Saddened by the news of our beloved William F. Buckley Jr.’s passing Wednesday morning, National Review Online turned to friends, colleagues, students, and admirers of WFB to help capture his impact on America.
William J. Bennett
If “a man of parts” is a description of any man, it surely fit Bill. He could hold forth on such a broad range of issues.
I still keep a foot in the university, the academy, and I can tell you — as almost any conservative professor can tell you — that when conservative professors had careers outside their classrooms (and it is a good idea for them to have those), they will rightly credit Bill for giving them that career. I can tick off name after name after name of scholars who were “made” by Bill publishing them, promoting them, and advising them.
For some time now, conservatives have had to wrestle with a bum rap: that we are a primitive, or unlearned, or uncouth, or uncultured breed of character. All one ever had to do to dispel that notion was point to our intellectual movement’s midwife, Bill Buckley — about whom none of that could be credibly said. He was a walking contradiction of those pejoratives.
Bill was also what you might label a “first call.” If there was a position to fill, advice to be sought, or help needed, the first call was to Bill, who never turned down the request. His answer may not have always been the desired answer — although it usually was — but it was always smart and gracious. I, as so many others, know this from personal experience. When I was nominated by President Ronald Reagan to chair the NEH, I understand the first calls on my behalf were to Bill Buckley, who, along with Irving Kristol, helped me get that job and paved the way for my nomination.
I hesitate to conclude with a wish for him to rest in peace because somehow I cannot summon up an image of Bill at rest, nor do I frankly desire that. I want him busy — still.
Today we have a movement of bright lights, but they were illuminated at their origins by Bill and his work. His passing is a reminder to us, not only of the happiness found in good work for good causes, but in the gifts man is capable of bestowing to the world when blessed by God. Bill Buckley was such a man, and it was my blessing to know him.
– William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute and the host of Bill Bennett’s Morning in America.
I could tell stories for hours about Bill and what he did for people, not only those he knew but those he didn’t know. He practiced what I consider perfect charity: doing things for others that no one knew about. The Vietnam vet blinded in action who wrote to Bill asking if NR came out in Braille. NR didn’t so Bill did the next best thing, he helped the vet get some of his eyesight restored by flying him to N.Y. and having a personal friend who happened to be one of the best ophthalmologists in N.Y. examine him and then successfully operate on him. Oh, and the vet married the nurse who took care of him. Or the time at a cover conference when I told him that a house I liked just came on the market and he asked me if I was going to buy it. I sheepishly told him that I couldn’t afford the down payment. A few days later his secretary brought me a personal check from Bill for the down payment with a promissory note to pay him back whenever. He was quite a guy and, although he’s in a better place, our world is definitely not a better place without him.
— Ed Capano is former publisher of National Review.
It is a gross understatment to say that Bill Buckley was “bigger than life” to those us who are part of the conservative movement in America. In fact, Bill was life, in a political sense, for many of us.
I first met Bill when he invited me to appear as a guest on Firing Line. As with others who knew him, I marveled at his command of language, his sharp mind, his keen intellect and his wit. Until that night, for me, the battle against preferences had been somewhat of a lonely fight and the odds of ultimate victory seemed slim, no matter how much I thought that the Constitution and morality were on my side. As we debated the issue, and I listened to Bill summon forth the reasons for his opposition to preferences, there was no doubt in mind about the strength of the position that I held or about the prospects of ultimate victory. No one could have been more persuasive than Bill.
But, the attribute that also made Bill a man of distinction was his personal charm, which was on display for me shortly after the passage of Proposition 209 in California. To assist me in becoming more acquainted with the national media, Bill hosted a luncheon on my behalf at his Manhattan apartment. There were only a handful of us in attendance, and I had the pleasure, as the guest of honor, of being seated next to Bill throughout the event. I count that opportunity of having dined with Bill as one of the most delightful experiences of my life. In such a short span of time — perhaps, an hour — I learned something about the influence of personal charm as a factor in debating critical issues of our time. Those who attended that luncheon had distinctly opposing positions, to be certain. Yet, it was the charm of Bill Buckely that enabled us all to convene, to break bread together, and to casually discuss an issue with humor and a sense of shared concern for our nation.
Thank you, Bill!
– Ward Connerly is president of the American Civil Rights Institute and a 2005 recipient of the prestigious Bradley Prize.
Before there was Goldwater or Reagan, there was Bill Buckley.
From writing books, to creating, leading, and sustaining National Review, to his 33-year run as the host of TV’s Firing Line, Bill Buckley became the indispensable intellectual advocate from whose energy, intelligence, wit, and enthusiasm the best of modern conservatism drew its inspiration and encouragement.
It was not until William F. Buckley Jr., founded National Review in 1955 that the tide began to slowly turn for conservatives. National Review was a lonely voice of conservatism in an overwhelmingly liberal establishment. Buckley began what led to Senator Barry Goldwater and his Conscience of a Conservative, which led to the seizing of power by the conservatives from the moderate establishment within the Republican party. From that emerged Ronald Reagan. Bill stood up to defend freedom as a positive value of greater moral worth than either the state or the elite, and over time his work had a transformational impact on the quality of American politics that continues even today.
He was a wonderful friend, a great patriot, and a lively human being. Callista and I are praying for him and those who loved him. He will be missed.
– Newt Gingrich is former Speaker of the House of Representatives.
Friendship, at its best, is a foretaste of heaven. It is a relationship between persons that gives deep meaning to life and indeed makes life worth living. We are social by nature and thus we cannot be happy alone. C. S. Lewis captured it perfectly: Soul mates, he said, are friends who stand shoulder to shoulder and see the same big truths written on the skies.
Friendship, I think, can have a spiritual nature. Perhaps that is what Aristotle meant when he said the highest kind of friendship is rooted in virtue, a kind of moral excellence where a person loves his friend for his own sake, wishing him well because of who he is and not with any expectation that something is wanted in return. This attitude is reciprocal, a love of benevolence.
Bill Buckley and I became friends 17 years ago. A mutual friend introduced us, and Bill invited me to dinner by telephone at his home in New York City, even though I had never met him. During our dinner — where neither politics nor religion were discussed, but instead Bach, modern painting, and the physics of snow skiing — he invited me to go sailing, almost on a whim. I told him I had grown up in northeastern Indiana, and thus had never been on a sailboat. He was curious why I would think that should discount my joining him and two others for a weekend on the Long Island Sound, and it became the first of many summer trips up and down the Eastern seaboard, mostly with Chet Wolford, Danny Merritt, and Bill’s late, great friend Van Galbraith.
I am certain I never became a sailor, and Bill’s jokes along this line made for steady, annual ribbing, in addition to his comments about my topsiders which he said were blindingly white. On one of our sails, we visited FDR’s summer home in Campobello, and a woman snapped a photo of Van, Danny, Bill, and me which Bill kept in his study in Stamford. Danny had recently sent me a copy, and looking at it today, it brings a rush of memories back, and it all seems a world away in time.
We spent good time together, most recently after I spoke in New Haven and was close to Stamford. As I was preparing to depart, he signed a first edition copy of God and Man at Yale, snapped the cover shut, and asked me whether I still had a copy of a photo he had inscribed to me several years ago of him, Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater, all three in tuxes — the three men who created their own conservative counter-revolution. I told him that not only did I have and treasure the photo but also that it had a favored spot on the bookcase in my office. I doubt whether Bill remembered his inscription: “For Tim — with warmest, from the Survivor, WFBjr.” The survivor lives today, only in a place where there are no more tears, no more pains, no more agonies.
We will remember our dear friend who so generously and consistently and willingly, over many years, gave us a foretaste of heaven by his fun, his witticisms, his seriousness about serious things, his patriotism, his verve, his . . . the list is endless. Above all, he gave his love and friendship, a perfect agreement of wills, tastes, and thoughts accompanied by a benevolence and affection without peer. He was a great man motivated by great ideas. His passing from the American scene, upon which his impact was huge, is historic. Freedom has lost a luminous friend in the death of the most important journalist of the last 75 years, William F. Buckley Jr.
— Tim Goeglein is deputy director of the White House office of public liaison. [This bioline has been corrected since posting; it was an editing error. --Ed.]
There’s no explaining genius, and so any attempt to account for Bill Buckley inevitably trails off into stories about him. Here’s one, my last about him.
I transcribed what I think may have been his final column. Sally and I and our old friend Daniel Oliver were visiting Bill a month ago in Stamford. He had fallen the day before and broken a bone in his right wrist, making typing impossible, but he was determined to file his column, which concerned the previous night’s Democratic presidential debate. As was his wont, he had eaten a very early breakfast and was already in his study in the garage when the three of us were taking breakfast in the dining room. In walked Julian, his talented chef, who said that Mr. Buckley was on the phone for me and said it was an emergency. That theatrical touch was very Bill. He explained that he couldn’t type and needed to dictate his column to someone, i.e., me. I of course was delighted to help, and over the next hour or so took down his words.
The scene was slightly surreal, but it was an adventure and we were having fun. The gift of turning life into adventure was one of his charms, which helped attract young and old alike, but particularly the young, to his side. By merrily refuting liberalism, he gave birth to a conservatism, shaped in his own image, that avoided the drearily doctrinaire. In his study, at 82, he was still the consummate journalist. He had the outlines of the column in his mind as he began to dictate. He had already selected the passage from Fowler’s great Modern English Usage that he wanted to drop into the piece. And like a true professional, he stopped from time to time to ask how many words he had excogitated on the page. He wasn’t going to supply one more than he needed. When we had finished, he toddled happily off to lunch, where the four of us discussed the sorry state of politics and the progress he was making on his next book, his fifty-fifth I believe, that he had agreed to call, The Reagan I Knew. His wrist was broken, his emphysema bad, Pat’s death weighed heavily on him — but still visible was the Bill of old. He knew now the weariness that Whittaker Chambers had warned him of decades before. But he did not despair.
– Charles R. Kesler is professor of government and director of the Salvatori Center Government at Claremont McKenna College.
I have never much liked February. Whatever austere beauties winter offers have by February become as cheerless as month-old snow, more black than white. I like it less than ever today.
Tonight, my wife and I were supposed to go to Bill’s house to hear his friend Larry Perelman play Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations. Instead I am writing this farewell to a man who in the last few years had become one of my dearest friends. Although Bill suffered mightily in recent months, his native buoyancy never left him for long. His room-brightening grin would suddenly shine out even from behind the oxygen tubes that had become his unwelcome attendant.
Emerson, who wasn’t wrong about everything, devoted a book to Representative Men, men who epitomized some essential quality: Shakespeare; or, the Poet; Napoleon; or, the Man of the World; Goethe; or, the Writer. Bill was, in Emerson’s sense, a Representative Man. One cannot quite imagine Emerson getting his mind around a character like William F. Buckley Jr. But if one can conjure up a less gaseous redaction of Emerson, one may suppose him writing an essay called Buckley; or, the Conservative.
I hasten to add that by “conservative” I do not mean any narrow partisan affiliation. Sure, Bill was known above all as the man who, by starting National Review, did as much as anyone to save American conservatism from irrelevance. That’s all very well, but unfortunately the term “conservative” (like its opposite number, “liberal”) has degenerated into an epithet, positive or negative depending on the communion of the person who wields it, but virtually without content.
Being conservative may commit one to certain political positions or moral dogmas. But it also, and perhaps more importantly, disposes one to a certain attitude toward life. Walter Bagehot touched upon one essential aspect of the conservative disposition when, in an essay on Scott, he observed that “the essence of Toryism is enjoyment.” Whatever else it was, Bill’s life was an affidavit of enjoyment: a record of, an homage to, a life greatly, and gratefully, enjoyed. What delight he took in — well, in everything. Playing the piano or harpsichord, savoring a glass of vinho verde, dissecting the latest news from Washington, inspecting with wonder the capabilities of email and internet service on a Blackberry handheld.
Part of Bill’s conservatism was his Catholicism. Our secular age is unfriendly to Catholics, to religion generally, but the irony is that secularists are often less jubilantly worldly than their Jewish and Christian compatriots. “God made the world and saw that it was good.” That bulletin from Genesis might have been the motto of Bill’s life. He certainly did everything he could to broadcast it among his many friends. I have never known a more generous person. I do not mean only materially generous, though Bill’s largesse in that department was legendary. I mean spiritually, constitutionally generous as well. A telling anecdote: everyone knows that Bill commanded a formidable vocabulary. It was significant, therefore, that he should have telephoned us once in search of a word. “It means taking pleasure in the misfortune of others,” he said to my wife. “Schadenfreude,” she said. “That’s it!” he said. How perfectly Buckleyesque that he should have forgotten it. It named an emotion that was as foreign to him as joy was native.
– Roger Kimball is publisher of Encounter Books.
Cool and intrepid.
Just two of the reasons William F. Buckley Jr. was so effective in changing the world.
I was always conservative but, I suspect, like many I didn’t realize I was a conservative until I read WFB. Until the seventies, the liberal regnancy in politics, media, and academia made many hesitant to publicly declare their conservatism. But by that time the irresistible logic of Bill Buckley’s advocacy and perhaps more importantly, the grace, wit and élan with which he dispatched liberal sparring partners made it cool to be a conservative — an indispensable predicate to expanding the movement.
More than his cool, however, what endeared Bill Buckley to so many was his steadfast leadership against communism. Well before Reagan, Thatcher, and John Paul II raised the hopes of millions locked behind the Iron Curtain, Bill Buckley rallied those Americans who despaired that our country was becoming irresolute in the fight. And most can remember when and how he rallied them. For the son of a man who had escaped the torture chambers of the Soviet Union, it was reading National Review in the Spring of 1976. WFB was a giant and a hero.
– Peter Kirsanow is a lawyer in Chicago.
Mark R. Levin
I never met Mr. Buckley, but I sure felt like I knew him. As a teenager, I couldn’t wait for my copy of National Review to show up in the mail. And boy, did I love watching Firing Line. I didn’t understand everything Mr. Buckley wrote or said at the time, but enough to know that he was right. He was an inspiration, who motivated me to read as much as I could about philosophy, economics, political science, and history. I even picked up some of his debating tactics, or at least tried to.
When I was about fourteen years old, I sent Mr. Buckley a short manuscript on conservatism. I told him I’d appreciate his input as I would like to get it published. It was a pretty bold endeavor, bordering on the silly. But the manuscript wasn’t all that bad for a fourteen year old. It certainly wasn’t up to Mr. Buckley’s standard. Still, Mr. Buckley took time from his incredibly busy schedule to write a kind letter to me. He let me down gently, explaining that I might want to continue to my studies and give publishing another shot a few years down the road. LOL. I wrote him a few more times back then about different issues, and he always responded with a pithy and gracious note. When I go home this evening, I will rummage through some of my old boxes in search of those letters. And I will take some time to remember not only one of the greatest and most influential thinkers of our time, but one of the kindest men, too.
Thank you, Mr. Buckley. You made a huge different not just in my life, but in the lives of so many. My prayers and sympathies to the Buckley family.
– Mark R. Levin served as chief of staff to Attorney General Edwin Meese in the Reagan administration, and he is a nationally syndicated radio talk show host.
We conservatives are supposed to be realists, but when I heard of our beloved Bill’s death this morning, I thought it wasn’t possible that he was gone. Like my colleagues who were fortunate enough to have known him, I can recount his innumerable kindnesses to me. Bill Buckley was the most gracious and generous man I have ever known. I grew up in a house with an original subscription to National Review owing to my late father’s admiration for Bill. Years ago, my roommate in Washington had worked as a secretary for Bill in New York and I would try her patience by making her re-tell personal stories about his wit and charm.
With trepidation, I finally confronted the prospect of meeting this larger-than-life figure I had so idolized from afar. Prepared to feel dull and slow-witted in the company of such an intellect, I experienced Bill’s generosity. He devoted himself to making his guests feel warmly welcomed and completely comfortable. Anything you had to say received his delighted attention.
Over the years, I have had so many members of Congress and other Washington figures tell me how important Bill and National Review had been to them. “NR was my best friend in college,” a congressman would recall. Or, “I wouldn’t be in politics if it weren’t for Bill Buckley,” I’d be told. Bill would humbly appreciate the accolades when I passed them along. Did he truly recognize his monumental influence on countless conservatives? I’m not sure he did.
In part, I was unprepared for today’s news because Bill was so youthful in spirit — at age 82. His life, so well-lived, provides lessons for us all.
– Kate O’Beirne is Washington editor of National Review.
Ralph E. Reed, Jr.
For generations of conservatives, Bill Buckley was the north star in an all-too-barren intellectual landscape. His columns, books, and, of course, his beloved National Review, inspired, entertained, and made us all think anew and act anew. Buckley had a heavy influence on an entire generation of young conservatives who came of age under Ronald Reagan. I can still remember going to the Emory University library, as a Ph.D. student in history, and stealing away to a back corner with a copy of NR, giggling like a kid in a candy store. Like so many before and after, I was thrilled to learn that someone thought like me.
And not just anyone. Bill Buckley was witty, charming, urbane, fun to be around, intellectually curious, and unfailingly generous. This was thoroughly contrary to the prevailing caricature of a conservative when he burst upon the scene. Whereas too many saw conservatism’s frown, Buckley added the smile. And a twinkle in the eye. It made all the difference. His joie de vivre, affection for people and ideas, and his playful verbal fencing and matching of wits with friend and foe alike made him one of the more remarkable personalities of the latter half of the twentieth century.
Buckley was a pioneer who saw the world as it would be and embraced its future. Long before the rise of cable TV and Fox News, Buckley grasped the importance of television as a medium for conveying conservative ideas. His long run as host of Firing Line and his frequent appearances on the Tonight Show and other popular programs demonstrated an uncommon understanding of a technology that changed our lives and revolutionized our politics. The same would later be true when NR became one of the first conservative media outlets to pursue a presence on the Internet. And whereas some were nervous when the new wine of evangelical conservatism poured into the old wineskins of the conservative movement, Buckley saw their significance and welcomed the newcomers as his natural allies.
From the Oval Office all the way down to the local precinct volunteer or an NR subscriber or talk radio listener owes a debt of gratitude to Bill Buckley that we will never be able to fully repay.
– Ralph E. Reed Jr. is president of Century Strategies and the former head of the Christian Coalition.