Thursday, February 28, 2008
Jonathan Hoffman, a frequent Guest Commentary writer, has this to say about the death of William F. Buckley Jr.:
The subject header said "Breaking News", the body of the email said, "William F. Buckley Jr. died Wednesday morning at 82…" I uttered "No!" Not the "No!" of an angry person, or the "no" said in answer to a question, but the plaintive "No!" of someone who just suffered a great personal loss.
Buckley had a profound effect on the politics and culture of our country, but it was people of my generation (now in our fifties) with whom he connected in an almost personal way. That was certainly true of me.
My first exposure to Buckley, also known by his signature line "WFB", was while viewing his PBS television show, Firing Line. The first thing that struck me was the theme music: Brandenburg Concerto No. 2 in F Major, Third Movement (Allegro assai), by Bach – WFB was a big Bach guy, and this piece was his favorite. The studio set consisted of two chairs, one for WFB, and one for his guest, that's it. As I watched I thought, "Why is this guy slouching so low in his chair that he's about to fall out, and why can't he smooth out his suit and take his hand off the side of his face?" Yet, his interviews and speeches on the show were crack for the intellect.
I had a subscription to National Review, a magazine founded by WFB in 1955, for years in my early twenties. Most young men with subscriptions to National Review received them as unsolicited birthday gifts from Republican grandfathers – I paid for mine. It was a source of great hope and solace during troubling times (the Carter years).
Many of today's prominent conservatives have spoken of WFB's influence on them as youths – from Rush Limbaugh to Michael Medved. Medved actually began adult life as a liberal Democrat, but became a conservative later in life; you can read about his experience in his autobiography, Right Turns. My experience was of the Medved model. In fact, I usually don't tell people this, but I voted for George McGovern in 1972. There, I said it!
WFB engaged the world on all fronts including television, periodicals, a syndicated newspaper column, books – more than fifty, both fiction and non-fiction, and speaking engagements. This guy used to speak and debate on college campuses during the strikes and riots of the late 60's and early 70's, and he was not telling them what they wanted to hear!
All have acknowledged his wit, and sense of humor. When he ran for mayor of New York City in 1965, he slipped away in the middle of the campaign to participate in the annual Newport to Bermuda Regatta – a race about which he later said he had as much chance of winning as the mayoral one! In Saving the Queen, one of his novels, the protagonist is sent to England to find out who was passing secrets to the Soviets. He becomes well acquainted with a member of the Royal Family, and, after hearing his report, his handler reminds him that his mission was to penetrate the spy ring – not the Queen!
Not everyone was as enamored of WFB as Rush, Michael, and me. I had a radical feminist friend who, when speaking of Buckley, would change the first letter of his last name to create an obscenity. Ah, well.
WFB was brilliant, witty, adventurous, and most of all, he had class. He was born into wealth, but unlike the nouveau riche of today, his family was "old money" with all that that implies.
To me, and many of my kind, WFB will always be a mentor, role model, leader, example – in short, a great man.
While he did say some rather goofy things in the latter part of his career, he never quit, never retired, and never stopped living life. He died working at his desk in his study. His son Christopher said that he died "with his boots on, after a lifetime of riding pretty tall in the saddle."
I never met WFB in life, and it will be unlikely that I will meet him after death, for surely he is in heaven.