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William F. Buckley Jr. Dies

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John Miller
National Political Reporter, National Review
Wednesday, February 27, 2008; 2:00 PM

William F. Buckley Jr., 82, the intellectual founder of the modern conservative movement, who helped define the movement's doctrines of anti-communism, military strength, social order and a capitalist economy, died today at his home in Stamford, Conn. He had diabetes and emphysema, but the precise cause of death has not been determined.

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John Miller, national political reporter for the National Review, the magazine Buckley founded, will be online Wednesday, Feb. 27, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the life and work of the conservative icon.

Photo Gallery

Buckley's Final Column: Fowlerspeak-Goodspeak ( National Review, Feb. 2)

A transcript follows.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: When did you first meet William F. Buckley and what were your first impressions of him? What were some of the inspirations that you personally obtained from your association with Mr. Buckley?

John Miller: I joined National Review as a writer ten years ago, and the first time I met him would have been a little while after that. I worked in the DC office and he was based mainly in New York, and when I saw him it was generally up there. The first time we met was at his home in Manhattan. He's a legend and I was nervous: my goal for the evening was to avoid saying anything dumb in his presence. I soon learned that he was the most gracious of men. He immediately put me at ease and asked what I was writing about with genuine curiosity. He listened to me more than I listened to him. On the National Review Web site, we've just published a short obituary--it notes that Bill had "a talent for friendship." That's exactly right.

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Bethesda, Md.: Jon,

Saddened to hear of the death of Wm. Buckley. Can you tell me which of his political books he most liked and thought held up best through the years?

John Miller: I have no idea. It's possible that his first book, God and Man at Yale, was his most important and influential--it certainly put him on the map as a young intellectual. He had great range, writing dozens of books of fiction and non-fiction. His great legacy as a writer probably isn't as a writer of books, though, but as a writer of newspaper columns. He died this morning in his study, and I'll bet there's a good chance he was working on his latest when death came.

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Albuquerque, N.M.: One can vehemently disagree with a man, and still learn precious things from him. I am surely among the least of many anti-conservatives who learned so much of the art of debate and language at this man's televised knee throughout the period of Firing Line's broadcast run.

John Miller: WFB was impossible to dislike. He was full of good cheer and humor. He had a great smile. Some of his closest friends were liberals, such as Hugh Kenner. He understood that politics wasn't everything--he even resented that politics mattered as much as they do. Here's what he said on the occasion of NR's 10th anniversary: "Politics, it has been said, is the preoccupation of the quarter educated, and I do most solidly endorse this observation, and therefore curse this country above all things, for its having given sentient beings very little alternative but to occupy themselves with politics. It is all very well and good to ignore [the Johnson administration's] Great Society. But will the Great Society ignore us?"

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Sacramento, Calif.: Just a comment:

William F. Buckley, Jr. was a true conservative. He knew deficit spending was a bad thing (something George W. Bush and today's Republicans too often ignore.) He was vehemently opposed to the so-called War on Drugs and other government intrusions into individual lives and freedoms. Equally important, he was a gentleman. Unlike the ideological zealots and haters of today (are you listening, Ann Coulter?), he could debate issues with his opponents honestly and fairly without branding them as traitors or worse. As the nation turns from ultra-partisanship toward reason and unity, he will be missed.

John Miller: He was arguably the first modern public intellectual, for many of the reasons you mention. He was certainly one of the first to master television. The Firing Line was a far cry from the screaming-head shows that dominate political television today--they were forums of real debate, in which opposing viewpoints could state their cases and cross examine each other. It was a true marketplace of ideas.

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Los Angeles, Calif.: This is Tim Page writing in from California, where I am taking a leave from The Post. I knew Bill Buckley only slightly but was always astonished by his warmth and generosity toward people who were on different sides of the political spectrum, and thought I'd share a personal reflection.

When I collected Glenn Gould's writings in a volume for Knopf, a couple years after GG died, I wrote to Buckley out of the blue to suggest a "Firing Line" program on the question of whether the live concert had indeed been superceded by the recording, as Gould had claimed. Buckley responded immediately and turned a whole hour of prime PBS time over to this rather recondite subject, with former Met director Schuyler Chapin and harpsichordist Rosalyn Tureck as the other guests.

Remember that this was 1985, long before the days of C-Span and BookTalk. It was uncommonly gracious of him -- and it proves, once again, how deeply interested he was in many subjects far removed from the political arena.

I think a lot of people who didn't necessarily agree with everything Buckley wrote are missing him today. He had a genius for friendship and I can't think of anybody quite like him.

John Miller: This is a great remembrance. WFB was a real renaissance man who had genuine musical talent. He learned how to play the harpsichord at an advanced age and performed publicly.

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23112: WFB's book "Airborne: A Sentimental Journey" is on my list as one of the most lyrical and engaging works of nonfiction of all time. As I was reading it for the first time, I kept thinking to myself "This is how I want to write." Bill's command of the language, extensive knowledge on the subject of sailing (and life), and obvious love for writing are a huge inspiration. RIP.

John Miller: One of the things that amazed me about his writing--in addition to the vocab-test words and the incredible range--was how quickly he wrote. He has written about one book per year, in addition to his syndicated columns and other projects. As I professional writer myself, I've learned how important it is to write fast. He could famously pound out a column in the backseat of a car, in the space of 20 or 30 minutes--and do a better job with it than those of us who have an entire afternoon to accomplish the same thing.

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Arlington, Va.: Where did Buckley's accent come from? It sounds like the stereotypical accent you'd hear in a movie about a rich snob. Can you hear this accent in other parts of New England? Did the way he spoke have a negative effect on what he actually said, i.e. did people immediately sum him up as a snob and ignore what he was trying to say?

John Miller: Beats me. It's been said that his first language was Spanish, because that's what his nanny spoke to him. I believe he spent some time in England growing up. Above all things, his accent was distinctive. Robin Williams does a hilarious parody of it in the Disney movie Aladdin.

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Laurel, Md.: To those of us who wish it hadn't, conservative Republicanism became the majority political philosophy by basically flipping white Southerners.

What role did Buckley's eastern-establishment brand of Republicanism do to help effect this change?

John Miller: WFB may have hailed from Connecticut, but he certainly didn't peddle an "eastern-establishment brand of Republicanism." For one thing, he was a conservative rather than a Republican--this distinction may be lost on a lot of people, but it isn't lost on members of the conservative movement. Also, he led a political revolt against establishment Republicanism. He famously rejected the slogan "I Like Ike" in favor of "I Prefer Ike." And he was closely tied to the Goldwater campaign in 1964, which is the moment when movement conservatives began to exercise their strength within the GOP.

As for how conservatism (as opposed to "Republicanism") became a "majority political philosophy" -- to the extent that it actually happened, which is debatable -- it had a lot to do with the existential threat of Communism and the inability or refusal of mainstream liberalism to confront crime and welfare dependency. We could have a big discussion about this. My point here is merely that there's a lot more to the rise of conservatism than southern political realignment.

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washingtonpost.com: We're having some technical problems and hope to resume the chat soon.

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New York, N.Y.: William Buckley came to oppose the war in Iraq, but his successor at National Review, William Kristol, is a hearty supporter, reflected in the magazine's editorial policy. Was that a source of distress or consternation for Buckley? Thanks for the chat.

John Miller: I believe it's fair to say that WFB supported the invasion of Iraq and began to have misgivings about the result that led him to reconsider the whole enterprise -- but that he also supported the troops surge. Last year, he made a personal contribution to the presidential campaign of John McCain.

(Also, the editor of National Review is Richard Lowry; William Kristol is the editor of the Weekly Standard.)

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Austin, Tex.: So many conservative politicians today brag openly about their anti-intellectual credentials. It's a badge of pride for them. And a vote-getter, apparently.

Did Buckley have anything to say about that? Do you?

John Miller: I'm not sure which conservative politicians you're talking about. What's impressed me today is how many are issuing statements in which they acknowledge an intellectual debt to WFB--the very opposite of what you're suggesting. Also, the kind words are coming from liberals as well, including Joe Lieberman and Mario Cuomo.

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Plainview, N.Y.: Hi John. Do you think Bill Buckley rued the day he didn't support Martin Luther King in the '50s? I got the impression in watching him that his decision about the '50s and early civil rights movement was a great regret that he didn't come forcefully for it.

John Miller: Yes. He said it was a mistake not to have supported civil-rights legislation in the 1960s. He came to support a national holiday for MLK, according to Sam Tanenhaus, who is writing a bio of WFB.

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Washington, D.C.: I am surprised I am so saddened by the passing of a man I never knew. I watched Firing Line, I read his column, and I was inspired to be more literate, dignified and reasoned. I tell everyone that his commencement speech at Coe College in Iowa (probably circa 1990) was the greatest commencement speech I ever heard. He showed me that conservative was not a synonym for racist, just like liberal does not necessarily imply tolerant, as HRC and her supporters have graciously shown to be the case. He had more of an effect on me than any public figure.

John Miller: At National Review, our email in-boxes are jammed with messages such as this--condolences from all types of people. It just goes to show that WFB left a mark on a lot of lives. He was conservatism's great evangelist, performing his work through his magazine, his newspaper column, his books, his essays, and his speeches.

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washingtonpost.com: This concludes the discussion with John Miller. Thank you for joining in.

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Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions. washingtonpost.com is not responsible for any content posted by third parties.


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