Camden, S.C. — You can’t have grown up in the latter half of the 20th century and not have some impression of William F. Buckley. He was like General Electric. Always there.
The Buckleys have always been here, too, at least since the mid-1930s. South Carolina’s oldest inland city, Camden was once a polo resort for wealthy Yankees and remains a northern outpost where “winter” is still a verb. Buckley’s family home, Kamschatka — a historic landmark of regional renown — was named for a remote region of the remotest Siberia. Such was the out-there feel of Camden for newcomers then and sometimes even now.
This town of 7,500, where Buckley’s parents are buried in the Quaker Cemetery, is still a near-perfect 19th-century village, populated by a mix of horse people, traffic-weary transplants, retirees and lucky generations of native sons and daughters who tolerate the yuppie obsession with saving old houses. Camden has dozens of old estates and “cottages” with histories and high ceilings to titillate new generations of ghost seekers.
Into this mix are a fair number of Buckleys, most notably Fergus Reid Buckley — or Tío Reid, as his nieces and nephews call Bill Buckley’s younger brother and fellow Yalie. Reid, one of the cousins once told me, is “our Interesting Uncle.” And that he is.
When Bill Buckley was in town not long ago to participate in one of his brother’s famed debates — a crucial component of the Buckley School of Public Speaking founded and run by Reid (and where I serve as a consulting faculty member) — he told the town that his brother, not he, was the master orator in the family. Reid, he said, was the champion at Yale, not he.
Brother Bill — so famous for his brilliance and his charge to stand “athwart history” and yell, “Stop!” — was characteristically self-effacing and generous.
Reid is equally brilliant, but I will save my reflections on his enormous contributions to Western civilization for another day. This column is about the Buckley who left us this week, whose relentless intellect and prolific creative spirit made the world a richer, saner place.
Upon first meeting, Bill Buckley was not what one expected. He had what all Buckley familiars know as That Buckley Charm. I was, to be honest, terrified that I would fumble some ordinary word in the presence of the meister and reveal myself to be the fool nearly everyone was next to Bill Buckley.
As all great men do, he put me immediately at ease, those piercing blue eyes little baubles of joy at the long-anticipated meeting of yours truly. He had that rare gift of making others feel that they were important and that nothing could be more pleasant than making their acquaintance.
It is a family charm common to Buckleys — not only a sign of good manners but of good breeding.
Like so many of my generation, I had known Mr. Buckley from afar nearly all my life. In fact, Mr. Buckley, as seems the proper salutation (didn’t he once write a column about the odd habit of perfect strangers calling him “Bill?”), was an instrument of torture during my childhood.
That is, my father made me watch Firing Line each week. In fact, Buckley’s talk show was among the few programs that were considered acceptable viewing in a household where television was verboten except briefly on weekends. Other approved activities included reading and, of course, reading.
I remember thinking as I squirmed glaze-eyed through these 30-minute episodes of men talking in a language not my own: To what mortal sin do I owe this dreadful fate?
Looking back, I’m certain that my father hoped some of that intellect would seep in, that some of those multisyllabic words might take root, and that through some magic of telepathy or osmosis, I might absorb some knowledge. Indeed, I was involuntarily privy to conversations I now would willingly replay between Buckley and such lights as John Kenneth Galbraith, Ronald Reagan, Benjamin Spock, Otto Preminger, Walker Percy, Timothy Leary, Clare Booth Luce, Murray Kempton, Albert Gore, Barry Goldwater, Steve Allen, John Ashbrook, Dick Gregory, and scores of others.
Quite an education after all.
Now Buckley has joined many of those and centuries of others in the great debate hall above. Lord knows, I hope they have dictionaries in heaven.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group