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.