Last night, the editors and friends of this magazine gathered in San Francisco for the annual William F. Buckley Jr. Prize dinner, this year honoring former secretary of state George Schultz for — as the understated invitation put it — “his role in defeating Communism.”
(Other than that, what did the Republicans ever do for us?)
I did not know Buckley — “Bill,” as he insisted — very well. I had had the pleasure of encountering him briefly before coming to work for National Review, and a few months into my employment here I attended what turned out to be the last editors’ dinner at his home. In Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance describes a painfully familiar situation in which he is invited to a dinner for which his background left him unprepared. The cliché in these situations is not knowing which fork to use; Vance was nonplussed when after asking for white wine he was asked which kind of white wine he would like — he did not know that there was more than one. I knew which fork to use by the time I met Bill, but I felt a little like Vance must have felt. Of course, like a lot of young conservatives, I’d thought I would grow up to become Bill Buckley, until I was old enough to understand that nobody grew up to become Bill Buckley, including Bill Buckley, who was just that way.
Bill’s great social gift (you can hear this from a hundred people who truly knew him) was that he did not have any snobbery or pretension in him. He did not need it, and would have been embarrassed by it. It is true, what you hear: Truly accomplished people are, in the main, generous, gracious, and open; it is the mediocrities, those who have done a little bit of something or other but still feel the need to convince themselves that they deserve whatever reputation they have, who are hard to take. It is an ordinary and familiar human failing: They are selling you themselves, hard, because they themselves do not quite believe in the product. Baryshnikov never feels the need to say, “You know, I’m a really good dancer.” Bill Gates never feels the need to mention that he is immensely rich. George Clooney never talks about his romantic history.
This is a terribly contentious election year, more so within the Right, I think, than between the Right and the Left. There are many bruised feelings and damaged friendships.
There is a temptation, irresistible for some, to imagine what Bill would have had to say about the 2016 situation. We know what he wrote about Donald Trump — that he was a demagogue — but, of course, the Republican nominee is not the only variable in this year’s electoral equation. And the people around here who knew Bill best are more or less unanimous on one point: If you think you know what Bill would have had to say about Trump vs. Clinton — or anything else, really — then you did not know Bill.
But many of us feel like we knew the man. There was so much life in his prose that he felt to many of us like a longtime friend. (That’s the real magic of good writing: You can still encounter the mind and the sensibility of Herman Melville or Thomas Jefferson.) That, too, is something I have heard from dozens and dozens of National Review readers. I have no idea how he would come down on this year’s election. But I do know that he was seldom if ever sour (in print, anyway), that his preferred mode was bemused consideration rather than outrage (he was to the end of his days embarrassed that something as inconsequential as the taunts of Gore Vidal had caused him to lose his cool in public), that he understood friendship to be something bigger than politics — to say nothing of internecine conservative-movement politics — and that his great motive was not rage but joy: the pleasure he took in the English language, his love of his country and his civilization, his many friendships.
He was wrong, and sometimes badly wrong, about this or that particular issue over the years. What he was right about was how he conducted the argument, which was an extension of how he conducted his life.
The annual Buckley dinner and other National Review events are always a treat for me, because I am a National Review fan before I am a National Review correspondent. It is a true and irreplaceable pleasure to be around the people who have been drawn to this blue-bordered oasis of good sense and good cheer over the decades. But of course the question comes up: What would Bill do?
My best guess is that he’d write 800 words a day and then have a glass of champagne, possibly with someone who disagreed without being disagreeable.