Bill Buckley’s Last Supper

National Review founder William F. Buckley, Jr.
Despite his ailments, late in life WFB still loved to gather staff and friends for a night of conversation.

When I started working at National Review, at the beginning of 2008, everyone told me about Bill Buckley’s editorial dinners, held on alternate Monday evenings. By this point he was elderly and in poor health, and he had stopped coming to the office a while before I arrived (though he continued to write his syndicated column, which I rather gingerly edited for the magazine). But he still took a keen interest in the institution he had created, and he liked to meet the new staff members and talk with the older ones. Toward the end of January I received my invitation, and one evening in early February I and a few other recent hires (Ed Craig, Julieanne Dolan, Kevin Williamson, Robert VerBruggen, possibly one or two others) piled into Bill’s limousine and were driven uptown to his Park Avenue townhouse.

On the way there, Ed discoursed on Hebrew dialects in the Biblical era, which led to a lively discussion of some arcane points of Catholic Church governance. These are not subjects I’m familiar with, so I listened quietly and thought: Doesn’t anybody talk baseball anymore? (Rest assured, today’s NR recruits talk baseball quite a bit.) This was my first immersion in NR’s unique corporate culture. As we left the limo, I liberated a small tortoiseshell comb that had fallen on the floor, and for years afterwards I showed it off to friends as William F. Buckley’s Comb (though in fact it could have been left there by any passenger).

In his pre-dinner email, Bill had said he was a “poor copy” of his old self. He was 82 years old, stooped over and wheezing, and his wife Pat’s death a year before had been devastating. He struggled, visibly and audibly, with various ailments throughout the evening, but he clearly was determined to fulfill his duties as host, even though Pat’s absence meant he had to do all the scintillating himself. And despite everything, the mischievous Buckley twinkle shone through in his eyes undiminished.

We sat down in the living room, and Bill asked each of the newcomers a question or two. When my turn came, I reeled off my capsule biography and answered a polite inquiry about my previous employer’s political orientation, all the while reminding myself not to call Bill “Sir.” After me came Kevin Williamson, whose soft-spoken manner and North Texas drawl combined to defeat Bill’s deteriorated hearing; after a few seconds Bill looked like a man who had heard a mosquito in the room but had no idea where it was. Julieanne, blonde and vivacious, attracted the greatest share of Bill’s interest. I can’t blame him for that.

In due time, a few more-senior staff members arrived, and we moved from the cozy living room — the size you might find in anyone’s apartment outside of New York — to the grand dining room. I wish I could report that I spent dinner trading clever ripostes with Bill and the assembled wits, but as I recall, I said just four words the whole time: “Yes, please” and “Thank you,” both in response to an offer of soup. I had spent two decades in publishing, but I still felt like the new editorial assistant trying hard to avoid embarrassing himself.

This was the night before the Democrats’ 2008 Super Tuesday primaries, and while Bill had not been keeping up with the horserace, he was eager, as always, to learn more. Hillary Clinton he knew, and John Edwards was a familiar type, but Barack Obama puzzled him: “What has he done to become so famous?” (this was spoken with genuine bewilderment).  Nobody could help him much with that. Then: “Can he possibly win?”  (As it turned out, this was the last night anyone would be able to ask that question.) The main impressions Bill had gotten so far of Obama, he said, were that he spoke in generalities and was not a handsome man.  Neither of these turned out to be much of a handicap.

It was hard to square this human dynamo with the frail old man whose hospitality I had so recently enjoyed.

Arthur Schlesinger’s journals had recently been published, and both the book and the author came in for some critical commentary. Bill remarked, to general mirth, that “Schlesinger was a man who couldn’t walk from Penn Station to Grand Central without dropping in on Averill Harriman.” Never have I felt more a part of the East Coast Establishment than at this moment. For the most part, though, Bill did more listening than talking; his cough made it hard for him to jump into the flow of conversation, and I got the impression he had stopped following the day-to-day ups and downs of politics (which no doubt helped him to focus on Final Things). But still everyone directed their remarks to him, like senators addressing the presiding officer, and every now and then Jack Fowler, or one of the other veterans, would tee up a familiar anecdote for him: “Bill, as I recall, you had a similar experience when you gave a speech at . . . ” Or: “Bill, didn’t he also work on your mayoral campaign?”

Afterwards we lined up for brief goodbyes.  Bill was obviously spent, and he hurried through these, though in his usual courtly fashion. By the time he got around to me, last in line, he was anxious to end the evening. I had prepared a brief thank-you speech to the effect of “it’s been an honor to meet you and I hope I won’t make you look stupid for hiring me,” but he just nodded and waved vaguely and then turned to go upstairs.

One morning a few weeks later, Rich called us all into the conference room, and I think everyone knew why even before he made the announcement that Bill had died.  In the days that followed, we reviewed, online and in print, the staggering breadth of Bill’s work: writing, editing, public speaking, television, running for office, and in his spare time he crossed oceans in a sailboat. It was hard to square this human dynamo with the frail old man whose hospitality I had so recently enjoyed.

Yet as broken down as he was, Bill Buckley still felt an irresistible need to find out what was happening — at his magazine, in the nation, and in the world — no matter how much it took out of him.  Pat’s passing, his numerous infirmities, and his doctors’ orders had eliminated most of Bill’s greatest pleasures, but he could still talk politics and culture and chat with friends old and new, and through all his infirmities, his pleasure in these things was clearly undiminished.  This, too, was characteristic of Bill Buckley, and I’m glad I joined NR just soon enough to see him thriving in his element one last time.


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