Words never failed him

Times files
Buckley’s National Review paved the way for Goldwater and the national conservative movement.

Times files Buckley’s National Review paved the way for Goldwater and the national conservative movement.

WASHINGTON — Those who think Jack Nicholson's neon smile is the last word in smiles never saw William F. Buckley's. It could light up an auditorium; it did light up half a century of elegant advocacy that made him an engaging public intellectual and the 20th century's most consequential journalist.

Before there could be Ronald Reagan's presidency, there had to be Barry Goldwater's candidacy. It made conservatism confident and placed the Republican Party in the hands of its adherents.

Before there could be Goldwater's insurgency, there had to be National Review magazine. From the creative clutter of its Manhattan offices flowed the ideological electricity that powered the transformation of American conservatism from a mere sensibility into a fighting faith and a blueprint for governance.

Before there was National Review, there was Buckley, spoiling for a philosophic fight, to be followed, of course, by a flute of champagne with his adversaries. He was 29 when, in 1955, he launched National Review with the vow that it "stands athwart history, yelling Stop." Actually, it helped Bill take history by the lapels, shake it to get its attention, and then propel it in a new direction. Bill died Wednesday in his home, in his study, at his desk, diligent at his lifelong task of putting words together well and to good use.

Before his intervention — often laconic in manner, always passionate in purpose — in the plodding political arguments within the flaccid liberal consensus of the post-World War II intelligentsia, conservatism's face was that of another Yale man, Robert Taft, somewhat dour, often sour, three-piece suits, wire-rim glasses. The word "fun" did not spring to mind.

The fun began when Bill picked up his clipboard, and conservatives' spirits, by bringing his distinctive brio and elan to political skirmishing. When young Goldwater decided to give politics a fling, he wrote to his brother: "It ain't for life and it might be fun." He was half right: Politics became his life and it was fun, all the way. Politics was not Bill's life — he had many competing and compensating enthusiasms — but it mattered to him, and he mattered to the course of political events.

One clue to Bill's talent for friendship surely is his fondness for this thought of Harold Nicolson's: "Only one person in a thousand is a bore, and he is interesting because he is one person in a thousand." Consider this from Bill's introduction to a collection of his writings titled The Jeweler's Eye: A Book of Irresistible Political Reflections:

"The title is, of course, a calculated effrontery, the relic of an impromptu answer I gave once to a tenacious young interviewer who, toward the end of a very long session, asked me what opinion did I have of myself. I replied that I thought of myself as a perfectly average middle-aged American, with, however, a jeweler's eye for political truths. I suppressed a smile — and watched him carefully record my words in his notebook. Having done so, he looked up and asked, 'Who gave you your jeweler's eye?' 'God,' I said, tilting my head skyward just a little. He wrote that down — the journalism schools warn you not to risk committing anything to memory. 'Well,' — he rose to go, smiling at last — 'that settles that!' We have become friends."

Pat, Bill's beloved wife of 56 years, died last April. During the memorial service for her at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, a friend read lines from Vitae Summa Brevis by a poet she admired, Ernest Dowson:

They are not long, the days of wine and roses:

Out of a misty dream

Our path emerges for a while, then closes

Within a dream.

Bill's final dream was to see her again, a consummation of which his faith assured him. He had an aptitude for love — of his son, his church, his harpsichord, language, wine, skiing, sailing.

He began his 60-year voyage on the turbulent waters of American controversy by tacking into the wind with a polemical book, God and Man at Yale (1951), that was a lovers' quarrel with his alma mater. And so at Pat's service the achingly beautiful voices of Yale's Whiffenpoofs were raised in their signature song about the tables down at Mory's, "the place where Louis dwells":

We will serenade our Louis

While life and voice shall last

Then we'll pass and be forgotten with the rest

Bill's distinctive voice permeated, and improved, his era. It will be forgotten by no one who had the delight of hearing it.

George Will's e-mail address is georgewill@washpost.com.

© Washington Post Writers Group

Words never failed him 02/28/08 [Last modified: Thursday, October 28, 2010 9:18am]

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