George Will and William F. Buckley

For a moment this week, conservatives put aside their anger over Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers to join President Bush in celebrating the life of William F. Buckley Jr., and the 50th anniversary of his magazine, The National Review. Columnist and ABC News commentator George Will sat down with Buckley at his home in New York.

George Will: Let me invite you to take credit for winning the Cold War. The argument goes like this: Without Bill Buckley, no National Review. Without National Review, no Goldwater nomination. Without the Goldwater nomination, no conservative takeover of the Republican Party. Without that, no Reagan. Without Reagan, no victory in the Cold War. Therefore, Bill Buckley won the Cold War.

William F. Buckley Jr.: That's a very nice abbreviation, and I hope you will remind historians of it.

Will: Today, we have a very different kind of foreign policy. It's called Wilsonian. And the premise of the Bush doctrine is that America must spread democracy, because our national security depends upon it. And America can spread democracy. It knows how. It can engage in national building. This is conservative or not?

Buckley: It's not at all conservative. It's anything but conservative. It's not conservative at all, inasmuch as conservatism doesn't invite unnecessary challenges. It insists on coming to terms with the world as it is, and the notion that merely by affirming these high ideals we can affect highly entrenched systems.

Will: But something odd is happening in conservatism. And we have a president and an administration that clearly is conservative, accepted as that. Yet it is nation-building in the Middle East. And conservatism seems to be saying government can't run Amtrak, but it can run the Middle East.

Buckley: Yes. That's of course an effrontery that both of us are familiar with. The ambition of conservatism, I think, properly extends to saying [that] where there are no human rights, it's not a society I can truly respect. It's impossible to draw up a template that gives us an orderly sense of "send democracy there," but let this go for awhile. One recognizes that you can't export democracy everywhere simultaneously.

Will: But we did think it was going to be easier to export democracy because we had a theory. Tony Blair, speaking to a joint session of Congress shortly after Baghdad fell, said, "It is a myth to say that our values are Western values. No, they are universal values shared by ordinary people everywhere." True or false?

Buckley: Well, some of that is true. I mean, we know that in Iraq, for instance, there are values shared, which are different from our own, even by people who are familiar with our own. And that even if one were to assert-- I think Blair correctly says that our values are superior to those who seem to deny human rights. That is an academic demonstration, and a historical demonstration, but not one that carries with it any assurances of sociologic success.

Will: Bill, you've written 4,000 columns -- and are adding to that total two a week still -- [and] 47 books, 18 of them novels. You conducted the television show "Firing Line" for 34 years, which is longer than Johnny Carson did "The Tonight Show." As an ocean mariner, you've crossed the Pacific and the Atlantic. And you've played the harpsichord with symphonies. What is it you haven't done that you wish you had done or still intend to do?

Buckley: Well, I would love to be able to play "The Goldberg Variations." I think a lot of people wish that they had been endowed to pursue different professions. That's-- Well, that's unattractive -- because it makes you sound less grateful than you than you ought to sound for what you have succeeded in doing.

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