Politics & Policy

Goodnight, Brother Jonathan

A marvelous writer and a quintessentially American gentleman

I am aware that Bill Buckley was regarded by many of his fellow countrymen as amusingly (sometimes, to the Left, mockably) aristocratic-Anglo in his manners and speech. My own impression, coming from the other side of the Pond, was the opposite. To me, Bill Buckley was the quintessential American gentleman — a Brother Jonathan for our age. He was perfectly democratic. He had, as the British say, “no side,” and would speak on terms of understood equality to anyone who shared his outlook and interests. A real and true gentleman, in the uniquely American way.

I have been a regular National Review reader since the mid-1970s, but did not actually meet Bill Buckley until 2000. To me, an unknown (and in fact, at that point, still part-time) writer, he showed unfailing kindness and generosity. So it continued through subsequent years. I learned a lot from Bill, and owe him a lot. We all owe him a lot, as of course does his country. How to repay the debt?

Three or four years ago I hosted a group of visiting Chinese journalists who wanted to get a look at National Review. After showing them round the office, Rick Brookhiser and I sat them down in the library and gave them the ten-minute talk on American conservatism and the magazine’s place therein. Then I said something like this: “As well as being a vehicle for a certain political outlook — the one we just described to you — National Review, like any well-established periodical, has a character, a personality. It is the personality of our founder, Mr. Buckley, whose portrait you saw on the wall coming in. The magazine, like its founder, is opinionated, but generous to opponents; thoughtful, without being intellectual in the self-conscious, self-absorbed European sense; tolerant, but within firmly declared boundaries; spiced with humor and mild satire, but never frivolous; taking politics seriously, as a domain of great events and great responsibilities, yet never thinking that politics should dominate human affairs; never losing sight of the high ideals of our Western civilization.”

Those of us privileged to work for National Review can, I think, best discharge our debts to Bill by always writing in that spirit, always keeping Bill’s character alive in the character of the magazine he founded and loved. Whatever other kinds of immortality there may be, Bill Buckley surely earned that one.

One more story. Last week I took my family on a skiing trip. Snapping on my skis, I thought, as I always have and always shall, of one of Bill’s columns which I read early in my acquaintance with National Review (but which I haven’t been able to locate in the archives). Bill was writing about his first encounter with modern snap-on ski bindings, he himself of course having learned to ski on the old wooden skis with actual bindings — your feet were strapped to the darn things. Said Bill of the new type: “It is like discovering that there is a tiny box you can check on your income tax return that absolves you from paying any tax at all.”

It is the mark of a really good writer that offhand scraps like that linger in your memory for decades, coming to mind when summoned by circumstances. I have a score of similar gems from Bill’s work lodged immovably in my brain. They form the smallest part of the debt, but are nonetheless precious. A marvelous writer; a true gentleman; a great American.

Goodnight, Brother Jonathan.

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