case in my judgment for total collaboration between nuclear powers to prevent accidental wars. That and Red China. The race between a Red China that recognizes the advantages of ideological sabre-rattling and a Red China that matures sufficiently to make it reasonably certain that it’s not going to start popping hydrogen bombs around the world, is the closest race of our time. One that’s got to be very carefully watched. You may not know that I was in favor of a pre-emptive strike.

Maclean’s: Against China?

Buckley: Against a nuclear facility . . . Maclean’s: Are you still in favor of that? Buckley: I’m in favor of continuing it among alternatives. If, for instance, intelligence gave us fairly ripe knowledge that China was going to start dropping hydrogen bombs on, let’s say, Japan, I would certainly consider what we now call assertive disarmament. Do you like that?

Maclean’s: Assertive. That’s tremendous. So you believe in thinking about the unthinkable, as the phrase goes.

Buckley: The unthinkable to me is life dominated by Communists. That I consider unthinkable — or by Nazis, for that matter. I’m not much in favor of Nazism, by God.

Maclean’s: The business of charisma. We hear it all the time. In Canada, Trudeau is supposed to be a charismatic leader. Kennedy was charismatic. Buckley is charismatic. Is it a good thing to be? Can I buy it anywhere? What’s it all about? Buckley: I’m kind of suspicious of charismatic leaders, aren’t you? That is to say, it’s wonderful to have somebody of heroic stature who leads you into sort of a Technicolor world. And there’s nothing like having charisma if you’re at war —

who is to substitute for Churchill if you’re living in a blitzed London? On the other hand, a charismatic leader who is around when you don’t want him can be a Fidel Castro. One of the reasons I love Switzerland is because I never tire when I'm there of asking anybody, ‘Oh, by the way, what is the name of the president of Switzerland?’ I’ve never found one person who can answer it. This, I think, is rather ideal. And that I consider to be the ideal society, one which does not ask governments to supply them with idealism. Under those circumstances the charismatic leader is somebody like a busybody.

Maclean’s: How do you feel about the liberal sophisticates who’ve adopted you? I’m told by people I meet: ‘My God, you’ve met William Buckley. How exciting.’ The conservatives I know couldn’t care less. What does this mean?

Buckley: If all conservatives as a class are judged to be dumb, then a non-dumb conservative becomes interesting. Liberals are the victims of their own stereotypes. If they believe anything so preposterous as that all conservatives are dumb and inarticulate and witless, then they are surprised . . .

Maclean’s: Some conservatives seem to believe it, too.

Buckley: That’s true, that’s true. Which is, of course, the danger of the stereotype. The stereotype of the lew, let’s say, is one which we are told affected some lews themselves. Certainly it is now commonplace sociological wisdom about the stereotype that, if everybody goes around saying Negroes are sort of dumb and slow to learn, they become dumb and slow to learn. I’m not the one who is ambushing liberals by being odd. They are being odd. I can introduce you to thousands of bright, articulate conservatives. Maclean’s: With a sense of humor? Buckley: Oh, sure, absolutely. □