I had the privilege of knowing Bill Buckley for some 40 years. He was a devoted and patriotic American; a remarkably creative and eloquent man of letters; a person with an extraordinary sense of humor, exhibiting a spirit that infused everyone around him. He lived a remarkable life, and had a tremendous impact on this country that he loved and on the many people who read his books, read his columns in National Review, and watched him for so many years on that wonderfully cerebral, provocative TV program, Firing Line. He believed in the power of ideas — and loved the exchange of ideas. Firing Line was open not just to conservatives like Bill Buckley, but to people of all shades of opinion who were willing to engage him on the field of ideas.
I was privileged to get to know him more than 40 years ago when I became the editor of the Yale Daily News — or the “Chairman of the Board,” as the post was called. There was a gentleman at the Yale Daily News named Frances Donahue, who had been its business manager for what seemed forever. I remember that the day after I was named editor, he told me that he had informed Bill Buckley of this development in his regular back and forth correspondence with Buckley. I soon began regular communication with Bill Buckley, as well. He took a wonderfully warm, kind of brotherly interest in those who were at the Yale Daily News. He invited me and a couple of our friends from the News to come to his house in Stamford for a dinner or two — which were stimulating, thrilling evenings. Our friendship would continue.
Buckley’s life is an extraordinary one. Upon leaving Yale, he became well known for a book he wrote — God and Man at Yale — about what he saw as the hostile environment there toward people of faith. He started National Review in the mid-1950s. I remember reading once that he had said in the founding issue that the publication would derive from the original ideas of the moral order. Bill Buckley was a person who studied history, studied literature, and learned from it. He was also infused with a deep and profound commitment to his Roman Catholic faith. I believe that was the origin of the moral order which he gave expression to in his writing for National Review, and in speaking out and conducting himself as a provocative, loving American.
He believed that ideas mattered, and they do. National Review, in some sense, gave birth to the modern American conservative movement. It wasn’t necessarily a Republican movement; his conservatism was a matter of ideals and ideas and philosophy. He rejected extremism. To his everlasting credit, he took on the John Birch Society when it wasn’t popular to do so.
Buckley’s conservative ideology was not always favorable to Republican candidates. I recall reading National Review’s endorsement of General Dwight D. Eisenhower for President. While everyone else was echoing the slogan “We Like Ike,” Buckley’s editorial said “We Prefer Ike.” He was more thrilled, of course, by the candidacy of Senator Barry Goldwater, and then most of all by the candidacy of President Ronald Reagan.
At one point in the mid-60s, Buckley ran for Mayor of New York, as kind of a joyous, thought-provoking, elegant, eloquent exercise in being involved in the marketplace of public ideas. Perhaps the most famous, if not the most substantive, thing he said in that campaign was when they asked him what he would do if he was elected. Bill Buckley famously said, “Demand a recount.”
My wife and I had the privilege of spending wonderful evenings with him and his late wife, Patricia, at their home in Stamford, Connecticut. These were classic evenings of great food, some drink, and good, spirited conversation — cigar and brandy to follow — but always open to ideas and always with a ready willingness to laugh. In fact, he passed away earlier today in his study in his magnificent home on Wallacks Point in Stamford, probably working on a column or some other piece of writing.
I feel particularly grateful to Bill Buckley for all that I learned from him, all the good times I had with him. You might say that I would not be a U.S. Senator were it not for Bill Buckley — though Buckley himself would not say that. When I ran for the Senate in 1988, Bill Buckley was not a fan of the incumbent Republican Senator. He called me up and said, “Joe, I’m thinking of endorsing you. Do you think that would help you?” So I said, “Well, that’s very good of you.” Then he interrupted and said, “Please understand, this is the only time I am likely to endorse you in your career.” So I said, “It probably would. What do you have in mind?” He actually wrote a column, a very good column, in National Review, and I think it was a syndicated column. He also, with the puckishness that was a part of him, started something he called BuckPAC, which he said was a PAC open to anyone in Connecticut whose name was Buckley and who was committed to the defeat of the incumbent Senator. They printed bumper stickers and the like and helped out on the campaign.
I said to him after I won that election — and I won it by very little — that I thought in a close election, there are so many reasons one is successful. But I said, “You have reason, Bill, to take part of the credit for this, I won by less than one percent of the vote.” And I said, “I’d go so far to say that you played a rabbinical role for me in this campaign.” “Well what do you mean by that?” he replied. I said, “Your endorsement of me and the columns you wrote said to Republicans in Connecticut who really didn’t like the incumbent Senator that it’s kosher to vote for Lieberman.” And he laughed, which I remember well.
There’s so much I could say about Bill Buckley’s contribution to our country, about his openness to ideas, about his civility. One could disagree with him — as I did quite frequently — and never lose respect or affection, dare I say love, for a wonderful human being..
I offer my sincerest condolences to his family. I pray that they will be strengthened by their faith and comforted by the good memories of and pride in an extraordinary person, Bill Buckley.
I think it most fitting to end with a quote from President Reagan on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of National Review in 1985. Reagan said that when he picked up his first issue of National Review, he received it in a plain brown wrapper. Later on, he still anxiously awaited his biweekly edition, but no longer in a plain brown wrapper. But this is what Reagan said of Buckley: “You didn’t just part the Red Sea. You rolled it back, dried it up and left exposed, for all the world to see, the naked desert that is statism. And then, as if that were not enough, you gave the world something different, something, in its weariness, it desperately needed — the sound of laughter and the sight of the rich, green uplands of freedom.”
I pray with confidence that Bill Buckley’s soul will be taken up in the bonds of eternal life.
–Joseph Lieberman is the Independent junior senator from Bill Buckley’s home state of Connecticut. The above is adapted from remarks he delivered today on the U.S. Senate floor.