F. Buckley Jr.
Russ Smith, John Strausbaugh & Peggy Noonan
It’s not his first book on McCarthy: that would be McCarthy and His Enemies from 1954. The Redhunter combines public record and personal knowledge: As a young conservative from Yale, Buckley knew McCarthy and supported his efforts. The novel tells McCarthy’s life, beginning with his growing up on a Wisconsin farm and concentrating on his spectacular rise and fall as a politician, from the Wheeling speech that catapulted him into national prominence in 1950 to his public humiliation on national television and censure by his peers in 1954 to his deathprobably from drinkin 1957. While conceding McCarthy’s character flaws (including the alcoholism, a probable gambling addiction and, most disastrously, the lying), it’s quite sympathetic to his anti-Communist mission.
Buckley met with us at the NYPress offices Thursday, June 3. We were joined by Peggy Noonan, former special assistant to President Reagan and author of What I Saw at the Revolution.
Russ Smith: What are your feelings about the front-loaded primary system?
My feelings are entirely conventional, and it is that it doesn’t allow the American people to draw breath, as they did, for instance, on Ford, thinking it over, [maybe him,] maybe Reagan. To have more up front simply rules out a second runner because there’s no time, and no time to raise money. My guess is that it’s going to be rejected, because a lot of people are going to feel left out. Right, Peggy?
Peggy Noonan: Why, yes. (laughs) I kind of like whoever made that proposal that you should have regional primaries, about five of them. That’d give everybody sort of a chance to sound off.
RS: Who do you suspect the eventual nominees will be?
I always suspect the obvious, because I am not witty enough politically to get under the coversalthough I will remind you that nobody who has been the front-runner 18 months ahead has ever been nominated. Maybe that will hold this time. But right now how can one beat George [W.] Bush unless he screws up, which is not his mode?
RS: I saw a Dallas reporter on The Beltway Boys the other night, and he said that the main concern of the Bush camp was that they know something is coming, but they don’t know what it is and they don’t know how Bush will react.
Are they implying that Bush knows but they don’t know?
RS: No, some unforeseen Jerry Ford-type blunder. They’re looking to anticipate what it could be. But as you describe it, I don’t know how they could. They don’t know, there is nothing in the cellar and there is nothing they can know. It would have to be spontaneous. You can’t just bring in the War Dept. and say give me a lesson in contingency planning for everything from poison ivy to a nuclear bomb.
John Strausbaugh: He seems to not be real light on his feet in extemporaneous speaking. Maybe they’re just worried that he’s going to utter some terrible faux pas. But they certainly can’t guard against that.
RS: Yet Gore has made so many gaffes that even the media, which is so biased, can’t really do a Quayle on him. He [Bush] had that bad remark where he said “Kosovanians.” But Gore has lowered the bar this time for gaffes, and Clinton has lowered the bar for everybody this time for personal behavior, and it’s tough to see what could derail Bush. Already today, Lamar Alexander announced that he is scaling back his campaign. He’s laid off advisersnot throwing in the towel, but “We’re concentrating on Iowa.” I suspect we will see more of that.
The kind of example you cite, saying “Kosovanians,” that’s a typo. After all, he was Phi Beta Kappa at Harvard, so obviously he knows on reflection that it’s not Kosovanians. If they are worried about anything that trivial I don’t think
they have all that much to worry about. I think in his case the vulnerability has to be in his tendency to grandiosity. Discovering the Aztec calendar and so forth. But presumably he’s been cautioned about that.
JS: He did discover the Aztec calendar, did he not? (laughs)
That’s right. Just partisanship on my part.
RS: Many of the Beltway pundits continue to say Bush is so high in the polls because of his name, that he’s done nothing as a governor. Now granted, the Bush name carries some weight, but Bush was defeated in 1992, after all. And George W. has been a successful governor of the second largest state in the country.
The answer is, he has been returned [to office] with a huge majority, taking his Hispanic vote from 24 to 49 percentthat impresses people… He’s been seemly, he’s a seemly guy. Once Nixon said to me, “What’s your feeling about Reagan?” And I said, “Yeah, well, to be perfectly frank”this was 1967″I love his politics, but there is no way he could run for president.” And Nixon said to me, “Anybody who wins the California state by a million votes is a presidential candidate.” And I found that a very seductive rebuke. Anybody who is a Republican and wins Texas by 70 percent is a big deal.
PN: Do you think the potential Republican voters have an unconscious sense when they look at George W., after the years of scandals and sex and slime, the whole wacky, hollow mess, they look at this guy who comes from a clean family and is an upstanding person and has a certain connection with the presidency?
I think that has to figure, but it doesn’t really account for the heaviness of the Texas vote. Got to be more than that. A lot of these other people who ran had pretty blameless records.
PN: Do you know George W.?
Not as well as his father. But he and the old man spent a weekend at the camp I happen to belong to in the Bohemian Grove, and I saw him merely informally a couple of times, I think, but with his father around, and Tom Foley and them around, he didn’t talk all that muchalthough he doesn’t talk all that much anyway, I gather. I just know him fleetingly.
PN: Did he strike you as a possible president?
PN: Are you amazed by the number of men in your lifetime who become president and never for a second struck you as a possible president?
Yeah. But I have a thesis about that: It is that everybody is thought incredible until the moment it happens. I illustrate that by [this story from the Kennedy compound at Hyannisport]. The day before [JFK's] election, he had his usual 80 reporters there, and it was “Jack,” “Joe,” “Jim,” that kind of [informal] stuff. And then the election is that night, and he comes in at eight the next morning and everybody just stands up. Just like that. The ordination is sort of invisible, and all of a sudden he becomes credible. People didn’t think Truman would be a credible president, but almost right away he became credible. It’s the office I think that infuses it in you.
JS: Norman Mailer thought Jack was a credible candidate. He wrote that piece in Esquire about going out to the Democratic convention in L.A.
In fact he took credit for the election.
JS: He would.
RS: I just read on the Drudge Report, Drudge is leaking that Time‘s man of the century will be FDR. How do you think Clinton will be rated?
I think he will simply be rated as the guy who had the whole Lewinsky business. There was some speculation about that in some long piece a few months ago, and the question was asked of historians what will be remembered in the year 2025? Of Truman, the Truman Doctrine, the Korean War, and so on. And on the matter of Clinton they suspected people will think, “Well, he’s the guy who did all those things.” I think that’s likely.
PN: Do you think he is the worst man ever to be president of the United States?
Yeah, I guess in terms of character he definitely wins. I can’t think of anybody worse.
PN: It’s not even a close contest, is it?
That’s right. And it’s all the more offensive given the rhetoric he uses, the expression on his face.
RS: Safire wrote a great column a few weeks ago about how Clinton lies about even the most trivial matters. He really is a liar. How do you explain that?
Safire had been saying that for a long time. I thought it was just tendentiousness, but around the time of that column I thought, he does seem to lie about everything. I don’t know whether in terms of psychological typology that tells you anything.
PN: Maybe it tells you that a lot of life is habit.
Probably was… The people who gave him a Rhodes scholarship were obviously impressed by him, and everyone right up and down the line, including the majority of the voters.
PN: You ever meet him?
PN: Ever see him give a speech?
Yes. One. He was good. It was kind of a routine thing, the opening of a museum, the people who kept Tom Dodd’s papers. Chris Dodd asked me to go up, which I did. He gave a routine speech. His speeches are always, well, they’re okay, but left on his ownhe’s very fluent, but there’s no internal rhythm there that I can see. No poetry at all.
JS: What do you think of Hillary coming into New York to run?
My feeling is, why not? She’s obviously equipped to act as a senator. Her background is okay. The residency requirements, as my brother found out, are informal. So why not? Whether there will be a big upstate reaction once the other guy starts stirring it all up… I mean, maybe they will feel sorry for her. That is entirely possible.
RS: Polls shows Giuliani winning upstate, and with about 35 percent in the city. The only question I have is whether Lazio is serious and will run in the primary. Since the primary is so late, in September, that could be to her benefit.
If Lazio is serious.
PN: I didn’t realize the Republican primary is in September here! Two months before the voting? That’s most extraordinary. She can use the next 14 or 15 months.
RS: New York has a lot of very arcane election laws. That’s one of them.
Will there be any Democratic contenders? Has anybody said that he/she wants to run against Hillary?
RS: That would be terrific. There was a rumor floated that Bobby Kennedy Jr. was going to run if Hillary didn’t. Now, if they were involved in a primary fight, wouldn’t that be fun?
That would be terrific. That would be lovely.
RS: Is there anything that you haven’t said over the years about Gore Vidal?
No. (laughs) I wrote a 10,000-word essay on it and I ended it by saying, “This is it. This is all.” Although he did provoke me a couple of years ago. He wrote something, I figured in it obliquely, but he said that this particular rabbi was always lying about him. Since I was depicted in the article, I wrote The New York Times and said, “Anybody who lies about Gore Vidal is doing him a favor.”
RS: How do you look back on your 1965 mayoral race?
It was an attempt to float a bunch of ideas that were being neglected. It was a completely academic exercise. Some people thought it was serious. I think the highest conservative vote would have been two percent up until then. It was interesting from several aspects. One of them, there was a big newspaper strike, so that all the news was on television for about six seeks. So you got sort of a flash exposure for people who couldn’t opt out of reading what you had to sayI mean, it was two minutes, two minutes, two minutes. So a lot of people were exposed to these ideas who would have otherwise not have been, if it had been just newspapers. That gave the campaign a great launch, and when the papers started publishing again toward the end of September, there was enough attention being given to my candidacy to make the reporters write them and quite a few people would read them.
PN: Did you do better than two percent?
Yeah, I did 13.
PN: Did you do best in Staten Island or Queens?
I think it was Staten Island. It had been 18 percent the day before, but a lot of people, when they sober up, they want only the real contenders. (laughs)
PN: What did you say to The New York Times when they asked what would you do if you won?
Oh, don’t remind me!
JS: Have you ever reflected upon how your life would have changed had you won?
No. It never crossed my mind that I would. I think at one point I said if I had been elected we would have it easy, because it would have meant a compete transformation of values by the public, and if that had been so, let’s go to Gracie Mansion and tell ‘em what to do.
PN: What had happened to conservatism by the year you ran for mayor of New York that conservatives were only polling at two percent?
Now, you should confine that to what happened to New York, because nationally we had nominated Goldwater a year earlier, so you can’t complain… Goldwater got 700,000 votes from New York state in 1964.
PN: Was that good?
Given the fact that it was Goldwater. (laughter) I think he lost by something like 68-42 or something like that [nationally], but it wasn’t all that much worse in New York is what I am saying. But then that’s why the Conservative Party started
up. Started up pretty fast. Five years after me, my brother went to the Senate with 36 percent of the vote.
RS: We were just talking about Time and their man of the century. Who would you pick?
You could pick several people and make your case. Pick Pope Paul, Churchill, Roosevelt certainly, even Teddy Roosevelt. Those people have good paid advocates. Whoever they name, after we read it we’ll say, “Ah well, how could anybody else have been considered?”
PN: John Paul II?
Well, nobody would think that was preposterous, with the end of the Cold War and everything. Stalin, Hitler.
RS: You could never do Hitler, even though they remind you every year, this is not necessarily a good man, but the man who most influenced
Right right right. You’re making a journalistic point. John Lukacs, in one of his Hitler books, talks about the things that afterward were completely dependent upon the fact of Hitler, during his lifetime and much after his lifetime, just about
everything of this half-century, three-quarters.
JS: Let’s talk about your book. The traditional view of Joe McCarthy is this loathsome character, demagogue, grandstander, witch hunter. My read of the novel is that you are presenting rather a different characterhardworking, hard-charging, chicken-farming American, had his weaknesses, but was clearly on the right trackthere were spies in the government, there were security risks
None of the second series of what you say contradicts the first.
JS: I understand. But aren’t you saying that the problem was really Roy Cohn
No, that’s not true. He was a problem in that last critical year, but
JS: But he accentuates Joe’s weaknesses.
JS: Had Roy Cohn not become his counsel and exacerbated Joe’s inherent weakness, perhaps he wouldn’t have gone overboard…
My reading of it is that he probably wouldn’t have gone as far as he did. However, he may very well have gone in any event in a mortal direction. He didn’t even know
Roy Cohn existed until December ’52, January ’53, and he had covered a lot of ground by that point. He had the booze problem
JS: Right, he had the drinking problem. And in his very first press conference, as a young lawyer running for a judgeship in Wisconsin, is it fact or fiction the way you depict him
Everything in the book that was publicly said is correct.
JS: So, he was already demeaning the character of his opponent, exaggerating, allowing the facts to be shaded?
Although the nature of it suggests that if he had any other future, that probably would not have been noticed.
PN: How big was the drinking problem? And how did it manifest itself as he proceeded to become famous, waving those files in the air…
Well, Joe never sounded drunk, and I never saw him drinking, you know, tons. But Brent, my brother-in-law, who worked for him for almost a year, saw it, and there were a lot of other people who spotted it. Now, whether it was under the
influence of booze that he [slurred the character of one of his investigation subjects], which was unforgivable, I don’t know. I just plain don’t know. I mention here somewhere that he was never unkind, except publicly. Only if there
was a camera there.
PN: I have wondered, was there anyone else of stature and position, such as a senator, in the late 40s, early 50s, who could have been an alternative to McCarthy? An upstanding and an honest and an admirable person who could have helped the anti-Communist fight?
That’s a very profound point, because there were totally responsible, totally informed, totally persuasive anti-Communists, of whom Walter Judd is the best example. McCarthy inculcated a feeling of helplessness in a lot of people. Everything was going wrong. You had to go fight in Korea, the atomic bomb had gone off, China had gone over to the other side, Hiss was convicted, Yalta had given away the ostensible aims of the war. Now, the question is, had he been less flamboyant, would he have been noticed? I don’t know the answer to that, but it’s a very interesting question.
PN: I have wondered if it’s possible that the establishment press of that day actually looked rather shrewdly at McCarthy and said, well, if we have to have an enemy, that’s the one we want, and subtly built him up.
No, I don’t think so. He was getting crowds pretty much on his own, and the press was beginning to cover all of his movements. The resistance began pretty soon. The Tydings hearings [on McCarthy's charges] began [only] 11 days after Wheeling [where McCarthy made his first, famous speech about Communists in the government]. They started in on him not under the direction of The Washington Post, but because Joe irritated a lot of people and said some irresponsible things. This is not at all a polemical bookI shelter him from nothingbut in my first book, McCarthy and His Enemies, we made the point that he never went to such lengths as enemies did…
PN: Were there Terry Lenzner-type operatives going through Joe McCarthy’s garbage?
The answer is yes. Some people made it kind of a full-time job. What’s the other Drew Pearson?
Jack Anderson. He wrote a whole book on the sins of McCarthy. That would have been around 1952 or ’53. At one point somebody did scavengeI don’t know what the hell they were looking foryou could find a lot of empty booze bottlesbut beyond that, they dug up a charge of income tax evasion. But afterward it turned out they owed him, not the other way around. There wasn’t much money.
PN: Did you know young Bobby Kennedy when he was a supporter of Joe McCarthy?
No, I did not.
PN: Did you ever see old Joe Kennedy around Joe McCarthy? You know, I’ve read Eunice Kennedy dated Joe McCarthy.
Joe [McCarthy] was having lunch with me on Labor Day 1952, in Stamford, and the phone rang. It was for him and it was the head of the Republican Party senatorial reelection committee. He came back into the lunch and he looked very gloomy. I said, “What’s the trouble?” He said so-and-so, I forget who it was, “has asked me to come up to Boston and give a speech for Henry Cabot Lodge [who was running against John F. Kennedy].” And he said, “That a tough one, because Joe Kennedy gave $5000 dollars to my campaign, and Bobby and Jack, we’ve been very close.” He went back to the phone, and about a half-hour later came back looking very pleased with himself. I said, “What did you do?” And he said. “I called him back and I said, ‘Tell Cabot I’ll go and speak for him if he invites me to.’ He wouldn’t do thatHarvard wouldn’t like it.”
It’s true, and in a sense pivotal, because JFK only won by about 70,000 votes, which was not much of a majority, and McCarthy was absolutely the most popular American in the world in Boston. If he had campaigned there it might have changed things.
PN: Jack Kennedy refused to vote to censure Joe McCarthy.
RS: How extensive was Bobby Kennedy’s work with McCarthy? And how did he overcome that political liability, relatively quickly?
Well, it wasn’t all that quickly. Bobby actually almost sneaked into Joe’s funeralhe went by a different plane into Appleton [WS], and sort of shielded himself. He was beginning to feel the anti-McCarthy problem. But he really wasn’t popular until his brother was elected. The Kennedys were thought of as the anti-Communist Democratic set, so he didn’t have the problem. I know zero about what he did for Joe… He was mad that he didn’t get Roy Cohn’s job.
RS: When do you think the term “McCarthyism” began to be so cheaply used? We heard it all last fall aimed against Kenneth Starr and Henry Hyde.
And it’s the most versatile metaphor in the entire vocabulary of derogation. Anything excessive is “McCarthyite.” He was a guyand very few people younger than me have any sense of what he was likewho had 56 percent of the American people enthusiastic about him. What happened? Why did that happen? That’s what this novel attempts to explore. One likes to think that the American people wouldn’t flock to a truly bad person. And he wasn’t a bad person, in the sense that there was never a hint of fascistic ambition, not a hint of it, and nobody was executed or given a life sentence [as a result of his investigations]. In fact, nobody went to jail, traceable to McCarthynot one human being. The ones who went to jail were the Hollywood people, and that was two years earlier.
JS: Near the end of the book you have a character saying, “It was one of Joe McCarthy’s ironic legacies that it became almost impossible in future years to say that anyone was a Communist, because you’d be hauled up for committing McCarthyism.” Did he in that sense impede the anti-Communist movement?
Yes he did… I think he was a “negative asset” of the anti-Communist movement
JS: Why a novel about Joe McCarthy? Why didn’t you just write a biography?
Oh gee whiz, I’m disappointed to hear that from you. What I was hoping to accomplish I couldn’t have possibly accomplished in a biography.
JS: What did you think of Roy Cohn?
Well, it’s complicated. I remember a New Yorker cartoon, a woman goes to the library and says, “Do you have any books other than on Roy Cohn?” I testified in his favor when the bar association set out to dismiss him, which they did. All I said was that he was a person who honorably tried to do things for his friends. Now, whether those things included fabricating evidence or killing the other guy, I don’t know… There is a certain amount of convenience in my hobgoblinizing him [in the book]. Not that he isn’t hobgoblinizable, because he is. But it is conceivable that if he never existed, Joe would have gotten into the same kind of mess.
PN: You do your column, you are a public figure, you do your television show, you run the magazine. When do you write novels?
In the winter. In Switzerland, in February and March.
PN: Is that vacation time for you?
Writing a book is not vacation time. As Churchill said, a vacation is doing “something else.” I do 1500 words a day, and in six weeks that’s a book, as you know. I’ve written 34, 35 books there, these two-month things.
PN: Do you write in the morning?
Afternoon, after skiing.
PN: Do you find yourself, since you do 1500 words a day, sitting at your desk for half an hour, desperately scrolling the tool bar so you can get a word count?
No. Interruptions are always research interruptions. Last time I had a young guy from National Review, who was terrific on the Internet, helping me research. That’s terribly useful. I don’t have the business of when you freeze over writing.
PN: Writer’s block?
Yes. I think that only happens to people who go to public writing courses. They have breakfast and then they are told to go away and write, and they all become drunks, and I don’t blame them. The idea of having nothing else to do than write a book all day long…
JS: Do you see Taki when you’re in Switzerland?
All the time. Two or three times a week. We ski together.
JS: Do you attend the fabulous parties he’s always writing about?
No, I avoid those. I am the early-to-bed type. He’s amazing. Taki’s constitution should go in the Smithsonian.
JS: Can I ask a Nearer, My God question? I was raised Catholic, educated by the Jesuits and I came out a complete unbeliever. How do you know there’s a God?
By the philosophical laws of certitude, you can’t “know” there is a God. It’s a matter of faith. I only go so far as to say that I would find it much more difficult to disbelieve than to believe.
JS: Does the fact that two educated modern men can sit in a room, and one believes and one doesn’t believe, does that diminish the point, make it a nonessential question?
No, it’s essential to certain conversations, but not to most. I just finished a piece for Playboy, their millennial issue, on the future of virtues. Writing about virtues for Playboy is kind of fun. And [my son] Christopher’s writing about the future of vices. In it, tangentially, I raise the issue of to what extent does the question of belief exclude other things. I quote Kant, who said that practically all the virtues can be deduced from the exigencies of the requirements of modern life. That’s easy to say of the do not steal, do not murder ones. Not so easy to say with do not commit incest. There you have to find other sponsors for that taboo.
JS: It clearly was a question of much more import at some point in the past than it is now. If you didn’t believe 500 years ago, you were out of luck. Are we just going through a phase where belief, faith, religion have been moved out of the center of life, and might become more central again in the future?
Well, I think the religious sanction is the one absolute undeniable. I think it’s always going to be there as the primary inspirer and derivator of sanctions. You say honor thy mother and thy father because that means less welfare? It has to be sponsored by other impulses.
PN: Someone once said to me in Washington in the early 80s, “You guys don’t believe in God, you believe in religion.”
Yeah. I had dinner with Peter Jennings the other day, and Conrad Black [the British publisher] made that very point. Peter says that he thinks 85 percent go to church because their creditor wants to see them at church. I’ve heard that for a long time. But a lot of people go to church when their creditor isn’t around.
PN: Maybe that’s why Peter goes to church.
Does he go? I don’t think he does.
RS: One last question. Were you offended by Clinton’s behavior at the funeral of Richard Nixon?
No, on the nihil bonum ground. They all do that, don’t they? Was he offensive? I don’t remember.
RS: I thought he was rather
PN: Overt in his eagerness to manipulate.
RS: I think he just showed what a whore he is. Of course the current president would go to the funeral, but where Bob Dole shed tears, which I believe were genuine, Bill Clinton went on a long eulogy, which struck me as odd for somebody who opposed Nixon and everything Nixon stood for.
There was a lot of criticism. But what did he actually lose? Nobody was not going to vote for him because he was too sweet on Tricky Dick.