At twenty I was awed by his intellect and sophistication; at 40 I was awed by his capacity for friendship.
I thought he would live till 90, or forever, whichever came last. Buckley was one of those people you can’t imagine dying even as he gave us contrary hints by how he slowly resigned from public life over the past decade. Yet you always take for granted the prodigious – humans value only scarcity - and WFB’s output and life was prodigious. There would always be more columns so I need not read the latest. (I felt the ghoulishness of the stock trader who sells the shares of an airliner after hearing of a crash when I ran to Abebooks yesterday to buy "The Unmaking of the Mayor" before similarly-minded hordes descended and snapped up all the good copies.)
Now my own long-time, adolescent dream will go unfulfilled – that of traveling to Stamford, CT and attempting to find his house and standing outside and imaging myself in his shoes and enjoying the proximity - my equivalent of the Hollywood star bus tour.
The tributes pouring in are surprising for how many people had seen Bill recently, e.g. how many different people’s lives he’d touched. Little anecdotes surprise, like the detail about his crying when Charlie Rose approached him at his wife’s funeral. His attentions were in one sense God-like, by which I mean it didn’t matter if one was young or old, conservative or liberal – over and over you hear that he gave his full attention to each in the moment of meeting. His social energies seemed prodigious, at least compared to mine, and as a result he seemed to know everybody. Just as we can scarcely imagine how God can know each of us personally, there’s a tiny echo of that in Buckley. His friend Bozell said that with Buckley everybody thought they had a special relationship with him and it was true Bozell said, every relationship was unique and real.
He wasn’t a saint of course, but I’d always assumed that his assessment of character was as shrewd as that of a Mother Teresa given how many people he’d met and the lives he’d lived. I wondered what my reaction would be to him, as I wonder what his would be of me. Do we show who we really think God is by how we act around those who show the most glint of Him, small glint that it might be? What percentage would be sycophancy, or simple humility, and what percentage would be unabashed Davidic “dancing before the Lord”? In other words, is God, for us, fear (given his power) or joy (given his charisma) and does the charisma overwhelm our fear? At base we all want, I think, to be “seen through” and still accepted, and there are precious few geniuses who have the vision and can also legitimately confer the acceptance.
The first time I’d ever heard the name Chesterton was through Buckley. I thought “who the heck is this GK Chesterton?” when Buckley wrote about how he’d urged his son to read him when Christopher was struggling with doubts. It’s funny how our personal imprimaturs change with age: WFB was trusted and Chesterton was not on matters of the faith for me twenty years ago and now it’s nearly the reverse, although primarily I trust the Magisterium, or at least I hope.
One of the things I liked most about Buckley was his love of life. He seemed to show that one could be smart and wealthy and famous and sane not lose one’s soul; in other words, you didn’t have to become a grind nor give up intellectual inquiry for fear of losing one’s faith. He seemed the embodying refutation of grim-faced saints. He lived bravely even in the knowledge that his purgation might be trying: “Despair is a mortal sin,” he told a friend according to Peggy Noonan.
He slowly lost his pleasures. “I’m tired of life,” he told interviewer Charlie Rose a year or two ago. One-by-one they fall off, as they will for all of us, though that hardly makes them worthless else God would not have created them. He quit skiing, and then sailing, and then there was the obviously painful blow of losing his wife. We can be happy for him that life – REAL life – now begins for him.
His signature book might well be Gratitude, for though its sales might not have been strong it was that quality he exhibited for his country and his friends and for God, an attribute surreally rare today.