This is the sixth in an occasional series of e-mail interviews with writers, scholars, and others who help form the culture in which we live. WORLD hopes that readers, by listening to influential people who do not necessarily share a Christian worldview, will be better equipped for discussion and evangelism, and will be challenged to sharpen their own understanding. (Previous interviewees: Paul Theroux, Brian Jacques, Anne Lamott, Charles Murray, Joseph Epstein.)
WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY WAS born in 1925. One of 10 children born into a wealthy Roman Catholic family, he sprang to national attention half a century ago when he wrote about what he had seen and learned while an undergraduate at Yale. Mr. Buckley in 1955 founded National Review, which became the leading conservative magazine and led to the Goldwater presidential campaign in 1964 and the growing conservatism of the Republican Party. Mr. Buckley went on to host the TV show Firing Line, run for mayor of New York City on the Conservative Party ticket, and write the Blackford Oakes spy novels; he still writes a syndicated column.
WORLD: Your first book, God and Man at Yale, exposed the increasingly liberal and secular environment at Yale. Fifty years later, what's your take on your alma mater and other elite universities? If you were the parent of a high-school-age child, where would you send him?
WFB: Experience in modern college life is heavily collectivist. There is this improvement in the last 50 years, namely that there is a huge body of dissenting opinion of an academic character. Milton Friedman and his school cannot safely be ignored. Secularism is far more pronounced than it was. At the same time, there are, I have reason to believe, catacombs of religious thought and spiritual life.
Where would I send a college-bound student today? Answer: Probably there isn't much difference, in the secular colleges. Much depends, of course, on the character of the student. The successfully oriented student would probably make his own way, successfully. Though I would certainly urge him to read the Intercollegiate Studies Institute's Choosing the Right College.
WORLD: What kept you from becoming a typical northeastern Republican?
WORLD: How does your faith influence your work?
WFB: I hope that one's faith introduces perspectives which inform work and temper judgment.
WORLD: Evangelicals are relatively new to politics. How do you think we're doing? What could we do better?
WFB: Evangelicals suffer from the attention given to spokesmen who sound off too easily and with insufficient thought. It is an old technique to focus on those who are irresponsible and pass them off as representative of the entire body of which they are only single members.
WORLD: Today, both conservative and liberal pundits seem to engage more in vicious name-calling than in intellectual give-and-take. You managed to be civil and actually maintain friendships across partisan lines. How did you do it?
WFB: It is to be expected that the most conspicuous representatives of antagonistic positions will pitch their voices in such a way as to please the ideological mobs. But time tends to dull political lances inordinately honed. Then again, there is no way to generate effective armor against mean public statements at one's expense. Dwight Eisenhower, perhaps the world's most experienced diplomat by the time he was elected president, declined to shake hands with President Harry Truman when Ike went by to pick him up for the inauguration. It just happens that I like some left-wingers I've met and mingled with. It would be a pose to pretend otherwise. I don't think I write less critically about them for that reason.
WORLD: How do you compare the three great battles of the past half century, the battle against communism, the fight to protect human life, and the battle against terrorism?
WFB: All of them depend for their success on the profundity of one's belief in the unassailability of the human being. The challenge by the communists was direct, having its territorial side. That of the terrorists is only episodically direct, though the corporate threat of terrorism requires a more imaginative response. The life of the unborn child requires an extension of one's concern, to include the unborn as members of the human family.
WORLD: Looking back over the past 50 years, what political development has most surprised you?
WFB: I was surprised most by the implosion of the Soviet Union. I prayed that it would happen, but did not dare to hope that it would.
WORLD: Are you hopeful or pessimistic about the American future, and why?
WFB: I think we have a fighting chance to bring off a continuation of the best in America, and I would put it no other way. I have for years contended that error is not automatically overcome by the truth. On the other hand, what is true and what most satisfies a human being correspond.
WORLD: Looking back at your life, what was a waste of time, and what should you have spent more time doing?
WFB: I waste a lot of time, and if I knew on what, I'd stop doing it.