Jacob already noted this, and of course it’s the big story of the day in the conservative blogosphere: But for the record, I’ll miss William F. Buckley and I am grateful for all he did for me.
As a college kid in the early 1980s, still trying to figure out what I thought, I religiously read The Nation, The New Republic and National Review, basically unconsciously covering all parts of the political spectrum (New Republic was a middle of the road publication back then). If there was a “truth,” it definitely seemed like it would inhere somewhere within this troika of magazines.
By 1986, National Review had become my philosophical home, in large part because of Bill Buckley’s commentary. At age 25, I became a “conservative” for life. My first vote for a Republican was for George H.W. Bush in 1988. (Then, my first vote against a Republican was for Ross Perot in 1992, but that’s a story for another day).
Apart from his fantastically helpful idiosyncrasy of including in every op-ed column a single word I would need to look up in the dictionary (a mantle since picked up by R. Emmett Tyrrell), and the fact he was right about so many issues back when “conservatism” was by no means assured a place at the table of policy respectability (the Reagan Era was not judged a success until long after the Reagan presidency was over), Bill Buckley’s work ethic was the stuff of legends. He wrote extensive commentary in the magazine on a weekly basis, maintained a nationally syndicated 2-3 times a week column, did the weekly Firing Line television show for a decade or three, and of course wrote all the books and ancillary essays.
He penned op-ed pieces in the limousine on the way to the airport, for crying out loud. It took me an entire weekend to write a 5-page, double-spaced paper at the time.
While trying to overcome laziness and my own wide-ranging stupidity, having WFB as an example of what a human can do was immensely valuable. I never met the guy, but throughout my 20s he was one of my few mentors, at a time I needed all the help I could get.
I didn’t go to Yale. I wasn’t rich. My forebearers – back to the beginning of time, as far as I could tell – were blue collar. I started a family during college and consequently we were not well off. But I never got a whiff from all of WFB’s writings that he was in any way intrinsically different from me. I eventually learned that he was wealthy, but in the miles of column-inches I never read anything that set him apart.
And what a legacy he left! I have a ton of his essays and my stock of NR magazines, but there are gems like the Firing Line interviews with Malcolm Muggeridge discussing Catholicism and other topics – such important cultural artifacts.
The specifics of WFB’s contributions in the ideological arena are not within my range of expertise to discuss, simply because the content was, in essence, the content of the conservative revolution which took place in America from the 1980s on. There are much better informed people out there who can limn out the details of what Bill said and when, and what followed.
(And be sure to dig into the writings over at NRO, where the folks who know are spelling it out.)
But here is one I can do.
Many years ago, I think back in the early 1990s, Bill wrote a column reporting on his and his wife’s struggles to quit smoking. The gist was they both had decided to quit smoking cigarettes, and after some time in the project they – two life-long smokers – were at each others’ throats. They sat down to discuss it, and recognized they could not both go through the ordeal and live in the same house with each other. The physical and mental stress of overcoming the addiction was too much – you could not have two baskets of crazed atoms in close proximity at one time.
So they had to decide – either we both keep smoking or only one of us can quit, if we want to stay together. Bill quit, and Pat resumed smoking and became the stabilizing force while he overcame the addiction to nicotine.
This story had an impression on me, both because I have my own addictive tendencies and because self-sacrifice seems to be such an essential part of life particularly manifested in our most immediate relationships. The decision Bill and Pat Buckley made was one I had never even thought about, but after I read his column I never forgot it. Throw aside all the levels of analysis that could be brought to bear on the question: It’s a pretty stark expression of life – human life, relationship reality – is it not? It makes you think, What would I do? What decision would I and my spouse make to preserve the relationship if it came down to that.
Pat Buckley died in April, 2007. Honestly, back when I read about the poignant story above, I assumed Pat had consigned herself to a much earlier demise to preserve the relationship. But they were only off by ten months. I hate it that Bill Buckley died; I hate it that Pat Buckley died. But I am glad they got almost the full time together. I think God looked kindly on their difficult decision.