Twelve years ago this week, my late/great friend William F. Buckley, Jr. died while working at his desk in Stamford, Connecticut, hard-by the Long Island Sound, and just north of New York City where he had been born more than eight decades earlier.
In those last three difficult years of his life, he was still busy as a beaver, and the final two books he penned were written when Bill was not only in failing health but also struggling mightily on a day to day, week to week basis.
Despite the hurdles, he was determined to finish his personal biographies of his famed-pals Senator Barry M. Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Bill had been close friends of both men and their wives and children for countless years, including a kind of godfather figure to the two youngest Reagan offspring, Patty and Ron. Bill himself was a very close friend of Nancy Reagan.
His Goldwater and Reagan biographies have gotten lost by time but are well worth reading: lyrical, charming, and deeply insightful of the making of the conservative movement in those years after World War II and the demise of Franklin Roosevelt. Stories told, in part, through the remarkable rise of Goldwater of Arizona and Reagan of Illinois, both incarnating a tide that would ultimately result in the deeply consequential Reagan presidency and the remaking of the GOP.
Bill was, his friend and fellow-columnist George F. Will once said, the most consequential journalist of the second half of the twentieth century. In this analysis, George is expressly right. When serious histories are written of journalism of that confused and uproarious one-hundred years of American journalism, Bill Buckley will be seen as the single most important founder, shaper, and editor-in-chief of the most important magazine of opinion, National Review — his peerless legacy.
Will once quipped that before there was Reagan, there was Goldwater, and before there was Goldwater, there was Buckley, and before there was Buckley, there was a feisty and gritty and witty/spunky journal called National Review which launched American conservatism as a set of serious ideas that packed not only a political punch but mostly a cultural punch that resulted in the Reagan presidency which in turn envisioned, seeded, and oversaw the fall of Soviet communism. NR, as it is known, was Buckley’s greatest brainchild.
George H.W. Bush, another Buckley friend and fellow Yalie if not a fellow conservative soulmate, conferred the Medal of Freedom on Bill in what was surely one of the greatest days for American journalism (and its battlefield of values) in the history of the East Room. It was not unlike President Trump singling out Rush Limbaugh in the VIP Gallery of the House of Representatives for the same Medal just a few weeks ago during the State of the Union speech.
For all of Bill’s achievements – a great writer, editor, novelist, debater, author of 50+ books and thousands of columns, sailor, harpsichordist, raconteur extraordinaire, builder of institutions rooted in great ideas, and etc. – none equaled his greatest accomplishment, par excellence: his singular gift of friendship. It was firmly rooted not only in a natural sangfroid and goodwill but mostly seeded deeply in a large and true soul that sprang directly from his serious Christianity. Bill was the Rembrandt of friendship, turning this kind of goodwill into a kind of almost tangible artform.
His son Christo recounts a rather remarkable conversation Bill once had in which his interlocutor suggested that all men have doubts about the existence of God, and therefore experience a kind of impact on how they navigate questions of faith and the daily issues of life. But in a stroke of both humility and candor, Bill replied that he had never doubted, that the truth of his Christian faith was as he and his many brothers and sisters had been taught it by his faithful and beloved mother Aloise Steiner Buckley. Bill once told me that his mother ‘had a love affair with God which was realer than anything else in her life.”
It was the same in Bill’s life, too.
Across many summers, Bill and two others and I – great friends all – sailed up and down the Eastern seaboard, from as far south as New York Harbor and the Battery to as far north as the Saint John’s River and the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia. There was nothing quite so fun as being on a sailboat with a man who was almost boyish in his love of the ocean, boats, and time-away with good friends, replete with a generosity that resulted in great meals, great sunrises and sunsets, and with the constant music of J.S. Bach playing somewhere aboard his boat even in the foulest weather. Bill’s friendship was as panoramic and as kaleidoscopic as the many moods of the Atlantic coastline.
Of all my great memories of Bill, the one I cherish most was also among the most poignant moments of our friendship. We had sailed into Annapolis where one of Bill’s great friends lived and kept a majestic yacht. The day was heavy with rain, thick with the fog, and the kind of weather expressly akimbo for a man in his late 70s with major breathing challenges.
We finally begged and pleaded for Bill to step off the boat – a nearly impossible task — and to spend at least one night ashore in the home of the niece of one of our fellow sailors. But Bill had one thing he wanted to do before spending the day inside: he asked if I would accompany him to church at historic St. Mary’s in Maryland’s beautiful and quaint capital city. Of course, I readily agreed to do so.
Upon entering the church, almost gasping for breath after our gentle walk uphill, Bill ever so slowly knelt beside the pew and told me, “It is here I find His peace.”
I visited Bill’s grave in Sharon, Connecticut, the Buckley family home, three years ago with his older brother Jim, the former U.S. Senator from New York and retired distinguished federal judge. It was the first time I had been there, and I was touched deeply. Above Bill’s grave was a large stone cross which he had commissioned several years before and placed on his sizable lawn in Stamford. His wife Pat, who died only shortly before him, is there too. It is a small cemetery, and quaint even by New England standards. Some of Bill’s siblings rest for eternity nearby. The past seems present; it is amazing how fast the years go.
“Lord, make me an instrument of your peace … For it is in giving that we receive … And it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.”