Thursday, February 28, 2008

Tribute: William F. Buckley Jr., R.I.P.

The legendary William F. Buckley Jr., the conservative writer, intellectual and controversialist, died Wednesday at the age of 82. His death is cause for sadness, but his long and productive life was a gift to this country.

It seemed that Buckley had always been with us, and always would be. Not long after stumbling upon Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative in my high school library, and devouring it, I began to discover other conservative and libertarian writers and thinkers--most notably Ayn Rand and her arch-nemesis, William F. Buckley. (And it always seemed anomalous that these two giants, both of whom were primarily concerned with human liberty, disliked each other so intensely.) I read few of my high-school textbooks, but I remember walking around school with a copy of Buckley’s Execution Eve. His work meant more to my political, philosophical and intellectual development than can be described.

A decade or so ago, I was privileged to be in the audience at Cooper Union for a debate that Buckley was taping for his TV show, Firing Line.  The economist Dr. Walter Williams, Buckley and somebody else, against a panel of liberals that included New York City political hack Mark Green. Truth be told, the conservatives got their butts kicked in the debate, but it was still entertaining.

After the show, or perhaps at intermission, I walked up on stage with a copy of one of Buckley’s books, hoping to get it signed. As I approached, he was chatting with another man, and I waited a few feet away. When the other man left, Buckley turned to me with a luminous smile and his hand extended, as if I were his oldest friend.  Not the facile greeting of a celebrity encountering yet another fan; pure “I’m happy to meet you and interested in what you’re about to say.” His genuineness, and the fact that it came from a man of his accomplishment to a perfect stranger, is warming even in memory.

I later obtained, from a photographer who happened to be working the event, a few photos of Buckley and me standing together as he signed my book. In one, Buckley and I are looking down at the open book on the podium as he autogaphs it; in another, he's handing me back the book. Looking at the photos later, I said to a friend, “Don’t you see what this symbolizes? It’s like he’s passing on the sacred scrolls to me. It’s like he’s telling me, ‘Take this and run with it. Do your part, boy. Don’t let me down.’” She replied, “I hope you never join a cult.”

Years later, I attended a Buckley book signing at a Barnes and Noble in New York City, and brought one of the photos with me. When I got to the front of the line, in addition to a copy of one of his books I gave him the photo and asked if he’d sign it. Examining it, he asked me what it was from. I said, “It’s a picture of you and me at an event at Cooper Union several years ago.” “Oh,” he said. “You’ve aged well.”

It’s also worth noting that Buckley was a strong supporter of the police. In his book The Unmaking of a Mayor, which chronicles his run for mayor of New York in 1965, he recounts addressing the annual NYPD Holy Name Society communion breakfast, and the controversy that followed his suggestion that the police, even those in the South, were to be commended for doing their duty and enforcing the law.

God cherish the soul of William F. Buckley Jr., and may he be reunited with his wife, Patricia, who passed away less than a year ago.  A life of thought and action and accomplishment, and America smarter, stronger and better for his having lived it.

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