September 11 has long been a special date for me, well before it became
9/11. On September 11, 1972, I began 21 years of writing for National
Review in New York City, my boss being my hero, Bill Buckley, who died
the other day at age 82. (My employment ended unhappily, much to my
regret now, but I rejoice to say we patched things up a year or so
I was struck by one thing in the tributes to Bill: the people who
really knew him didn’t want to talk about his achievements as
a public figure, great and rare as these were: they wanted to talk
about him, his goodness, his warmth, the quality his and my friend
Hugh Kenner, an eminent literary critic who measured his words carefully,
once called “saintly.”
A few nights before Bill died, I happened to mislay my rosary, so
I counted my prayers on my fingers. I’d learned to do this from
Bill in a casual conversation many years earlier; he’d learned
it as a boy from a family servant, and it stuck with him the rest of
his life. That was Bill, devout in detail. If you didn’t know
this side of him, you didn’t really know him.
And if he was your friend, you really had a friend. One of his old
Yale fraternity brothers recalled to me that when his little girl was
dying of brain cancer, Bill was the only friend who sat with him and
shared his suffering when there was no longer any hope of her recovery.
Such tender, self-wounding charity was typical of him, and it accounts
for much of the deep affection he inspired.
Of course you can love the man without accepting his politics, and
over the years I decided that Bill’s conservatism conceded too
much to the liberal statism he opposed. I wish, for example, that he
had retained his father’s “isolationism,” as opposing
military interventionism is still disparagingly called.
Still, in 1965, when he ran for mayor of New York City, he made what
must be the most sublime campaign promise in modern American history:
he pledged to give every citizen “the internal composure that
comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics.” Well,
that would have won him Aristotle’s vote.
What delightful company he was! I don’t remember a boring moment
in his company in all the years I knew him. He had a Falstaffian gift
for finding fun in every situation. Once, when a Wisconsin newspaper
announced it was dropping his column and picking up my new one instead,
he sent me the clipping with a note, in his tiny, barely legible red
handwriting, “Joe: Morituri te salutamus.” He was both
hilarious and endearing. And always so encouraging. He made you feel
like a genius.
And there was Bill the raconteur, savoring delicious anecdotes in
that rich, resonant cello of a voice. He took pride in having tricked
the peerless Vladimir Horowitz into giving him a free performance at
his home one evening. How? He had simply disparaged Scriabin, knowing
what this would provoke. And sure enough, the pianist leaped to the
keyboard to refute the slur by playing a Scriabin piece.
But above all, first and last, Bill was a Catholic, whose ultimate
love was Jesus. His secret benefactions — they were countless
(except for the ones he did me, I had to learn of them gradually) — were
in keeping with our Lord’s injunction not to let the left hand
know what the right hand is doing. His faith was put to the test in
his last year, when his wife of 57 years died in agony and his own
body was tortured by disease. He displayed what I didn’t expect
even of him: the courage of a martyr. But I’m not really surprised.
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