For all the wordplay that defined William F. Buckley Jr. ’50’s 82 years — and began, publicly at least, in this very space six decades ago — there is but one term in the entire English lexicon capable of single-handedly capturing the man himself: “Afflatus.” It was one of his favorites, after all.
At one minute to midnight yesterday — Wednesday, February 27, at the last possible moment before Buckley’s day of death passed, too — an august, caterwauling breeze suddenly soared overhead the Yale campus. Trees trembled; the wind whistled rowdily.
And one could not help but wonder whether some spirit was behind the heavenly cacophony: a spirit, that is, sharing a first-rate Tali with God after having left Man and Yale behind — but not before first imparting on both “divine inspiration, blown into by a great wind.” Afflatus.
And inspire, he did, all those he knew — whether enemy or friend or follower. He moved us, through columns, shows, books and else, to disagree vehemently or, if the argument and wit resonated, to drop all and join the movement. He moved those he came to know, through ideological partnership, yacht trips in Connecticut’s harbors, connections with youth and the like, to wrestle with the tension inherent in a man so epitomizing of a more conservative, perhaps reactionary, past — and yet warm and utterly gracious to strangers and confidants alike.
The sheer volume of arguments sparked, ambitions realized, policies pioneered, words published, ideas set free and friendships fastened by the man who wrote columns in 20 minutes and disarmed political opponents forever in 20 seconds, who induced firestorms galore at Yale with the stroke of his pen and who managed to influence every conservative United States president since his graduation, is incomprehensible.
But what is more astounding, perhaps, was his ability to balance such conviction and force of intellect with his desire to still carry on civil conversation, even companionship, with all those who shared his sense of humanity. On this page just two years ago, for example, Buckley mourned the loss his ideological antithesis, William Sloane Coffin ’49 DIV ’56 — Coffin, after all, like so many liberals, had become his friend.
Then again, writing in this space in May 1949, Buckley called on the Yale student body to “come back in the fall wearing brass knuckles.” His “conviction,” was that there is “some inherent value” in the “appearance of a student partisan voice that is willing from time to time to eschew philosophical reflections on the values of brotherhood in favor of wallowing in controversial mud.”
Mud is a fitting word. There was, after all, something childish — something ironically self-effacing behind the arrogance, something strangely lighthearted beneath the gravity of his ideas — about WFB, as he was known at his own insistence. We can learn from this; lost often at Yale and in our society is the spirit of hearty friendship first, spirited debate second.
But beyond his ability to inspire through conviction, however controversial, and civility, Buckley deserves our mourning as the land-standing quintessential Yale Man. It is still an open question whether anyone will—or can—fill his shoes. If not, we can at least remember the meaning of that one word he fancied using—and practicing—before it forever escapes the English repertoire.
We may also be wise to heed the impassioned advice he delivered at his final public address, fittingly at the Yale Political Union debate in November 2006: Conquer or die.
“Aut vincere, Aut mori,” he said in his trademark lock-jaw to the newest generation of Elis who filled the room, eager for a glimpse into Yale’s past. “Ave atque vale!”
Hail — and farewell!