by Richard M. Langworth
Finest Hour 138, Spring 2008
My first encounter with William F. Buckley, Jr. was as a college senior in 1963. I had responded to one of his annual appeals, which subscribers to National Review expect as part of their reading matter: his eloquent confession that a journal devoted to capitalism has had, not exactly ipso facto, another losing year, and cannot continue without the help of its friends. I said I could not spare a penny to save a publication I simply couldn’t imagine being without. (College campuses in those days were hotbeds of ideas from left to right, not the closed shops so many of them are today.)
“For heaven’s sake don’t apologize,” Bill Buckley shot back personally, to my surprise and delight. “It is enough to know you are with us.”
Later I had the pleasure to be published twice in National Review, first with a 1980 story about how to save the Detroit auto industry. Mr. Buckley sent another note: “Nice going, hope the President takes it in.” Of course Mr. Reagan was a subscriber, and he took it in, and the auto industry was saved. Next I wrote about Latvia, “The Once and Future Republic,” speculating on a rebirth of Baltic nationhood “in the event of some unforeseen future breakdown of the Soviet Union.” It isn’t what they pay at National Review, but the unerring way they make good your predictions.
And with Bill Buckley I’ve largely been ever since, always with immense admiration for his ability with words, which is equally what attracts so many to Winston Churchill. If Churchill snared us with what Robert Pilpel called “roast beef and pewter phrases,” Buckley galvanized us with his sheer breadth of interest, from Rosalind Tureck’s Bach recitals to running as a Conservative for Mayor of New York, from sextant navigation to skiing the Alps with David Niven, from serving as a United Nations diplomat to diving two and a half miles down to visit the Titanic. And he delivered this fusillade of experience using all the words in Mr. Webster’s dictionary.
He had a Churchillian characteristic rare in politics today: collegiality toward the opposition. In 1975, when Bill Buckley first sailed the Atlantic, The New York Times reported that he had arrived in the Azores “accompanied by John Kenneth Galbraith, celebrating his retirement from the Harvard faculty.” Bill immediately wrote to the Times: “The Galbraith on board was not my friend, the six-foot 11-inch emaciated Menshevik, John Kenneth, but my friend, the chunky, five-foot 11-inch Manchesterist, Evan; and anyway, surely it was Harvard, not Professor Galbraith, that had reason to celebrate.”
John Kenneth Galbraith had meanwhile written the Times: “William F. Buckley, Jr. was boasting as usual when he told you that I’d sailed to the Azores as a member of his crew. He is not that brave; nor, may I say, am I.” Later, Galbraith read Buckley’s account of the voyage which, he wrote, “takes me to sea, makes me part of the whole adventure. Mr. Buckley should give up politics and concentrate on writing. He cannot afford to have serious people think he is a failed politician when he is a master of a higher craft.”
The Churchill Centre’s great trifecta, in 1995, was bringing William Buckley, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and William Manchester to the same conference in Boston. Each of them provided us with special moments. I will never forget Bill Manchester, old and ailing, astonished and in tears when an audience of 400 rose as one to applaud the author of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill; or Arthur Schlesinger, the great historian, referring to Sir Winston as “history’s impresario…the largest human being of our time.” But most of all I remember Bill Buckley’s speech.
He began by recalling his coverage, as editor of the Yale Daily News, of Churchill’s famous “Mid-Century” oration at M.I.T. in 1949. Then he tracked Churchill’s bittersweet postwar political career. I thought his speech ordinary at the time, only to realize later, readying it for publication, how exquisitely crafted a tribute it was, and how generous to Winston Churchill-for Bill had never really warmed to Churchill, had called him a “peacetime catastrophe.” And yet he gave us words that will live forever in our annals:
Mr. Churchill had struggled to diminish totalitarian rule in Europe which, however, increased. He fought to save the Empire, which dissolved. He fought socialism, which prevailed. He struggled to defeat Hitler, and he won. It is not, I think, the significance of that victory, mighty and glorious though it was, that causes the name of Churchill to make the blood run a little faster….it is the roar that we hear, when we pronounce his name. It is simply mistaken that battles are necessarily more important than the words that summon men to arms. The battle of Agincourt was long forgotten as a geopolitical event, but the words of Henry V, with Shakespeare to recall them, are imperishable in the mind, even as which side won the battle of Gettysburg will dim from the memory of those who will never forget the words spoken about that battle by Abraham Lincoln. The genius of Churchill was his union of affinities of the heart and of the mind, the total fusion of animal and spiritual energy….It is my proposal that Winston Churchill’s words were indispensable to the benediction of that hour, which we hail here tonight, as we hail the memory of the man who spoke them; as we come together, to praise a famous man.
Above all, he was so nice! Riding to the hotel, I asked if there was any Churchill fact he needed that might have eluded him. “Ah, do you know when he was born?” Bill winked. After his speech we fired questions, as at National Press Club luncheons: “If you could have Churchill to yourself for an evening, what would you say to him?” WFB replied: “I would say, ‘Please talk non-stop.'”
We come together to praise a famous man, each from our station, each with our memories. Thanks to Bill Buckley, I got into my bones the essential structure of a fund appeal; I’ve lost track of the times I’ve used his National Review subscription tally: ”the combined circulation of Finest Hour and the Reader’s Digest is twenty million copies.” Thanks to him, I ventured beyond lake sailing into the Atlantic. Thanks to him, I know what Che Guevara, Barry Goldwater and Whittaker Chambers were really like. Thanks to him, I know how to essay an obituary, for his touch on these was a model. Thanks to him I developed an appreciation for Bach, especially on a harpsichord. Thanks to him, and Sir Winston, I’ve seen the heights to which the English language can rise. Thanks to him, I know what I owe my country.
“For every thing there is a season.” Among his friends there seemed a resignation that it was time for him to go. Just weeks ago he penned his farewell to his best friend, Evan Galbraith; last year he mourned the loss of his wife, wondering what was left that made life worth living. Bill married his wife Pat the same day in 1950 that Elizabeth Taylor married the first of eight husbands. He was always proud of that.