Q&A with With Lee Edwards

William Buckley Jr., as the founding editor of the National Review, is credited for molding the conservative political and intellectual movement. In his new biography of Buckley, Lee Edwards, a historian of American conservatism and fellow at the Heritage Foundation, examines Buckley’s role in forming the movement, the development of his personal philosophies and his intellectual and political contributions.
Edwards spoke to The Hill about how Buckley shaped the conservative movement and why his legacy and contributions are important in the current political climate.

Q: What was the most striking thing about Buckley you learned while conducting your research?

I learned that he was really a risk-taker. In 1965, when he ran for mayor of New York City, the citadel of liberalism at the time, he could have totally flopped, which would have set back the conservative movement. But he felt that with the platform he was going to propose and his special talents as a debater he would be able to make a good showing and help give the conservative movement a boost after the Goldwater resounding defeat. He was able to receive some 13.4 percent of the popular vote, which helped strengthen the conservative party of New York.

Q: In what ways did Buckley help create the conservative movement?

In the early 1950s there was no conservative movement. There were isolated intellectuals, some politicians, some authors and only one publication, Human Events. Buckley’s genius was to provide a platform for different kinds of conservatives when he created the National Review. He was able to bring together different elements of the conservative movement and unite it in a way that it had not been united before. Bill Buckley embodied the idea of fusionism — of bringing together the different strains of conservatism. He did that in the 1950s, and that’s one of the lessons that he can provide for today’s conservative movement: We need to come together and not throw various elements of the movement overboard.

Q: Why was it important to Buckley that conservatism contain both intellectual and political aspects?

He saw a need for a journal. As he got into it he realized that there was a need not just for an intellectual movement, but also for a political movement, to take those political ideas and put them into action. That’s why I call him one of the pre-eminent action intellectuals of the 20th century.

Q: Why are Buckley’s legacy and contributions important today?

This idea of fusionism is his most important political contribution, the idea that we must bring together the various elements of conservatism and unite them in a common goal. Back in the 1950s the enemy was communism; today the adversary that most conservatives think has to be resisted and overcome is the welfare state, this leviathan of federal government.

He displayed the idea that it is possible to be conservative and have a sense of humor, to respect the other person’s point of view. Bill Buckley did not engage in vicious, ad hominem arguments. He tried to stick to the beliefs and issues at hand and discuss those in a civil way.

We must draw from him the idea that as difficult as the task may be before us — it may seem as if we are confronting an impossible idea of combating the progressivism, liberalism and welfare-ism of the 21st century — if you stick to, and base what you do in, the right ideas, you can ultimately triumph.