My dear friend the late William F. Buckley, Jr. would have turned 95 years old on 24 November. In one sense, he was forever young, and his boyish charm and preppy proclivities were of the JFK variety even as his lasting fidelities were old-school verities to the core. Bill believed deeply in what Burke and later Eliot called ‘the permanent things’ of faith, family, friendship, and freedom.
There is rarely a week that passes when I don’t remember with gratitude and thanksgiving his organic generosity of soul and spirit, and above all, his felicity for friendship. He raised the latter to a kind of fine art, redolent of another era and time.
His infectious good humor was the very definition of what the French know as joie de vivre, and Bill’s natural savoir-faire raised the bar on our many adventures, and I suppose above all, sailing in New England and Canada. A common friend said time with Bill and his wife Pat Buckley was like being dropped into the middle of one of the Thin Man films – there was always plenty going on, and always defined by brio and elan.
A writer whom Bill and I both esteemed highly, C.S. Lewis, who died on November 22nd at the age of 64 in 1963, once wrote “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: ‘What? You, too? I thought I was the only one.”
A common friend introduced us when I was working in the United States Senate for Dan Coats of Indiana as his deputy press secretary. That introduction resulted in a much-unexpected invitation to Bill and Pat’s for dinner in New York City.
I accepted the invitation; took the train to Gotham two weeks later from Washington DC; and spent one of the most memorable and enjoyable evenings of my life with the Buckleys and a small coterie of National Review editors and other guests at their home at 73rd and Park Avenue. I remember walking into their grand pied-a-terre: King Charles Cavalier dogs barking and nipping at my feet; a tuxedoed young butler offering me something to drink from a small silver tray; Pat Buckley in a flowing white dress, perfumed aplenty; a harpsichord in the entry hall Bill was plucking; brightly colored paintings on every wall, many of them abstracts; and thence into a reddish-orange library for conversation before dinner.
Our friendship, borne that night, was one of the great blessings on my life, and not too many weeks after that, Bill wrote again, inviting me for a sail. I had never been on a sailboat much-less contemplated a weekend sail in the Long Island Sound where the Buckley’s had a home in Stamford, Connecticut. I knew that Bill was one of the most famous American sailors, and yet once aboard, he made me feel as if I were an old-salt, which I decidedly was not.
That was the first of many sailing adventures from the Long Island Sound all the way North to the St John’s River and the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. What fun we had; what remarkable conversations we enjoyed; what memories those summers evoke now, all as so much mist over the ocean.
The best time we had together on Bill’s boat called Patito was a rather short trip across the Sound to what is called Oyster Bay along the New York shore.
The clouds folded back; the twinkling stars emerged as if on cue; the Manhattan skyline was clearly visible and shining out of the near darkness. The mast, the sails, the retreating clouds, the dark water: There was an intensity bordering on grandeur which was an epiphany and sublime.
We sailed across the Bay – that part of the world was home to one of my favorite presidents, Theodore Roosevelt, and also heavily written about by one of my favorite authors, F. Scott Fitzgerald – and nearly the whole time, J.S. Bach’s music played from the deck of our boat where we later dined amid the sweet salt air and mysterious Atlantic Ocean lapping up here and there against the sides of the boat. The whole evening seemed serendipitous, and I felt God’s close-presence to us that special evening. In one sense, it all seems so long ago.
A colleague of mine at Focus on the Family emailed me a photo of Bill with one of his dogs a week ago; it depicts Bill in the back of his limo, typing out a column in the era before PC’s and his little dog looks on. It is a witty picture animated by brio – a man and his pet on a mission.
My friendship will Bill Buckley did what all great friendships do for all of us: they change and enhance our lives for the better, and forever. I am giving thanks for him, and his lovely memory, all this week as his birthday reminds me that, when God is the center of it, life is unsurpassing joy.
Photo source unknown