"You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you odd." ~Flannery O'Connor

Thursday, February 28, 2008

William F. Buckley Jr., RIP

I wanted to write about this yesterday but couldn't. It was the end of an era for me, and I don't handle era-endings well, at least not without a bit of prayer and reflection. Having had that bit, today I can write.

Just about every literate American over a certain age knows who he was: the witty, aristocratic, and Catholic founder of "the conservative movement." Appropriate encomia can be found at NRO; there will doubtless be many more. But I want to make this one personal. Those are usually best.

Between the time, roughly, of my first communion and my first sexual encounter, I idolized Buckley. He was the closest thing to the man I wanted to be that I had encountered before my mid teens. My father had said the same for himself, which probably accounts for why I felt as I did. Viewing Buckley's PBS talk show Firing Line was as much an expected part of our Sundays as the Mass, and to me just as interesting. (Even its musical theme, from Bach's Brandenberg Concerto #2, sparked my interest in "early" music. Later, my music-humanities teacher at Columbia refused to believe that I, a non-musician, was capable of such a sophisticated discussion thereof. I almost got done up for plagiarism.) I dreamed of meeting WFB as he ran for mayor of New York on the Conservative Party ticket in 1965; but he never did visit Staten Island, where we lived, since in that borough he was assured of beating the Democratic candidate. Nonetheless my father worked for his campaign, and I assisted enthusiastically until hearing Buckley's reply when asked what he would do if elected: "Demand a recount." My ten-year-old mind didn't quite get it. Yet naturally enough, I said the same on my own account when I ran for Congress as a Conservative in Manhattan in 1988. By then nobody cared; what was good in me was not original.

Though I never met the man, I came close twice. Once was the same year I ran for Congress, when I received a personal thank-you note from him for a series of book reviews I had recently written for National Review, the rag he had founded and which I had read regularly since the age of nine. I asked an older friend of mine, with whom I had briefly shared an Upper-West-Side apartment in college and who had also written for NR, whether the note meant that the great man was intrigued enough by me to want to meet me. The reply was: "Not really. He does that for all his authors." I was less crushed by the news than stunned by the good manners of it. I had never thought of WFB as that well-mannered. I still haven't met a controversialist that well-mannered.

The second time I came close was soon after I had "tea" with another writer friend of mine and his then-pal, one Princess Elizabeth of Yugoslavia. We had met and noshed at the old Russian Tea Room; having got stuck with the rather hefty bill, I dropped a half-joking hint about getting something out of the occasion other than a lighter wallet. Apparently I was subtle enough: La Princessa suggested that I accompany her to Pat and Bill Buckley's Manhattan pied-à-terre the next evening, where she had been invited to a gathering of "intimates." Of course I was quite excited; of course it didn't actually happen. But least I got some plausible excuse over the royal phone a hour or so before the scheduled rendezvous.

That was 1990. Soon thereafter, my first wife and I left New York for Houston to take up job offers. I had accepted that a meeting between my childhood idol and me was not in the designs of providence. And in any event, I thought I'd outgrown him.

NR, over which he was surrendering day-to-day control, had ceased to interest me much, and conservatism as a political philosophy struck me as less intellectually coherent than the body of Catholic social teaching anyhow. I was troubled by the oft-quoted remark he had made decades before, by way of greeting Pope John XXIII's social-justice encyclical Mater et Magistra: "Mater sì, magistra no." I had even learned that he also dissented, sort of, from Paul VI's Humanae Vitae. To my mind, that made him one of those CINOs much reviled at the institution, the University of St. Thomas, where I was headed to teach. But my disillusionment was not permanent.

About a dozen years later—unemployed, homeless, and divorced from my second wife—I read for the first time two books of his with 'God' in the title: God and Man at Yale, which had launched his career in the 1950s; and Nearer, My God: An Autobiography of Faith (1997). Amazingly, the former is still in print as well as the latter. My awe returned.

Reading those books enabled me to see into and savor Bill Buckley himself at a much deeper level than I ever had. Once again, I wished I could have been much more like him. His various struggles with Catholicism and the Church became much more comprehensible to me as quarrels between lovers. For the first time, I was able to understand and empathize with intelligent Catholics who could not easily swallow all that the Church expected of them. I briefly made plans to get back to New York and find a way to meet him before he died. But I couldn't even scrape together enough money to see my own family of origin and old friends. Providence reasserted himself.

Still, I hope to meet him in the hereafter. Perhaps we can then have the discussion I always wanted to have with him. But then, perhaps it won't be necessary. And perhaps that will have been the point.

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