Remembering Bill Buckley

I met Bill Buckley (d. Feb. 27, 2008)  only once, over lunch, so long ago that I can scarcely remember what was said.  Only that it was by invitation (his, obviously), issued as a result of a letter I’d sent him describing a Summer Institute in Spain, organized by his brother-in-law, L. Brent Bozell, with whom he was then estranged owing to deep and intractable differences about America, its cultural and political life.  He would later publish the letter in Cruising Speed—A Documentary, a wonderful and readable account of a single week in his hectic life.  The letter appeared unsigned in the book, an omission for which I am grateful as I would not now have put things in quite the same way.

The year was 1970, a coming-of-age time for many young Americans, and I had gone over to Spain to experience first-hand the heady pleasures of Catholic Culture.  But the brew proved a bit stronger than I’d expected, due to Brent’s determination, sustained throughout that turbulent time by the brilliant and flamboyant Fritz Wilhelmsen (and others of lesser stature), totally to repudiate the American Regime, thus turning the eight or so weeks we spent in the shadow of El Escorial (“Spain’s poem in stone,” Ortega y Gasset called it) into a launching pad armed with missiles aimed at the heart of the U.S. Constitution.

Always the patriot, Bill Buckley instinctively resisted such strictures upon his country, especially since they tended to impugn the institutional integrity of the Republic itself, which he deeply loved.  And certainly he and his magazine, National Review, were busy enough already battling the enemies of America on the hard left.  Finding them on the right, particularly from Roman Catholics of ultramontane persuasion, must have hugely disconcerted him.

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Well I’m sure we talked about all that over lunch, plus whatever else was on the mind of a callow undergraduate, which he bore with exemplary patience and good humor.  He asked me if I’d be willing to come to New York and write for NR, which flattered me to no end even as I had to refuse since, the cursed lottery having recently drawn my number, I was soon to disappear into Richard Nixon’s war in Indochina.  No problem, he said.  Just send copy when you’re not being shot at.

Which I did, writing a fistful of pieces over the few years we stayed in touch.  One in particular lingers in the memory:  A long essay on Willmoore Kendall, one of NR’s founding editors, whose belief in the basic goodness of the American political order I found entirely convincing.  And why do I remember that piece?  Because when it came out I was stationed in Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City, which was under heavy fire by North Vietnamese forces intent on killing people like me.  But also because Fritz Wilhelmsen, chief architect along with Brent Bozell of the Institute experience in Spain, had been a dear friend of Kendall’s at the University of Dallas where Kendall spent his last years (he died in 1967).  Wilhelmsen objected ferociously to what I’d written, on the grounds that Kendall would almost certainly have rejected the revered Republic had he only lived long enough to inventory the full extent of its iniquities.  Fritz and I crossed swords for an issue or two while, just beyond the reach of my typewriter, real weapons were being fired.

Strange to say, however, the exchange with Professor Wilhelmsen, who managed with his usual baroque style to sound the depths of St. Thomas while excoriating the times like Torquemada, ended well.  He and I became great friends when, years later, under the auspices of the KAIROS Foundation, new management as it were, we found ourselves back at El Escorial where, engaged in the transmission of Catholic Culture without the encumbering anti-American bias, we had a splendid time teaching young Americans about the vanished glories of our Catholic past.  He was, without doubt, the finest teacher I ever knew, a judgment later confirmed in a collection of devotional verse I’d put together called Garlands of Grace, which I piously dedicated to his memory.  Fritz died in 1996.  (I remember George Weigel telling me once that he could only picture the figure of Fritz festooned with cloak and sword, eager to take up arms in defense of Christ the King.  It is, I will confess, an endearing image; indeed, it is how I remember him.)

But for all that I owe to Fritz (the Thomism I cut my teeth on I first learned from him), or to Brent, whom I later grew to love and admire very much, especially as I witnessed first hand the terrible losses Our Lord suffered him to endure (his heart, in his last years, seemed to expand with each increment of pain that came his way), it was nevertheless Bill Buckley who stamped my soul in a more lasting way.  And yet I knew him least of all.  What accounts for this I will try to explain.

The first time I laid eyes on him, long before that fabled if mostly unremembered meal in New York, was on television, not knowing a thing about either his politics or his person.  It must have been sometime in 1965, after the Goldwater debacle, and he was debating James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union in England.  Not unlike poor Barry, whom the voters simply annihilated at the polls, he was not expected to survive the evening.  And Mr. Baldwin, clearly the crowd favorite, easily bested Buckley once the votes were counted.  The question, as I recall, before the house was whether in fact the American Dream had been at the expense of the American Negro (the word Black had not yet become fashionable).  Predictably, the author of The Fire Next Time urged the affirmative, i.e., that progress in this country had only come as a result of brutal and systemic exploitation of black people, and that therefore the times made it permissible for the oppressed to rise up and overthrow the white man’s rule.

Scrubbed down, Baldwin’s position was that because white folks had somehow failed the black man, refusing to uphold standards of racial equality, the standards themselves had become suspect.  Thus our entire panoply of laws must now be dismantled and destroyed.  Clearly this was not the non-violence preached by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., who for all his righteous impatience with the progress of white America was not yet ready to countenance revolution.  No, it was the extremist James Baldwin who threatened us with the fire next time.  A truly preposterous notion, it seemed to me even then.  Rather like setting libraries on fire because too many patrons are abusing their right to read by checking out the wrong books.   Should the Church jettison parish confessionals now that it’s been established we’re all sinners?  Baldwin’s logic, closely examined, struck me as exceedingly stupid even as a teenager.  Yet he blew the audience completely away.  All those cheering Brits simply refused to see the implicit nihilism of his position.  Yet none of that mattered to me in the least, because so riveting had I found Buckley’s performance that night, so eloquent his defense of the basic truths essential to the maintenance of Western Civilization (how quaint that now sounds!), I could not imagine anyone framing a set of arguments more convincing than his.  His courage, the adroit and elegant use of language in pressing his case before so raucous and hostile an audience, were simply spellbinding.  And, yes, he was right.

The rest is history.  Thoroughly bewitched by his rhetoric and wit, the relentless cogency of his arguments, I at once signed on with the movement he’d founded, prepared to sound the same drumbeat as countless other youthful reactionaries who’d suddenly found their voice amid the glamour of ideas widely derided at the time by the Liberal Establishment.  If Bill Buckley could make tilting at windmills such swashbuckling fun, why not young fuddy-duddies like me, who really hated the sixties and all the flotsam that followed in its fetid wake?  And so when the campuses started going up in smoke, the fires of student discontent stoked by the enemies of order and truth, there I was, in perfect Buckleyspeak, ready and eager to put out the flames.  Hectoring a tiny handful of my classmates one afternoon in my senior year into staging a Pro-Vietnam War rally, I even managed to unearth an odd Republican or two in the Political Science Department to help lead the charge.  It was exhilarating.

Buckley made conservatism seem somehow stylish.  One could be right without appearing to be a rube.  Whatever skill or confidence I gained in taking on the liberal beast, I owed to the example of Bill Buckley, who not only did it for a living but with a superb sense of theater.  Who could resist so seductive a presence, especially on TV, which is where most of us encountered “the polysyllabic exuberance” of Buckley?  Apparently not even his victims, who invariably were charmed even as they were being consumed.  There were exceptions, to be sure, the most odious being the late Gore Vidal, a longtime antagonist, who famously provoked Bill into so blowing it one evening in August of 1968 on network television (played out against the backdrop of far greater violence at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago where they slugged it out on ABC-TV), that it took him years to get over the trauma.  But even that display of intemperance he managed to finesse in such a way as to transfix millions of television viewers.

Meanwhile, a quarter-century has gone by since I last saw a piece of mine published in National Review, the magazine that, for movement conservatives, was the brightest star in the night sky.  Yet, for me, it gradually lost its luster.  While not yet in total eclipse, it certainly had ceased to light up my sky.  Or, putting it perhaps more graciously, other luminosities have come along to draw my attention away from NR, from what Bill Buckley would call the normal vectors of conservative life and thought.  It has long since lost its cachet with me.  Could it be that with so many neocons now running the show, we poor paleos have been forced to look elsewhere?  Who knows.

I do not repine.  So much else having intervened to anchor and sustain my life, I really do not miss the movement I once viewed as a vehicle practically anointed by the Lord.  In fact, it was the God Question that, forcing me back to bedrock, finally drove me away, back to where Chesterton was wont to locate the Catholic Thing.  That was the catalyst.  Quite simply, it was the realization I came to that, at the end of the day, no movement or vehicle of secular ideas, not even those vouchsafed by the editors of NR, was equal to the weight of the Church’ s own two thousand plus years of cumulative wisdom and experience.

Especially not one given to hit-and-run attacks on the Church herself, a tendency to which Bill Buckley himself was now and again tempted to succumb.  Whether it was an editorial quip dismissing a papal encyclical as a “venture in triviality,” which is how he described Pope John XXIII’s Mater et Magistra back in 1962 (the editorial in NR bore the title “Mater si, Magistra no,” as if it were entirely acceptable to exercise one or the other option); or a column he wrote some years later instructing his fellow Catholics not to impose on others their belief that abortion is murder (a strange position to take for someone who otherwise believes in the right of an unborn child to be born…. Bill, it must be said, came rather late to the Pro-Life Cause, unlike Brent or Fritz who early on saw the prophetic importance of defending the sanctity of innocent life.  And, of course, he never really came to appreciate the Church’s stance on openness to life, so beautifully set out in Humane Vitae).

What am I saying?  Only that the nature of the crisis we face—in the culture, the family, the human heart—will not be solved, or even much understood, without reference to matters transcendent to the counsels of conservative ideology.  I offer as a case in point the following, which is an excerpt from a remarkable letter written in 1968 (what a watershed year that was!), by Karol Wojtyla to Henri de Lubac, declaring that the lineaments of the crisis we face are not moral, but metaphysical, impinging on such mysteries of God and man as only divine Revelation can illumine.

“The evil of our time,” he wrote, “consists in a sort of degradation of the fundamental uniqueness of each human being…. We should oppose it not with sterile arguments but with a recapitulation of the sacred mystery of the person.”

Do conservatives talk like that?  Did they ever?

In parsing that particular distinction I find the future pope having precisely identified the differences that finally persuaded me to abandon conservative politics.  Christus totam novitatem attulit, semetipsum afferens, declared the sainted bishop and martyr Irenaeus.  “Christ brought all things new by bringing himself.”  This is the heart of the Church’s faith.  It is her insistence that only in Christ, in the continual newness of the event of his coming among us, can we find salvation.  In the mystery of God’s sudden and unforeseen eruption into history, the divine presence no less entering the heart of the world, we see a drama vastly superior to anything secular politics can encompass.

“In the experience of a great love,” Romano Guardini would write, thereby sounding the theme that has become my life’s anthem, “everything that happens becomes an event related to that love.”  The totalizing effect of the encounter with Christ necessarily relativizes everything else, including especially the whole conservative/liberal dialectic.

And so it was only a matter of time before conservative partisan politics and I would part company.

And Bill Buckley?  Did I lose touch with him as well?  I did.  And while it leaves me rueful, I nevertheless take comfort in knowing that I was yet able, some years back, to write and tell him how singular an impact his life had been on so many other lives, my own included.  That last letter I’d sent him included a book of mine which had just come out called The Last Things, an exposition—not too morbid, I hoped—on the finalities we must all face.  He thanked me for it with his usual courtesy and that was that.  Did he read it?  Perhaps not but, then, why should he have to be reminded by me about death and the life to come?   Having long ago accustomed himself to the discipline of prayer, the sacraments, of heeding the End that comes to us all—and, not infrequently, when we least expect the summons—he was surely ready.

And, indeed, he died pretty much as he had lived, not only batting out a final book (on Ronald Reagan), but steeped in the faith of his childhood, rejoicing in the inheritance of the saints and martyrs who long ago blazed the trail of that piety and devotion that belongs to every Catholic.  In an interview given just after his death, his son Christopher declared that his father had been, all his life, “deeply, profoundly and sometimes exasperatingly Catholic.”

I am not sure I know what he means by exasperating but, for myself, I am very glad to hear it.  If anything, I’d have wished his Catholicism were even more so.  Who knows, maybe I’d have remained a conservative a while longer.

May his soul, and the souls of Brent and Fritz, be reconciled at last, and may they each rest in the peace of Christ.


  • Regis Martin

    Regis Martin is Professor of Theology and Faculty Associate with the Veritas Center for Ethics in Public Life at the Franciscan University of Steubenville. He earned a licentiate and a doctorate in sacred theology from the Pontifical University of St. Thomas Aquinas in Rome. Martin is the author of a number of books, including Still Point: Loss, Longing, and Our Search for God (2012) and The Beggar’s Banquet (Emmaus Road). His most recent book, published by Scepter, is called Looking for Lazarus: A Preview of the Resurrection.

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