When people ask me what William F. Buckley was like, I always tell them that he had the best manners of anyone I ever met. Understandably, people first think I’m referring to decorum or personal dignity — or maybe they think I mean he always knew which fork to use. But while he was of course, decorous, dignified, and knowledgeable of all the proper ways to do the proper things, that’s not at all what I mean.
At their core, good manners are the things we do and say to show others respect. Sometimes they are formalized. Of course, some people use these formal manners, customs, and rules of etiquette to belittle or ostracize the unwashed or uninitiated. “Oh you don’t know what that spoon is for? What are you, a farmer?” Buckley might even call such practices a ritualized esoteric gnosis. Though, given his playfully obscurant tendencies, he’d no doubt construct an even more daunting sesquipedalian and holophrastic term for the guild-like tendency of excluding the uninitiated.
But while he could build gilded cages with words, he always left the door open for conversation. He had the sort of good manners that stem from near-biological certitude that every person had something worthwhile to share, at least until proven otherwise. For a man with so much to say, he was among the best listeners I ever met.
I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve met people with stories of his generosity of spirit that only served to confirm my own experience. I’m neither naïve nor an egomaniac. I understand that some of it must have been an act, not least because I know what I had to say to the man couldn’t have been that interesting. But while good manners may be a reflection of character, they are measured by what you actually do. And if he was playing a part, I personally never saw him break character.
And such charm was essential to the role he played. The conservative movement, in its infancy, was a chaotic constellation of cranks, dyspeptics, recluses, oddballs, and extroverts. Brilliant eccentrics with poor social skills and bitter geniuses quick to grievance were a dime a dozen. Doctrinal disputes could emerge from perceived slights, never mind competing agendas. William F. Buckley’s gift lay in his ability to smooth over differences, entice the wayward, corral the incorrigible, and convince the heretical to craft a movement built on common cause. That took genius. That took energy. That took commitment, patience, and courage. But all of those things could be found among the generals-without-troops on the right. As much as anything else, what made Bill the indispensable man was his ability to demand — without asking — the same respect he showed others.
In books like Cruising Speed, Bill described his own life with merciless good humor. It was very definitely not the life of a saint, or of a philosopher, or of a political leader, though he has often been confused with all three. Especially after he married Pat, Bill’s life had more than a touch of Cole Porter. Together they had:
[T]oo many cars, too many clothes,
Too many parties and too many beaus
They have found that the fountain of youth
Is a mixture of gin and vermouth, etc., etc.
The beaus were, of course, Pat’s. She was rarely without a witty, well-dressed, gay walker in tow. But the parties, the clothes, the cars, and the Martinis were decidedly mutual. Bill’s life was the life of a star — a star of Tales of Manhattan rather than Tales of Hollywood — but a star nonetheless.
But he was a star who, unlike most stars, wrote his own dialogue. Early in the game, he emerged from an impromptu television interview through which he had quipped his way with his usual effortless superiority, to say to one of his close circle of loyal friends: “I can keep this s**t up indefinitely.” Not perhaps Bill’s usual elegant essay in verbal acrobatics, but it was true.