Thirty years ago, I was fresh out of college, with no particular career path chosen, and I decided I’d like to be a nationally syndicated columnist. I’d learn rather quickly that before being one, one has to become one, and to qualify on that caliber, one has to demonstrate a talent which this young man didn’t possess.
Bill Buckley told me so. I’d penned a couple of practice pieces — one having something to do with Jimmy Carter’s choice of Muhammad Ali as his ambassador-at-large to Africa, another on something equally memorable — and I sent them to Bill, asking for his critique.
Now, my uncle was famous for his correspondence. Just about anyone who wrote to him received an answer. He wrote letters by the thousands. I’d begun a correspondence with him back in the early ’70s while boarding in a Spanish high school. It was always a joy to receive a letter from anyone across the Atlantic, but what ecstasy when the envelope bore the distinct National Review imprint! His were always short notes, three or four lines long, always with kind words, always with encouragement, always expressing his love, and always signed, usually in red ink, "xxx, Tio."
Once or twice he initiated the correspondence, about this or that. One time it was to tell my brother Michael and me that he was arranging to fly us to meet him in Gstaad for the weekend. Another letter contained a short typewriter burst telling me how much he’d enjoyed reading a lengthy letter I’d sent my parents about an Easter vacation vagabonding across three countries on $5. The letter was clipped to the newest issue of National Review. On the cover, "A 16-Year-Old’s Easter Vacation in Europe." He’d been tickled enough to reproduce it for his magazine readership in its meandering entirety.
So it was only fitting that I send him my two cracks at nationally syndicated columnist-hood and solicit his feedback. A week or so later, his answer arrived, this time four pages long. Word by word, sentence by sentence, piece by piece, he tore my columns to shreds.
This wasn’t a forensic examination. He’d determined the very concept to be journalistically DOA, and he’d performed an autopsy on the cadavers.
Beyond the minor injuries, there were two fatal ones. First, he explained, the columnist must limit his attention to a specific thought, finding that certain unique hook to capture the reader’s attention, and a rambling piece about all the different things Ali was doing in all those different countries in Africa failed that smell test miserably. Second, the columnist must know whereof he speaks, and though I can’t recall his words, I can reduce them to one thought: You don’t know diddly.
I wasn’t ready for prime time, and family or no family — or maybe because I was family — he was going to be brutally honest. Tough stuff, that. Thirty years later, I’m finding it equally tough, as I try to find the right way now to bid goodbye to William F. Buckley Jr.
So much has been written about his manifold professional accomplishments — nothing unique there. So many also have penned such heartwarming personal remembrances. I suppose I could go down that road, but there’s a rub here, too. Our friendship was personal, but it was also private, and, dear reader, I hope you will understand my reluctance to open those doors.
Still, I have to say something.
Almost 11 years ago, my own father passed away. He and Bill had been best friends in college, but fierce philosophical disagreements led to open political warfare and ultimately personal estrangement. More than once, they attempted reconciliation — because they worshipped each other — but for whatever reason, it was not meant to be. So they suffered privately.
When Bill learned my father was on his deathbed, he called me. There was clear anguish in his voice. "You must call me the moment your father dies. The moment." I didn’t, and still don’t, understand his reason for that directive, but I honored his wishes the next morning. I gave him the news. He gasped in grief — and hung up the phone.
That was pretty much my reaction when my sister Maureen called me with the news of Bill Buckley’s passing yesterday morning. We’d learn later that he died at his desk, working on his computer.
Over the years we’d traded e-mails, probably by the hundreds. We normally wrote in Spanish, just because. He was always "Mi Tio" to me and I "Hijo Mio" to him — again, just because. I can smile through the tears because now I know he read my final note, which I sent the day before he died.