THE BLOG
03/12/2008 01:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Ira Glasser Remembers William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr., conservative intellectual -- and supporter of drug policy reform -- passed away February 27, 2008. He is remembered by Ira Glasser, president of the Drug Policy Alliance's board and former executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union:

It was sometime in the eighties. I had been the Executive Director of the ACLU for a number of years, and the ED of the New York Civil Liberties Union before that, and had in that capacity debated William F. Buckley, Jr. on his show Firing Line, a number of times on a variety of issues, including the always contentious question, which had been boiling and bubbling since the late sixties, of whether using the American flag to express opposition to American policies, both domestic and foreign, could be criminalized.

We called it symbolic speech, the idea that the flag symbolized American constitutional freedoms, including the right to denounce it, superimpose it with doves (the then-current symbol of peace) or even burn it to communicate the notion that American ideals were going up in smoke.

Others, including Buckley, disagreed, and called it flag desecration, as if the flag, literally, was sacred, and its use in such protests blasphemous. One of our Firing Line debates was on that subject. Near the end of the debate, frustrated I thought at the time by the array of arguments against his position, Buckley played the majoritarian card: the Constitution may protect this expressive conduct as you say, he told me, but the ordinary American just can't stomach the sight of someone burning an American flag, and is entitled to laws banning it.

At that juncture, I closed the debate by grinning and asserting that William F. Buckley, the insulated scion of a wealthy family, had no contact with ordinary Americans, no idea what they thought or why they thought it, and proposed to take him to lunch one day at Nathan's in Coney Island, instead of the elegant and expensive Manhattan restaurants where he had taken me, if he wanted to get a glimpse of ordinary Americans.

Never one to shy away from a provocation or a challenge, especially on national television, he took me up on it, and a few weeks later, off we went. The story of that adventure, too long to tell here, became a minor legend within the offices of both the National Review and the ACLU, and was the beginning of my half tongue-in-cheek, half serious effort to acquaint him with how ordinary people lived, later embellished by my introducing him to the existence (!) of ATM machines (this was in the early 90s!!) and by my taking him, when he was 68, on his first serious subway ride (aside from a ceremonial trip in 1965 during his mayoral campaign) to his first ever baseball game, Opening Day at Shea between the Mets and the Cubs.

And that, to paraphrase what Humphrey Bogart said to Claude Rains in Casablanca, was the beginning of our personal friendship.

Friendship between me and him had seemed out of the question. We disagreed and fought about everything. Not only about particular public policy issues, but over basic premises. I was a street kid from Brooklyn, with inescapable traces of the infamous Brooklyn accent, and my father was a construction worker and union man with only a fifth-grade formal education. Buckley was a child of insulated privilege, initially educated in Spain (Spanish was his first language), who learned English from British tutors, and as a result retained all his life a faint but obvious British accent, which I took for an affectation until his wife Pat told me over dinner one evening how he had acquired it.

Unlike mine, his father was a wealthy oilman, isolationist and devoted Republican. I was Jewish, but not observant, seeing social justice as my religious heritage; he was an orthodox, believing Catholic. We clashed on everything, including, memorably one evening on the Larry King show, where we went at it over the issue of school-sponsored prayers in public schools, where I managed to let the audience know that he had never attended a public school and was hermetically sealed off from the reality of what it meant for a small child in the religious minority to have the prayers and beliefs of the majority, and often the hostile majority, imposed on him. It got pretty contentious. More often than not, our debates always became contentious, on virtually every issue: anti-terrorism statutes; the death penalty; immigration; school vouchers. Friendship between us seemed a remote fantasy.

Enter the issue of drug prohibition. One day, sometime in the mid- to late eighties, to my surprise, I came across a column in which Buckley had described drug prohibition as a folly and a leading cause of preventable crime. Relying on his nearly fundamentalist belief in the free market, he argued that given the inevitable and irrepressible demand for drugs and intoxicants, and drawing on the lessons of alcohol prohibition, an unregulated and destructive black market was inevitable, and caused far more harm than it prevented. Never before having found an issue on which we agreed, I immediately wrote him, telling him that he might be equally surprised to know that the ACLU, which he missed no opportunity to denounce and criticize, had taken that very same position for many years. I proposed that we do something together to advance our common position, and that if we did, it might astonish our enemies and amaze our friends.

He wrote back to say that it wasn't his style to be aggressively confrontational and I responded by saying I wasn't talking about our going on a street demonstration together, or engaging in civil disobedience, but something more in keeping with his 18th century sensibilities, like, maybe, a public meeting jointly sponsored by the ACLU and National Review, or perhaps a jointly written article. Whereupon he invited me to lunch. (But not at Nathan's.)

This was the first serious private discussion we had ever had, and what emerged from it was a surprising amount of common ground and a substantial and mutual intellectual respect. Shortly afterwards, Buckley invited me to join him on Firing Line, where he and I debated the question of drug prohibition with the head of the New York office of DEA (who I think was stunned to find himself opposed by Buckley as well as by me!). The show went sensationally well, and received much notice. Soon, he scheduled another one; this time our foil was a liberal, Charles Rangel, a member of Congress from Harlem who had succeeded Adam Clayton Powell, and whom I had known since the late sixties. Up to that point, I couldn't remember an issue where Charlie and I had disagreed in any fundamental way. But in the reverse of the DEA official's surprise, I think Charlie was taken aback by finding himself opposed by me as well as Buckley.

The strategy was working: opposition to drug prohibition, widely if mistakenly seen as located on the left, as a kind of free-spirit residue of the youth culture of the sixties, now lost some of its ideological luster and isolation; no longer could our opponents characterize our complaints about the consequences of drug prohibition as ideologically driven by a narrow sector of the political spectrum. The publicity surrounding something as unlikely as Buckley and me agreeing raised the profile of the issue and enhanced the credibility of our arguments.

Buckley embraced this development. The first two shows had been part of his regular half-hour series. But he had recently launched a more ambitious show, a two-hour debate, moderated by a third party (usually Michael Kinsley), which featured four people on each side. Buckley decided to devote one of these shows to the issue of drug prohibition.

Normally, Buckley and I were on opposite sides, each leading our team against the other. Now we appeared together on the same side; those opposing us also included both liberals and conservatives. It was a spectacle, with Buckley and I and longtime drug policy reformer Richard Dennis on one side, and Charlie Rangel, Pat Schroeder and Newt Gingrich on the other. It was sensational television, and it attracted wide attention. Some time later, there was a second two-hour debate. These joint public appearances helped change the face of the opposition movement. It made it easier for conservative, free-market icons like Milton Friedman and public figures like George Shultz to be public about their opposition to drug prohibition. It broadened the constituency for change.

Buckley was hardly a one-issue man, and it would be inaccurate to say that he was as constant an activist as he might have been for drug policy reform. But neither did he shy away from opportunities to make clear his alliance with our views. He once publicly characterized Marijuana Myths, Marijuana Facts, by our colleagues John Morgan and Lynn Zimmer, as "a miracle of intelligent concision." This made it very difficult for right wing critics to dismiss the book as liberal propaganda. Probably no one else could have done this as effectively. And of course a few years ago the National Review published a terrific article on marijuana prohibition by Ethan Nadelmann, as their featured cover story.

To the end, Buckley's position never wavered, and the last time we had dinner in August 2007, when he was already clearly ravaged by emphysema, he asked me how I thought the fight was going, and what I thought the prospects for serious change were.

But our collaboration in opposition to drug prohibition had one other consequence that enriched my life and, I think, his. It nurtured our friendship.

This was natural for him: he had close personal friendships with liberal debating opponents like John Kenneth Galbraith and Murray Kempton. But it was not natural for me. I hated what I regarded as the brutality of many, perhaps most, of his positions. I was especially unforgiving about his opposition during the late fifties and early sixties to the emerging civil rights movement, and its efforts to put an end to Jim Crow laws, and replace the infrastructure of legalized segregation with a new legal regime of civil rights enforcement. This movement remains in my view the dominant moral issue of my lifetime, and Buckley was decidedly and unambiguously on the wrong side of that issue, supporting states' rights against civil rights, giving intellectual respectability to the likes of Strom Thurmond and Lester Maddox. I would from time to time tax him with that moral failure, and did so publicly in one of our last television debates, and I think it is fair to say that he was uncomfortable with that past, although I never knew him to firmly confess error.

One more thing must be said, and it was his most attractive quality: he was, on a personal level, an uncommonly kind and gracious man, and a good and loyal friend. I cannot say I was his intimate friend, but in the years I knew him, I saw him on a great many occasions, as a dinner guest, a travel companion, a debating colleague and an adversary. I was there at many a salon, where he enjoyed a social evening of good food, drink and spirited discussion. I saw him with peers, and I saw him with employees. I saw how he behaved with me, and how he behaved with my wife. He was, unfailingly, kind, graceful, and attentive. As imperious as he could be -- and relished being -- in his public persona, that is how unassuming and sensitive to others he was privately. I have known more than a few people in my decades of public life who took exemplary positions on the abstract questions of human rights, but were terrible people privately. Buckley was the opposite: I deplored many of his public positions and thought their consequences cruel and insensitive; but in private he was wonderful and decent and generous to those around him. He was, therefore, a good friend, in a way I never imagined was possible when we first began our series of public policy debates over 30 years ago. I shall miss him.