Frontpage Interview’s guest today is William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review and the father of modern American conservatism. He has just published his literary autobiography, Miles Gone By (available in Frontpage's bookstore for a special offer of $23.95).
FP: Mr. Buckley. It is an honor to speak with you. Welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Buckley: Thanks very much, Jamie. I am at your service. You’re a very pleasant extortionist.
FP: I’ll try to take that as a compliment.
Let’s begin with your memoir. You start with how your father initiated piano lessons for you at a young age. You write very movingly about your eternal gratitude to him for this gift -- as well as to your piano instructor, Marjorie Otis (“Old Lady”).
What do you think your dad’s objectives and desired effects were in introducing music into your life?
Buckley: My father liked music, but was uninstructed in it. Most of his young manhood was spent in Mexico, and there he heard and reheard Mexican folk songs. He thought it appealing to hire a teacher, Mr. Pelaez, who would instruct his children in that repertory. We mastered about 12 songs, including lyrics. Father knew that there was great music there.
His choice of piano teacher was a matter of great luck, because she stayed a family friend for seventy years. Marjorie Otis would arrive at our house in northwestern Connecticut every Monday morning and stay until Wednesday afternoon. She was an inspiring figure, in part because of her mischievous and endearing personality, in part because of her extraordinary talent as a jazz pianist and as an organist.
Soon we were being taken to New York to recitals and operas and concerts of every kind. This went on for YEARS--I mean, right until college age--and left the brood of children permanently oriented to musical life. Father really accomplished what he intended, namely to root music in his children as a permanent legacy.
FP: What do you think your father had in mind in exposing you to music in this way?
Buckley: In such matters as these, my father was guided by two purposes. One of them was: It was vital for his children to engage in a discipline; the second, with his children having done so, was for us to profit from the effort.
My father was contemptuous of Americans who had the opportunity to learn a foreign language but didn't do so. He was himself bilingual in Spanish and English. Although his knowledge of French was extensive, he declined to speak it because he was a perfectionist.
In respect of music, he sensed the pleasures it brought to those who gave time to familiarizing themselves with it. His own curiosity stopped at popular music, but he knew there was an extensive world beyond that, which he wanted his children at least to know about.
We were taught piano above all, but also guitar, mandolin, ukulele, and banjo (so that we could make up our own orchestra). Father also hired a teacher to give us classes in music appreciation. She required us every afternoon to shut out other activity for one hour and listen to fine music on the great big Capehart phonograph kept in the schoolroom. The Capehart could take 78 rpm disks and turn them over, giving you 20 records without interruption.
These things never work out evenly. But eight of the ten children became pretty addicted to fine music, and two of us persevered for years with piano and harpsichord. I did 9 concerts as a soloist, playing the harpsichord, before I decided I wasn't good enough to pursue the instrument further. My younger sister was a soloist at Vassar and, before that, at Ethel Walker, though she gradually relinquished the piano, prodded by an infirm back.
FP: The essays in your book on your love of sailing and skiing are splendid. Tell us a bit about what sailing and skiing represent to you in your own life, in terms of, well, perhaps, metaphors for how we live – or should live. What is it about these activities, do you think, that brings you so much joy and satisfaction?
Buckley: The challenge here is to avoid the obvious, which cannot be avoided. What is it that constitutes a thrill? Dropping from an airplane at 3000 feet and surviving? Diving with air tanks and chasing fish at 120 feet below the surface? Yep. Add hurtling down a mountain in the snow at 60 miles per hour, and sailing with the wind at 8 knots as if the ocean decided to act for you like a skateboard. Oh, add this: skimming over frozen water on skates at 40 mph. You are both defying nature and dominating it. Okay, Glazov? Try it.
FP: Thanks, I think I’ll pass. I’m scared of that stuff.
Let me get back to music for a moment. I have always been fascinated and intrigued with those individuals and regimes that detest it, wondering why and what it says about them.
We know that Lenin frowned on music, in part because he feared that it might reduce humans’ rage and make them disinclined to kill in a revolution. We know that Stalin was threatened by certain music that didn’t even have lyrics (e.g., Shostakovich, the Eighth Symphony of 1943). Khomeini despised music. The Taliban illegalized music. Etc.
Why do you think many despots and totalitarian regimes are so petrified and threatened by music -- or certain kinds of music?
Buckley: Hitler adored music, and so, actually, did Stalin, though he thought some music counterrevolutionary. It's probably true that music is feared insofar as it is thought capable of affecting an individual wholly, but I know of no society -- or no Orwellian society---that has sought to simply suppress it.
FP: Fair enough. I’m just saying that Khomeini banned most music from radio and TV. The Taliban illegalized it. I’m interested in the utopian impulse to purify humans, which Islamism also is, and how this interrelates with demonizing music.
But let’s move on. What do you think: is militant Islam a greater threat to us than communism was?
I come from a family of Soviet dissidents and hate communism. But I would much rather live under communism than under Islamism, and would much rather have communists as enemies than Islamic fundamentalists.
At least under communism you can see women in society and appreciate their physical curves and beauty. You can have women as friends, and you can have intimate relations without fearing some kind of execution on a Friday. And you can get a bottle of vodka when you feel like it.
With communists as enemies, at least you have people that care about their own preservation. With what we are facing now, we have psychopaths who want to blow the whole planet up -- and themselves along with it.
It is very depressing, and it’s hard not to be pessimistic.
Your thoughts on this?
Buckley: Totalist ideologies are the enemy. In Communism, there were gradations. Under Stalin, to quote one historian, you were allowed to do anything that was not proscribed. Under Mao, you could do nothing except if specially permitted. Under Pol Pot, you were marked if you had ever learned how to read.
Anything in a totalitarian society that subtracts from the comprehensiveness of the things that are banned is welcome. If one wants to look for compensations, it would be to ask whether the proffered substitute provided substantial relief. Monks lead a spartan life, but their experience is the kind where they feel elation in other ways, which causes them to hang in there, which of course they do voluntarily. The Benthamite formula is simply inapplicable, so I'm not sure we should spend much time on it.
FP: Fair enough. So how do we fight militant Islam? What tactics will yield victory? If President Bush called you tomorrow and asked you what he should do next in Iraq specifically and in the War on Terror in general, what would you tell him?
Buckley: Divide et impera. We must vigorously pursue Muslim leaders who know of the sequential violations by Al Qaeda of the Islamic faith. The goal would be the honest one of charging with infidelity those who practice what Al Qaeda has been doing. Residual disputes on doctrine need to be treated as empirical challenges to co-existence as, we know from history, went on for many years among Muslims and Christians and Jews. In any such conversation with the president I would stress this point.
FP: Give us your report card on President Bush in the War on Terror.
Buckley: A grade given to Mr. Bush in the matter of the war on terrorism would require scales of performance by others in similar situations. The one tactile confrontation we all have is at airports, and I decline to believe ingenuity has been exercised there. Though that perhaps reflects my having to bare my toenails to somebody or other a couple of days ago. Another measure is a posteriori: If there are no terrorist attacks, progress is being made.
FP: The behavior of the Left in the War on Terror has really reached new pathetic and pathological lows. “Progressives” are now excusing, and even supporting, religious zealots who persecute women and gays -- and suppress all the democratic rights that are supposedly the center of progressive ideology.
This is nothing new, of course. The Left did the same with our totalitarian adversaries throughout the 20th century. But it completely boggles the mind how, for example, radical leftist feminists are now making excuses for regimes where they themselves would be executed simply for showing an ankle in public.
What is your insight into the leftist’s urge to promote regimes where his/her own existence would be extinguished?
Buckley: The Left has priorities, and the priority this time around is to damage the United States. Conversely, their fear is that to support our missions overseas would undermine their whole anti-US structure--so let the gays burn and the ladies be flogged. What does give me pause is their failure even to decry the crimes you mention.
FP: Anti-Semitism has become the new mantle of the Left. Much of the international community, except for the U.S. and a handful of other countries, now condemns Israel for trying to defend itself with a fence while it turns a blind eye to the mass murderers of our time. The U.N. completely condones anti-Semitism. What do you think is behind these pathological developments in regard to the new Jew-Hatred?
Buckley: No doubt some people who oppose the fence do so because they want to be anti-Israel; and some of these individuals are motivated by anti-Semitism. But my sense of it is that most believe the fence inordinate and opportunistic. In my book In Search of Anti-Semitism, I quoted Norman Podhoretz: If you are anti-Israel, you may well be an anti-Semite, but not all anti-Israelis are anti-Semitic.
FP: Mr. Buckley, clearly not all anti-Israelis are anti-Semitic. But the point here is that whoever believes the fence is “inordinate” and “opportunistic” lives in a delusional fantasy world. Israeli citizens are the victims of a pathological enemy that sends its young kids to blow themselves up inside Israeli cafes and shopping malls. Israel has a right and a responsibility to defend itself. The fence is not even half finished, and suicide bombings have greatly decreased.
My question is, why is Israel not allowed to defend itself? Why does the world protest a fence meant to keep terrorists out, while it remains silent at the grotesque inhumanity of suicide bombings? This is directly connected to the fact that anti-Semitism has become the new call of the Left. Could you comment on this phenomenon? Or do you disagree with my assumptions?
Buckley: I don’t disagree with your assumptions, but they are incompletely elaborated. It’s correct that the Israelis should have their fence, but some critics persuasively argue that its shape is opportunistic--that it is being used to settle the settler problem. They are most definitely entitled to a fence or whatever else they deem useful to augment their safety. But they must not use the fence to close out territorial issues that are legitimately in question.
FP: What did you think of the Democratic National Convention? Carter struck me as especially pathetic. This is a President who lost two crucial allies of America’s, Iran and Nicaragua, to our enemies and who stood by when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. In many respects, the rise of militant Islam was spawned under – and because of – his incompetent presidency. And yet he is still lecturing – moralistically at that -- the Republicans on how to conduct foreign policy. What did you make of this in particular and of the DNC in general?
Buckley: Dear Jamie, you are answering my questions for me. Thanks. Carter is a lost cause, and lost causes don’t get any loster. For my views on the DNC, see my last two columns.
FP: Mr. Buckley, we have run out of time. It was a great honor to speak with you. Let’s close on your decision to relinquish ownership of National Review.
Everyone here at FrontPage would like to extend our immense gratitude to you for this priceless gift that you have given America – and the world -- for a half century.
Could you kindly give us a glimpse into your thoughts concerning what National Review has accomplished, and also your decision to depart?
Buckley: Thank you for your very kind remarks, Jamie. What I said to the New York Times when I retired was pretty much the whole story. Perhaps you will trouble to look at the current issue of National Review -- which is chock full of high-nutrient flattery. I so much appreciate your good wishes. National Review should continue to be interesting, readable, buoyant, and brightly aware of challenges ahead.
FP: Thank you, Mr. Buckley. We wish you the best and we are all grateful to you for who you are and what you have given us.
Buckley: Thank you very much, Jamie.
*Miles Gone By is available in Frontpage's bookstore for a special offer of $23.95