Politics & Policy

The Day I Met WFB

The nicest man in the world.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Few lives were as rich in admiring friends as William F. Buckley’s — who earned heartfelt valedictions long before his passing. In September 2004, White House speechwriter Marc Theissen — inspired by Mr. Buckley’s essays in Miles Gone By recounting the first time he met ten friends — prepared the following recollection of his first encounter with WFB, “in appreciation of 17 years of warm and faithful friendship.”

The first time I met WFB was at a taping of Firing Line in the summer of 1987. I was a junior at Vassar College, editor of the conservative student paper, the Vassar Spectator. There were about 40 or 50 such journals around the country then, all edited by aspiring William F. Buckleys. He was our model, our inspiration, our patron saint — and I was there to bring a special petition to our patron’s attention.

Somehow, I had managed to convince Vassar College to give me a small sum to host a conference for conservative student editors from across the country. My colleagues on other campuses agreed enthusiastically to participate, but gave me a challenge: I must convince Bill Buckley to be our keynote speaker. Trouble was, I didn’t know Bill Buckley . . . or anyone else who knew him. So I called National Review, and asked: How does one go about requesting a campus appearance by your editor? I was connected to his assistant, Frances Bronson, who probably received 50 such calls every week. Full of youthful exuberance, I explained my mission — and utterly failed to impress her. I was referred to Bill’s agent, who quoted a fee that was several times the annual budget of the Vassar Spectator. It appeared I had reached a dead end. But I was convinced that, given the chance to plead my case directly, Buckley would surely agree to join us. Then, one of my colleagues hit on a brilliant idea: we’d get tickets to a taping of Firing Line.

On the appointed day, we arrived at the studio — and between tapings, I approached him. Now if you have never met William F. Buckley, Jr., and the sum of your personal experience is watching him fillet his opponents in a Firing Line debate, he is sort of, well . . . intimidating. But I summoned up the courage, walked over, and introduced myself . . . and discovered, to my delight, that he is quite simply the nicest man in the world. He smiled widely, eyes sparkling, dropped everything he was doing, and took me into a back office where we could talk. With a studio full of people waiting for him, he asked me to tell him all about the Spectator and the conference I proposed. He then suggested I put everything in a letter and send it, not to his agent, but directly to him at National Review. This I did, and a few weeks later the reply came: he would be delighted to come to Vassar and give the keynote address.

Within a few months, the appointed weekend arrived. Some 60 young editors from across the country descended on the Vassar campus. The campus left immediately sensed something was amiss … and word soon got out that BILL BUCKLEY! was coming to campus in a matter of hours. With proletarian intensity, they mobilized their forces, amassing an army of 350 to march on Jocelyn Hall to protest the alien presence. It was a rainy evening, but the foul weather did not deter them. Soon Bill arrived, and we escorted him through a side door into the dining hall. And so there we were, the campus Right, drinking wine, smoking cigars, listening to Mozart, and dining with our hero, William F. Buckley — while, outside, in the driving rain, was the campus Left, noses and signs pressed against the glass windows lining either side of the ornate dining hall.

I had invited my mother — a charming, outspoken, Polish-born liberal Democrat — to join us for dinner. This was a risky act of filial devotion. You see, my mother was horrified by the rightward turn my politics had taken since arriving at Vassar, and now she had in her sights the man she held responsible for undoing 20 years of dinner-table indoctrination. Searching for a compliment, my mother told Bill that she disagreed with his politics, but enjoyed Firing Line – because it helped her improve her English. When Bill later got up to speak, he began by saying that one of the nicest things about meeting me was “learning of Marc’s wonderful emancipation from his mother” — a priceless moment for a rebel child.

He also noted that we were gathered in the very room in which he had first met his wife some years before when she was a student at Vassar — a wonderful coincidence. As he spoke, the protesters outside grew increasingly agitated — and eventually they broke into the lobby. They were prevented from rushing into the dining hall and venting their Jacobinal rage only by the brave efforts of the Vassar men’s rugby team (yes, such a thing exists) who stood guard at the door. One of the protesters did manage to sneak into the basement and cut the power, leaving us in total darkness. After a few moments of confusion, Bob Tyrrell’s voice emanated from the pitch black: “Bill, I think the Vassar student body is trying to show us how they see the world.” Raucous applause, soon the lights came back on, and our hero continued his remarks, enthralling his audience. It was night to remember.

After that, we kept in touch. I would send Bill copies of each issue of the Spectator, and would always receive back an encouraging note. The following year, the college tried to censor an article in the paper. When the editors refused to comply with the edict, our funding was revoked and the paper was ordered to cease publication. Bill came to the rescue, securing a generous contribution from an anonymous donor — enough to keep us going for a couple of issues until we could get on our feet and begin publishing independently of the college — which we did. During the course of this battle, Bill gave me an even greater gift. He introduced me to a Vassar alumna who was interested in our struggle: his sister, Tish, who became a fierce supporter of the paper and a lifelong friend.

On graduating, I headed to Washington, and landed a prized job with Republican strategist Charlie Black, thanks to a generous letter Bill wrote on my behalf. Later, when I went to work for Senator Jesse Helms, we had a wonderful lunch in Havana, following the Papal mass at the Plaza de la Revolucion. There, in the belly of the beast, I began my (as yet) unsuccessful campaign to convince Bill of the merits of the Cuban embargo — though, to this day, he kindly tolerates my continuing entreaties. My friend and Helms colleague, Roger Noriega (who went on to become U.S. Ambassador to the OAS and is now Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere), joined us. There we were, two Helms staffers lunching with Bill Buckley in Castro’s Cuba, debating the “blockade” (as Castro incorrectly calls it). I can only imagine what Cuban intelligence made of that — one day, when Cuba is free, we’ll get a copy of their report to el Jefe and find out. Meeting Bill, and under such circumstances, was, of course, the thrill of a lifetime for Roger. He told Bill that he became a conservative watching him on Firing Line. “You always seemed to make so much sense,” Roger said. “Until now …” Bill replied with a sly grin. It is, to this day, one of Roger’s favorite stories.

Castro survived our visit, and eventually I went on to become speechwriter for Donald Rumsfeld, and then for President Bush — a position I owe in no small measure to yet another glowing letter from Bill to my predecessor, Michael Gerson. But I am, of course, just one of many hundreds of young conservative writers Bill has encouraged, inspired, and manifestly assisted in their careers. Now he has announced his divestiture of NR, and the deserved accolades are pouring in. Rich Lowry reports that Bill told him: “If you think this is bad, imagine what it will be like when I die.” But why wait until that belated moment to express our admiration and appreciation? Despite his claims to be “decomposing” Bill is still very much with us, and has given all who love him a wonderful gift — the opportunity to tell him what he has meant to us, how he has changed our lives, and to thank him. I do so now with pleasure … and gratitude.

– Marc A. Thiessen is the head speechwriter for President George W. Bush.


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