Opinion: William F. Buckley Jr., one private memory


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The nation’s political scene, as it stumbles through another leap year party nominating process, has all the trappings of a fully functioning democracy -- the banners and bunting, the overheated rhetoric, and hyperbole, the scientifically-sculpted, carefully-uttered campaign message phrases, the feigned outrage and pointed fingers for the cameras’ benefit.

This process also has stale, divisive and short-term political strategies that cause and exacerbate, rather than relieve, turmoil and frictions. Proposed policies aplenty. But real, new ideas seem dessicated.


From that well-televised scene in recent years, William F. Buckley Jr., a fountain of ideas who led two generations of conservative political thinking, had left New York, sold his beloved sailboat and settled into his packed study in Sharon, Conn., to intensely compose letters, columns and books, of which he’s written 55.

In that sacred private place, he thought and wrote and coughed in the short raspy breaths of emphysema and endured the regimen of diabetes, either of which could have killed him Wednesday at 82. Buckley, who was widowed last spring, was found by a cook, at his desk, where, despite the pain and short breath, he would write every day, including his last.

With a Barry Goldwater book due out this spring, Buckley was within two months of finishing a book on Ronald Reagan with his sights set on another; ironically, a collection of the 450 graceful obituaries he wrote for the magazine he founded in 1955, National Review. There, he displayed his famous wit, announcing one week after Lyndon Johnson’s inauguration in 1965 that he’d lost patience with that administration. He was also famous as a sesquipedalian, someone who routinely uses long words like that.

To a generation that finds the Bee Gees ancient history, Buckley must seem a strange duck. Well-educated, well-read, well-spoken, wealthy, he almost single-handedly cradled the modern conservative movement in the early post-World War II years.

Then, through the ‘50s and ‘60s, he drove it with the power of his spoken and written words, enduring the painful but formative 1964 candidacy of Goldwater, the last Arizona Republican nominee, which ...

created a generation of committed conservatives who finally came to power and influence within the ideas of Reagan and Bush I. When asked what job he wanted in the Reagan administration, Buckley replied ‘ventriloquist.’


You can read about his life and writings here and here. And there’s a photo gallery here.

Mine is a more personal memory that began with a phone ringing unexpectedly in my Tokyo home around 1977. The caller had that distinctive, erudite Buckley vocabulary, a wisp of a Southern accent and patient cadence, as if... he... spoke... slowly... to... kindly... allow.. me time to grasp his meaning.

Buckley, concluding a long Asian trip, wondered if I could tutor him in Japanese politics that evening in exchange for a dinner at his hotel. Me, teach William F. Buckley Jr. about politics. I said I thought I could squeeze him into my otherwise impossible schedule.

I assumed he called because of my newspaper employer, but he soon displayed a writer’s heart and a wide knowledge of my past articles, even recalling our brief meeting in Milwaukee five years before after a taping of his PBS ‘Firing Line,’ which became the longest-running TV program ever with the same host.

For a television personality, Buckley was a remarkably good listener. But as the long evening and early hours quickly passed and his tie came down and he proffered cigars, I turned the questioning around. He talked of contemporary politicians and the ones from before. But not critically. There were disagreeable ideas and policies but, surprisingly, no enemies.

And then his eyes lit up and he smiled. He wanted to share a recent story about ‘a dear friend.’ That dear friend, again surprisingly, was Hubert H. Humphrey, the former pharmacist, Minneapolis mayor, Minnesota senator and vice president whose liberal politics were about as far from Buckley’s as Tokyo from Connecticut.


Buckley was famous for skewering liberals like Humphrey during the 1,504 episodes of his TV show, recalling on-air to one famous New York Democrat how many times he’d been on ‘Firing Line.’ And then, adding, ‘Tell me, Mark, have you learned anything?’

Humphrey was called ‘the Happy Warrior’ for his endless enthusiasms and energies to fix things. He had returned to the Senate after being personally crushed by his defeat at the hands of Richard Nixon and Humphrey’s own badly-fractured Democratic Party in the antiwar violence, assassinations and political violence of 1968.

As Buckley talked that evening, the world silently knew that Humphrey was dying from cancer, slowly and surely. But the Minnesotan wouldn’t let on.

Buckley had been on a recent flight from New York to Britain, he said. The in-flight movie projector had broken so he was reading, legs crossed, Santa Claus spectacles perched on his nose. When, abruptly, a noisy ruckus erupted behind and above him.

Buckley wheeled and there, coat off, sleeves rolled up, he saw Hubert H. Humphrey mounting a ladder and inserting himself into the broken projector situation and the aircraft’s ceiling, muttering constantly to himself while he tried to fix the balky machine, without success as it turned out. ‘That’s Hubert,’ Buckley thought with affection.

A flight attendant approached. She said the captain was a fan and was inviting Buckley into the cockpit to watch the landing in the London night. Buckley recalled being awed by the scene approaching ahead, the horizon aglow from the ancient city, the modern airport closer with all the lights, some flashing, many colored as the giant plane slowly descended through the darkness toward the earth.

Suddenly, the cockpit door flew open. ‘Bill!’ shouted the senator. ‘What are you doing in here? Why wasn’t I invited? What’s going on? Oh, my goodness! Bill, will you look at that sight? Isn’t that beautiful? Oh, my. Look!’


And, Buckley recounted, instead of the outside scenery, he ended up that night in the dark cockpit watching instead his dying friend in admiration, still excited, still himself, exulting at the world’s beauty as he came down slowly for a landing at the end of a long trip.

Then, Buckley looked at me and took a sip of his drink. ‘I hope at the end,’ he said, ‘I come in for my last landing the same way.’

I think he did.

-- Andrew Malcolm