Getting It Right: A Conversation With Bill Buckley

Legendary conservative author and editor William F. Buckley Jr. recently visited HUMAN EVENTS to chat with HE Editors Tom Winter, Allan Ryskind and Terry Jeffrey.

The topic was Buckley’s new novel, Getting It Right, a highly entertaining fictionalized account of how the conservative movement, in its early years, rejected the objectivism of novelist Ayn Rand and the fanaticism of Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society. The book, published by Regnery (a sister company of HUMAN EVENTS), is now available in stores.

Before it was over, the conversation among Buckley, Winter, Ryskind and Jeffrey turned to issues including modern American culture, immigration, the then-still-imminent war with Iraq, and the future course of U.S. foreign policy.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

Terry Jeffrey: So what was the matter with Ayn Rand’s point of view and why was it necessary to bring that back into today’s debate?

Bill Buckley: She’s a mythogenic character. She had an enormous hold on conservative opinion in the 60’s and to a certain extent she still does posthumously. Also she was a fantastic human being. And her sort of breakdown on the sexual things was a big story. Do you know that story?

Jeffrey: No.

Buckley: Well, she fell in love with Nathaniel Branden, 25 years younger, who had been elevated by his association with her, sort of her number one apostle. And she felt that she had to call in his wife and her husband to tell them why transcendent objectivist imperatives required that they sleep together. So this went on for two or three years, then she had sort of a melancholic bout right after Atlas Shrugged was published. So she lost interest for two or three years. But then interest revived, but at this point he had another lady. So, he felt he ought to tell her, and there ensued a great theatrical scene recorded by two of the five people who were there, Nathaniel Branden and Barbara Branden, and it’s in their biographies. But she was out of her mind crazy. She fired Nathaniel Branden, wouldn’t talk to him. Disestablished the Nathaniel Branden Institute. Removed his name from Atlas Shrugged, to whom she had dedicated the book. Putting that together with her insistence that her philosophical mastery of herself was so complete that she never gave vent to any impulse that wasn’t a derivative of her exercises in ratiocination made it all the funnier. She had no sense of humor whatsoever, but she had this terrific hold on people. Alan Greenspan sat there for seven years every Saturday and drooled over her along with a lot of other members of the collective. She was an extraordinary lady.

Tom Winter: Would you say she brought some people into conservatism, or she served some good in that sense?

Buckley: That’s correct, because she excited latent libertarian-anarchic interest in people.

Winter: Particularly the young.

Buckley: Yes. And when they sort of grew out of that a lot of them tended our way, having rejected Murray Rothbard.

Winter: Right.

Allan Ryskind: I knew all sorts of people who read Atlas Shrugged-

Buckley: -and still do.

Rykind: Yes, and they still do on campuses. She still is a formidable force in a certain way.

Buckley: Yes, although I’m not sure how many people who read Atlas Shrugged go on and think of themselves as objectivists.

Winter: Are those courses still being given?

Buckley: The answer is they are. I don’t know how many places.

Ryskind: They have the Ayn Rand Institute in California.

Buckley: Oh sure. Branden has a flourishing business. He is a PhD psychologist, and he writes a bunch of books. He’s been very successful, but he doesn’t talk about her, and Leonard Peikoff, who is her successor, doesn’t talk about him. So that expulsion had huge resonance.

Ryskind: She was also an anti-Communist.

Buckley: Oh, absolutely.

Ryskind: And that was how I became acquainted with her and her works. She did great work for the House Committee for Un-American Activities in 1947. She gave testimony exposing the idyllic view of the Soviet Union portrayed in such wartime films as “Song of Russia,” which was actually written by two Communist writers. She did tremendous stuff.

Buckley: That’s how she was-absolutely anti-Communist. She was pro-Goldwater. Until she wrote him a condescending letter.

Winter: What other kind?

Buckley: Did you ever run in to her? You’re too young aren’t you?

Winter: I did run into her. That was it.

Buckley: At one of these anti-Communist things?

Winter: Yes. She was off-putting for me.

Ryskind: I enjoyed her actually. I enjoyed her conversation, and the things that she would say. But, of course, it was mainly in the context of anti-Communism, more than in terms of libertarianism or objectivism.

Buckley: She had a certain elegance. I think she was physically attractive. She had these eyes.

Winter: Oh, she had the eyes.

Ryskind: But she treated her husband-Frank O’Conner-almost like a servant. He just kind of sat there mute and she would order him around. She was the belle of the ball.

Buckley: He always walked two or three paces behind her.

Ryskind: There was a story about someone in her inner circle who disputed her on the existence of God. And she was very upset by that. She said, “You have read my proofs and you still believe in God!” She just thought she had all the answers. And she did preach atheism apparently in that circle.

Buckley: Oh yes

Ryskind: And you couldn’t disagree. I mean the point is that she was angry with people who disagreed with her.

Winter: Well, then you weren’t welcome back. She did expel people.

Buckley: One of the first things she ever said to me was, “You are too intelligent to believe in Gott.” That was her opening statement.

Ryskind: Well I do remember the National Review piece by Whittaker Chambers, attacking her for her atheism. That was historic.

Buckley: She pretended she had never read it, but kept referring to it.

Winter: Do you think the book has lessons for today’s conservatives, or did you write mainly to tell them what happened.

Buckley: Mostly the latter. I don’t think the libertarian movement in the American conservative movement is as assertive as it was in the Murray Rothbard day or the Ayn Rand day. But again, I think the relatively wholesome development of the conservative doctrine required exercises of exclusion, and both Ayn Rand and Robert Welch tried to assert their philosophy and were rejected by Goldwater and by people like Russell Kirk.

Winter: But you are kinder to Welch than you are to Ayn Rand. Perhaps harsher on General Edwin Walker?

Buckley: Poor General Walker. As a character, I think his press conferences are one of the funniest things I have ever read. Yes, I think that’s true. Robert Welch I knew relatively well. He never got around to calling me a Communist, but just about. The John Birch Society published a book about me a few weeks ago. They sent me a copy which I treasure, because the title of it is, The Tergiversator: Buckley. I thought only Russell Kirk and I knew what that word meant. But then they reissued it as just Bill Buckley: Pied Piper of the Establishment. It’s about 300 pages. If you read a book about yourself and you can’t get through the third chapter, it’s bad. And I didn’t. It’s mostly about how I was a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Since we don’t have the Communist threat, there is no particular line that they can ply that’s genuinely disruptive. What they mostly seem to do-because I looked it up on the website-is sort of anti-militarist, anti-imperialist, which is okay, but that wouldn’t necessarily have been Bob Welch’s line. Except that he would have theoretically been in favor of any intervention that was anti-Communist, but he would say, “How could it be, because the generals are all Communists.” But I don’t think they have influence now. And I don’t think the anarchist movement has-what did they get, four or five percent in California, the Libertarian Party?

Winter: There are few places where you can show their vote probably hurt the Republicans. Now, would Ayn Rand have supported that?

Buckley: The letter that she wrote to Goldwater was very pro-Goldwater, as I say, in a condescending way, but I don’t think she would have ever gone to a Republican rally. Do you?

Winter: She might have. My feeling was that she would have supported a Republican. For some reason she was very Republican.

Buckley: She refused to vote for Reagan.

Jeffrey: Can you talk about why and how you chose Whittaker Chambers to refute her book?

Buckley: Actually I didn’t. Frank Meyer did. I was in Europe. I applauded it. I thought it would be terrific. I did have a letter, no a phone call, from Whittaker while he was reviewing it and he said, “My God, this is a long book to slog through.” But I remember he said, “This lady really knows the railroad industry.” There are a lot of details in Atlas Shrugged which recquired an intimate knowledge of rails and linkages and all that kind of stuff. So, he admired that. But I did not see the review until I got back from Europe, either just before or just after it was printed. So it wasn’t my idea.

Jeffrey: But you said that it was necessary for the conservative movement to exclude certain people. Did you at that time, before Chambers wrote the review, see Rand as someone who needed to be excluded from the conservative movement?

Buckley: Yes. In fact, we ran one article by Garry Wills-this was back when he was a good guy-and one by somebody else. When she denounced the National Review, and that is in the book, she said that National Review had continuously attacked her, and that one attack on her was the vilest misrepresentation to which she had ever been subjected. I’m not sure which one she was talking about. But I didn’t bother to look it up.

Ryskind: Were there a lot of attacks or just that one?

Buckley: Just the two one-pagers on Rand.

Winter: That’s before the Chambers review?

Buckley: Tom, I think so, but maybe not, because the Chambers review was in ’57. And the effect of this movement became spooky, oh, around ’58, same time as the John Birch Society. So it may have been after.

Ryskind: Let’s talk a little about the John Birch Society. I remember that I wrote you a passionate letter not to denounce them. I think I was wrong. In retrospect I think that somehow separating ourselves from the John Birch Society, at least as it was represented by Welch, was right.

Buckley: I think it had to be done.

Ryskind: But I remember when it came out, I thought that some of the arguments against them were unfair.

Winter: And we knew there were a lot of good people in the Birch Society.

Ryskind: Yeah, like my dad, though he did ultimately resign.

Buckley: Sure.

Winter: But you weren’t satisfied with the position of people like Goldwater or Reagan, who would say, “I’m not buying their philosophy, they’re buying mine,” so just ignore them?

Buckley: That came to a head. Because some people were urging Goldwater-Russell Kirk and I and some others-would say just ignore him. Just deal with the John Birch Society as fellow anti-Communists. But what really did it was when the Vietnam War broke out. And all the hard anti-Communists, like James Burnham, were taking a stand there, and he undermined it. And what caused my protagonist to quit the society was a pro-Communist deceit. At that point, I think we had to cope with it.

Ryskind: I don’t understand. In other words, you are saying that Welch said that somehow our involvement there was a Communist conspiracy.

Buckley: Yep. He said, and he made it a whole chapter in The Politician, that getting involved in Vietnam had really only the purpose of flushing out all genuine anti-Communists so that they get identified and persecuted. That was a hard thing to take at a time when the anti-Communists were really, really being mobilized to enforce a containment policy. I quote that particular review at some length in my book because one needs the flavor of Welch. Welch could never say something easily. That’s why all of those things were so huge-American Opinion, you know, huge 20,000 words.

Ryskind: Yeah, I remember all of it. But the thing about The Politician is that it said Eisenhower was a Communist.

Winter: That was never a Birch Society publication.

Ryskind: And supposedly that was the way the society got around it. They said, well, we didn’t adopt that. But there were many good people in the Birch Society.

Buckley: Oh, God, yes.

Ryskind: And they weren’t crazy and they weren’t conspiratorially minded. So, I understood the need for it, or something like that. I understood the point.

Buckley: And that’s why Goldwater had such a hard time disavowing it, because the Arizona establishment was all Birch Society. Anyway, it’s an interesting story, but how to relate it to the Iraq war is not obvious. I’m counting on you to do that.

Jeffrey: Looking forward through the 45 years since Ayn Rand’s book came out and National Review ran its review, whose philosophy has the deeper grip on American culture today, Whittaker Chambers’ or Ayn Rand’s.

Buckley: Well, Whittaker Chambers didn’t have a philosophy, I don’t think. You could say about Whittaker Chambers he was this, that and the other, but he didn’t have a philosophy. He was a Christian, he was a pessimist, he was a rightist as he insisted in the sense that he believed in the technical evolution of progress. But at the same time, he was a conservative, who deplored what was happening, as witness his pieces on agriculture. So, I don’t think that adds up to a philosophy, but just an individual with interesting choices, superbly expressed.

Jeffrey: But his vision was that America might not win the Cold War. He believed we wouldn’t because we had forgotten God and the basic philosophy of the elite was in some ways more similar to what Ayn Rand wanted. Do you think, in winning the Cold War, we have fallen back in our domestic cultural struggle towards the sort of values and beliefs that Whitaker Chambers endorsed, or that Ayn Rand’s pursuit of the apotheosis of greed and self-interest is actually the more dominant trend in America?

Buckley: Well, I don’t think she has prevailed because she would have hoped that her philosophy, because of its innate, inherent objectivity, would simply take over critical thinking. Which it didn’t. Whittaker Chambers’ pessimism would, I think, have survived our victory, but he would have been joyful about it. But the tug of his weltschmerz, I think, would have had him pointing out the kind of things that disappoint us: the breakdown of the family, the general social dissolution. My guess is that is what he would be concentrating on if he were writing now.

Ryskind: What is your view on all this? Were do you think we are now?

Buckley: I think a lot of the correct instincts keep showing up in America. The backing of the Iraq venture, in my judgment, is an affirmation of America’s responsibilities. There are a lot of arguments against attacking, but I think it boils down to that, and I think it’s acknowledged as that. So, I think that America gives signs of inner strength and nobility of purpose but that with it all there is a terrible systemic dissolution of our institutional responsibility to supporting values.

Ryskind: Television is the main thing.

Buckley: Television especially. It’s become a sort of anti-nomianism, nothing matters except gratification. That, I think, is discouraging.

Winter: Is that a triumph of Randism, in a way?

Buckley: No, I don’t think so because it wouldn’t go hand in hand with what Ayn Rand would have wanted, which is a dissolution of formal authority. She would have measured progress simply by our reduction, continued reduction, in tax and in regulation. And that’s not happening. So, I don’t think Ayn Rand, if she were alive today, commenting on the political programs of the Republican Party, would think that she had made any progress.

Ryskind: What do you think of President Bush in general? I have this feeling we are coming to a crisis, which is this Iraq war, and how well it goes, not only militarily, but what happens afterwards. I think the President’s values are an extension of Reagan, in terms of cultural values, where he stands, his devout Christianity-all of that. And now I think his success all hangs on this one thing that we do in Iraq. I think it is a huge undertaking on his part.

Buckley: Well, I think it is. But I think the only thing that could impair one’s judgment of him is any detection of lack of integrity in the act. I think that he believes the reasons he gives, and I think that the people around him believe it, and under the circumstances there is an integrity in the act that will never be discredited by thinking it was frivolous.

Jeffrey: You sensed that in his State of the Union Address?

Buckley: Did I see it?

Jeffrey: Yes.

Buckley: Oh, yes, indeed.

Ryskind: I agree with that point. I think it will be positive. I’m sort of optimistic, but apprehensive.

Buckley: He said a thing in that [State of the Union] Address which called for some sort of answer and he didn’t answer. He listed all these toxic weapons that these people have. Enough to contaminate the entire world. He didn’t say how in the hell we are going to keep him from using them. He said we will have as few civilian casualties as possible. How in the hell are you going to get Saddam Hussein without killing a lot of innocent people? And the answer is you can’t. So, in that sense, I think he failed to warn us about the intensity of this thing.

Jeffrey: Possible intensity.

Ryskind: Potential.

Jeffrey: Another one, though, is that a single vial, canister or crate brought into our country could make for the worst day in the history of our nation. Yet, we are not securing our borders against that kind of penetration.

Buckley: Nor can we, in my judgment.

Winter: You don’t think we can control the borders?

Ryskind: It has been HUMAN EVENTS’ position to oppose illegal immigration, we want increased border patrolling and all of the rest of it. And I talked to Bob Bartley the other day at a function, and I put to him the question: I said, Look, this is our view, we think there are criminals coming in, there are potential terrorists coming in, and you guys at the Wall Street Journal have a different position. And he basically said everything should move except land. We can’t move land, but products and people should cross borders. But shouldn’t conservatives put pressure on Bush to try to do as much as we can to reduce the threat on the borders?

Buckley: Absolutely.

Ryskind: But certainly Bush is not taking, or at least it doesn’t seem that he is taking, the kinds of steps necessary. And I think it’s all driven by Karl Rove and the Hispanic vote.

Buckley: I think you’re right. And that whole love affair with Vicente Fox. Plus, also, the failure of the Simpson immigration act, seven or eight years ago. The failure of it said, in effect, you can’t pass an immigration bill that is tough because of Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California.

Jeffrey: I think that’s an unrequited love affair with Vicente Fox, by the way.

Buckley: Yes, that’s right.

Jeffrey: Did you see the national security strategy paper that the administration published sometime last year?

Buckley: I don’t think so.

Jeffrey: It was interesting in that it was an unambiguous affirmation of a sort of Wilsonian, interventionist foreign policy, promoting democracy around the world. It seems to me that although the President has made a very compelling argument in the immediate instance of taking out Saddam Hussein and disarming him with military force because of the particular threat he poses, he hasn’t made an argument for an interventionist, Wilsonian-type foreign policy and that would be a significant departure not only for the United States but for conservatives to endorse. Where do you stand on that? What do you think about that?

Buckley: I think that it is as incorrect now as it was a hundred years ago to engage in Wilsonianism qua Wilsonianism. To engage in it to the extent that simultaneously you can move against heinous regimes and protect United States interests, then I think it is justified. The kind of Wilsonianism that Bill Kristol advocates, I think is wrong for several points. Number one, it over-stretches our power. Number two, it takes insufficient account of the institutional requirements for genuine reform, to simply impose a constitution on Iraq or anybody else. I remember something we published by an Asian scholar about South Vietnam. This was during the war. He said, I have to teach my students that when South Vietnam needs to go to a polling box and pull this lever or that lever, they think it’s a game. It was a very profound point. The point was that unless you have institutional ideas of what you’re engaged in, you just can’t come up with a bill of rights. You can better the existing situation, which I am sure we will do. But the notion that you’re then going to walk away is like Rousseau writing a constitution for Poland.

Jeffrey: But if you talk to a lot of conservatives here in Washington, privately, they will make this argument, very powerfully. They believe it

Buckley: Yes. I think they do.

Jeffrey: They believe in a sort of American millennium that will be ushered in with Iraq being the first seed. You don’t see this as another potential conflict within conservative ranks?

Buckley: I do. And I think that Iraq will almost inevitably lead to that. There is, of course, the major digression of North Korea, which I suppose is the most hideous regime threatening the world, but it also has an atom bomb. So there you have an extraordinary congruity of things that we’re concerned about, but we can’t do anything about it. We can’t do anything about it, because the artillery and the missile resources of North Korea are not something that you can possibly blast. They could kill 250,000 people in one hour, which is twice what we killed in Hiroshima. So it is the equivalent of an atomic-though different from an atomic bomb-that we are talking about. So that’s going to be a rea1 confrontation on the Wilsonian front. There’s nothing we can do about that. And there are other candidates for American intervention. Africa, God knows.

Jeffrey: Of course, Clinton tried that.

Buckley: He sort of tried. He apologized. Rwanda and Burundi happened on his watch.

Jeffrey: Well, if he hadn’t had Somalia, he might have done Rwanda.

Buckley: Well, he backed off, didn’t he. But there he backed off as a result of one successful terrorist reaction. It wasn’t as though he had tried to implant a constitution.

Jeffrey: Do you believe that conservatives who would counsel a policy of brinksmanship against the North Koreans are really pushing an irresponsible policy?

Buckley: Irresponsible to the extent that we don’t weigh the consequences. We know these figures about their conventional resources, and the proximity of the whole North-South Korean population. My son’s father in law was the ambassador. One time in Seoul he showed what they can do and how impossible it is to keep them from doing it without a regime change. That’s influenced my thought on the utter impotence there. If we could vacate South Korea, make everyone there move 50 miles south, you’d have much more freedom of movement.

Ryskind: Don’t you think that deterrence can work in North Korea, it may not, but it can work in the sense that we say, “You cross the border and we will blast you.” I still think they are afraid of that.

Buckley: I think you’re right-if you cross the border. But I don’t think we can safely say, “We’re going to take out your bombs.”