W. JAMES ANTLE III
As an undergraduate, I spent long hours in the basement of Beeghly Library with a stack of magazines to my right and a little blue notepad to my left. Well into the night, I would transcribe paragraphs and jot down statistics. It may have appeared studious but, as my professors can attest, it had little to do with my coursework. Instead I was carefully studying back issues of National Review, as if I’d discovered ancient tablets inscribed with the wisdom of the ancients. It seemed like that kind of discovery to me.
While I learned a great deal from his writing, it wasn’t the first time William F. Buckley, Jr. interfered with my formal education. In high school, I devoured old anthologies of his columns and essays. Admiring his mordant wit and elegant prose, I also sought something more intellectually stimulating than my youthful Republican partisanship — something very difficult to find behind enemy lines in Massachusetts. My senior year, I borrowed from the school library a copy of The Governor Listeth, along with Milton Friedman’s Free to Choose, and kept them until they threatened to withhold my diploma.
The collected works of William Buckley weren’t exactly on my assigned reading list, but in one very real sense I was preparing for class. That little blue notepad contained some of the arguments and data I would marshal against foes with tenure and without, in debates with students and teachers alike. In retrospect, I’m sure I was often obnoxious — certainly closer to Animal House than Firing Line — but occasionally I was able to ensure that conservative ideas got a hearing they otherwise would have been denied. If Buckley’s generation of conservatives could resist the liberal zeitgeist, why couldn’t some College Republican at a pampered liberal arts school?
Although I would later come to know some of the young writers he mentored personally, my only direct encounter with Buckley was at a lecture toward the end of his public speaking career. He was asked what he thought about a Texas governor who was said to be mulling a presidential bid. Buckley was complimentary, but proceeded to explain the distinction between being conservative and being a conservative. “Brilliant,” a friend whispered, sounding more like a groupie than a Burkean.
Brilliant indeed. Thank you, Professor Buckley. Class dismissed.
W. James Antle III is associate editor of The American Spectator.
MICHAEL BRENDAN DOUGHERTY
“Pursue I-95 to Exit 9.” So began the summons to meet Bill Buckley himself last May. In front of pictures of Bill Buckley the toddler, and a portrait Bill Buckley the young founder of National Review, sat Bill Buckley the old man, and my new acquaintance. And he was bored with me already. After two minutes spent answering my questions about James Burnham, he asked me to talk about my girlfriend, Marissa, instead. He advised me to stop dawdling and marry her. He had lost his wife just a month earlier.
I met Bill because I had gently teased him in the Washington Monthly. He loved a joke at his own expense. When he mentioned his scathing obituary of Murray Rothbard, I informed him that he had earned the eternal hatred of many libertarians upon publishing it. “That’s the one to hate me for,” he said and smiled.
Bill was the most generous man I’ve ever known. He frequently rescued old and new friends from financial adversity. But he managed to be even more self-sacrificing of his time and reputation. He never just gave someone a meal, or money, or a thoughtful recommendation. He gave himself.
On my subsequent visits he invited me to join him for the Latin Liturgy we both loved. He asked for Marissa’s address, no doubt planning some surprise kindness. Three weeks ago, I called him to cancel dinner plans we made together. I was ill and feared for his health. I was also plotting to take his advice that following week. In front of me now are pictures of Bill Buckley the Yale Graduate, and Bill Buckley the television personality. I wish I had told Bill, my new friend, the happy result.
Michael Brendan Dougherty is associate editor at the American Conservative.
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H/T to National Review Online