Stories told over the last week by writers who knew Bill Buckley have had their effect on those who didn’t. Among the affected is a young and exceedingly bright conservative who raised with me the question of whether some of the pieces wouldn’t have been better off with more on the great man himself and a little less on the authors and what they said, discussed, or did with the great man.
The response I mustered was: “Hard to do.” Meaning that, in writing about Bill, in appreciating him, it is just hard to leave yourself out. Or what he did for you.
Consider: I called from the newsroom of the Stamford Advocate in April 1980 to tell him about my conversation with William Casey — the new chairman of Reagan’s presidential campaign. A New York lawyer who had incorporated National Review and knew its editor well, Casey had finally found the time — even as he struggled to pull the Gipper’s campaign out of bankruptcy — to heed Bill’s third or fourth telegram arguing that any Reagan hopes for the presidency rested largely on whether his slow-to-the-main-chance campaign manager got around to hiring a 32-year-old police reporter from a small (30,000 circulation) daily. Me.
So, Casey and I had — to the clatter of the newsroom’s wire machines — our talk. As we finished he said he was not sure about my ideas but he liked my spirit and I should come see him at his law office next week in New York. Casey was a nice man, even a lovable one; part of his lovableness was, I would discover when we became friends, an occasional irascibility. Which, in hanging up, he now put on full display, saying with considerable irritation: “And tell Bill Buckley to quit bugging me.”
Letting out his familiar, eruptive laughter when I told him, Bill was pleased that his “bugging” had worked. If his friends did not get what he wanted for them, strong telegrams would follow — Bill always wanted to help, help, help. Reagan was right to say at NR’s 30th anniversary that he had made friendship, like so much else, an art form. So in writing about Bill or appreciating him, the intensity of his concern on your behalf was impossible to leave out, or to forget.
Though, actually, I once did forget — the last time we spoke, a few days before his death. We had chatted of this and that — and it was hard for him as he struggled for air. (And no small torment either for those of us used to the unhesitating and mellifluous voice and speech.) Eventually he realized I had left the security of the Pentagon bureaucracy for the Fred Thompson presidential campaign and that campaign was over — “happiest month of my life, Bill.”
“But you always know who’s going to win,” he said. “Not this time I didn’t,” I replied, explaining the out-of-nowhere Huckabee factor and evangelical uprising that stopped late Thompson moves in Iowa and South Carolina.
His concern was about what was going to happen next — what was I going to do? A concern that was startling in view of my own concern about him and his illness, so I said how sweet of him to ask. Which was truly dumb since — and I said something to this effect, I think — he had arranged so much of my life. (Not only eight years in the Reagan White House but his long-ago help getting on the Yale Daily News — he had given me the exclusive about his running for the Yale corporation, which made the New York Times front page the next day — and writing the liner notes on my college record album, and the chance to work on the sainted Jim Buckley’s 1970 Senate campaign, and the job reference for the Advocate.)
Like so many of Bill’s friends, I found that he was the proximate cause of so many good things and interesting moments that I owed more to him, next to family, than to anyone else.
Good things and interesting things that kept on coming even to the end — like what happened in his house the last time I saw him. Just before he left for his last Christmas in Florida, I spent a day with him at Wallacks Point, a place I had first come 40 years before on a brisk night with autumnal winds lifting leaves across lawn and driveway.
We had lunch with Roger Kimball and did some work. Then Bill went upstairs to rest before dinner. I prowled around the house looking at pictures, pulling down books, going through magazines. Going out to the kitchen I went through the dining room whose stillness struck me; I felt the oddity of being alone in a place that for decades had been the scene of so much conversation and merriment and disputation. (Pat had announced during my first dinner here that Bill was being “absurd” on the subject of what celebrities owed their public and then turned to ask the opinion of her dumbfounded 19-year-old guest, since I agreed Bill was “making no sense at all” — did I not?)
In the kitchen I got some Häagen Dazs (strawberry) — comfort food for what I had been thinking since getting to the house: that with Pat gone, the place was slipping; and that Bill was dying; and that, however much I wanted him to rage against the dying of the light, any such raging was going to be unavailing. (“I’m very sick, you know,” he said as we watched the mini-series Rome later with Danny Merritt. Returning home the next day I said to my sister Maiselle: “We’ll be lucky if he makes it through Christmas.”)
Going back through the dining room I looked out for a moment at Long Island Sound and then — struck again by the oddity of being here alone — I had my Leon Kass moment. I refer here to something that happened to the famed bioethicist on a hospital visit to a University of Chicago colleague. On entering the room and finding this celebrated and brilliant man unconscious in his bed and hooked now to tubes and monitors, Kass had found himself, quite unaccountably, quite suddenly, on his knees.
So there I was — unexpectedly now at eye-level with the dining-room table — praying, of course, though, interestingly, my prayer had little that was sad about it. Mainly it was grateful, grateful for Bill, for Pat, for the chance to know his sisters and brothers. And to meet his friends and become one of them and to make him laugh sometimes, as I did when conveying Casey’s “quit bugging me” complaint.
Juggling the Häagen Dazs and getting to my feet, I concluded that we would all just have to let Bill go, and that it was just ridiculous anyway to expect more — to ask for more.
And now with Bill gone, and the thought omnipresent that he won’t be bugging anybody for us anymore (this side of paradise anyway), it is perfectly understandable that we are all busily writing away about knowing him and about what the great man once did for us and proffering personal views on his life and legacy.
These are matters in which, since I knew him well and can speak, I think, with some confidence, I intend to have my say — particularly in putting forward a thought or two on some last things I think he would like from us. He would want, of course, a continued devotion to his political cause — and an ongoing recognition that conservatism’s power rests on an awareness of the case for transcendence. Also, I think he would have recommended a continuing openness to Leon Kass moments, which means remembering to do something practical and powerful — something taking only a few seconds — and so, people, right now where you are sitting, a quick prayer or two for Bill, his family, and their intentions. (And since he is slated to read this piece, this includes Christopher Hitchens. Give it a try, Hitch, won’t kill you. And, if it does, the heavenly shockwave at the newfound piety of the heathen will probably carry you right past Petrine security — though I imagine Mother Teresa, in saintly acknowledgment of your attacks, has already put you on her personal VIP list, leaving the deserving faithful trying, of course, to explain our way out of Purgatory or, in my case certainly, worse.)
O.K. and something else — a last thing I think Bill would like from us this week. In one of the sailing books (I’m not going to fetch it) he gives vent to his pride in raising up a son, Christopher, Christo, “Big Shot” — and for full and sufficient reason. I mean a father and son appearing, after all, simultaneously on the NY Times bestseller list — hadn’t happened before (and how Pat had loved that). So except for a certain lack of deference toward an accomplished and prestigious friend of his father’s whose name modesty forbids me to mention (and about which I have spoken forcefully and censoriously to Christopher), Bill’s appraisal of Chris always seemed justified.
Or did. Because lately I have been thinking that Bill for once might have taken it a bit too easy in writing about someone close to him, that he may not have been quite effusive enough.
Look, most of us bury our parents. But Pat’s illness and death — and then Bill’s — called for special grace and forbearance and wisdom of the heart. And Christopher through some desperate moments has borne all and carried on all, and with nary a sibling to help.
And how he has helped us. What he did for his mother at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the elegant friends who spoke, the music and photos, the scene through the museum’s glass wall of Pat’s New York. Can you, I wonder, call a memorial service sublime? His father did. (Embracing friends afterwards Bill also often wept; just before my turn I spoke sternly to him for the one and only time in my life: “Don’t you dare. Bill. Don’t you dare.”)
And then came Bill’s summertime crisis — the daily hospital bulletins via e-mail about medical history’s most difficult patient, including something, I think, about the perils of smuggling butterscotch sundaes into a diabetic’s room.
So, Bill Buckley, “our clipboard-bearing Galahad,” as Reagan called him — my hero, your hero — is dead and we can’t stop talking or writing about him and remembering what he did for us. Yet, in tending to this last thing Bill would have wanted from us, we can be helped by remembering something he said about what he did for us corporately — yell at History to stop and end the Cold War.
At the ‘86 NR dinner, he said that when Reagan predicted a Soviet demise, he was skeptical — but were it to happen, future generations could be grateful that “the blood of their fathers ran strong.”
Yes, and not just the father is what I have been thinking lately: the son too. So what else Bill would have wanted us to remember this week is the strong-blooded Buckley he left behind — who, this Saturday, devotedly lays his father to rest in a place whose surpassing beauty Bill spoke about often, saying it evoked for him all those he first knew and loved in this life as well as the mystery of a time long gone and yet forever present when, as he wrote once, “all of us were young together.”
– Anthony Dolan, former chief White House speechwriter for Ronald Reagan, recently served as a special advisor to the secretaries of State and Defense.