Shaffer: Death of a Yale Man

On Truth and Lies

This Sunday marks two years since the death of William F. Buckley, Jr. ’50, writer, conservative icon and Yale Man.

I got to see Buckley as a freshman at a Yale Political Union debate on Nov. 1, 2006. The cavalier alumnus insisted on “Resolved: The Democratic Candidates for November 7th Should Withdraw.” He would accept no other. Bright platinum hair, azure eyes, imperious demeanor — stiff necks turned to follow the towering silhouette. He limped slightly, visibly aged. But he was pure eloquence from the moment he took the podium. Furious pounding from the right followed Buckley’s boldest words, but his panache silenced the left’s hisses.

Ecstatic laughter followed wry witticisms and cocky jabs — most of all his self-deprecation (that such a man would self-deprecate to us!) produced hiccups. Otherwise stillness ruled. (This in a room of Union hacks, who rarely stop gabbing.)

He left the official topic and talked of Yale College. His favorite story and greatest pride was when he convinced Yale to rescind an invitation to a communist agitator. What we do at Yale College does and will matter, he said.

Then his voice lowered. He confided that he was nearing the end of his life and this would be his last public appearance.

Shock. “On inquiry.” “Did we hear right?”

Buckley died 15 months later having kept his promise, so honoring no other institution after Yale. Why he would choose the YPU is beyond me, but I was moved that after Firing Line and National Review, a life of celebrity and power, he came home to Yale. He was a dying man calling out his first love’s name.

Buckley never forgot us. Let us remember him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald said “the rich are different than you and me.” Hemingway’s reply: “Yes, they have more money.” I’m not sure it’s because he was rich, but Bill Buckley lived a different kind of life. In college, he flew a private plane from Boston to New Haven without a license and with only 90 minutes of training, ostensibly to make an exam. (I suspect it was mostly for fun.) He sailed the oceans, advised presidents, was a bon vivant and wine connoisseur, and had such a hectic schedule that he began urinating out of the open doors of moving limousines,

And he was a magnificent writer. I count 36 non-fiction books and 20 novels. Plus weekly columns, television programs, editing and endless letters — Chris Buckley ’75 said that that he may be the most prolific letter-writer in American history — written to sitting Presidents, enemies and adoring fans.

I loved his style. Every new word was a new thought, and Buckley sought just the right one, however esoteric. We are often told to keep our writing colloquial. Buckley would disdain this — ordinary language is fit for ordinary thoughts. His prose was easy, but without cliché, the kind of thing you could follow and enjoy without feeling condescended to. He wrote about theology and sailing and spies, and, of course, politics.

He started here, with “God and Man at Yale,” the book that established him as a star and a conservative, a reactionary according to some. The book won’t persuade readers of our generation. The nature of progress is that, once made, we can’t remember or articulate why the old ways were cherished. Buckley knew he was on the losing side of history and that most of his pleas would be in vain. But he embraced his role.

I think there’s something true and good in Buckley’s “standing athwart history.” In moderation, it’s reasonable — when an idea becomes too chic it’s best to be skeptical. When in doubt, take the unfashionable, losing side.

Buckley’s conservatism is not angry reaction. It is skepticism and piety — not necessarily religious, but a reverence for old ways and sentiments, a fear of casting them off too blithely. It doesn’t deny the possibility of progress, but it cautions against congratulating ourselves too soon.

Buckley wasn’t mean or curmudgeonly. I know one Yale alumnus who recalls happy days smoking marijuana on Buckley’s yacht. Buckley was a rare uncloseted conservative who still got invited to the best parties, and he was by all accounts a hit.

Still, he wasn’t bien pensants either. A committed Catholic who didn’t flinch from uncool beliefs and rites that come with observance, he never aimed for popularity. But he had enough friends to match his enemies by the end.

He was morally serious without being humorless, moving smoothly from irony to gravity. Irony is the mode of our generation — the way we avoid moral commitment and cover the nakedness of our real belief. It’s fun, but a vice when indulged (as I do). Buckley could do irony well, but did so as an earnest, a serious man. He published, for the world to see, “Near my God: An Autobiography of Faith.” And he spent more time exposing his beliefs than ridiculing others’ gaffes.

Human as he was, he had personal vices, known to his dearest. After his death we learned that his leviathan oeuvre owed something to Ritalin abuse.

Buckley stood athwart history, thinking it best to hear the stylish opinions and say just the opposite. Funny thing, his influence was enough those views soon became a bit less unfashionable. That’s greatness.

A long, long list of adjectives suits Buckley. Charming, imperious, lovable, witty, ferocious, aristocratic, arrogant, adept, alive, precise, bold. I could go on.

Two phrases captured him best. Great Man. Yale Man.

Matthew Shaffer is a senior in Davenport College.

Correction: Feb. 26, 2010

An earlier version of this column incorrectly stated that F. Scott Fitzgerald graduated from Yale.


  • ’10

    Buckley was actually kind of latently racist.

    And F. Scott Fitzgerald went to a third-tier college in central New Jersey, not Yale. Although several characters in The Great Gatsby went to Yale.

  • @ ’10

    most people in that generation were latently racist…think of the generation of our grandparents, most of whom are wonderful people but had very different perceptions of race and what was socially acceptable than we do now. we have to consider such context when analyzing the life of anyone from 2 generations ago.

  • Yale 08

    WFB is our greatest alum. Not because of his success (which was considerable) but because he was the quintessential YALE MAN.

    Too bad our campus suffers from a scarcity of such men today.

  • DC

    WFB was a great man and a Yale man, and this is a moving description of him.

  • saybrook997

    Very nice. You only leave out what finally made him real to me: his suffering. He did not urinate out of limosines because of his hectic schedule. Only late in his hectic schedule, becuase he had diabetes, which causes frequent urination when the disease can no longer be controlled.

    He suffered. Late in life, from diabetes and other illnesses. Like most of us, he tried to hide, ignore or distract himself from pain. He reportedly said that apart from the religious aspect of it, he thought of killing himself, to be done with that part of life a bit early.

    Instead of teaching us about suffering, he chose to work through it and speak through it as long as he could. He died sitting at his desk, other work (he did not consider it work) still going and left unfinished.

    I don’t challenge his choice to focuse his mind and others of us on everything but his pains. Perhaps that is noble or caring, but don’t Buddhists believe that life is suffering? That may be too far; some see mostly joy. Pope John Paul II, when asked why he continued as Pope and to make public appearances with advanced Parkinson disease, said he wanted to show (teach) that suffering is a part of life, a normal part. And few people get to have so rich of life as them, with only a few years of intense suffering at its ending.

    My favorite response, perhaps related to his distancing most of us from his own sufferings. Buckley’s response to Ronald Reagan in their debate over returning the Panama Canal to Panama (Buckley supported it). When asked by Reagan why he was speaking so far away, why not come closer, Buckley answered,
    “If I came closer, I am afraid that my brilliance would blind you.”

  • anonymous

    “In 1967, William F. Buckley, an alumnus then running an insurgent campaign for a seat on the Yale Corporation, declared that Yale had ceased to be the “kind of place where your family goes for generations” and had been transformed into an institution where “the son of an alumnus, who goes to a private preparatory school, now has less chance of getting in than some boy from P.S. 109 somewhere.”

  • anonymous

    Matt, your writing is so beautiful when you write about things you love. Even though I don’t agree with you that Buckley is someone we should emulate, I still enjoyed reading about his life from your perspective – it’s great that you were so deeply impacted by someone.

    Please write more columns like this. I don’t like it when you write snide columns that make tired swipes at my major. It makes me feel like if we met in real life (and we have), we could never have a real conversation in which we’d respect each other (as intellectuals if nothing else), because you view so many things that are important to me with so much derision. I liked reading about what you care about, as opposed to what you don’t care for. Ultimately, I think that dialogue about what matters to us is what will help transform this place from somewhere where people with both of our ideologies often feel under siege to a campus that is safe and nurturing for all of its students.

  • @#6


    poor kids are annoying…. i know it sound inensitive but i know its true. let’s just admit it.

  • @#6

    well, listen, it’s an undeniable, non-normative fact that the kids on financial aid are pretty annoying.

  • @#8 and #9

    People like you are the exact reason that I had serious reservations about attending Yale. Talk about a “silver spoon in your mouth.”

  • hello

    if you went to ps 109, you should be have an additional distributional requirement in etiquette

  • @#10

    don’t sweat it. from the time posted they look like drunken pranks. insensitive, still, but ironic.

  • harry

    thanks for that lovely tribute to a great man. fyi, the Fitzgerald/Hemingway “rich are different” exchange is apocryphal (I think it was Gertrude Stein who debunked it – not sure. Hemingway, as is well-known, was a pathological liar).

  • Theine

    Content aside, I found Mr. Shaffer’s writing very moving.

  • hayduke Y’70 ’75

    WFB seemed so old fashioned in 1969 at the political union smashing uber-lib Coffin in debate,so out of touch with our drugs/sex/acid/anti-war hahaha. Now with the miscreants running the country hard left, he has become a genius, or was he always so?

  • Y 07

    It’s important to put into perspective what #6 said. Buckley was actually not a son of an alumnus, and he wasn’t even a WASP. WFB’s comment regarding Yale’s more open admissions policies in the 60’s is a bit ironic, given Henry Sloane Coffin, YC 1897 and the chair of the committee that was convened to investigate the charges laid out in “God and Man,” remarked that WFB “should have attended Fordham or some similar institution.” Apparently, WFB was too Catholic for the likings of the old guards, whose “keep ’em out” attitudes were not so different from WFB’s own views.

    -Note, the quote was from David Frum’s article on WFB in the Yale Alumni magazine.

  • Stan

    A wonderful piece, worthy of WFB. So sorely missed.

  • geordie kaytes

    Matt – great stuff. NRO’s got a link to & excerpt from your column over on The Corner. Doing Dport proud.

  • KevinM

    Despite his inferior college education, Fitzgerald probably knew better than to say “the rich are different than….” Can your quote be right?

  • Joe C.

    WFB was right 60 years ago.

    All one has to do is tour

  • In Praise of Old Nassau

    F. Scott Fitzgerald was proudly orange and black.

    The following, from This Side of Paradise, is offered to the unfortunate spawn of New Haven: “There was one brilliant place in ‘Ha-Ha Hortense!’ It is a Princeton tradition that whenever a Yale man who is a member of the widely advertised “Skull and Bones” hears the sacred name mentioned, he must leave the room. It is also a tradition that the members are invariably successful in later life, amassing fortunes or votes or coupons or whatever they choose to amass. Therefore, at each performance of “Ha-Ha Hortense!” half-a-dozen seats were kept from sale and occupied by six of
    the worst-looking vagabonds that could be hired from the streets, further
    touched up by the Triangle make-up man. At the moment in the show where Firebrand, the Pirate Chief, pointed at his black flag and said, ‘I am a Yale graduate–note my Skull and Bones!’ –at this very moment the six vagabonds were instructed to rise – conspicuously – and leave the theatre with looks of deep melancholy and an injured dignity. It was claimed though never proved that on one occasion the hired Elis were swelled by one of the real thing.”

  • well written

    Shaffer, this piece was well done, but you do lay it on a little thick. You’d think he were writing about Gandhi, not some dude who called Gore Vidal a queer on the air and threatened to punch him out.