The James Madison Program hosted New York Times writer and award-winning author Sam Tanenhaus in conversation with Princeton professor Robert George at the Lewis Library on Nov. 5. The discussion focused on the central figures in Tanenhaus’ last book and his forthcoming one, Whittaker Chambers and William F. Buckley Jr., respectively.
Chambers, a writer and editor, was a communist early in his career but later turned against the party, serving as a key witness in the perjury trial of alleged spy Alger Hiss. Tanenhaus said that Chambers thought he was “leaving the winning side for the losing side” when he defected from communism; he later joined the conservative movement and wrote for Buckley’s fledgling National Review. Tanenhaus highlighted key themes in Chambers’ life, including his conversion to Christianity, his suspicions that communists were trying to kill him, and his ultimate departure from the communist party.
The second half of the conversation featured reflections and anecdotes drawn from Buckley’s life. Tanenhaus described Buckley’s affluent background — “oil money from Texas” — and his childhood, including his close relationships with Mexican nannies who taught him to speak Spanish before English. The plan, Tanenhaus explained, was for him to live as an expatriate in Mexico (George offered a comparison to Mitt Romney).
Instead, of course, Buckley would emerge as a leader of the modern conservative movement in the United States, expanding the reach of conservative politics. Without Buckley’s work, Tanenhaus said, the East Coast focus of the Republican Party would have remained.
Tanenhaus and George shared their reflections of Buckley near the end of the event. George recalled that his son, shortly after voicing his interest in boats, received an invitation from Buckley to visit the New York Yacht Club. Tanenhaus said that Buckley had a “genius for friendship,” maintaining close relationships with friends across the political spectrum, including the Keynesian economist John Kenneth Galbraith and the leftist political commentator Gore Vidal. “Buckley never disparaged Gore Vidal but the same cannot be said of Vidal,” Tanenhaus said.