William F. Buckley, Jr., RIP
I often wish I were someone else, which probably isn’t a good thing, but I do it anyway. More than 20 years ago, when I was still single and battling my way through law school, I came up with a sort of composite of what I’d want to be if I could pick and choose from among the personality and character traits of certain famous people and adopt them as my own. I decided that, in that case, I would want to combine the spirituality of President Spencer W. Kimball, the appearance and physique of John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the intellect, vocabulary, and wit of William F. Buckley, Jr. And if I could trade places with any one of those three men, Mr. Buckley would have been my clear choice, since he personified so many of the characteristics I admire in others: a formidable intellect, combined with a remarkable depth of spirituality, a marvelous and rapier-like sense of humor, an exceptionally wide range of interests, a love of culture and beauty and refinement, and the heart and soul of a poet. To employ a characterization I have sometimes heard others apply to me, but which is far more appropriate with respect to Mr. Buckley, he was a true Renaissance man; in fact, perhaps more than any other contemporary figure I can think of, he defined and personified the term. Thus it was with great sadness that I learned of his passing Wednesday morning, at age 82, in his study at his home in Connecticut. And yet it seemed appropriate that he should leave us when and how he did: actively and busily engaged in life right up to the very end, surrounded by his books and papers, and in the middle of writing yet another of those thousands of pungent, engaging, and oh-so-erudite columns and articles he produced over the course of his long and storied career.
Bill Buckley has been in the upper tier of my personal heroes ever since I first heard of him, which was sometime during my high school years. Regarding the date or even the year, I can’t be any more specific than that, because it really seems to me that he has just sort of always been part of the world in which I lived. I do recall watching my first episode of “Firing Line” sometime around 1970. My father was with me to share the moment, quite visibly pleased to discover that during the turbulent Sixties he had actually managed to raise a solidly conservative son. I do not recall the subject of discussion on the program that day, but I do remember being amused by the spectacle of Mr. Buckley more than holding his own against a panel of three rather exasperated liberals of one stripe or another, and doing so with a degree of self-assurance that almost seemed to be a sort of gentlemanly arrogance. His unique, cultivated accent and equally singular mannerisms delighted and amused me, and as a young LDS missionary in Central America, I enjoyed entertaining my companions with my (reasonably successful) efforts to mimic him. And I loved what and how he wrote, employing that vocabulary of his that dwarfed even mine. By 1972, National Review had already established itself as my favorite magazine; and over the years, Bill Buckley has exerted a greater influence on my own political views than just about anyone else I can think of -- including Ronald Reagan, who himself was heavily influenced by him. A hint of his impact on my own thinking may be seen right here on this site, which from its beginning has always featured a permanent -- and frequently used -- link to National Review Online.
I never had the good fortune to meet Mr. Buckley in person, although he and I did have one close encounter of sorts. In 1976 he spoke at Brigham Young University while I was an undergraduate there, and I went to see and hear him, accompanied by a young woman who was my date for the evening. During a question-and-answer period that followed his remarks, someone in the audience asked him for his views on the conspiracy theory of history. The questioner, as I recall, made a specific reference to Gary Allen’s None Dare Call It Conspiracy, a brief, ridiculous, and rather poorly written book which was making a stir at that time among members of the far right -- and particularly among far-rightward-leaning Mormons, many of whom, then as always, have been especially susceptible to conspiracy theories. (As an aside, I had recently critiqued that book in an essay written for an English class, which I had entitled “None Dare Call It Baloney,” and for which I had been given an “A;” however, I lamented that my personal scruples had not allowed me to use a much stronger word than “baloney.” I had a specific two-syllable Anglo-Saxon word in mind.) The questioner asked Mr. Buckley if he attached any credence to the author's allegations of a vast, evil, worldwide superplot engineered by the CFR, the Bildebergers, the Trilateral Commission, and various others, and Mr. Buckley responded to the young man's inquiry by employing the title I had wanted to use, complete with that unvarnished Anglo-Saxon term. I remember feeling somewhat embarrassed for my date, who was very strait-laced and rather delicate about such matters as raw, barnyard language; but at the same time I felt tickled that Mr. Buckley had displayed no compunctions about saying exactly what that book deserved to have said about it, and the sensibilities of his Mormon audience be damned. (I’m chuckling now as I write about the episode, and to this day I still regret not using the stronger title for my essay.)
I miss Bill Buckley, and I will always miss him. But he will continue to be part of my life, partly because of the influence he has already exerted on my worldview (or Weltanschauung, as he might have said, employing a word I learned myself from one of his writings), and partly because he wrote so prodigiously that I expect to be reading and enjoying his material -- and frequently consulting my dictionary -- until the day my own earthly journey ends. Requiescat in pace.
(Update: As a special tribute to Mr. Buckley, I have also added this image to my Flickr photostream.)