William F. Buckley Jr.

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By Stephen Griffith William F. Buckley Jr. and President Ronald Reagan at Reagan’s birthday party, 1986. (Photo courtesy of White House Photo Office)An icon died this February. William F. Buckley, journalist, debater and intellectual force behind the conservative movement, died Wednesday, Feb. 27. Founder of the National Review and author of 54 books, he shaped a conservatism that took both people and ideas seriously, and he enjoyed life in the process. That showed in his smile. Others have outlined his life, and many who knew him have paid eloquent tribute. I cannot speak as they do from personal acquaintance and love. I do wish, however, to offer a simple remembrance to mark the passing of this man who influenced American political thought so profoundly. My first remembrance of Buckley comes from my high school years. My English and debate teacher asked me to help her record a television show that she wanted to use in class. Somehow Mrs. Johnson had persuaded the football coach to let her use the videotape recorder the team used for game films. This was in the days before VHS cassettes, and the reel of three-quarter-inch tape had to be threaded by hand. I don’t know whether she needed the technical help, or simply wanted to be sure I watched the program. Either way, she had me there in the English classroom at 9 o’clock Sunday night with the television tuned to “Firing Line.” So I sat listening, entranced by William Buckley’s voice, vocabulary and cadence, and his ideas. I particularly enjoyed it when he matched wits with John Kenneth Galbraith. Buckley was invariably insightful and civil. Even when he was directing a scathing rebuttal at an opponent, there was a twinkle in his eye signaling that this wasn’t personal. He could undercut one’s argument mercilessly without ever being mean. He was wrong, in my mind, though I usually couldn’t articulate his error. But I don’t know anyone who could be wrong so magnificently, so eloquently. I disagreed, but I enjoyed listening to him - admired his command of the language, took delight in his ability to disagree without attacking the person. And though I disagreed, I could never simply dismiss him. His arguments thrilled my mind as well as my ear, even when I did not let myself be convinced. It was infuriating the way he so easily uttered words that sent me to the dictionary five and six times in a single sentence, and how he could go on that way for the whole hour. I have always wished that I could write even one sentence as articulate, as packed with meaning and clear intention as he could rattle off seemingly from the top of his head. We have lost not just a persuasive thinker but a good person. Too much political conversation in America has devolved into mindless shouting. Bill, we miss you already. In memory, William F. Buckley, 1925–2008.

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