I honestly don’t know what to say about Bill Buckley on the occasion of his death.
The one time I laid eyes on him, at the 1980 American Book Awards held at the Park Avenue Armory, I was in the lobby with a variety of Manhattan luminaries, probably waiting for the inner doors to be opened, and Buckley absolutely lit the place up. He was quite tall, I’m guessing six-foot-four, and his eyes glistened with intellectual celebrity.
Anyway, in a crowd of literary and publishing types, he was a larger-than-life figure. I suspect that if he had been thrown in with a crowd of Marines, like those who serve this day in Iraq, he would have been up to the standard. He was a physically imposing man who liked being places, or so it seemed from that one brief glimpse of him.
One of Buckley’s most famous quips was in response to those who tried to draw a moral equivalence between the United States and the Soviet Union. He said, roughly, that pushing an old lady out of the way of a bus and pushing an old lady in front of a bus cannot both be reduced to pushing old ladies around.
At that 1980 ceremony on Park Avenue, I had not yet “gone over to the dark side,” as liberals so graciously describe the path of one of their fellow liberals who becomes a conservative. But it’s also true that I was long a conservative before I began, in the late 90’s, to read Buckley’s magazine, National Review. All those years when I didn’t read it, other conservatives I knew (there were at least three in my Manhattan circles) found it odd.
I did have some once-removed contact with Buckley through two of his nephews, both sturdy lads with good senses of humor, who spoke of “Uncle Bill” with great reverence. But that connection never led to another in-person encounter.
Earlier in life, as a kid growing up with an interest in politics, Buckley’s television persona fascinated me, though I don’t believe that I really understood what he was talking about. He was always around in that America, however, in his newspaper columns, on his talk show “Firing Line,” and in the magazine that I got to much later in the day.
It’s safe to say that I absorbed his influence indirectly and after my own manner, and became a conservative perhaps with that indirect help, but only after a long wild car chase through my own postmodern paganism and personal dissolution.
I’m grateful for the work that Bill Buckley did in America. He kept at it, and died with his boots on, yesterday, at his desk, writing.