Transcript

William F. Buckley Jr.'s 'The Reagan I Knew'

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Rich Lowry
Editor, The National Review
Thursday, December 11, 2008; 2:00 PM

When William F. Buckley Jr. passed away earlier this year, he was completing work on a book about his long friendship with and admiration for President Ronald Reagan. The Reagan I Knew has just been published by Basic Books, and Rich Lowry, current editor of the Buckley-founded magazine National Review, was online Thursday, December 11 to discuss the relationship between Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley Jr., and the legacy of these two conservative icons.

A transcript follows.

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Rich Lowry: Rich Lowry here. This is Bill Buckley's entertaining and consequential account of his friendship with Ronald Reagan, published post-humously. I look forward to your questions

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Reagan's transition: All the coverage of the Obama administration's transition has me wondering what Reagan's was like in 1981. Does Buckley write about this period in the book, or what can you tell me about it? (I was alive then, but too young to pay attention to those kinds of details!)

Rich Lowry: The book is quite episodic and anecdotal, so it doesn't have that sort of analysis, but it does reproduce a lot of the correspondence between Buckley and Reagan. Here's a bit from a November 5, 1980 letter from Bill to Ron (as Bill addressed him until he took office) that struck me as interesting and wise:

"I have a single thing on my mind, and it is that I must not plead with you with less than any claim I have on your friendship and common bond of loyalty to our cause, to take special caution to get help in selecting critical members of the new administration. I don't mean to be specific, and certainly don't mean to be critical of the splendidly qualified people who surround you. I say only this, that there are brilliantly qualified men and women--a few, not many--who should be consulted, indeed who should play an active role in making recommendations. What you need, obviously, isn't' men who are seeking government jobs, but men who might be persuaded to take them."

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Hillsborough, N.J.: What did Reagan think about the way his opponents portrayed him as an anti-intellectual at best, or more commonly as just a "B" movie actor with a limited intellectual capacity?

Rich Lowry: Not clear what Reagan thought of it, but I was amused to learn that even Bill dismissed the possibility of a Hollywood actor running for president:

"I was way behind in apprehending his potential. Governor Nelson Rockefeller, at our first private meeting (at his New York apartment in January 1968), asked me how to account for the sounds beginning to come out of California--Why not Reagan for president? 'There's no way,' I found myself opining on politics to a man in his third term as governor of New York, 'a former actor could go for president.'"

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Alexandria, Virginia: Here's a question about one of Buckley and Reagan's rare disagreements, over the question of whether to pass the Treaty to turn the entirely American built Panama Canal over to the Panamanian government. The treaty was passed and within 15 years the United States had to send in troops to overthrow the Noriega regime, so I think that settles the question of whether that government was a trustworthy custodian of this vital strategic asset. Too late now to take it back, of course, but did Buckley ever express regret over his support of the Panama Canal Treaty to Reagan?

Rich Lowry: I don't think so. Bill has a chapter on the episode in his book. He recounts the famous "Firing Line" debate between the two--with some obvious (and understandable) pride in having bested his friend, I think. But Bill thought Reagan had to take the position he did in order to win the Republican nomination and become president. This is Bill's bottom-line:

"Well, the Senate did ratify the treaty, and the Panama Canal proceeded to operate just as smoothly as it always had. In other words, Ronald Reagan was, as a prophet, simply mistaken. And I, for my party, did not go on to be president."

An interesting after-note:

"A few months after the debate I was headed for the Reagans' house in Pacific Palisades for dinner. 'Drive carefully as you approach the house,' Reagan had warned me over the telephone. 'I have special instructions for you on my driveway." I did as I was told. At intervals of twenty yards there were cardboard strips hand-painted with huge block letters. They read, in sequence, WE BUILT IT. WE PAID FOR IT. IT'S OURS."

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Washington, D.C.: I haven't read this book yet, but am wondering whether you learn more about Reagan or Buckley from it? How would you characterize their relationship based on both your reading and your personal knowledge? Were you surprised by anything?

Rich Lowry: I can't say I was surprised by anything per se. But I was privileged to hear Bill talk in person about his relationship with Reagan for years. This book is like an entree to those conversations.

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Today's Young Republicans: Buckley and Reagan helped inspire a generation or more of young conservatives, many of whom are now in their 30s and 40s and in positions of influence in politics and journalism (I assume you may be one of them?). What figures today in politics or journalism may similarly appeal to college or high school students just starting their political involvement?

Rich Lowry: Yes, I am one of them. There's just no substitute for an X factor in public life and both Reagan and Buckley have it. I tend to be dismissive of young people smitten with Barack Obama, but a lot of young people felt exactly the same way about Reagan. Not sure who has that kind of appeal on the right at the moment.

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Helen, Georgia: As I understand it President Reagan fired Paul Volcker as chairman of the Federal Reserve in favor of Alan Greenspan. Greenspan followed the deregulation mantra of the Reagan Administration. He has recently admitted that he made a "mistake" in not monitoring what was going on at the banks and indeed in the whole financial industry. Today we are reaping the results of this laissez faire approach. Is it possible to defend Reagan for this foolish lack of attention to our national finances?

Rich Lowry: Reagan stalwartly stood by Volcker. For that history, check out another great book, "The Great Inflation," by Robert Samuelson.

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Bethesda, Md.: The evangelical right has essentially hijacked the GOP, much to the party's detriment. One could argue that this process began in 1980, although Mr. Reagan was particularly adept at obtaining their influence. What role, if any, did Mr. Buckley play in helping Mr. Reagan shape his thinking on how to involve the evangelicals without ceding control?

Rich Lowry: Reject your premise--evangelicals haven't hijacked the GOP and they haven't been detrimental. Reagan won two landslides running as a social conservative.

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Roseland, N.J.: Obviously impossible to answer but... in your gut, what do you think WFB would have made of Sarah Palin?

Rich Lowry: I think he would have been impressed by her poise and performance skills--he really appreciated that kind of thing--but appalled by the Couric interview. Palin fans compare Reagan to Palin--the big difference is that Reagan was soaked in conservative philosophy and policy.

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Samir, Maryland : Hello Rich, As an independent voter I get a bit turned off by some Republicans who invoke Reagan's name as a solution to every problem. Do you think their approach works outside of the core base Republicans?

Rich Lowry: Great question. No, it doesn't. It's not 1982 anymore. Reagan would have been a good enough politician to realize that--a lot of Republicans still don't.

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Arlington, Va.: Did you learn anything about Reagan (or Buckley) from reading this book you hadn't known before or that surprised you?

Rich Lowry: I can't say I was surprised by anything per se. But I was privileged to hear Bill talk in person about his relationship with Reagan for years. This book is like an entree to those conversations.

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Queenstown, MD: William F. Buckley ended up opposing the Iraq War. And the Iraq War and the unpopularity of it is the major reason for the Republican debacles of 2006 and 2008. Are you man enough to admit that Pat Buchanan was right on the war and are you willing to apologize to Buchanan and the other paleo-conservatives for David Frum's hit job on them five years ago?

Rich Lowry: Look back at Bill's last column on Iraq--a tentative endorsement of the surge.

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Rich Lowry: A story I heard Bill tell that's in the book and is amusing is how he met Reagan. At a speech in Beverly Hills Reagan was supposed to introduce Bill, but the sound system was dead. It couldn't be fixed except by gaining access to the locked control room at the balcony level. Bill picks up the action:

"Reagan then walked to the side of the hall and peered through the window at the parapet running the length of the building, two stories above traffic. His diagnosis seemed instantaneous. He was out the window, his feet on the parapet, his back to the wall, sidestepping carefully toward the control-room window. Reaching it, he thrust his elbow, breaking the glass, and disappeared into the control room. In a minute there was light in the upstairs room, and then we could hear the crackling of the newly animated microphone. That was a dramatic first meeting, and a friendship was kindled."

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Rich Lowry: Thanks everyone. Please read the book. It's insight into two great men, the likes of which we'll never see again.

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