My association with Chairman Bill goes back 32 years now. To quote him in another context, that’s “a datum that startles me whenever I encounter it.” We were living in eastern West Germany when my wife and I took a tour of the Iron Curtain. I wrote about it, dropped the manuscript in the mail, and shortly thereafter saw it featured on the cover of NR. With my exiguous check was a handwritten note from Bill: “What a splendid piece. You were born to write.”
When we first met in the summer of 1977, I said “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Buckley.” I don’t believe I ever said that to anyone else, before or since. He said, “Please, call me Bill.” I said, “I’ll try.” I was nervous and thirsty at lunch. I reached for my water glass and emptied it in a gulp, but I’d missed my target. It was a very expensive white wine. Bill didn’t miss a beat in the conversation as he refilled my glass and ordered another bottle while my eyes watered.
He, his sister Priscilla, and other editors associated with the magazine were unfailingly kind and encouraging to me, even when a manuscript was rejected. I sometimes actually received a personal letter from Bill himself explaining the rejection. In 1980 he asked if I would “honor” him by allowing my name to appear on the masthead as a Contributor — a phrasing that was so typical of this unfailingly kind, thoughtful, and loyal man. I believe I published about 35 articles and reviews in NR. My review of Solzhenitsyn’s The Oak and the Calf was assailed in print by Malcolm Muggeridge, the revered “St. Mug” himself. An article I co-authored on the POW-MIA issue from the Vietnam War was called by George F. Will in one of his columns, “the best thing ever written on the issue.”
Those were great days.
Whenever Bill published a new book I would get an inscribed copy. His inscription usually read, “To Joe Rehyansky, with Admiration.” I would read the book immediately and write to him, thanking him for it and saying how much I’d enjoyed it, which was invariably true. Within a week or so I’d have a letter back from him, thanking me for saying such generous things about the book. He is the only person I have ever known who wrote thank-you notes in response to thank-you notes.
Our personal contacts were relatively few and sporadic — the quinquennial anniversary bashes, editorial lunches at Paone’s, after-party brunches at his Manhattan townhouse. One day in 1984 he breezed into Paone’s, late as always, and apologized. “But this time I have the best excuse in the world. The President of the United States was on the phone.” Despite the long intervals between our meetings he always made me feel like a respected old friend, not a hard-scrabble free-lancer grateful for his friendship, mentoring, and part-time employment. He had an unparalleled gift for hospitality, for relaxation, and for making his friends and guests feel that they were much more interesting than they could possibly be.
Through him I met some of the great and near great, including Henry Kissinger and Dr. Edward Teller, George F. Will, John Chancellor, and Hizzoner Ed Koch. I once knocked on the door of his townhouse and had it opened by Charlton Heston. I hope I sounded sincere when I told Tom Selleck how much my entire family and I enjoyed Magnum, P.I.
And let’s not forget how he intersected with and changed history, usually behind the scenes, which is how he wanted it. The young Yalie persuaded Whittaker Chambers to serve for a time as an original senior editor of NR. His dear friend and publisher, William A. Rusher, formed the Draft Goldwater Movement of 1964. NR was Ronald Reagan’s political Bible. Bill introduced Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon. I could go on. Suffice it to say that our country is a better and stronger Republic because of the efforts of a man born to wealth, who never had to do an honest day’s work in his life, but who worked like a Stakhanovite (forgive me, Bill) for the things he believed in — the “permanent things,” “the tokens of hope and truth.”
I last heard from him on Christmas Eve. No one had to tell me he was failing. His spelling and punctuation were erratic. He had been, along with sister Priscilla, the best proofreader in the solar system, with the possible exception of my wife.
Over the course of decades Bill wrote many RIP’s that moved me to tears. This poor effort will not have that effect on anyone, except me.
Farewell, old friend.