Eulogy for William F. Buckley, Jr.
April 4, 2008
Bill Buckley inspired a political movement that changed American politics; he founded the National Review that, for over a generation, has shaped American political discussion; he hosted an influential talk show for thirty years; he wrote an elegant column. Every year, he authored a beautifully written novel; in what passed for his spare time, he produced several non-fiction works and delivered over fifty lectures annually. He was a passionate skier, an accomplished harpsichordist and a daring sailor. He wrote as Mozart composed, by inspiration; he never needed a second draft.
A man of such stunning versatility might have proved daunting to those around him. Yet we mourn him for his civility even to adversaries, his conviviality, his commitment and, above all, the way he infused our lives with a very special presence.
In a tribute to Bill, I expressed that sentiment for all his friends: "The equilibrium and purpose of my life owe more than words can express to my certainty that when things are really difficult - and I mean really difficult - I won't have to look around to know that Bill Buckley will always be there beside me."
With what zest Bill lived his life. There was never quite enough time to fulfill all the possibilities that his many gifts opened to him. He was endlessly peripatetic: Winters in Gstaad; summers in Connecticut; sailing trips to the Caribbean or across the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans; even the compulsion to leave every dinner party by ten o'clock. He worked ebulliently at the causes towards which his moral convictions impelled him, and he did so with a sense of wonder - and perhaps a little awe - that a kind of miracle had vouchsafed him the opportunity to enjoy so much what was driven by inner necessity.
Utopias, either of economics or of global crusades, held no attraction for him. His conservatism was about the liberation of the human spirit, which is a deeper and more eternal undertaking than causes geared to political timetables. "I am a Burkian," he would say. "I believe neither in permanent victories nor in permanent defeats." But he did believe deeply in permanent values. "We must do what we can," he wrote to me, "to bring hammer blows against the bell jar that protects the dreamers from reality. The ideal scenario is that pounding from without we can effect resonances, which will one day crack through to the latent impulses of those who dream within bringing to life a circuit that will spare the republic."
For Bill and his friends, a sense of history was all-pervasive, even at their most playful, even during Bill's sailing duels with Peter Flanigan. Peter and Bill had been racing against each other each summer for at least fifteen years. Peter won all but once because - so it was agreed to avoid other evaluations - Peter's boat was a few feet longer. When, in 2004, Bill sold the Patito to Roger Kimball, Bill proposed that they continue the tradition except with Bill skippering Peter's boat. Naturally, Bill was confident of winning. The morning of the race, he sent an e-mail to all hands on the Patito: "Gentlemen, don't take it too badly tonight. We know you will have tried hard. But what can one do when up against force majeure? Accept fate with submission and resolve to fight another year. Like Athens." To which Roger responded on behalf of Bill's former crew: "Comrades, I believe Xerxes entertained similar sentiments on September 24, 480 B.C., as his fleet gathered off Salamis... How could these obstreperous upstarts hope to win? Themistocles chuckled softly to himself as the breeze fastened." As so often, history repeated itself, leaving Bill suspended between reflections on the penalties of hubris and pride in Patito's performance.
Yet amidst all this effervescence, there were elements of withdrawal, almost of remoteness. Even when he participated zestfully in events, Bill on occasion appeared to be their observer. In the last years, especially in the months before and after Pat's final illness, these moments grew as Bill, beset by ailments, seemed to prepare himself for what Christopher has called his last great voyage. Even then, that indomitable spirit never flagged. He left us working at his desk on a day for which he had arranged an evening of music, surrounded by old friends.
Over a decade ago, Bill and I discussed the relationship of knowledge to faith. I surmised it required a special act of divine grace to make the leap from the intellectual to the spiritual. In a note, Bill demurred. No special epiphany was involved, he argued. There could be a spiritual and intellectual drift until, one day, the eyes opened and happiness followed ever after. Bill noted that he had seen that culmination in friends. He did not claim it for himself.
Those of us who have grown old with Bill know better. We will forever remember how we were sustained by Bill's special serenity, the culmination of a long and very private quest. The younger generation, especially of his collaborators whom he so cherished, was inspired by the inward peace Bill radiated, which he was too humble and, in a deep sense, too devout to assert except by example. In the solitude of parting, all of us give thanks to a benign Providence that enabled us to walk part of our way with this noble, gentle and valiant man who was truly touched by the grace of God.