A Great Man -- and a Fun One

by John O'Sullivan

When news of Bill’s death reached me, I was in Prague. It was suitable and perhaps comforting place to hear such sad news since Prague is one of the great European cities Bill helped to liberate from communism. Eighteen years ago he and I were here on a National Review Institute political tour of Eastern Europe. This was only a year after the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the “velvet revolutions.” Because of Bill’s leadership in the anti-Communist and conservative movements, everyone wanted to meet him. New ministers, heads of new political parties, and editors of old national newspapers (with new editorial lines) told him of how they had read smuggled copies of NR during the years that the Communist regime condemned them to work as stokers and quarry-men.

He took it all very humbly and even a little quizzically. It was as if he didn’t quite believe that he had blown a trumpet and, lo, the walls of Communism had tumbled down — “literally,” to use a word whose misuse he occasionally denounced. He was a great man and a figure of great historical significance. He founded the American conservative movement that, among many other achievements, won the Cold War. But he wanted to slip quietly away to avoid the presidents and prime ministers rushing up to ask for his autograph.We at National Review were far luckier than they. We saw him regularly twice a month and whenever else we felt like ringing him up. He was a ready source of advice, argument, vocabulary, and wit. All the novel and insoluble problems an editor faces he had faced and solved 30 years before. Above all, he was fun — right to the end.

When death came for him, said Churchill of George VI, “he came as a friend.” I think the same is true for Bill. All his ambitions, public and private had been realized, more than triumphantly. He had lost the beloved wife of more than fifty years. His son Chris had long ago proved himself an independent spirit more than capable of sparring on his own two feet. He was as mentally sharp and as good company as he had ever been — I saw him for dinner last month in Palm Beach where he thoroughly enjoyed himself — but he was tired. He had enjoyed his vacation in this vale of tears but he wanted to go home.

We should be sorry for ourselves and his family over his death. We can be glad for him.

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