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.
HAYWOOD H. HILLYER III
Bill Buckley deeply influenced many young minds for the better — even at a great distance. A copy of National Review discovered in a New Orleans physician’s office in 1958 gave this newly minted conservative a refreshing, stimulating alternative both to the leftist indoctrination on my college campus and to some right-wing rags that exuded a distressing whiff of anti-Semitism.
But Buckley’s biggest contribution to the spread of intelligent conservatism specifically among college youth came in September of 1960. He, with his large extended family of siblings and in-laws, hosted more than a 100 students one weekend in Sharon Connecticut at Great Elm, his parents’ estate — presided over by his mother, a wonderfully warm lady from New Orleans who made this somewhat shy traveler feel at home. This “Sharon Conference” produced Young Americans for Freedom, which proceeded to plant seeds of conservative activism on many college campuses, and grew to provide many of the foot-soldiers of the Draft Goldwater movement and eventual leaders of the Reagan Revolution.
Bill Buckley and his colleagues were perfect hosts for this gathering. They gave guidance but not dictation as the group made the decisions on names, mission statement, and organization. Buckley even joked, when we set an upper age limit for this new organization, that at two months short of age 35 he himself barely qualified — but in hindsight what was remarkable was that at such a young age he already was seen as the unchallenged leader of this new national movement. In retrospect, he made only one minor mistake: He allowed this enthusiast to pin a “Buckley for Congress” pin on his lapel. (His New Orleans cousin, Ross Buckley, was running a groundbreaking but necessarily unsuccessful campaign for the U.S. House seat of the powerful Hale Boggs.) The campaign button caused some confusion among the attendees: Their hopes were falsely raised for a WFB political campaign that year, when in truth it would be five more years before their host would put his name on the ballot in New York City and famously say his reaction to (an impossible) victory would be to “demand a recount.”
Haywood H. Hillyer III is a former Republican National Committeeman from Louisiana.
G. TRACY MEHAN, III
Attending college in the late 1960s and early 1970s was a lonely pursuit for a conservative. There really was no conservative movement as the term is understood today mostly in the context of electoral politics. There was only Buckley.
In his magazine, his columns, his television show, and books he waged, literally, a one-man guerrilla action against the regnant Zeitgeist. His writings were canonical.
It was Buckley, and Buckley alone, who provided support, intellectual resources, and inspiration for those not ready to march in lockstep with the times.
Thinking back on the countless viewings of Firing Line, and the wonderful dialogue and debate that went on there, with friend and foe alike, it is painful to compare the current fair on cable television and, yes, conservative talk radio. It is swill compared to a fine wine.
Other commentators will certainly describe, at length, William F. Buckley, Jr.’s many accomplishments. But his untiring defense of the integrity of unborn children will surely weigh heavily in his favor in the higher realm for which he has now departed.
I distinctly recall the marvelous article by federal judge and philosopher Judge John Noonan, which Buckley ran as a cover story in NR. It was a magisterial piece outlining the flaws of Roe and Doe with logic and scholarship nowhere to be found on the pages of any other opinion magazines in the early 1970s.
But Buckley went further and supported the Human Life Review, right out of the offices of NR, which became the forum for the small band of thinking, committed people who made the right-to-life movement the force it is in American politics, a movement nearly absent in most parts of the Western world.
May he rest in peace.
G. Tracy Mehan, III, served at EPA in the administrations of both presidents Bush.
Rush Limbaugh interviewed Bill Buckley in the mid-’90s for his radio show. I remember listening, but now after more than a decade I recall only one comment. Discussing his faith, Buckley affirmed that, yes, he was a Christian. But that he thought perhaps he wasn’t a very good one. He wasn’t being coy. The thing that struck me was the humility of it.
Though his first book addressed the encroachments of atheism in academia, Buckley never shoved his faith in the face of others. The reason was simple enough. He claimed that was he wasn’t evangelistically inclined or theologically expert. But his faith informed his life and work nonetheless. Limbaugh interviewed Buckley in part to promote his then-latest novel Brothers No More, a morally charged tale of love and hubris, faith and sin. And wasn’t the very act of standing athwart history yelling “Stop!” rooted not in fears of technology or progressive plots, but rather in his knowledge that modernism was rolling over values and obligations that transcended the passing of time, values that Buckley believed emanated from Christian truth?
But always with humility. Asked after the publication of his book Nearer, My God, about the steadfastness of his faith, why he never succumbed to doubt or skepticism, his answer was simple: “Grace.” Characteristic of this amicable nature, he could on the one hand say that “the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world” (God and Man at Yale), and still affirm that Christians could welcome the company of atheists because “faith is a gift and that, therefore, there is no accounting for the bad fortune that has beset those who do not believe or have the good fortune that has befallen those who do” (The Jeweler’s Eye).
Now Buckley is with God, the same God that sparked his imagination, informed his thoughts, and peeked through his prose. And as a model for integrating belief into vocation, for folding faith into one’s work, I think perhaps that he was a very good Christian indeed.
Joel Miller is the Business and Culture publisher for Thomas Nelson Publishers.
He was larger in life than anyone I’ve known. As a practical matter, it’s safe to say if not for him I’d not be here, nor would this publication, and who knows about our readership. But because he was so alive for everyone, we could all take him for granted, secure and content that he was a constant presence who made us all look better, a giant intellect, a princely, kindly human being, the perfect gentleman, and a fearless and brilliant defender of all that was important.
Death is never more perfidious than when it arrives at the cruelest time. For many decades, this time of year would have found Buckley in Gstaad, Switzerland, where as only he could he would combine skiing and work for what I always hoped were many blissful weeks on end. It was heartbreaking to read several years ago that for reasons of health he would no longer be able to winter in Gstaad. If there was one man on earth who should never have been deprived of what he had earned, it was he.
His life was a study in tirelessness and unimaginable productivity. If only I had kept count of the many conservative dinners and other gatherings at which I heard him speak, though always the next night he had another conservative event to attend and honor with his presence, often in a town or city hundreds if thousands of miles away. Cruising Speed and Overdrive chronicled that style of life in the most irresistible manner. In writing it down, he was perhaps trying to find a way to keep up with himself. Regardless, beyond the camaraderie, bonhomie, and joie de vivre conveyed in those books, one could detect in them the real purpose of his activity — the building and nurturing of conservative institutions and conservatism as such. He was not only an American original. He was an American Founder.
Wlady Pleszczynski is editorial director and website editor of The American Spectator.
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