27 Feb 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr., 1925-2008

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At a moment in history when things look black for Conservatism, the sad news arrives that the last of the giants who created the post-WWII Conservative Movement and fundamentally changed the direction of American politics, William F. Buckley, Jr. was found dead in his Stamford, Connecticut home today.


Reading the numerous tributes to William F. Buckley this morning, I found the following by Mona Charen in the Washington Post.

Woody Allen is reputed to have said that it was better not to meet people you revere — the disappointment was always so crushing. But no one fortunate enough to meet or know William F. Buckley Jr., who passed away yesterday at the age of 82, could say that. A man of coruscating wit (he’d approve of that word), he was also, by universal acclamation, the most gracious man on the planet. Legend he was, but in a small group, it was always Bill who rushed to get a chair for the person left standing. It was always Bill who reached to fill your glass. It was always Bill who volunteered to give you a lift wherever you were going, insisting it was on his way.

I first met William Buckley as a freshman at college.

Only a few years earlier, Buckley had established a new visibility for conservative ideas, making himself into a national celebrity in the process, appearing regularly on television news programs and late night talk shows to deliver heretical viewpoints and analyses that sailed out far over the heads of his media interlocutors. I remember with fondness his first appearance on the Jack Paar program. Paar was reduced to playing the smiley, faux-modest Everyman, telling Buckley that he couldn’t understand Buckley’s political and philosophical concepts, but felt that Mr. Buckley must have no heart.

By my freshman year, Buckley had become a national celebrity and a major political figure. That year at the Yale Political Union, William F. Buckley returned to Yale to debate Yale University’s leftist chaplain William Sloane Coffin on the proposition: “Resolved: Government has an obligation to promote equality as well as preserve liberty.” Visiting Political Union speakers were normally dined at Mory’s by Political Union officials and table space was limited. Buckley was that year’s top YPU draw, and there was not the slightest possibility that a mere freshman could obtain seating at that highly-coveted table.

Nonetheless, I was very interested in seeing William F. Buckley perform at close range, and I was by no means lacking in initiative and determination as a young man. I simply proceeded to Mory’s without an invitation, and took up a standing position by the entrance to the private dining room where I could conveniently listen to the conversation and look on.

At age 17, it was not much of a burden to stand up to listen in on this particular dinner for an hour or two, but before very long Buckley looked up, noticed me standing there, and immediately rose from the table, summoned a waiter and demanded that an extra chair be provided. He took the chair out of the waiter’s hand, made room, and positioned it near the table himself. It was the kind of expansively generous display of courtesy, not terribly commonly encountered, but recognizably characteristic of native citizens of Olympian levels of the old-fashioned American boarding school/Ivy League aristocracy.

Buckley’s kindly gesture was even noticed by reporters, and a month later a feature on the debate gleefully described Buckley as personally seating at his dinner someone Esquire magazine described as looking like “a teen-age banker.”


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