William F. Buckley Jr. and the Possibilities of LifeFATHER RICHARD JOHN NEUHAUS
I was privileged to count him as a friend for well over a quarter century.
The two of us last had lunch together at his Stamford, Connecticut, home last December. He was getting ready to leave for Florida to write a book on Ronald Reagan, for which he had a January 20 deadline. He doubted he would get it done. The emphysema was the big problem, and he had to keep an oxygen kit ready at hand.
Bill blamed smoking, a subject on which he had become fixated in recent years, and he gently reminded me that over the years I had frequently invited him to join in the pleasure of an after-dinner cigar. I reminded him that he usually smoked no more than an inch of the cigar before setting it aside. He wasn’t going to blame his emphysema on me.
Norman Mailer had died a few weeks before, and that prompted conversation about fame, life as performance, and the fittingness of mortality. He had some good stories about his encounters with Mailer over the years. It seemed that Bill had stories about encounters with just about everybody of public note. In the past two years, he had been preparing himself for death, and the more intensely since losing his much loved wife, Pat, in April 2007. He thought he had pretty much done what God had put him here to do.
We talked by phone while he was in Florida. The book was not going well. In the weeks since Bill’s death, much has been written about what he accomplished, and much more will be written. Bill Buckley was a man of almost inexhaustible curiosity, courtesy, generosity, and delight in the oddness of the human circumstance. He exulted in displaying his many talents, which was not pride so much as an invitation to others to share his amazement at the possibilities in being fully alive. He was also, in and through everything, a man of quietly solid Christian faith. I am among innumerable others whose lives are fuller by virtue of the gift of his friendship.
It started when I sent him a note protesting something he had written about the civil rights movement. Bill had been, to put it delicately, on the wrong side of that cause, a cause in which I was deeply engaged. That was in the early 1970s, and Bill invited me to lunch to talk it over. For some reason I forget, one or the other of us couldn’t keep that date, so the first time we actually met was when he invited me to appear on his television program, Firing Line, the longest-running program with one host in television history. After that, I was among the less notable regulars on the program, and it was almost always an interesting experience.
Some encounters stand out in my memory. For example, discussing with the philosopher Sidney Hook why he didn’t believe in God. (“If there is a God and he asks me why I didn’t believe in him,” said Hook, “I’ll explain that he didn’t give me enough evidence.”) And there was John Spong, the Episcopal bishop of Newark, New Jersey. Spong was touting his book touting sexual license, and I suggested that this was not a message that the physically and morally devastated inner-city of Newark really needed to hear. Spong triumphantly, and smugly, countered that the Episcopalians of Newark did not live in the run-down city but in affluent suburbs, and they welcomed his message of liberation from the onerous sexual morality of the Episcopal Church. For a moment, Bill and I were, most uncharacteristically, at a loss for words.
I was for several years the religion editor of National Review, which meant writing a column for each issue. It was a position inherited from the formidable Jewish thinker Will Herberg, author of the classic Protestant-Catholic-Jew: An Essay in American Religious Sociology. Throughout his career, Bill was appreciatively attentive to Jewish talent and influence in American intellectual life. This was the positive side of his oft-remarked role in excluding any hint of anti-Semitism from the conservative movement. It was the subject of many conversations, and in 1992 Bill wrote a book about it, In Search of Anti-Semitism. I unsuccessfully urged another title, since “In Search of” suggested that he had to go looking for it.
In 1984, in association with an institute in the Midwest, I established the Center on Religion and Society. Five years later there was a very nasty break-up, with the Illinois institute sending thugs to raid the offices and put us out on the street. It was a much publicized brouhaha at the time, with “paleo-cons” (them) and “neo-cons” (us) going at one another. Bill’s support was invaluable, and out of it all came the Institute on Religion and Public Life and this magazine. Every May 5, the staff of the magazine has a celebratory lunch in honor of the raid. You may be sure that this year we will be raising a glass to Bill Buckley.
Then there was that rather strange book of Bill’s in the late 1990s, Nearer, My God. Father George Rutler and I were his interlocutors, and Bill pelted us with questions on which we wrote mini-essays in response, which he then incorporated into the text. Bill was viewed by many as an exemplary Catholic lay leader in the public square. The purpose of the book was to make clear that his Catholicism was not of the happen-to-be Catholic variety.
His standing as a Catholic had, in the view of many, taken a hit with National Review’s response to Pope John XXIII’s 1961 encyclical Mater et Magister (Mother and teacher), on the Church’s social teaching. The memorable title of the NR comment was “Mater Si! Magister No!” Bill never tired of pointing out that the phrase was the work of Garry Wills before he sailed off leftward, but of course the responsibility was his. America, a Jesuit weekly that was then of a more orthodox stripe, attacked Bill as a dissenter from magisterial teaching, which he forcefully protested, pointing out that, despite the controverted phrase, NR did not disagree with what the encyclical said but was disappointed by its silence about other problems, notably the threat of communism.
Bill made no pretense of being a theologian, and I winced at parts of Nearer, My God. But I am impressed by the number of people who testify that that book, and Bill’s witness more generally, brought them, or brought them back, to Christ and the Church. Bill insisted on many occasions that he had never harbored the slightest doubt about the Church’s teaching authority. Bill was what some call a natural Catholic, bred-in-the-bone, so to speak, but his was also a faith refined and reinforced by a lifetime of spiritual reflectiveness. He indicated from time to time a mix of puzzlement and sadness about those who resisted an explanation of reality so comprehensive, coherent, and reasonable. When in 1990, talking in his car after the taping of a Firing Line episode, I told him I had decided to become a Catholic, he said he felt like a Red Sox fan who had just learned about their signing up the Yankees’ star pitcher. That was intended to flatter, of course, but the unspoken implication was, “What took you so long?”
In the early 1990s, Bill and I launched a regular gathering that was simply called “That Group.” (Let the conspiratorially minded take notes.) It was composed of twenty or thirty editors, writers, and other people of public influence, and we met twice a year, once in Washington, D.C., and once in New York. In later years, the Washington meeting was discontinued, mainly because like-minded people there have enough occasions to get together to plot the betterment of the world. At our last lunch at the house in Connecticut, Bill proposed ideas for the next meeting in New York. But I do not really think that he expected to be there. I think we both knew that we were possibly, probably, meeting for the last time.
He again showed me around his disheveled study, a cavernous space converted from a three-car garage, pointing out paintings (some by him), awards, photos, and general bric-a-brac from sixty years of a very public life, telling stories about who gave him what and when and why, as though he were saying goodbye to it all. There in his disheveled study is where his body was found on the morning of Wednesday, February 27.
He had several years earlier sold the sailboat. He had given up the annual skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland. The majestic harpsichord stood silent in the music room. Don’t you sometimes play it just for private pleasure? I asked. “No, I remember how it was, and now the fingers no longer obey my commands.” And Pat was dead. Again and again, the conversation turned to Pat, and wasn’t her memorial service just right? Then he excused himself. He was tired and needed to nap. Afterward, we talked by phone, but that was the last time together. The car pulled out of the driveway, and I tried to hold back the tears.
I called to mind the lines in Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “Yet we have gone on living, living and partly living.” The life of my friend Bill Buckley was the opposite of living, living and partly living. As much as this life allows, he lived fully, exuberantly, relishing the possibilities of gifts gratefully received and gifts generously shared. He was ready for the more of which this life is part. He heard his Master calling and he readily went. May choirs of angels, to harpsichord accompaniment, welcome him on the far side of the Jordan.
Fr. Richard John Neuhaus. "William F. Buckley Jr. and the Possibilities of Life." First Things 183 (May 2008): 65-67.
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