Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bill Buckley

Liberals have always had a problem with Bill Buckley,
though it is not what many suppose. He was a very
engaging man. And I mean every word of that sentence.

The first thing you noticed about him was his joy; it
streamed from his eyes; it flashed in his smile. And
joy, as C.S. Lewis reminds us, is the talisman of a
sentient and grateful being. To be under the
grace of God is to be joyful.

That Bill was engaging no one will deny. And here was
the problem that liberals fortunate enough to be
counted among his friends struggled with for as long
as God permitted him to remain among us: When he and
his wife, Pat, invited you into their home, you
partook of their friendship, and Bill's capacity for
friendship was as large as his capacity for joy. His
assault on the heart was irresistible.

For liberals who wanted to preserve the pinata they
treasured in their minds whenever they summoned up a
conservative for flogging, this was a problem. Try to
imagine a furnace in which all the petty vices of life
are burned up, and you will have an image of what it
was like to be invited into Buckley's heart and home.
He could not taste a joy without inviting others to
the feast. I would guess, judging from the company I
met when visiting him in Stamford, Buckley had as many
liberal as conservative friends, all of whom are now
grieving at their irrecoverable loss.

Others have remarked on Bill's gargantuan physical and
mental energy. No one in the intellectual rat race
could keep up with him. But it takes more than this to
make a man. It takes (C.S. Lewis again) a chest. It is
magnanimity, largeness of heart, that makes the man.
It is part of the mystery of man that a man's heart is
larger than his world of experience. Buckley's heart,
the seat of all true wisdom, had in it many mansions.

When Tolstoy died, the Russian writer Maxim Gorky said
that his passing left him an orphan on the earth. He
meant that while Tolstoy lived, the courage that
streamed from the great writer bathed his own
sensibilities in the water of life; that while Tolstoy
lived, Gorky knew that the world could not be lost
that had in it such a man; but now he was gone, and
Gorky felt at his passing the first arid breath of a
soul-shriveling cynicism.

Cynicism never had a snowball’s chance in Hell of
surviving in Buckley's presence. It was all burnt up
in the furnace of his intellect. Many people will not
believe that Buckley, in private, did not "ever," as
he put it in, "nearer, my God, to Thee," bring up his
political faith or religion "unless specifically
questioned about it." Why? "There is something about
the modern disposition (the social protocol absolutely
rules over me) that compels even those who believe in
Him to keep all such matters tidily secluded in their
own tent."

The trouble with bad manners, Buckley once said, is
that they often lead to murder.

But there was one occasion, during one of our visits,
that he slipped. We had just finished a meal -- lamb
chops with rosy centers that Buckley ate, much to the
delight of my wife, hands-on, which is the way Andree
eats them, despite her worries about social protocol
-- when he became fascinated with Jake, Andree’s
German shepherd guide dog.

"I wonder," Buckley said, "if there are dogs in

I wanted to say, "Of course there are dogs in heaven.
If there aren't, I'm staying here." But instead I
tailspinned into some platonic nonsense about the
possibility of there being "dogginess" in Heaven --
the dog made perfect, so to speak -- at which point
Buckley gave out a benign smile and allowed that he
had something in mind more specific than that.

He was thinking, I now realize, of the rather
imperfect dog he had loved as a young boy. For a
moment, hijacked by a memory, he had become
irresistibly innocent.

Who says you can't take it with you? Of course there
are dogs in heaven and wit and lively conversation and
sisters left behind long ago and watchful mothers and
paternal fathers -- and Bill.
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