He could keep up the columns, the television interviews, the books, the debates, the Blackford Oakes thrillers, the novels, the plays, the harpsichord concerts, maybe not to the highest professional standards in every case, but well enough to please himself and to amuse his ever-growing circle of friends. Inevitably, he sometimes fell flat on his face. In Switzerland, against the firm advice of all, he insisted on showing one of his own paintings to Chagall, who looked at it intently and then said sadly: “Oh, the poor paint.”
But did the occasional disappointment matter? He was doing most of these things in a true amateur spirit for the love of them; and some succeeded triumphantly. The Blackford Oakes novels are almost a cult. Firing Line was an endless series of The Perfect Squelch with very clever liberals as the squelched victims.
Too many cars? Too many clothes? Too many parties? Solemn, puritan reviewers of Cruising Speed thought so. As did a certain kind of grudging conservative who could never mention Bill without a resentful reference to “vintage wines.” For the rest of us, though, Bill’s high life could never be too high.
He was our representative at White House dinners, Geneva diplomatic occasions, Oxford high tables, Metropolitan Museum of Art charity balls, and all the glittering black-tie occasions that we usually attended from outside, our faces pressed to the window. He was the proof that conservatism was not the preserve of provincial bores — well, not solely of provincial bores — but a sophisticated intellectual enterprise. When he traded economic theories with J. K. Galbraith, epigrams with Noël Coward, or jokes with Woody Allen, we did the same thing vicariously. And he did all these things — maybe, who knows, even paint — with apparent assurance and élan. It was as if Cary Grant were playing the lead role in a biopic of F. A. Hayek.
As with Grant, Bill’s personality wasn’t wholly natural or spontaneous. He told his father in letters about his fear that the soldiers he trained with disliked him. Creating WFB took a little time and some thought. Once it had been accomplished, however — say, about the publication date of God and Man at Yale – Bill was a star ever after. His life was the role of our dreams and we loved him for it.
Incidentally, I don’t think I should end without mentioning that he also established National Review and more than anyone else helped to launch the American conservative movement. Those things may seem important one day.
— John O’Sullivan is editor-at-large of National Review and author of The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister.
Bill Buckley had that essential (but rare) element of leadership that involves energizing others. Like few other men I have known, his very presence charged up the atmosphere, got brain cells working that you hadn’t known you’d had before, and inspired you to projects you hadn’t imagined possible. The languid manner masked the reality of a man: This was a high-energy character whose almost ridiculously high level of juice didn’t exhaust others but rather energized them.
His leadership also involved another infrequently encountered but essential skill, especially when leading a community of ideas and argument: He could ask just the right question that would get you to the nub of an issue, make you think about something differently, or cause you to imagine that you just might be, er, wrong. Given this talent, he would have been a fabulous classroom teacher; but he chose another way of being an educator, and America was changed for the better because of that decision.
I’m in Rome at the moment, in a culture where lethargy is more often encountered than high-octane energy; but perhaps because I’m writing this a few blocks from the bones of St. Peter, it now occurs to me that Bill’s energy was in an important sense nurtured by his Catholic faith. The time he consciously made for recharging his spiritual batteries — for being with the Lord — had effects, I suspect, throughout his life. Anyone who imagines that Catholic doctrine and ritual dull the senses and retard one’s imaginative faculties never conjured with Bill Buckley’s convictions and their effects on his life. He was no theologian, but he knew the faith of the Church and it shaped his life, his thought, and his often-remarked-upon quiet generosity.
May his energetic commitment to the permanent things continue to inspire his beloved country, and may his intercession at the Throne of Grace aid his Church in perilous times.
— George Weigel is the author of Evangelical Catholicism: Deep Reform in the 21st- Century Church.