It was the routine, when Charles Seymour was president of Yale, that the chairman (as we were then designated) of the News should visit with President Seymour for a half hour every week, mutual conduits for information in both directions. We became friends and he told me at one meeting with some enthusiasm that the student speaker at the annual Alumni Day lunch at the Freshman Commons the day before “gave the single most eloquent talk I have ever heard from an undergraduate.” I thought hard about that comment one year later when I was selected to give the annual talk to the alumni, which speech moved nobody at all because the day before, the text having been examined by public relations director Richard Lee, I was asked to be so kind as to withdraw; and I did. (What I did with the speech was stick it into the appendix of “God and Man at Yale”).
I didn’t meet William Sloane Coffin ’49 DIV ’56 until some while later, when of course I congratulated him on electing the correct political extremity in the controversies of the day. He was never slow to catch an irony, and his wink brought on a trans-ideological friendship that induced great pleasure.
The friendship was publicly confirmed by Coffin with an extraordinary gesture. Garry Trudeau ’70 ART ’73 was lining up speakers for an event celebrating the reunion of his class. His reunion coincided with a reunion of my own class, and he came to me and asked if I would consent to debate with Bill Coffin as I had done for Trudeau’s class in freshman year.
Well, I said, okay, though I knew that Charles Seymour’s estimate of successful speakers would certainly prevail yet again. But there was a remarkable feature of that afternoon. I climbed the steps at the Yale Law School Auditorium to extend a hand to Bill Coffin — who brushed it aside and embraced me with both arms. This was a dramatic act. It was testimony not only to Coffin’s wide Christian gateway to the unfaithful, but also to his extraordinary histrionic skills. I’d have lost the argument anyway. I have defended my political faith as often as Coffin did his own, but you cannot, in the end, win an argument against someone who is offering free health care and an end to nuclear bombs. But there was never any hope for survival after his public embrace.
We were always, however lightly, in touch. “Sweet William,” he addressed me in June 2003, enclosing a copy of a speech he had delivered at Yale the week before. “The enclosed speech to the Class of ’68, you will be sorry to hear, was received with tumultuous applause. Don’t worry, however, you, alas, represent the ruling view. I hope you feel with Saint Paul, ‘Though our outer nature is wasted away our inner nature is being renewed each day.’ Affectionately as always, Bill.”
I replied “Wm, I am not surprised your speech was greeted by tumultuous applause. That is what demagogy is designed to do, dear William.” He replied some months later, enclosing a copy of a page from the Boston Globe in which both of us were quoted. “Dear Wm, Could it be that in this time and our old age that we might be on the same page? Do let me know, affectionately, Bill.”
I replied that I had seen his new book Letters to a Young Doubter. “… I think of you often, and did so most directly when I published, a fortnight ago, the obituary I did on William F. Rickenbacker. He is the only other fleeted spirit I ever addressed as Dear Wm, which he always reciprocated with letters address to me as Dear Wm — both of us signing off as … Wm. As I am now, anxious to get a note off to you, especially since you have taken to writing books again, instead of reproachful letters to, your pal — ‘Wm.'”
Our disagreements were heated, and it is through the exercise of much restraint that I forebear doing more than merely to record that they were heated; on my way, heatedly, to record that Bill Coffin was a bird of paradise, and to extend my sympathy to all who, however thoughtlessly, lament his failure to bring the world around to his views.
William F. Buckley Jr. ’50 is a columnist for and the editor-at-large of the National Review.