This weekend would have marked William F. Buckley Jr.’s 88th birthday. What do you miss most about NR’s founder? We asked some friends.
I once described Bill Buckley as “incandescent,” but on reflection I realize that he was more of a North Star for the conservative movement. He was always there with a thoughtful column or editorial or Firing Line on the issue of the day, always available to speak at a conference or rally, always ready with a quip or a smile when you met him, always open to the work of the youngest and untried, always convinced and convincing that it was to conservative minds that the nation and the people would turn sooner or later. Do I miss him? As much as anyone I have known in my entire life.
Remembering Bill Buckley on his 88th birthday is to remember modern conservatism’s stellar leader, entrepreneur, and inspiration.
Bill was an entrepreneur whenever he needed to be, and more often than most of us realized: Starting National Review when it was not only “politically incorrect” but intellectually inconceivable, since, we were told, conservatives didn’t have enough ideas to fill one issue of a magazine, let alone one that would presume to a regular publishing schedule. An entrepreneur who conceptualized and hosted his own long-running television series with intelligent discourse, not shouting at the other guy across a table. An entrepreneur who put up the first $100 seed capital to fund another conservative start-up with Milton Friedman, Don Lipsett, and me — the Philadelphia Society — which will be celebrating its 50th anniversary next April.
He was an inspiration: hosting the younger generation and the Sharon Statement, challenging future generations to think clearly, dream big, and take on challenges.
When we were down, we knew he could cheer us up, and tell us what was really impossible, but worth doing nonetheless — Bill Buckley for mayor of New York City? Impossible, but inspiring, paving the way for the election of his brother Jim to the U.S. Senate, and for intermittently good government in the city.
“So, Ed, if you want to start a new conservative think tank in Washington, go for it, and I’ll help you any way I can!” A day doesn’t go by that I don’t think of WFB and the seeds he planted to make an impact for the ideas we believe in.
For me, William F. Buckley Jr. will always retain his primary title: the inspiration of the modern conservative movement.
— Ed Feulner is the former longtime president of the Heritage Foundation.
William F. Gavin
I guess more than anything I miss his temperament, that magic combination of poise, equanimity, good will, good humor, and kindness that graced everything he did. His brother Jim has the same gift. There are too many people today calling themselves conservatives whose approach to issues is to scare the living hell out of people. William Blake (or somebody) once wrote, “Mercy has a human heart, pity has a human face.” Bill’s “human face” was there in all his debates and all his writings. He presented conservatism as it should be presented: not as a narrow ideological creed filled with anger and bitterness but as a thoughtful, reasonable way of looking at the world (which, of course, is exactly what conservatism is). Ronald Reagan had a similar gift. What we need is a rebirth of that kind of conservatism, one that is constantly being surprised — and surprising others — by joy.
That it’s as painful as joyful to think of what one misses about WFB speaks for itself. Like a strong father, he seemed to inspire confidence in his very being; that he was simply among us and seemingly indefatigable amidst the battles and uglinesses of modern life made it certain that there was yet hope and beauty, that the slide toward the abyss not only might be arrested but would, and must. His unassuming boldness in bringing such unapologetically Christian figures as Malcolm Muggeridge to television audiences. The uniquely Americanized plumminess of his voice — those pronunciations that resurrected a fabled era of which he seemed the sole survivor: how “word” came out as a drawn-out “wood,” and how, as he spoke, one nearly beheld the tarnished silver of a silent butler. In debate, the lupine grin as he eyed his prey; the half-orchestrated facial quirks and tics that visually punctuated his baroque sentences; and how when he used them he didn’t give a sou whether one knew the meaning of such words as “lapidary” or “solecism,” or such phrases as “tu quoque.” To go on could break one’s heart. That he is indeed not dead, but in the realm of the resurrected, is our only but very real consolation, and that we have the faith to believe that — to know it — is owed, in part, to his happy and heroic years among us this side of the veil. Selah.
— Eric Metaxas is author of Seven Men: And the Secret of Their Greatness.
When I think of William F. Buckley, I often think of his friend Ronald Reagan and of a vital characteristic they shared.
One of Reagan’s greatest assets was his sense of humor. It helped to keep his rhetorical fusillades from coming across as shrill and overly combative. By the deft use of wit and amusing anecdotes, he could simultaneously soften his tone and sharpen his message. It was said of him that he “could get a standing ovation in a graveyard.”
Bill Buckley possessed this same alluring gift. Deeply serious in his purposes and convictions, he was at the same time a cheerful controversialist, able to expose the fallacies and pretensions of the Left with penetrating wit and a twinkle in his eye.
And that is what I miss most about him (other than his personal warmth and generosity as a friend): his ability to make the case for conservatism not only with intellectual rigor and conviction but in a manner that gained converts and made even skeptics smile.
The next conservative president, whoever he or she may be, will need this rare combination of talents possessed by the man whose birthday we fittingly take note of today.
— George H. Nash is author of The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945 and editor of The Crusade Years, 1933–1955: Herbert Hoover’s Lost Memoir of the New Deal Era and Its Aftermath.
Until just days before his death, the e-mails kept coming. Brief, full of misspellings — it was an iron rule of his never to waste time rereading an e-mail before sending it — they nevertheless conveyed his élan, his shrewdness (he provided wonderful advice), his journalistic judgments (if he liked a piece you’d written, he’d say so, but he’d say so just as readily if he didn’t), and his endless interest in both the great issues of the day and the little oddities of everyday life (in one e-mail, addressed to perhaps a dozen of us, he announced that he had learned on impeccable medical authority that if you rubbed some bacitracin under each nostril before boarding, you would never, ever contract a cold on an airplane). Because his love of his friends proved immutable, he always signed his e-mails just the same: “xxxooo WFB.”
— Peter Robinson is host of Uncommon Knowledge.
When people talk about a person who can “light up a room,” I often remember how Bill did just that. He didn’t have to try, it just happened. I miss that magic and the spirit he embodied. There are few people with that quality and the reassurance and confidence that accompanied it. His light permeated in such a way that when he left an event, often in a cloak-and-dagger manner he must have learned in the CIA, it were as though he had performed a magic trick. He was gone in a flash.
I’ll never forget my 30th-birthday recital at Steinway Hall in 2006. Bill was the first to RSVP and even wrote a review in “Notes & Asides” that I have cherished to this day. The recital ended and we chatted a bit. A photographer friend of mine was taking pictures of the event. I wanted one photo with Bill, so I went looking for him with the photographer. Bill was gone. Flash. Incredibly, I looked through all of the pictures from the recital and Bill managed to keep himself out of sight. Always just the back of his head or he was just not visible at all. Perhaps another CIA tactic? Nevertheless, the memory of that evening and his presence in my life continues to give me great joy. That light from his friendship will forever accompany me, as will the countless memories.
— Lawrence Perelman is a concert pianist.
Bill Buckley was the right person at the right time, and for that reason was one of the indispensable men of his era. Despite his erudition, or maybe because of it, he could translate big ideas into a lexicon that moved people who read and cared about politics but did not have his depth of knowledge. I started reading Buckley when I was 18 years old. There are probably millions of people like me who became conservatives, or at least became committed to a conservatism they felt instinctively already, because of Buckley’s wit, persistence, and courage in standing athwart the tide of history, yelling “Stop.”
But what I miss most about Buckley is his sense of humanity. Yes, I’m a meat-and-potatoes Midwesterner, and Buckley had the air and breeding of a New England aristocrat. But underneath the veneer was a man who understood what was at stake, in human terms, in the battle to preserve America’s constitutional traditions. It was obvious that arbitrary government power offended Buckley morally and intellectually, but I always thought that the practical damage it causes, to real people leading real lives, was what engaged his energy and passion for a lifetime.
It’s ironic that we are celebrating Buckley’s birthday just as the human costs of Obamacare — the most visible exercise of big government in modern times — are becoming clear. The lost jobs, the canceled health insurance, the reduced standard of living — they would have driven Buckley up a wall. I wish he had been alive to fight it, or at least to write about it today. It would have been one hell of a column.
— James Talent is a former member of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a fellow at the Heritage Foundation specializing in military affairs.
I miss his energy and wit. Bill had a remarkable capacity to energize everyone around him, which in the current slough of despond is certainly a character trait to be treasured.
— George Weigel is author, most recently, of Evangelical Catholicism and distinguished senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Kathryn Jean Lopez
I miss his honesty; I miss his humility; I miss his humor; I miss his kindness. It was a gift to spend time with him, learn from him, enjoy him. Bill Buckley was a gracious man whose talent and blessings didn’t keep him from thanksgiving. He was a man of faith who knew Christianity was about life, not just one segmented aspect of it. I miss his mix of confidence and piety.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online and director of Catholic Voices USA.
What I miss about Bill is his grace as a human being, his biting wit, and daunting intelligence. I also miss his brave and indispensable insistence that conservatives should have intellectual and moral standards and should not tolerate all manner of political and racial cranks in their midst just because they are supporters of “the cause.”
— David Horowitz is author, most recently, of The Black Book of the American Left.
Alvin S. Felzenberg
I miss the clarity of his thinking and his intellectual honesty. I especially miss his wit and how much he relished mixing it up with the other side. He showed people on all sides of the political fence that politics could be fun. Buckley had that great capacity to take ideas seriously, but not himself. While he had great self-confidence, he was never what they call “full of himself.” I miss his generosity of spirit and his great capacity for friendship. How he touched so many lives and so deeply with all he had going on all of the time, I will never understand. And, I miss the many personal kindnesses and those one-line letters. Some are gems that have a special meaning only to their recipients. I will treasure them always.
— Alvin S. Felzenberg is author of The Leaders We Deserved and is currently writing a book about WFB.