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.