To say “he will be missed” is not only to resort to the sort of cliche which Buckley despised, it’s also to be guilty of understatement. I can’t think of anyone with more friends to leave behind. The world knew WFB as a great intellect and writer, which he certainly was, but he was also as decent, gentle, kind and loving a man as those of us blessed to make his acquaintance would ever know.
It will take some time for me to formulate my thoughts and write something more about this extraordinary life, but till then I offer this excerpt from a profile I wrote about Buckley for Salon nearly nine years ago:
One almost forgets, when WFB refers to lunch with Henry, a stroll with Ronald or a trip with Milton, that he is speaking of a former secretary of state, a former president or a Nobel Prize-winning economist. But if Bill Buckley walks with kings, he has not lost the common touch. At a recent celebration commemorating Ronald Reagan’s 88th birthday, Buckley, the keynote speaker, was seated at the head table with Nancy Reagan, two former cabinet secretaries and the ex-governor of California. The moment the dinner ended, he ditched the dignitaries, dodged hundreds of autograph seekers and sneaked out to the parking lot to meet old friends for a nightcap.
Many conservatives say that government is unimportant, but behave as though every legislative or electoral defeat is a personal disaster. Buckley is different. He loves politics, he’s intrigued by its sport and he enjoys wrestling with big ideas. But he has other passions—sailing, skiing, playing the harpsichord, studying the English language and, of course, being with his friends, who are legion and just as likely to include a former research assistant as a former president of the United States.
Before all of them, however, comes Pat, his wife of 49 years, a Vassar-educated one-time Miss Vancouver. Whenever she admonishes Bill to fix his tie, or sends a dinner party into a fit of laughter with a well-timed wisecrack, he gazes at her with relentless affection. They are unembarrassed to call each other by pet names, no matter who else is present. Their son, Christopher, is the father of two and a successful humorist—facts that Pat and Bill proudly advertise.
But the work that helps to explain Buckley’s character more than any other is his 1997 book “Nearer My God: An Autobiography of Faith.” “It seems to me,” he once said of his faith, that “a balanced life begins by acknowledging the insufficiency of purely materialistic considerations, and therefore one instinctively looks out for the other dimension that religion supplies you with.” His is a quiet devotion, which he’d previously made little effort to discuss publicly. But his generosity, his patience, his compassion are all indicative of a grace that strives not only to believe the faith but to live it—even if humility bars him from saying as much.