WFB, RIP

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Words elude me at a time like this. They never eluded him.

During the Carter years, in my high school's library, I first encountered National Review, the magazine he founded. His influence shaped both my political philosophy and my idea of how politics ought to be discussed and debated. His "Notes & Asides" -- brief responses to letters from readers -- was a favorite feature.

He rescued conservatism -- resistance both to secularism and collectivism -- from a narrow political ghetto. Before Goldwater, before Reagan, there's was Bill Buckley, freshly-minted Yale graduate, declaring his intention to "stand[] athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it."

Among the many tributes to him that have been posted today, the most frequent theme is not his erudition or his devotion to the conservative cause, but his kindness and his graciousness, as remembered by those who worked with him and those who encountered him as readers and admirers.

Robert N. Going:

I finally met Bill when he gave a series of four lectures at Russell Sage College around 1973 and he graciously hung around to engage anyone who cared to chat. And I like to chat.

We kept up a correspondence for a while, nothing earth shaking or worth reprinting, but the fact that he would bother to even answer every letter from every young hero-worshipper I found pretty amazing. He even invited me to lunch, but our schedules never meshed.

Two years ago, early the next morning after his big 80th birthday bash, he emailed me to thank me for what I had written about him on this blog, at a time when I'm sure he had about ten thousand thank you notes to write to people far more important than this lone blogger. It's hard not to like a guy like that.

Rod Dreher:

The thing that occurs to me at the moment is how civil he was. I've mentioned before in this space what a great example he was in that regard. On the occasions I had dinner with National Review editors at the Buckleys' townhouse in Manhattan, there would always be an Ur-liberal present. Once it was Ira Glasser, the former ACLU head, and the next time it was Mark Green, the NYC politician. It was fascinating to watch Bill -- and he insisted that he be called Bill, signaling to me to knock off the Mr. Buckley stuff -- interrogate these opponents with intellectual seriousness, but also with unfailing respect and courtesy. He didn't care for their political opinions, but he liked them as people, even as friends. He was the kind of man who, though absolutely clear in his dismissal of liberal ideas, would not stoop to trashing someone's character for the sake of political gain.

John J. Miller:

He's probably the most gracious man I've known. He is of course a legend on the Right, and legends can be intimidating. The first time we met, my agenda was simply to avoid saying anything dumb in his presence. Yet he instantly sought to put me at ease. He asked what I was writing about and seemed genuinely curious to know. He listened to me, rather than the other way around. To my surprise, I was comfortable around him--because he had a special ability for making folks like me feel that way.

Joe Sobran:

I once spent a long evening with one of Bill's old friends from Yale, whose name I won't mention. He told me movingly how Bill stayed with him to comfort him when his little girl died of brain cancer. If Bill was your friend, he'd share your suffering when others just couldn't bear to. What a great heart -- eager to spread joy, and ready to share grief!

Dean Abbott remembers meeting him at a book signing:

I was proud to introduce my new bride to him. That introduction brought out the real Buckley, I think. When he learned we hadn't been married long, he asked my wife about setting up house.

Here was a man who had shaped American culture, guided the modern conservative movement from its nascence, and conversed with presidents. Instead of talking about his accomplishments, he spent those few minutes asking my wife how she was decorating our home, what kind of pictures she liked to have on the walls, whether she preferred window blinds and drapes. We had come to meet him, to hear from him; and when we did, he only wanted to talk about us.

Myron Magnet sums him up:

In illness, he became, if possible, even more gallant. At a party he gave a while ago to celebrate the publication of his brother Jim's memoirs, he spoke with his usual wit, warmth, and eloquence--but seated on the stairs. He apologized for his ridiculous position, as he called it, explaining that he didn't feel well enough to stand and would now go back to bed. Not so long afterward, he replied to the condolence note I had sent when his vivid and unforgettable wife Pat died. Its whole point was to make me feel good, an act of gracious generosity that, under the circumstances, took my breath away....

Many will write, in due course, about Bill's towering importance in our nation's political and intellectual life. But beyond that, his whole being provided an answer to that ultimate question, How then should we live? From first hearing him speak at my high school when he was a young man, through watching him in sparkling, imperious, and rather intimidating action as his guest on Firing Line, I saw his character become ever more clearly the unmistakable, irreplaceable Buckley: witty, cultivated, playful, urbane, gracious, brave, zestful, life-affirming, tireless, and gallant--the incarnation of grace. He taught many not only how to think but also how to be.

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6 Comments

S. Lee Author Profile Page said:

When the TV show Laugh In finally got him to appear, there was a mock press conference where they interviewed him. One question went something like: Mr. Buckley, you are always seated. Is that because you can't think on your feet?

Buckley smiled and paused, then: It's difficult to stand with the weight of all of what I know.

W. Author Profile Page said:

I remember a "Saturday Night Live" skit in which Robin Williams portrayed him. Williams was dead-on accurate (even the way Buckley sat in a chair) and side-splittingly funny. I'm not sure whether Buckley saw it, but I bet he would have laughed, too.

I found it interesting that Buckley broke from many so-called conservatives in his final years, including opposing the Iraq war. I know that a few whispered that ol' Bill was getting senile -- a ludicrous notion if you'd ever read his current writings or heard him talk.

And to be fair, although Buckley's views about many subjects were a breath of fresh air, his take about racial issues during the 1950s and early '60s (including that whites were the "superior" race) were astonishingly bad. Thank God he eventually repudiated this stance, albeit far too late.

sbtulsa Author Profile Page said:

I vaguely remember a series of "debates" Mr. Buckley had with Gore Vidal. It may have been the forerunner of the "point counterpoint" programs. I was sold on WFB after that. He could quietly make a fool out of even the smartest people.

didn't WFB's brother run for the Senate?

WFB's brother James was a Senator for New York. He was elected in 1970 on the Conservative Party ticket, then defeated by Pat Moynihan in 1976.

Roy said:

William Buckley came as a guest speaker in the "free speech area" at my college's campus. He won me with what I found an astonishing performance. Hecklers from the crowd of several thousand sent pot shot comments at him. He replied with major artillery. Only a crater remained where the heckler once stood. And Buckley did it with humor.

The hecklers would mention some person or instance or subject that I knew enough to know existed. Using that data, they would make some allegation. Buckley not only knew the details. He knew the telephone numbers of the people involved, the foods they liked, the names of their kids, the kinds of pets they had, who lived across the street, what the people had been doing for the last two decades, and why the heckler had simply misunderstood reality.

Years later I sent him a letter regarding an essay he had written. I told him about the first time I had heard him and how impressed I was with what he did. I then suggested a conlusion that one might draw from his essay. A few weeks later he won me a second time. He replied. My two pages got a handwritten response of, if I recall correctly, about half a dozen words. But they said it all. And with droll humor. I just could not imagine a fellow of his stature and workload taking the time for kind letters to unknowns.

Roy, what great anecdotes! Thanks for posting them.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on February 27, 2008 11:15 PM.

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