By Lauren Lavelle
Former principal spokesman for the 9/11 Commission Alvin S. Felzenberg discussed the legacy of political commentator William F. Buckley Jr. and his new book “A Man and His Presidents: The Political Odyssey of William F. Buckley Jr.” on Nov. 13 at an event hosted by the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics.
Felzenberg’s interest in the conservative idol came about after Buckley’s failed run for mayor of New York in 1965. A high school junior at the time, Felzenberg took a liking to Buckley’s comedic take on a serious political race.
“Because of that campaign, I got my first glimpse of this fellow,” he said. “He was asked what he would do if he was elected mayor of New York and he paused and said, ‘Demand a recount.’”
Buckley went on to become one of Felzenberg’s role models throughout his own political career, serving in two presidential administrations as advisor to the Departments of State and Defense, principal spokesman for the 9/11 Committee and director of communications for the Congress Joint Economic Committee.
Now, Felzenberg teaches at the University of Pennsylvania Annenberg School for Communication where he says his students are his biggest influencers.
He recalled the day Buckley died in 2008 when he asked his students if they knew of the commentator.
“The week that I was giving my first lecture, William F. Buckley passed away,” he said. “I started by asking how many of them had actually heard of William F. Buckley Jr. I was astonished when all the hands went up. So I said, ‘Who was he?’ I was met with complete silence. I said, ‘What did he do?’ They just stared at me. Then I asked, ‘Well, why did you raise your hands?’ It turned out they were all getting email blasted to death by news outlets that William F. Buckley had died.”
Instead of being disappointed by his students’ lack of knowledge, Felzenberg used the situation as a learning opportunity to illustrate Buckley’s successes in the political world.
“I decided to write this book for them,” he said. “We had so much fun with him the first time around, why not bring him back for a whole new generation?”
Felzenberg took the audience through Buckley’s entire career, emphasizing his wide range of career highs including his long-running magazine column detailing his conservative views and his even longer running talk show Firing Line.
“He dominated every form of communication that was available in his era,” he said. “He dominated the world of magazines. He brought forth the first column by a conservative called On The Right. He was writing his last column when he passed away and left behind over 500 columns. He was also a master of public television and public debate. Firing Line ran 33 years in public television, and it was the longest running public affairs show by the same host.”
Felzenberg also stressed that Buckley lived during a different, more exhilarating time of politics.
“This was a time where politics were fun,” he said. “Politics were civil and his form appealed to the people of the United States because he tried to teach us things. We left lecture halls better informed than when we went in.”
Director of the Rebovich Institute for New Jersey Politics Ben Dworkin appreciated Felzenberg’s dedication to enlightening younger audiences on Buckley’s views.
“To have somebody in the [President Donald] Trump era who can talk about intellectual conservatism, what its legacy was, the person who really drove that William F. Buckley Jr. and how it might manifest itself in the future. It’s an important thing,” Dworkin said.