(Denver Post, March 16) The famous political gadfly and New York literary lion is invited to speak at the University of Hawaii. He accepts, not for the fee or the beach time, but with a passion for his beliefs and a try-anything spirit that equally attracts him to sailing and the harpsichord. Two starstruck newlyweds, intellectually underfed at the Pearl Harbor naval base, come up after the lecture to shake their hero’s hand. He responds encouragingly to the young ensign’s aspiration for a career in conservatism. That night a life is changed. It was my life that took a turn under the Honolulu palms in 1968, and it was William F. Buckley Jr. who aided the turn in a single gracious moment of uncalculating kindness. Donna and I relived the memory on learning of Bill’s death – at the writing desk, with his boots on, aged 82 – two weeks ago.
Buckley’s legacy is towering. Founder of National Review, midwife to the Goldwater and Reagan candidacies, author of over 50 books and 5000 columns, host of “Firing Line” on PBS for 33 years, he was the conservative movement’s George Washington. But my tribute is not to his public persona. It is to the private man, unforgettable in his flair for friendship and his genius for generosity.
Charles Kesler of the Claremont Institute told my radio listeners of contacting WFB cold for a high-school newspaper interview during a West Virginia speaking trip in the 1970s. Kesler got not only the scoop but a recommendation letter to Harvard, his first step to becoming one of America’s leading political scientists.
David Asman, formerly at the Wall Street Journal and now an anchor on Fox, ended his one-hour commemorative special by confiding, “I probably wouldn’t be in journalism if it weren’t for Bill Buckley.” His experience matched Kesler’s and mine: a young fan’s letter to WFB that brought a fatherly reply such as 99 of 100 big shots would never stoop to send.
You could fill a book with the stories of this contagiously energetic man’s influence on budding devotees of liberty, order, and American exceptionalism. Some of the beneficiaries rose to stardom themselves, others (like me) remained more obscure; but a lifelong bond of affection and gratitude linked all of us to Bill. And amazingly, he reciprocated.
As a kid on Nixon’s staff after the Navy, I found the sage of National Review never too busy when I called up hoping to write for the magazine (he assigned me to book editor George Will), or get advice during the Watergate scandal, or explore job leads after quitting in protest. As a think-tank guy in Colorado a decade later, I was floored to receive complimentary mention in Overdrive, his 1983 memoir.
WFB heads the list of important men who reached down and took an interest in me when there was nothing in it for them. Sen. Charles Percy, Missouri Gov. Warren Hearnes, and Gene Bradley of GE were others in the 1960s. In the ’70s there were John Ehrlichman and Bill Armstrong; in the ‘80s, Donald Rumsfeld and Chuck Stevinson. I try to pay it forward in their honor.
Gone are my fantasies of succeeding as the next Bill Buckley – or later the next George Roche, my mentor at Hillsdale College. I just seek opportunities to “be someone’s Bill Buckley,” in the sense of taking time to encourage that eager, questing youngster as he long ago encouraged me. Winning a million in the lottery is nothing compared to the rewards of this.
We who follow Christ, as Buckley so devoutly did, call the recent season Lent and the coming days Holy Week. Self-giving is the keynote. The Good Samaritan, helping where he didn’t have to, is the example. God-talk speaks far less than actions. WFB’s life shouted and sang.