His voice may sound comparatively sedate amid the clamor of conservative media pundits, but William F. Buckley Jr. remains the most respected and articulate of American conservative thinkers. At 78 he still writes a twice-weekly column, and his autobiography, Miles Gone By, will be published in July. TIME's James Carney interviewed him by e-mail.
BEING A CONSERVATIVE USED TO BE LONELY WORK. WHAT'S IT LIKE NOW? Different. There is a family out there, and a movement, and some very brainy scholars. Not everywhere, of course. At Harvard, I was recently informed by Professor John Kenneth Galbraith, there is not a single professor who backs Bush. He modified that later; he had been guilty of conversational hyperbole. But he pointed to a curious and continuing division in thought between faculties in the elite colleges, and humble folk like you and I.
A REVIEW OF A RECENT NOVEL OF YOURS SUGGESTED THAT ONE OF YOUR CALLINGS HAS BEEN TO WINNOW THE KOOKINESS OUT OF RIGHT-WING POLITICS. ARE THERE KOOKS STILL IN NEED OF WINNOWING? There are always kooks. The question becomes, Is their strength damaging to the vital and healthy organs of a political movement? The communists took over the American Labor Party. The Birchers did not take over the Republican Party.
PRESIDENT BUSH AND SENATOR KERRY BOTH WENT TO YALE, AND BOTH WERE MEMBERS OF SKULL AND BONES. IS AMERICAN POLITICS BECOMING MORE ELITIST? No. Skull and Bones is becoming less elitist.
DO YOU SEE ANYTHING TO ADMIRE IN KERRY? What's negative--opportunism, undiscriminating ambition, extreme sectarianism--overwhelms the positive, which is the lean New England determination, which I find attractive.
IN A COLUMN EARLIER THIS YEAR, YOU SUGGESTED THAT A POSITIVE OUTCOME IN IRAQ--PEACE AND BUDDING DEMOCRACY--WOULD JUSTIFY THE WAR, EVEN IF WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION ARE NOT FOUND. DO THE ENDS JUSTIFY THE MEANS? Oh, yes. The question should read, Do the ends justify any means? Answer: No. Bush acted as he did because he assumed what he understandably assumed about weapons of mass destruction. But the sacrifice endured by the United States is surely repaid by a) what has already been accomplished and b) what is prospectively accomplished.
HOW OPTIMISTIC ARE YOU THAT IRAQ WILL EMERGE AS A STABLE, DEMOCRATIC-LEANING STATE THAT IS FRIENDLY TO THE U.S. AND A MODEL FOR THE REGION? Not very. Professor J.Q. Wilson reminds us that after the Magna Carta, it took England about 500 years before it could persuasively call itself democratic and stable.What is unmistakably accomplished is the death of a hideous regime and kindled interest in liberal reform.
IS RICHARD CLARKE A TRUTH TELLER OR A PARTISAN SELF-PROMOTER? My own reading of him is that he is confused, and certainly he is confusing. He has become intensely partisan. He is edging over toward taking responsibility for disarmament and original sin, and apologizing, in behalf of us all, for both.
OVER THE PAST HALF-CENTURY, YOU HAVE ENGAGED IN VIRTUALLY ALL THE GREAT DEBATES IN AMERICAN POLITICS AND CULTURE. HAVE YOU TAKEN ANY POSITIONS YOU NOW REGRET? Yes. I once believed we could evolve our way up from Jim Crow. I was wrong: federal intervention was necessary.