SOUTH BEND, Ind. — Tim Russert, Washington bureau chief of NBC News and moderator of Meet the Press, described the late William F. Buckley Jr. as an “extraordinary, complicated, intelligent, singular force in American life” on Monday in a lecture at the University of Notre Dame honoring late New York Times reporter Walter W. “Red” Smith. Russert added “I think that when we find that, we should salute it.”
Russert shared personal anecdotes of Buckley during the audience’s question period following his address on American journalism in front of over 500 students and faculty members.
“It was extraordinary talking to him,” said Russert, recalling that he sat near Buckley at past social functions, including the annual Al Smith Dinner in New York.
At the dinner table, Buckley “was someone who did not engage in long conversation,” said Russert, before noting that the late National Review editor “was the quintessential observer” who could “come back and just say something that was so spot on.”
Russert also addressed what he sees as a common simplification of Buckley’s work and thought.
“I realized the suggestion that, well, he was a conservative writer,” intoned Russert, “he was far more than that.”
“He was someone who was a conservative and proud of it,” said Russert, “who understood the rhythms and changes in history — that there was a race worth running in 1964 with Barry Goldwater that would probably be unsuccessful but it would lay the groundwork for a successive conservative takeover of the Republican Party, and the White House, to wit Ronald Reagan — and he was right.”
Russert, who worked on the staff of late Democratic Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan after finishing law school, fondly recalled Buckley’s sometimes intimidating intellect.
“One of the greatest nights of my life was to go to dinner with Pat Moynihan and Bill Buckley,” said Russert, smiling. “I said nothing,” he quickly added to the delight of the crowd of students and faculty.
Russert found the friendship between the late Buckley and Moynihan demonstrative of a void in modern politics.
“Here they were, one liberal, one conservative,” said Russert. “Two roaring intellectuals who had this deep and abiding and grudging respect for one another — often competitive — trying to show one another up with a better recall of a certain academic citation.”
“They really, truly were good friends,” said Russert. “They had a level of respect that was something to behold. I think men of that caliber, that quality, are so lacking in our public discourse.”