Sen. James L. Buckley titled his 2006 oral history, “Gleanings from an Unplanned Life.” Unplanned as it may have been, the older brother of the late William F. Buckley Jr. spent a life in public service promoting individual liberty. He served six years as a U.S. senator from New York, elected from the Conservative Party. He sat for 11 years on the bench of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia and was appointed to several posts in the Reagan Administration. He also served in the Navy during World War II and earned degrees from Yale, where he was a member of the Skull and Bones society.
Much like his brother, Sen. Buckley represents an era of conservatism and political discourse that is rare in today’s society. He is an academic and an intellect, an orator and a sailor, a thinker and a scholar. He’s the uncle of influential conservatives Christopher Buckley, Brent Bozell and William F.B. O’Reilly.
We reached Buckley on Monday by phone at his residence in Sharon, Conn. This is Part 2 of our conversation. Part 1 focused on the state of the Republican party.
Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and the future of the GOP
Douglas Barclay: Have you ever seen the parties so divided?
Sen. James L. Buckley: No, what is happening now, that I think distinguishes the crisis from earlier ones, say when Gingrich and Clinton were at loggerheads, when there was a shutdown. At that time, the issues were how much are we going to spend on this, that, and the other. It was purely a quarrel over spending levels. What is facing us today are fundamental differences on matters of policy; those are much harder to reconcile. Either you have the federal government in charge of 1/8th of your economy, namely health, or you don’t. It’s a little bit like abortion, either you believe in the sanctity of an unborn life, or you don’t. Its not about if you are going to spend x billion dollars more or less on F16 fighters. I think we are in a different kind of crisis and therefore a different kind of division, different from any time in my experience.
Barclay: What were your initial thoughts on President Obama and how have they evolved?
Buckley: I thought from the beginning, that because of his association with Reverend Wright, because of his association with Bill Ayers, that he himself [was] a radical Democrat. When he said five days before the election that he was launching a fundamental transformation of the American Republic, he meant precisely what those words meant. Something that would change [the United States] from anything we had known before, rather than fixing little problems and making minor adjustments. I personally was not surprised by his unwillingness to compromise and deviate from his private vision for the United States, and his withdrawal from an effective American presence in the international arena, or his single minded emphasis on redistribution, his single minded conclusion that government has the answer to each and every problem.
I think as the years have gone by that my analysis, if it is indeed the correct one, ought to be more broadly accepted that it apparently still is. We know that his ratings have gone way, way down. I suspect that, that is not so much a reflection of how people size up his philosophy, but a reflection of his ability to prove himself an incompetent manager of an enterprise the size of ours. There is a lot of rhetoric that comes out of him, but no leadership. That is manifest by the current crisis of the shutdown of the government. He talks a lot of talking to people, but he never comes up with modifications of his own demands to make it easier to start a conversation that would lead to compromises.
Barclay: Do you believe that Hilary Clinton would be a continuation of that process?
Buckley: I think she is a different person, I wouldn’t like how she wanted to lead, but I think that she would be somebody with clearly stated objectives, and a willingness to discuss with other people in the tradition of American politics in the past. What she would be pushing for, would not be all that different; it wouldn’t go to the extreme that I believe that Obama would like to take us. I think she would be a more effective President.
Barclay: What issues should politicians focus on in the coming election cycles? Is it possible for the Republicans to take back the country?
Buckley: I think that they have to focus on the extent of the growth of the federal government, and what that is doing to constrict. When you talk about the extent of growth, it is not only power, but also expense and waste. If we value our freedoms and the inventiveness that has been characteristic of American society since the very beginning. If we we value the autonomy of individuals and their ability to work out their own destinies—we have to recognize that we are on a collision course fiscally. Unless we make fundamental adjustments in the entitlement programs and things of that sort, the American Republic is facing collapse. We are in totally serious times, and therefore we have to focus on fundamentals. This will require somebody with the power to articulate and we should not allow ourselves to be diverted on single issues, we should instead speak to fundamentals.
Barclay: Is there anyone among the current talked about candidates that you feel does have the power to articulate?
Buckley: I heard Mitch Daniels talk about a year ago; I think he had that power. He isn’t in the headlines anymore and is now a college president. I hate to say this, but I don’t see anyone on the spectrum right now who is likely to be a candidate, who is exhibiting the kind of persuasive abilities that I would like to see.