The 'Perfect' Life of a Conservative

If we were asked to describe a “perfect” life, most of us would probably respond with something like the following:

He (or she) is born in well-off surroundings to a strong, affectionate father and a beautiful, loving mother. He has a large number of competitive but supportive brothers and sisters. He is encouraged by his parents not only to develop his mind–in several languages–but also an appreciation for art and music. He attends the best private schools here and abroad. Responsive to duty, honor, and country, he serves in the Army as an officer and then briefly in the CIA. He enters an Ivy League school like Yale where he becomes one of the university’s best debaters and “chairman” (that is, editor in chief) of the student daily newspaper.

Upon graduation, he immediately writes a best-selling book about his university and determines at age thirty to launch his own weekly journal, which serves as an intellectual platform and moral conscience of a national political movement for the next 50 years. He branches out into other fields, starting a syndicated newspaper column and hosting a weekly public affairs program on television that draws sizable audiences and wins awards for more than three decades.

He writes more than 50 books–including several best-selling novels–delivers hundreds of lectures on the nation’s leading college campuses, plays Bach on the harpsichord before suitably impressed audiences, sails hither and yon around the world, skis every year in Switzerland and Colorado, runs for mayor of New York City and loses honorably, is invited to overnights at the White House and all the best parties in Manhattan, and is profiled in Time, Newsweek, and Playboy.

He is tall, handsome, and unfailingly witty (cited in most quotation collections), faithful husband to an elegant wife, doting father of a brilliant son who also writes best-selling novels, faithful friend–and letter writer–to uncounted thousands, a true believer who in his late 70s awaits with a Augustinian certainty the Last Things.

Such a “perfect” life has been lived by William Frank Buckley Jr., who offers us Miles Gone By, a selection of previously published writings that limn “a narrative survey of my life, at work and play.” Although we do not learn anything “new” about Bill Buckley, one of the best-known conservatives in America since the publication of God and Man at Yale in 1951, the personally chosen pieces reveal much about what matters most to a–perhaps the–founding father of the modern American conservative movement.

They are, in order, family and home; sailing and skiing. More than one-third of the book is devoted to his travels; friends and colleagues–including the two most enduring political influences on him, Whittaker Chambers and James Burnham–words written and spoken, politics, God, and his determination to live every day to the fullest. As this literary autobiography makes clear, Bill Buckley’s cruising speed is everyone else’s overdrive.

Born in 1925 in New York City (in the heart of the enemy camp), Bill Buckley spent most of his early childhood in South America and Europe (he spoke French and Spanish before English) until the Buckley family, all 12 of them, settled down in the little town of Sharon, Conn., in an historic New England colonial house called Great Elm because the state’s largest elm towered in the front yard.

The summers were nearly heaven: Young Buckleys rode horses, swam in the pool, played golf or tennis, sailed, but reserved 45 minutes for the piano which every child practiced daily, except for the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and one’s birthday. There were five pianos and one organ in the house. “It was never absolutely clear,” Buckley writes, “whether the sound was worse when all the pianos were being exercised jointly or when only one of them was being played.”

The dominant personality of the family was “Father”–Will Buckley, a wealthy independent oilman who loved America, trusted the free market and hated communism with equal passion. He did not try to mold his children into copies of himself, but saw to it that they were prepared, intellectually and morally, to make a difference in whatever profession they chose. “He worshipped three earthly things,” Buckley writes, “learning, beauty, and his family.” He was, says his son, “the most admirable man I ever knew.”

The Buckleys were ardently Roman Catholic–“Mother was a daily communicant.” While attending a Catholic school run by Jesuits, young Bill went to Mass every day, offering each for the health of his mother who faced a difficult pregnancy. He achieved a special reverence for “Our Lady” (Mary, the mother of God), who “became in my mind an indispensable character in the heavenly cloister.” It was at this time that Buckley “developed a deep and permanent involvement in Catholic Christianity,” a critical statement to a full understanding of the man and his mission.

Between June 1950 and October 1951, Buckley graduated from Yale, got married to elegant independent Patricia Taylor (who came from an even wealthier family than his), taught Spanish at Yale, finished writing God and Man at Yale which was accepted for publication by Henry Regnery who published it to the cries of outrage by offended Yalies and brisk sales in the bookstores. It was a crowded 19 months but no more so than any other period in Bill Buckley’s peripatetic life over the next five decades. Once asked why he kept so busy, Buckley drawled, “I am easily bored.”

Historian George Nash has calculated that between 1951 and 2000, WFB Jr. wrote and published 35 nonfiction books, 15 books of fiction, 79 book reviews, 56 introductions, prefaces, and forewords to other people’s books, 227 obituary essays (a Buckley specialty), more than 800 editorials, articles and remarks in National Review, more than 350 articles in periodicals other than NR, and more than 4,000 syndicated newspaper columns at the rate of two or three a week. In addition, and for years, he received hundreds of letters a week and answered nearly every one of them, whether they came from presidents or prisoners. “By now,” writes Nash, Buckley “may well have composed more correspondence than any American who has ever lived.” His unpublished files at Yale comprise nearly a thousand boxes.

How did he do all this while editing a national magazine, hosting the longest-running program in the history of public television (1,429 separate shows), lecturing at the rate of 70 or more appearances a year, attending to family and business interests, sailing across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans on his yacht, and serving on the U.S. delegation to the United Nations? First, Bill Buckley has the fastest typewriter (now personal computer) in the West, able to turn out a gem of a column in 20 minutes. Second, he loves words and their proper use second only to his family and his God. Third, he is no Luddite, once remarking, “The computer is the greatest invention since–the pencil.” Fourth, he is a genius.

Over one-fifth of Miles Gone By is devoted to sailing. There are detailed descriptions of the boats that Buckley sailed, the friends who accompanied him on ocean-wide voyages, the serene moon-flooded nights on a quiet sea, the violent storms and mountainous waves, the vintage wines and classical music tapes, the aromatic cigars–“here is a compound of life’s social pleasures in the womb of nature.” Skiing is another natural pleasure annually enjoyed in Gstaad (Switzerland) and Alta (Colorado), along with such companions as John Kenneth Galbraith and Milton Friedman whose economics differ as much as their height (Galbraith is not far from seven feet tall, Friedman barely tops five feet).

A true polymath, Bill Buckley can enjoy the friendship of Galbraith and Friedman, persuade libertarian Frank Meyer and conservative Russell Kirk to put aside their philosophical differences for the greater good of the Movement and National Review, rationalize membership in the Council on Foreign Relations and the Philadelphia Society, play Bach on the harpsichord and run for mayor of the most un-Bach-like city in America, admire the labyrinthine mind of Henry Kissinger and the pianistic magic of Vladimir Horowitz (both friends and both succinctly profiled).

There is plenty of conservative politics in Miles Gone By–the section about his quixotic yet principled mayoral campaign is delicious–and there are references throughout the book to National Review, which has been at the center of American conservatism for nearly 50 years and which he counts his most significant political achievement. He is particularly proud of one subscriber: “We did as much as anybody with the exception of Himself to shepherd into the White House the man I am confident will emerge as the principal political figure of the second half of the 20th Century, and he will be cherished, in the nursery tales told in future generations, as the American President who showed the same innocent audacity as the little boy who insisted that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, back when he said, at a critical moment in history, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an evil empire. It is my judgment that those words acted as a kind of harmonic resolution to the three frantic volumes of Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago told us everything we needed to know about the pathology of Soviet Communism. We were missing only the galvanizing summation; and we got it from President Reagan; and I think that the countdown for communism began then.”

Buckley insists that he will never write a formal autobiography but hopes that Miles Gone By will serve “much the same purpose, and that it will give pleasure.” Indeed it does. It also gives us an excuse to thank the author for giving conservatives–and all Americans–so much pleasure for so long and for demonstrating that it is possible to remain true to one’s principles and faith and to make a difference in the world, in fact, to change the world.


To purchase Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography, click here.