For what it’s worth, here’s my brief remembrance.
I first met William F. Buckley, Jr., as a freshman at Yale University. It was at the 125th anniversary celebration of the Yale Daily News (which Buckley had edited, stirring all manner of controversy) and I was sitting in a large hall listening to a panel of former Newsies riff on their college days. Buckley and his son, Christopher, sat next to me by sheer chance.
After the panel, I introduced myself to Buckley and we chatted briefly on the state of politics on campus. He gave me his email address and requested that we stay in touch (we would keep up a very informal and infrequent correspondence). Later that evening, I bumped into Buckley at the News building, where he was inspecting old black-and-white photos of previous editorial boards, including his own. He mentioned that his wife was unable to attend the celebratory banquet that evening and that he had an extra ticket for a seat at his table. Would I care to join him? As Joseph Lieberman–a former editor of the News himself–said today in remarks on the Senate floor, Buckley took a “warm, brotherly interest” in those working for the paper, but I never expected this sort of gratifying and flattering attention. Sadly, I was in a theatrical performance, and there was no understudy. But, I assured myself, there would be other such occasions in the future.
Sadly, there weren’t. But a different sort of opportunity to become acquainted with Buckley arrived my sophomore year, in the form of a position as a research assistant to Sam Tanenhaus, the New York Times editor who is working on what will be the definitive biography of the godfather of American conservatism. Buckley had deposited hundreds upon hundreds of boxes of personal correspondence, press clippings, and his own written work at the library of his alma mater, a collection that he updated on a continual basis. My job was to research his 1965 run for mayor of New York City, one of the most entertaining political bouts in recent American history and the subject of this 2005 Times Magazine essay by Tanenhaus.
Through that experience, it became clear that Buckley was what most of us writing for political magazines hope to be: a change agent. While it’s wrong to suggest that the conservative movement would not have existed without him, it surely, without his influence, would not have been the force–judged by both intellectual and political heft–it eventually became. It might seem paradoxical that the most influential conservative writer of the 20th century (standing athwart history yelling “Stop”) would be a “change agent.” But that’s what he was.