William F. Buckley, Jr.: A Reminiscence

I met Bill Buckley in 1965 when he was running for mayor of New York. I had written him in the spring of that year, asking if I could charter his 44-foot yawl, Suzy Wong, for a few weeks in the summer. In my letter, I had made complimentary remarks about National Review. He wrote back saying, yes, of course, I could have the boat and added something like, “Thanks for your comments about NR. We don’t often receive such pleasant remarks around here.” For a sampling of the remarks they did get around National Review, see his recently published Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription.

Liberals’ Target

Standing athwart history yelling stop was bound to produce the nasty letters they received in the 50s and 60s — and on up into the 70s and 80s. That didn’t bother Bill. He had gathered a band of like-minded intellectuals to write for his magazine, but he was the point man, the liberals’ target. And he loved it, and was a match for all of them.

Bill was their match because he was so productive. He was prodigiously productive because he was a disciplined, driven man. I remember having lunch once with him in Switzerland. Midway through dessert he looked at his watch and said to the group of us that it was time for him to go skiing right now: He had to be back at his desk in, what was it, 33 minutes, if he was going to get in the necessary time to finish the 1,500 words he had to write before dinner.

Three weeks before he died, I asked him, on a cold rainy day in Stamford, Conn., why he hadn’t stayed longer in sunny Florida, where he had just been. “Ah, Danny, he said, it only takes me six weeks to write a book.” But only if you look at your watch and stay on schedule. (With Pat and Bill now gone, I hereby formally and forever retire the use of “Danny” as a nickname for me.)

Several years ago, we were starting off on a cruise on Bill’s sloop from Newburyport, Mass. The weather was foul: A hard wind raging against a strong tide in Newburyport’s dreadful channel made the seas monstrous. I would have waited a day: Cruising isn’t meant to be a blood sport. Not Bill. Time wouldn’t wait. He had a schedule to meet. Deadlines loomed, for columns, books, television programs. For stopping history.

And like a good teacher, he encouraged others to adopt the same discipline. And he pushed people to do more that they might have wanted to. After Stan Evans stopped writing the “At Home” column in the National Review Bulletin, he simply assigned it to me long before I thought I was ready to manage it. But Bill sat down and told me the trick was always to “tell a story.” Easier said than done, of course, but it was the essential ingredient for writing copy. I’m sure he gave countless other young journalists the same advice.

At the editorial dinners following National Review board meetings, Bill would have general discussion and call on people to talk for five minutes or so on a topic of Bill’s choice — which you didn’t learn until just before you were to speak. It was great fun, if a bit unnerving sometimes, but it pushed you to perform. Once he carried his custom a bit far, I thought at the time. At the 45th anniversary of National Review, celebrated on a boat that went around Manhattan, my wife turned to me moments after we had sat down for dinner, and said, “I didn’t know you were speaking.” I didn’t know it either. Bill had forgotten to tell me. Or maybe it was just Bill pulling a prank at my expense. I had the time of my life crafting remarks on a very tight deadline. And he probably knew I would.

Bill’s discipline and energy were part of what made the conservative movement. And part was Bill’s friendship and generosity. Ernie van den Haag, a regular contributor to NR once told me that he had said to Bill at lunch one day that his age prevented him from getting to his club and using the rowing machine. A few days later, an enormous box appeared at Ernie’s front door. Bill had sent him a rowing machine. That was typical of Bill.

Bill was friends with (almost) everyone, liberals as well as conservatives, much, sometimes, to the puzzlement of conservatives. But that trait made him able to influence a portion of the political spectrum conservatism never would have reached otherwise.

And he was fun. A born prankster. Exhibit A is the Pentagon Papers National Review published in 1971. NR’s cover read “The SECRET PAPERS They Didn’t Publish.” William Randolph Hearst, Jr. called it “one of the most sensationally successful spoofs in the history of American journalism.”

Trained a Generation

With his legendary friendship and lightheartedness he was able to captivate and train a generation of conservative journalists, who went forth to believe and spread the good news: that conservatism could triumph and make America, and the world, a better place.

And it did. Ronald Reagan, whose favorite magazine was National Review, became President largely because of Bill Buckley and National Review.

He was an old friend, of more than 40 years. The last time I skied with him he told me he hoped he would die quickly of a stroke or a heart attack. God granted his wish. Gratias Deo. RIP, mon vieux. RIP.