Friday, February 29, 2008

Remembering WFB

There’s been a tidal wave of eloquent retrospectives on the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. Bill McGurn, Peggy Noonan, George Will, Rick Brookhiser, Rich Lowry – folks who knew WFB as a person and as a gargantuan ideological force. Most of what's written about Buckley mentions his massive intellect, his reach, his transformative ideological power. Everything written about him notes the sheer number of lives and people he touched. Count me in as one.

I’d read “God and Man at Yale” while a freshman at UC Berkeley, a highly incongruous spot to read such a book. In fact, Cal could easily have been viewed as the cultural endgame of what WFB glimpsed at his alma mater in the late 1940s. No precocious intellectual I, I didn't get all of the book. But planted on the parade ground of liberalism extremis, I sure as heck understood enough.

I transferred to Williams College as a junior, figuring on a different milieu in traditional, staid New England. I was soon a bit surprised to see around campus and inculcated in many kids nearly the same Berkeley ethos I’d just left – the apartheid “shanty towns,” the rants about multinational corporations and and baby grey whale seals and pesticides and greed and pollution and "workers" and yes, a militant vegetarianism -- the whole liberal shopping cart. Compleing the farce was a political science department chairman who was a proud Communist, an Austrian who wore leggings and a mustache like Hindenburg's. It was All Too Much and the logical refuge was National Review and WFB.

Spring 1983 -- I was living at home with my affectionate but dangerously liberal parents. I was interviewing with the CIA, freelancing for Surfing and Surfer magazines, and playing in a band. On a whim, I wrote him WFB a letter, enclosing my clippings, including some articles I'd written for National Review, and noted that while I wasn't a supercharged intellect, I was a muscular Christian, a true believer, and oh yeah, I got things done. One May day, the phone rang and Pink Lady mother answered. It was WFB. He told me he had a small project that needed sheparding along and he asked if I'd like to take the post. Fully aware of the reigning ethos at my alma mater, WFB said, in that unique lilt, "Of course, you can ascertain I'm taking a chance on a Williams man."

He took the chance, I did the project, which later became a book -- "Right Minds: A Sourcebook of American Conservative Thought," polished and completed by a much abler mind than mine belonging to Gregory Wolfe. In one of the WFB reflections, Bill McGurn, presidential speechwriter, chief editorial writer of the Wall Street Journal, noted that he had been edited by both WFB and George Bush. That got me thinking – hey, your’s truly, a political lifer, many miles removed from a talent like McGurn, can say that I was one of the lucky ones to have my work edited by WFB. The fact is, I’ve saved every piece of copy of mine he commented upon in the margins.

Following the project, WFB's ensuing letter of recommendation was solid gold in my gaining two newspaper jobs as an editorial writer at daily newspapers (at the young age of 26, no less), and later when I sought work on Capitol Hill. In fact, the imprimatur of NR and of WFB has never left my career -- it is the post of which I am most proud, and which entertains the most interest from my fellow drones.

As then as now: I didn't have the guns to succeed in the literary arena, unlike the battalions of superb conservative writers that emerged from National Review. Instead of being a thought leader in the conservative movement, I became a sort of shop foreman: A journeyman journalist at two conservative papers and NR, a political appointee in two Republican administrations, and aide to two senior, conservative Republicans in Congress. Hey, the mountaintop thought leaders like the Buckleys and George Wills and Peggy Noonans and Bill McGurns of the world need mechanics like me to run the machinery.

Many people have recounted their memories of the man -- I was lucky to see him a lot the year I worked at the magazine -- I even dined along with him once as he discussed ideas about the Young Americans for Freedom.

And everyone talks about his kindness. As a junior magazine staffer, I was invited and went to his very tony Christmas party. A man brought his mentally disabled son to the event, a son who was mad about Bill. Standing close by in a living room (and I recall this all vividly), I saw the son come to the side of WFB, touch his sleeve, and interrupt a conversation WFB was having with a collection of men and women. WFB turned, instantly recognized the boy’s condition, smiled, said “Ah, hello, my friend,” and proceeded to talk to the boy for about 10 minutes, a very difficult conversation given the boys earnest, stumbling speech. I gazed at this in utter awe. I was only 24 at the time and kind of a rough-and-tumble guy, but the scene was so touching that then as now, I start to choke up.

The soaring testimonials are rolling in from people of huge stature and deal with WFB's monumental mind, deeds, power, and impact. Beyond those, I like to think that WFB’s life was all those and something a lot simpler -- a testament to a graciousness and kindness granted to everyone he met – which is, as McGurn wrote, “all in all, not a bad ticket to carry into eternity.”

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