I first discovered William F. Buckley in my early teens. In an effort, I suppose, to become more serious and informed, I started regularly reading the Star Ledger—the closest thing to a real newspaper in New Jersey. On one occasion when I made my way through enough of the paper to reach the op-ed page in the back, I ran across a Buckley column, which I remember finding oddly intense and captivating. I was soon a regular reader—almost always with a dictionary in hand. It’s hard now to imagine what sense I could have made of Buckley then, but somehow he got me to think, and to laugh, and to read. And I was pleased to discover that this very strange and interesting voice found expression in more than brief columns but in books (so many books!) and on the pages of a magazine filled with other voices and views like his. He directed me to a world of ideas and good sense and good humor that I soon discovered was vast and deep. I was hooked, and have been an incurable conservative since.
I only met Buckley once, and only for a moment. I was in college, attending some sort of conservative conference at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington. I was with three friends, and we walked up to Buckley and introduced ourselves as the only four conservatives at American University (which was only a slight exaggeration). Buckley laughed at our travails, so familiar they must have been to him, and he said just two words, through a chuckle: “stay positive.”
He always did, and that was always an important part of his power and appeal. Conservatives easily get dour and down, and the rest of humanity finds such grumpiness unattractive. Buckley offered a smiling, confident, and very appealing conservatism that was at the same time also deeply serious. His good cheer was not an act. It was the proper response to the truth that moves conservatives: that the world we have inherited is a good place, worth defending and cherishing. As Buckley always seemed to understand, that’s a good reason to smile.
Others who knew Buckley will have much deeper and more meaningful things to say about him. But like most of those deeply in his debt, I didn’t know the man personally, and can think of nothing more profound and true to say in this sad moment than two plain and simple words I would have loved to say to him in person: thank you.