As his family, friends, and fans prepare to remember William Frank Buckley Jr. at a tribute this morning at Manhattan’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral, I recall the first of several times I was fortunate enough to greet him.
I met Buckley as a Youth for Reagan delegate at the July 1980 Republican National Convention. At age 16, I was one of several hundred adolescent Reaganites who converged on Detroit to scream, yell, wave American flags, and carry pro-Reagan placards on the convention floor. We energetically injected a strong dose of teen spirit to the then-69-year-old former California governor’s official anointment as he galloped toward the White House.
One afternoon, we were treated to a policy seminar with veteran Reagan advisor Ed Meese, National Review’s then-publisher William A. Rusher, and WFB, among other panelists. I was granted permission to meet him back stage before show time.
I shook Buckley’s hand in a holding room. He was relaxed, approachable, and gracious. I told him how much I loved National Review and how it gave me fresh food for thought each fortnight. He thanked me and agreed to pose for a photograph.
From my pocket, I produced a 110-mm point-and-shoot camera, long since out of production. I handed it to the closest person I could find, none other than former Treasury Secretary William Simon Sr.
Simon, who I later discovered was not the handiest individual, seemed perplexed. He turned the camera upside down, backward, and sideways, utterly baffled as to what to do with it.
Buckley smiled: “The day William Simon cannot use a Kodak Instamatic is the day America must reindustrialize!”
After I developed my photos the next week, I eagerly sought out my cherished picture with one of the godfathers of American conservatism. I beheld William Simon’s photographic handiwork: a colorful, nicely shot photo of a few trees that grew outside the window. Considerably right-of-center stood Bill Buckley, laughing beside me, as a quarter of my face slid completely off the side of the Kodak print.
That brief encounter nicely summed up Bill Buckley.
He was a highly distinguished man of letters, yet he carried himself humbly enough before a stranger. He was a busy, established conservative who, nonetheless, made himself available to a young admirer, as he did for thousands by co-founding Young Americans for Freedom in 1960, delivering hundreds of lectures, and organizing college students and other fledgling right-wingers.
He also was a quick-witted sesquipedalian who comically could transform one’s man mechanical awkwardness into a hexasyllabic firecracker like “reindustrialize.” (In one anecdote cited in Newsweek’s laudatory cover story on him after his passing on February 27 at age 82, Buckley said the word “irenic” to a TV guest who demanded to know why he did not simply say “peaceful.” Buckley shot back: “I desired that extra syllable.”)
The last time I took a photo with Buckley was at New York’s Pierre Hotel where an overflow crowd of 650 guests celebrated his 80th birthday at a delightful banquet. Barnaby Conrad III – an old college friend of Buckley’s gifted son, Christopher – took a nicely framed and perfectly lit picture of me with the master. I am honored to have both of these snapshots by which to remember him.
Of course, there is so very much more than photographs by which Buckley long will be remembered. The full impact of his almost single-handed resuscitation of conservative ideas in the 1950s has yet to be appreciated fully. His training and guidance of three generations of young journalists assure that, for decades hence, others will carry the intellectual torch he ignited. That flame illuminated the lives of millions worldwide who learned from, and were liberated by, his intellectual rigor, his lofty reflections, and his down-to-Earth policy prescriptions.
And then there is his staggering oeuvre. On the occasional weeks when I pat myself on the back for getting focused, applying myself, and writing three or four pieces, I remind myself that I am just a furry sloth beside the man who authored 55 books, hosted 1,429 installments of Firing Line on PBS over 33 years, and penned some 5,600 biweekly newspaper columns. And then there are his myriad other articles, critiques, and musings in National Review and many other outlets – from Popular Mechanics, to Human Life Review, to Penthouse.
Among the seven tons of papers Buckley donated to Yale, his alma mater, most of these published works (largely available online through Hillsdale College) still contain the conservative and pro-market answers to so many problems that still bedevil mankind in general and the United State in particular. Moreover, WFB showed time and again how to make these arguments not just in bulk, but with style, grace, sophistication, and often laugh-out-loud good humor.
Whenever conservatives and free-marketeers who survived this astonishing American ponder their next steps, they should ask themselves a simple question: “What would Buckley do?”
– Deroy Murdock is a columnist with the Scripps Howard News Service and a media fellow with the Hoover Institution.