EDITOR’S NOTE: What follows is adapted from remarks delivered before a Portsmouth Institute session celebrating the life and faith of William F. Buckley Jr.
Let me begin by confronting the canard spreading through this conference that I am here under false pretenses. Not true. I am an Episcopalian, which is to say that I’m here under real pretenses. Indeed, according to a recent survey conducted by the Gallup organization, I may not be just an Episcopalian but the Episcopalian. Perhaps I should present myself to your monastery as a kind of anthropological exhibit. Let me note, however, in a transparent and pathetic plea for absolution, that I have a Catholic wife, three Catholic children, and eight Catholic grandchildren — which is more than most Catholics have done for you lately.
I was introduced to the woman who would become my Catholic wife, of course, by Bill Buckley. It was part of his indefatigable campaign to enlist me in the legions of Rome. Every few years for a half-century he would inquire, “Mon vieux, are you still a stalwart Episcopalian?” I would reply that I was. He would then say in a pained tone, “Ohhhh, I see,” as if he had been reminded yet again that my ignorance was invincible.
If I am not licensed, then, to discuss the Catholic Buckley, let me say a few words about the universal and apostolic Buckley. To begin with, he was my best friend. I hasten to add that I was not his best friend. Over the years I had heard him describe twelve different men as his best friend. There were undoubtedly others who went uncounted. He had an enormous talent for the making and keeping of friendships, so much so that he made of his life a work of art.
This special gift, by the way, ran in the Buckley family. Back in 1976 Bill had dispatched me on a secret mission. His brother Jimmy was running for re-election to the Senate, and Bill anticipated a rough-and-tumble contest. The early Democratic favorite was the ferocious Bella Abzug. I was then running a journalistic organization, and Bill asked me to prepare an opposition-research report on Jimmy — a catalog of all the mudballs an unrestrained opponent might be tempted to sling. We beavered away and came up with a thick file: no drugs, no women, no scams, no unsavory connections, no funny money, no domestic incidents, nothing at all to excite my staff gumshoes. Jimmy’s criminal career seemed to have peaked with the allegation, later refuted, that he had ripped one of those tags off a mattress. But we did unearth evidence that Jimmy had served as best man at five weddings. I was stunned by what I regarded as a world-class performance in the Friendship Olympics. Bill found this datum unremarkable. Everybody was good at making friends, weren’t they?
Bill was of course a man of several parts. A writer. An editor. A controversialist. A fully formed Christian man. A mentor to some of us here. I was once asked about Bill’s mentoring and responded that, if the term were not usefully employed elsewhere, I would describe his approach as the Heimlich Maneuver. He pushed, he cajoled, he demanded that you produce your best work. And when you did, he was boyishly delighted and promoted you shamelessly to his well-connected friends.
It is perhaps less widely recognized that he was an organizational genius of sorts — a great talent scout, a prodigious fundraiser, a builder of movements and institutions. We used to joke about how hard it was to change the world, even for Bill Buckley. He would say of his budding conservative enterprise, “We have 200 absolutely essential jobs to be done and only 20 people to do them.” Bill’s solution to that managerial challenge was typically elegant. He announced that we would all do ten jobs each. There would have been some grumbling in the ranks but for the fact that Bill took on all of the toughest jobs himself.
My own experience was not untypical of the young idealists who gathered around him. When RKO offered him a weekly television slot, he said, “Great. And Neal will produce the show.” And that’s how I got into the TV business. And when the old Washington Star offered him a syndicated column, he said, “Great. And Neal will edit the column.” And that’s how I got into the newspaper business. And when the Conservative party offered him its nomination for mayor of New York, he said, “Great. And Neal will run the campaign.” And that’s how I got into politics. You will have discerned in this anecdote one of Bill’s most conspicuous and charming flaws: his naïve and redundantly misplaced confidence that his friends were as omnicompetent as he.
As I say, my experience was not at all unique. There are many of us, we Friends of Bill, salted across American media, the academy, the political world, and — I would hope — the Church. Not a one is a time-server or a clock-watcher. They are all, each in his or her own way, still trying to change the world. Bill picked his friends with care.