People my age are of a generation that grew up in the twilight of the Buckley era. When I was in college, he was no longer the editor of National Review, and the last episode of Firing Line was taped before I graduated. We had to discover William F. Buckley. Jr. on our own, and for me, like so many others, the Buckley Discovery was a defining moment. In my case, it instigated a period of determined used book store expeditions, and then some rather sophomoric attempts at incorporating Buckleyisms into my verbal repartee: There’s nothing like dropping “jingoistic rodomontade” into a conversation, or accusing someone of carrying on with their “activist pornography.”
The idea struck me and a fellow Buckley fanatic that it would have to be our solemn duty to interview the man himself and thereby, we hoped, introduce the Buckley Canon to our benighted fellow partisans, who toiled largely in ignorance of their great forefather. I sent an obsequious letter to Mr. Buckley and promised not to ask stupid questions.
We arrived at the Buckley residence in Stamford and found the man at work in his converted garage office. I was in a cold sweat; Buckley sat leisurely at his computer keyboard, in the eye of a hurricane of papers, magazines, and books that engulfed his desk, chair, the floor — every horizontal surface. After a few handshakes and pleasantries, my friend and I nervously commenced the interview, during which we both sought above all to avoid giving the impression that we were complete stammering idiots. Graciously, he never once let us feel that way.
He invited us into his house for lunch (I still remember: split pea soup, chicken, and ice cream), and, two hours and two bottles of red wine later, my friend and I staggered out, thanked Mr. Buckley profusely, and went on our way. As a gift he gave me a copy of McCarthy and His Enemies, the only one of his books that had never surfaced during my book store missions.
In what was supposed to be our interview of him, Buckley probably spent more time asking my friend and me questions than we did him — about school, our interests, our opinions on the world. During that short afternoon, I realized that all the things people had written about Buckley’s kindness, generosity, and gift for friendship were not just the kind of perfunctory tributes to great men that people often pay, but were among the most genuine and truthful things ever said about him.