Over the years, it is impossible even to guess at how many hundreds of hours I spent with Buckley – watching Firing Line, reading his columns, reading book after book (both fiction and non-fiction,) and perusing the pages of the magazine he lovingly edited.
He had a talent for making you feel that you were a part of something bigger. In short, he was inspirational – that often-abused word. He made one want to think clearer, write better, read more voraciously, travel more, talk to more people, appreciate how interesting people are, be more interesting oneself, and to help enlighten others regarding the truths of conservative thought -- just as he had enlightened you. And he made you feel as though if you read just one more of his books or one more issue of his magazine, you might actually succeed in all of the above. Truth to be told, it did undoubtedly help.
Peggy Noonan put it this way:
National Review [was] highly literate, philosophical, witty, of the moment, with an élan, a teasing quality that made you feel you didn't just get a subscription, you joined something. You entered a world of thought.
Indeed. Every time that National Review arrived in the mail (or, during the leanest years, that I settled down in a chair at a library with a copy,) it was an intellectual adventure. Rare was the day that I didn’t read it cover to cover in a single sitting. In the coming week, reflecting on something, I often would go back and re-read the article or the passage in question. And in the process, I got to know the eclectic gathering of writers and editors that Buckley assembled. While all were conservatives of some description, their most salient commonality was more often than not an inchoate sense that they were a personal community at which Buckley was the center.
Readers and writers alike, we were all in a sense there because we were Buckley’s friends. We wanted to be around him, and found we liked being around each other, too. There were other conservative magazines, many started or staffed by young conservative writers Buckley had mentored at National Review. Some were more purely intellectual and analytical, while others served up fresher cuts of political red meat. Yet others were more purely of one strain of conservatism or another. But none (with the possible exception of Tyrell at the American Spectator for a time) had the sense of community that National Review did -- and none had its breadth and catholicity. One suspects that this was simply because they didn’t have Buckley.
I was only ever in the same room with Buckley once. It was one of those guest lectures at a university across the city – the kind of routine speaking appearance of which Buckley made thousands over the years (and of which he writes so entertainingly in his collection of speeches and memoirs of his experiences as an peripatetic speaker, Let of Talk of Many Things.)
A student, I was still young in my education in the conservative intellectual tradition, but Buckley was already a bit of a hero to me, and I knew that I wouldn't miss hearing him speak for anything. I cut class to get there in plenty of time, and found myself in the relatively intimate setting of a modest lecture hall, where I wasn’t far from the podium. He was his usual self, with that combination of keen intellect, good humor, and gift for the anecdote that at first seems random, and ends up being the perfect illustration of a point. He began with an unexpected twist, in which he “settled” magisterially a long-debated point of regional identity for the audience – to a roar of applause and laughter. In a matter of minutes, he had the room under his spell.
I don't remember much of the specifics of what he said -- Reagan hadn't yet been President long, though, and it was clear that Buckley's mission in life at that point was to make sure that this opportunity for which he had worked his entire life wasn't going to be blown. I suspect that I wasn't the only young conservative who left the room that day with a heightened awareness that the 1980 election had only cracked the door open a bit for conservatives -- most of the job lay ahead of us.
For an hour, though, it was the Buckley magic, that sense that you were with someone who was simultaneously larger-than-life and who was yet talking just for you. For a few years, one of my regrets was that I decided against going up to join the small crowd that had gathered to ask questions and shake his hand. I did want to thank him for what he had done for me, for the hope and example that he gave all of us. Shy, more than a bit intimidated, and knowing that there wouldn't be any real opportunity to talk, since it was announced that he would soon be whisked off to another gathering – I slipped out the back and decided simply to enjoy the memory of that hour.
Looking back, I still occasionally have regrets about that – but for the most part the ensuing decades taught me that my initial response was actually the right one. Yes, I could have said that I shook Buckley’s hand – but I wouldn’t in any sense have gotten to have experienced a taste of Buckley conversation in those few seconds. Buckley was never the rock-star type -- what one wanted was to spend time talking to him. Basking in the presence of his celebrity wasn't really what anyone who admired Buckley would be all that interested in.
By contrast, his writings were always right there, waiting for anyone at any time, with an open invitation to get to know him and to have a conversation through the printed page. And my notebooks and typewriter (and later, computer) were there, waiting for me to labor over the written word, attempting to carry on in some very small way with what Buckley had started. That was what he had clearly intended to inspire his listeners that day to do.