I’m sure that, along with hundreds (more likely, thousands) of fortunate formerly young conservatives and writers, I am especially saddened by the news that Bill Buckley died this morning.
In 1959, I wrote him a fan letter and was granted an interview for my high school paper, the Purple & Gold. What was supposed to be a cursory fifteen minutes spilled over into three quarters of an hour, and when I left I was on cloud ten.
I was already a card carrying (which meant NR-subscribing) member of the legion of young conservatives for whom mere admiration was the wimpy alternative to wanting actually to be WFB. Of course the renaissance mind, the rapier wit, the killer vocabulary, the superhuman energy, the lasersharp focus (and this was before anybody even knew what lasers were), the natural charm, the effortless sophistication…….all these were beyond us. But at least we could imitate him. I’m sure that dealing with the real thing was itself a handful, but I blush to think about how my parents coped with the WFB wannabe living in their house —- darting his tongue, raising his eyebrows, elongating his syllables, and acting generally superior to his surroundings.
Mr. Buckley noted my interview’s publication with an inscribed copy of his current bestseller Up From Liberalism. A correspondence ensued, and Bill (as he insisted that I call him) introduced me to Frank and Elsie Meyer — which was itself a life-changing experience. Frank actually bought (!) and printed in the arts section of National Review a piece I wrote on the ’59 Oscars — my first ever appearance in the public prints. Fortunately the hapless readers of the magazine weren’t informed that this highly opinionated new commentator was only recently out of short pants.
I found myself on the very broad invitation list to join the Editor in his office on East 35th Street every other Wednesday evening after the magazine closed. That was, for years, a fortnightly gathering of the clan; Bill and the staff were there to meet and schmooze with whomever happened to be in New York that day. There was an open bar (soft drinks, of course, for the high schoolers) and I was one of many young ‘uns who got to rub shoulders with the likes of Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, John Chamberlain, Bill Rusher, James Burnham, and Brent Bozell.
Several years later, after having only exchanged Christmas cards (exchanged in the sense that Frances Bronson would address one to me), I wrote Bill a letter catching him up on the news that I was now in graduate school in England and had just unearthed a major collection of diaries from the 1920s and 1930s that I planned to spend the next year transcribing and editing. A few weeks later I had a letter from him congratulating me on my progress and including a very generous (and much needed) check to help cover the costs of my project.
Back in New York, I was invited to the legendary Buckley Park Avenue pad where I got to meet the truly amazing Pat. How incomparable they were as individuals; and what a pair they made.
I know that I was only one of thousands of young (a) people, (b) conservatives, (c) writers that Bill Buckley took the time to notice and encourage in those just-pre and just-post Goldwater years. In addition to all his legacies that will rightly be noted and celebrated —-the magazine, the books, the novels, the TV, and, of course, Christopher—- there is also the generation of young men and women he inspired and touched and changed and heartened — and launched. Although we’re either in, or closing in, on our dotage, Bill Buckley and the role he played in those days will never be forgotten.