This week National Review celebrates 80 years of William F. Buckley Jr. (we’re cheating a little–his birthday is on November 24, but the party’s today). As part of the festivities, National Review Online collected a small but representative sample of family, friends, and countrymen to share some favorite memories of a man well-loved by family, friends, and his fellow countrymen.
There are so many big events in Bill Buckley’s career–the best-selling books and the award-winning “On the Right” and Firing Line; the public praise from our favorite president; the trans-oceanic sails and other spine-tingling adventures–but I’ll recall a small incident in the daily life of the magazine.
It was a quiet Thursday afternoon in November 1970. The senior editors had all gone home after writing their editorials. Bill swooped into the editorial department after lunch, said to me and his sister Priscilla, “I need you in the conference room,” and picked up Priscilla’s and my old Royals by hooking two fingers each through their metal frames (a Forties-model Royal weighs 35 pounds). He did consent to take the elevator up to the third floor.
When we and our typewriters were settled in the conference room, where his Royal was already waiting, he told us what was up. We were going to write headlines for a mock New York Times front page, to be used as the cover of the next magazine. It would be the headlines the Times would least want to print the day after the upcoming election–the “Nightmare Edition,” he called it. Bill, who after all had been thinking about this, wrote the largest number; Priscilla, former newspaperwoman, second; I don’t think I produced a single useable one, though I did offer some changes in wording that Bill accepted. In half an hour we had our cover. The top story began: BUCKLEY SWEEPS SENATE RACE–and lo! two weeks later Jim Buckley actually did win. The second lead was less prescient: 3 MAJOR UPSETS: / KENNEDY, MUSKIE, / GORE ALL LOSERS. But it was still great fun, and Bill’s buddy Abe Rosenthal, managing editor of the Times, weighed in a few days later with a deadpan critique of the wording and layout.
–Linda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.
What comes to find is the absurd situation when Jim McFadden informed Bill early in 1956 that the circulation manager (who was Don Lipsett of later Commodore of the Philadelphia Society fame) had to be replaced. Bill immediately hired Maureen [Buckley]’s beautiful Smith roommate, Reggie Horton to do the job but failed to inform Don that he was now supernumary. He kept on bumping into Reggie who was very competently doing his job and finally got the message and departed. His talents obviously lay elsewhere.
I suspect brother Bill’s legion of admirers have all written pithy comments about his phenomenal career. I write as his kid brother, which is of interest to no one save him, me, and our siblings.
Bill is the most loyal human being who has walked this earth possibly since Achilles fought Hector. As a brother, there is no bottom to his love and none of his protective affection. He has demonstrated this to me over and over and over. But I think back now to 1941, when we were in the town hall of Sharon, Connecticut, seeing a movie.
It was World War II time. I was eleven or twelve years old, Bill sixteen or seventeen–not yet inducted. Everybody sat in metal folding chairs. A large farm boy directly in front of my row kept joking and shouting so loudly to his friends that nobody nearly could hear the dialogue. After a while I piped, “Shut up!”
He whipped about in his chair, shoving his nose in my face and yelling, “Yeah? Whatcha going to do about it? Wanna take this outside? Yeah kid, come on out, we’ll settle this now.”
He was two or three years older than I and (to me) enormous, I now perceived to the dim lighting as he shoved his chair back into my knees and got up; and I felt the awful hollowness in the stomach that one gets when one knows that one is in for a beating.
But before I could respond in any fashion (ignominous flight wasn’t an option), Bill, who was sitting a row behind me, said calmly yet cuttingly, “My brother isn’t thirteen yet. Why don’t you pick on somebody your size?” Rising from his chair as he spoke.
I was the beneficiary of two miraculous perceptions. (1) My brother might not be as broad across the chest as the bully, but his shoulders were as wide and he was inches taller. (2) The bully was scared s**tl**s by my brother’s even tone of voice. He gave his chair a last shove that toppled it over, pushing his way out of the auditorium.
Bill is six decades older now. Should any episode remotely similar befall us, unlikely as this is to imagine, I am confident that he’d back me up with the same instant expression of love and loyalty.
Two stories: I met Bill Buckley in 1979 when he improbably agreed to be interviewed for my college yearbook. Posing as a typical liberal (I thought it would be livelier that way) I asked him about Marx, Freud, Nabokov, and more. One of his answers was, as Bill might say, lapidary. “In what way,” I inquired, “would your life have been different if you’d been born female?” His reply: “I’d have seduced John Kenneth Galbraith and spared the world much pain.”
There are, of course, ten thousand stories of Bill’s surpassing wit, elegance, insight, and tenderness. Less remarked upon is something I noticed about a year after I’d joined National Review. We were all chuckling about something bone-headed the Soviet spokesman had pronounced earlier in the day, I don’t remember the exact reference. But I do recall Bill saying “You know I’ll almost miss them when we win.” Being of the lugubrious Whittaker Chambers sensibility (Chambers thought he had left the winning for the losing side), I was startled. Only later did I recognize this confidence as a form of faith. In Reagan, it was called optimism. But it was more than that. It was a spiritual strength and it was one important though perhaps underappreciated reason Bill Buckley was and is a great leader.
In 1960, Anne Stevens (the future Mrs. Lee Edwards) was living and working in New York, the citadel of liberalism. Just out of her teens, she was the outspoken conservative editor of the newsletter of the Young Women’s Republican Club, the largest political club in the city with some 1,500 members.
One evening, shortly after writing a particularly trenchant editorial, she was in her apartment when the telephone rang. “Miss Stevens?” drawled the voice. “This is Bill Buckley and I want to tell you how much I enjoyed your refreshingly conservative editorial in the YWRC newsletter. It must have come as something of a shock to Governor Rockefeller. We’d very much like you to be our guest at a forthcoming editorial meeting of National Review.”
To which, Miss Stevens replied, “Oh, Bob, stop fooling around. I know it’s you and not Bill Buckley,” and hung up. “Bob” was Robert Schuchman, the first chairman of Young Americans for Freedom and well-known for his impersonations of famous and infamous people.
Almost immediately the phone rang again. “Miss Stevens?” drawled the voice. “I really am Bill Buckley and we really would like you to join us at our next editorial meeting.”
Which is how 20-year-old Anne Stevens, a graduate of Katherine Gibbs, not Sarah Lawrence, found herself in NR’s conference room along with WFB Jr., James Burnham, Frank Meyer, Priscilla Buckley, and William A. Rusher, being asked for her views about Richard Nixon, John F. Kennedy, Moise Tshombe, Charles DeGaulle, and other newsmakers of the year.
Bill Buckley’s thoughtful invitation to an unknown young conservative confirmed for Anne Stevens that she was on the right road.
November 1964 was not an auspicious month for conservatives; Barry Goldwater had just been clobbered in his presidential race by Lyndon Johnson. We conservatives were a generally dispirited lot.
So, when a meeting was held two weeks after the “Goldwater Landslide” at a seedy Manhattan hotel, the attendees were optimists of the wildest sort: two founders of National Review–Bill Buckley and Frank Meyer; a diminutive economist from the University of Chicago–Milton Friedman; the field director of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute–Don Lipsett, and his Wharton graduate-school sidekick–Ed Feulner.
Lipsett knew everyone in the American conservative movement and was astounded that this was the first time Buckley and Friedman had ever met.
Don proposed that this group should establish a domestic version of the Mont Pelerin Society–the international group started by F.A. Hayek to advance the cause of liberty worldwide–to bring together the disparate strands of American conservative thinkers in one place to exchange ideas, debate fundamental questions, and understand each other’s viewpoints.
The proposal met with such enthusiasm that Lipsett and Feulner were “elected” secretary and treasurer on the spot. The immediate challenge was that the impecunious graduate-school student/treasurer lacked the cash to open a bank account for the fledgling organization.
WFB immediately came to the rescue–as he has done thousands of times in various circumstances since–and wrote a check for $100 to launch the Philadelphia Society, an organization which prospers to this day, all based on Buckley’s initial venture-capital investment.
Thank you, Bill, for this and so many other examples of leadership of the conservative movement over the decades!
We had been sailing near to Newport, Rhode Island. It had been one of the most beautiful days of sailing any of us had ever enjoyed. Some of us had heard time and again about the beautiful vista from the famous Newport yacht club, which was just ahead. Bill had been there a number of times. On the way, I had noticed a cross, above a cluster of buildings, which was hovering over the tree line, and inquired of Bill what it was. “Christo’s school,” he, referring to his son’s Christopher’s preparatory school, Portsmouth Priory. Bill asked our little sailing party if we would like to stop there before Newport, and we agree that yes, we would. It turned out to be more meaningful than the remarkable day we had had on the water. We went ashore, climbed the steepish hill, and Bill directed us–as if he had been there a thousand times–to a chapel. Inside, a small group of young men were practicing an evening chant. The combination of the music, the minimalist setting of the chapel, the fading light of an August afternoon, and being in that setting, quite unplanned, was deeply meaningful. It was as if the whole day had been a preparation for that moment. No words were necessary. We all felt a sort of confirmation of friendship, blessed by Providence, and summed up in that choir of voices which gave us a vista and a view that was beyond what any of them, or we, could have imagined when the day began. When you are with Bill, these things happen. It was beatific and sublime. Fifteen years later, I remember it as if it were yesterday.
–Tim Goeglein is deputy director of the White House office of public liaison.
If I wrote all I wanted to say about Bill, I would exhaust the Internet. I’ll give you one quick story: Mario Cuomo is talking about his courage in defying public tastes. He says, “For twelve years [as governor of New York], I opposed the death penalty and survived.” Bill says–quick as a flash–”As did the condemned.” Now, given a week, and a quiet room, I might have come up with that. Bill said it with a speed that was superhuman.
I could say deeper, more intimate, more touching things. Even weepy ones. But, as I say, the Internet has only so much room, and you have only so much time.
–Jay Nordlinger is managing editor of National Review.
I recall an event from the 1970s, a debate on a midwestern college campus between Bill Buckley and a liberal or left-wing speaker whose name I have justly forgotten. I had never met Mr. Buckley at that time, though (as the saying goes) I had seen him on television and was taken by what he had to say, though not yet persuaded on all counts. That would come later. Of course, having spent time on that campus, I had become accustomed to the boorish and juvenile manners of academic leftists, who were not beneath screaming insults at those with whom they disagreed or, more politely, stalking out of the lecture room in disgust at the thought that another person should be allowed to advance views that they did not endorse. During the course of the exchange, Mr. Buckley presented his views articulately, as he always did, and in good humor, which was something I had not expected and which left a deeper mark on me than anything he actually said. He made his case amid hisses and boos from some members of the audience, and some less than dignified remarks from his opponent on stage. I was astonished, when the debate was over, to see Mr. Buckley walk across the stage with his wide smile to extend a hand to his adversary in debate, who was surprised as well, not being accustomed to gentlemanly conduct of any kind. Indeed, that is precisely the kind of conduct one never expected to see on a campus at that time.
Mr. Buckley thus impressed upon me the enduring truth that there is a connection between the way leftists think and the manners by which they conduct themselves, and also between his own gentlemanly conduct and his conservative ideals. Mr. Buckley is a powerful debater, but that night he went a long way to making a convert through his own exemplary character.
I have met Bill Buckley on many occasions since, and on every occasion I have walked away with one over-riding thought: What a wonderful man this is!
–James Piereson taught political science at the University of Pennsylvania before joining the John M. Olin Foundation in 1981. From 1985 until this year, when it made its final grants, he was the foundation’s executive director.
The winter of 1988: Working with WFB on his book, On the Firing Line, I spent a couple of months with him in Gstaad, Switzerland. A very partial listing of the people I saw or overheard talk, telephone, ski, dine, correspond, or call on WFB with obvious affection: Christopher Buckley, John Kenneth Galbraith, Roger Moore, Taki, James Clavell, Baron and Baronne Philippe Lambert, Nancy Reagan, Dmitri Nabokov, Bob Dole, Jack Kemp, Tom Wolfe, Henry Kissinger, Princess Benedikte of Denmark, Prince Nikolai Romanov, Van Galbraith, Priscilla Buckley, Jane Buckley Smith, Jeffrey Hart, Dick Clurman, John O’Sullivan, Rick Brookhiser, the king and queen of Greece, Linda Bridges, and the Buckleys’ longtime chef, Julian Booth.
Two weeks ago: At dinner in San Francisco with Milton Friedman and several others, conversation turned to WFB’s accomplishments. “What’s his greatest talent?” someone asked. “Writing? How many books has he published? Thirty? Forty?” “Yes, but he can ski, sail, paint, and play the harpsichord,” said another. “Renaissance man. That’s his claim.” “Don’t forget television,” said someone else. “Firing Line was on the air for more than 30 years. And don’t forget his public speaking, either. He’s spoken at virtually every college and university in the entire country at least twice.”
Milton Friedman shook his head. “You’re all wrong,” he said. “Bill Buckley’s greatest talent is for friendship.”
Connoisseurs of conservative intrigue are largely unaware of a remarkable idea that occurred to Bill Buckley in or about the late spring of 1964. Barry Goldwater was well on his way to amassing the number of delegates that would (and eventually did) assure his nomination for president on the first ballot at the Republican convention in San Francisco in July. But thereafter he would have to face President Lyndon Johnson in the general election in November, and not even Barry’s warmest admirers were very optimistic about his chances of beating the formidable Texan, who had succeeded the martyred John Kennedy just a year earlier.
It was at this point that the ever-inventive Br’er Buckley hit upon an idea that would, to put it mildly, have transformed the campaign: Nominate Dwight Eisenhower as Goldwater’s vice-presidential running mate! No one was eager to be the person to ask Ike (who at this point was three and a half years into his retirement in Gettysburg, PA) for his consent. But Bill, consumed with enthusiasm for the idea, was willing to let that problem slide while amassing support. He consulted constitutional lawyers, who assured him the Constitution didn’t bar the nomination. (The Constitution would prohibit Eisenhower from running again for president, but not for vice president.) And I believe he managed to enlist Admiral Lewis Strauss, one of Washington’s wise men, in the cause.
But that was about as far as the idea got. The scheme turned out to be one of those in which Bill’s awesome ingenuity simply overpowered his political practicality. But what a race it would have been: Goldwater & Eisenhower versus Johnson & Humphrey!
–William Rusher served as publisher of NR from 1957 to 1988.
On the occasion of his 80th birthday, I want to acknowledge my admiration and respect for Bill. Indeed, were my Dad alive, I know he would enthusiastically join me in this well-deserved tribute.
For me, Bill has been a valued mentor and loyal friend for many years.
For example, when I announced that I was running for governor of California in 2001, few people took me seriously. Bill did. Even fewer people came to my first fundraiser. Bill did. And the fewest number were those who hung with me after I narrowly lost. Bill did.
Indeed, it was during those long weeks, just after losing to the ultimately recalled Gray Davis, that Bill was extraordinarily careful to stay in touch. In his inimitable fashion, Bill would jot short, witty notes and in encouraging phone conversations keep a light touch. Always, always, after hearing from Bill, my day was brighter, and my footsteps had a bit more spring with a quiet appreciative smile.
There is no one I have ever met that took himself less seriously while at the same time taking his ideas most seriously; no one who had so much self-deprecating passion. Who can forget his response, during his 1965 campaign, when asked what he would do if actually elected mayor of New York, “Demand a Recount!”
Superlatives are often liberally thrown around even by our fellow conservatives, but in Bill’s case, such plaudits grow only more appropriate with the passage of time.
Bill, you have done much and we have come a long way thanks to you and I know you have even more to give.