Wednesday, February 27, 2008
William F. Buckley, Jr - RIP
I was both saddened, but yet heartened to hear the news of Buckley's death this morning. Sad, because this great American icon of the modern American Conservative movement will no longer be giving us his rapier wit and keen insight, but also happy he finally goes to his eternal reward. Most of the obits I have seen on line have glossed over the fact that Mr. Buckley was a very good and practicing Catholic.
Twice in the course of my lifetime I had gotten to meet him, albeit briefly - once after a speech at USD in the 70s and once in the late 1980s at UCSD. One was struck by how genuinely nice he was to "meet and greet" - very tall imposing figure, with a very firm secure handshake and a radiating smile. On the last occasion, it was Easter week, and as I had been making pysanky (eastern European decorated eggs which require more than a little work) I had also made one for him and presented it to him. He was delighted. He had a smile for everyone and not just "the important people."
If Catholics were and are irritated by the antics of the Kennedy family I was always glad of the fact that Buckley was a shining example that one could be both an intellectual and a fervent catholic.
I couldn't tell you precisely when I became aware of Mr. Buckley, sometime between the ages of 9 and 11 I'd say, because by the time of the great dust up he had with Gore Vidal I already knew who he was. [Buckley threatened to punch out Gore for calling him a crypto fascist at the 68 Democrat convention.) I was not quite 12 at that point. By 13 I loved to watch Firing Line and was a reader of his columns and books.
In high school and college (and thereafter) I read each of his books as they came out. I didn't always agree with him, but in the main felt he was right. He was a stick in the eye to those who tried to paint conservatives as fusty old, not-very-bright coupon clippers. His influential presence paved the way for Ronald Reagan. [I became impressed with Reagan, BTW, when I thought he bested Buckley in their debate re: the Panama Canal issue.]
Over the years, Mr. Buckley wrote about his faith. In NEARER MY GOD he movingly recounted his prep school year spent in England, just before the war. His father had sent him and two of his sisters over there because allegedly Buckley, pere, could not "understand a single word any of his children uttered," and he wanted them to spend some time where they would be taught "to open their mouths." Buckley related that he much later became aware of how serious his then pregnant mother's condition was (she was in her 40s and having child #10) -- but he knew at the time it was not going to be easy, and he only learned later his father feared his mother might die. He spent that school year at Beaumont, and came under the care of Fr. Sharkey, a Jesuit, if IIRC. He said he really fell in love with the Mass and devotions there, and it had a great influence on his life having to rely mainly on God to get him through that time. He relates how kind the good headmaster was to him. His parents had wrangled permission for him and his sisters to see the Grand National. As young Bill was setting off, Fr. Sharkey had slipped him some money for a bet on a long shot. Well, as luck would have it, in the excitement Bill forgot to place the bet, and the long shot came in! He felt terrible, but was most impressed how Father did not reproach or scold him.
The photo above is one which appeared a little over 30 years ago in TIME. Mr. Buckley was being interviewed in NYC on a radio show. He'd brought his beloved King Charles Spaniel, Rowley, to the studio with him. (There was also a studio audience present.) During the taping you could hear Buckley whisper "shut up" and give a little thump. Rowley had started to bark a bit. Then Rowley decided enough was enough, so he jumped up in Buckley's lap and gave him an appropriate slurp. As the article said "The interviewer and audience got more than they expected." Buckley also held out hope that dogs would get to heaven, but acknowledged that the typical 1st grade nun has the best response: "In heaven you will have all you need to make you happy, and if it takes your doggie being there, then that will be." As he put it: it allows for the possibility, because we are promised all we need ... but also leaves open the possibility that maybe you WILL have all you need without Rover. I guess he finally got to know!
These observations of mine are a little long, and a little personal, but I have to say he greatly enhanced my life! He was a rock for my political conservatism, and a great boost to the faith.
May his soul, and the souls of all the faithful departed, through the mercy of God, rest in peace.