Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Farewell, Bill. Pax Domini sit semper vobis cum

I first met Bill Buckley in 1961. He was debating Steve Allen at the time, on international relations. It was a formal debate, not at all like what we see today. Allen had just made his point that American troops were scattered like Topsy all over the globe, often in places unknown to the American people, such as Indochina, a country, Mr. Allen believed, that no one in their audience could point to on a map.

Bill replied something to the effect that certainly any child could do so. As the only child immediately available in an audience otherwise very adult, I rose and confirmed that I for one could point to the country in question.

Later in the 90 minutes, Bill used what was to become one of his signature lines, one I think was new or nearly so that evening,

"I would rather be governed by the Marx brothers than by those marxists who threaten to take the controls of government."
At which, Groucho Marx rose from the audience, took a deep bow around 360° and said in a voice loud enough so that all could hear, including Buckley, "Thank you, sir, but no."

Bill laughed as hard as everyone else.

In an introduction to one of his speeches years later, I related that story, told of the handshake and moment's conversation that followed after the debate was over. I told the audience and Bill
That debate, that handshake, and the subsequent exposure to Mr. Buckley works changed–for the better, I think–that youngster's perspective on the phrase "intelligent conservative."
It's hard today, when some years conservatives outnumber Republicans, a respectable number of voters self-describe themselves as conservatives, when those on the right have plenty of intellectual ammunition to fight—and often win—the political arguments, it's hard to relate to a time when that wasn't the case.

Before Buckley, it was a different world, a world where conservatives oftentimes failed to find respect, even from among their own ranks. Too many of our arguments were based on feelings, positive feelings toward conservative values, but only feelings just the same. The left seemed to have all the intellectual arguments, all the mature thoughts, all the facts and academic support. Conservatives complain of the same today, but those who do weren't around when use of the word all was perfectly accurate and not hyperbole.

Bill, his books, articles, speeches and magazine opened eyes and minds. Eventually, more bright, intelligent, happy conservatives followed, well armed intellectually for a fight. Just 25 years later, the happiest of them all became President of the United States.

Everyone knows Bill Buckley as a speaker without peer. What fewer know is his ability to listen intensely. I think of him as the very best listener I've ever met. His ability to pay attention to his company was extraordinary and was the basis on which he built his well-deserved reputation for graciousness. At one event where I was responsible for the dinner seating chart, thinking that Bill would keep the conversation flowing by talking I put the most reserved of the guests next to him. Within minutes, he had his dinner partner chattering away as comfortable as she could be. He had found common ground, the history and character of Bemidji, Minnesota, and encouraged her to run with it. She did, and created an evening she'll never forget.

The best Buckley story is his own description in Miles Gone By of how he first met Ronald Reagan.
The first time? My speech in Beverly Hills was scheduled for 7:30, and I ate in a the restaurant across from the high-school auditorium with my sister-in-law Bill Finucane. When the time came, two other diners also rose. They had been at the far end of the room, and their faces hadn’t been visible in the dim light. “I’m Ronald Reagan. This is Nancy. I just finished your book [Up from Liberalism]. The passage on Eleanor Roosevelt is very funny.” He quoted it and laughed.

His assignment was to introduce me to the assembly (mostly doctors). But entering the hall we came up in a huge bump in the road: not only was the sound system not on, the room where you turned it on was locked! They couldn’t find the kid who was supposed to have turned it on, or the janitor who had the keys. And even Ronald Reagan, using his golden repertoire and tranquilizing voice to placate the large hall, was running short of diversions.

That’s when I espied True Grit in the future president. He ascertained that the window at the end of the stage overlooked a parapet about a foot wide, which extended, at the far end of the building, to the window of the control room. So he climbed out the window, arms outstretched for balance, and edged his way above the roaring traffic to the critical window, broke it open with his elbow, climbed into the room, found the switch, and flipped it — and the show was on.
There are a million stories like that. He led a storied life, fast. In fact, one of his many biographies, a tale of a normal week in his life, is titled Overdrive, an accurate description of his energy and enthusiasm for life. I suppose Racing Through Paradise is a better description of his current endeavors!

I mentioned to him once, on the drive from a speech in Monterey to its airport, that I collect first editions of his books. I had nearly all of them but the first, God and Man at Yale. He explained that as an unknown author the first edition press run was only 2,500, making them hard to find. He went on to tell me that he had an extra copy around the house and would send it out upon his return to the east coast. Horrified at the thought that I had unintentionally begged a book, I told him please not to, that I would find the book over time.

A few weeks later a package arrived from the offices of National Review in New York City. In it, a 1951 edition of his book, inscribed in the first case to his mother, in the second to me.

I once introduced him with a phrase taken from the subtitle of a biography by John B. Judis. Bad move, as Bill cared neither for the description nor the book. But, it is fitting to repeat it once again on a day when he passes through the door into his Master's house and the words become literally true:
William F. Buckley, Jr., patron saint of the conservatives.
It was less than a year ago that the love of his life, his wife Pat, went to her reward. This morning he joined her.

Very few people realize that Bill was a real technophile. I received my first electronic message, what would later become known as an e-mail, from him in 1989.

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