Feb. 28, 2008
William F. Buckley, Jr., was my first conservativeand I didnt like him much. With his arched eyebrow and flickering tongue, with his $50 words, I thought he was the perfect picture of a snob. I thought his brand of politics would never attract a national following.
As a young college student, I watched him on TV. I wasnt buying his labored defenses of constitutionalism that he said justified some in resisting integration. I was strong for civil rights and he was against civil rights. Or at least thats what I thought at the time.
When my hero Hubert Humphrey took to the Senate floor to defend the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, I laughed when he said if any part of that great charter ever led to racial quotas or set-asides, he would eat the page of the Congressional Record on which the bill was printed. I hope Hubert liked Tabasco sauce.
Buckley had warned us. And he warned us of many other things, too. Like Communism.
Perhaps it was because Buckley was such a great man of faith himself that he understood instinctively that Communism was, in the words of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, atheism with a knife to your childrens throats.
I laughed, too, when Buckley ran for Mayor of New York City in 1965. He ran against the liberal knight, John V. Lindsay. Buckley realized he never stood a chance, saying that if he won hed demand a recount.
Later, when Lindsay switched parties and became a Democrat, his staffers asked me what the Mayor of New York could do for me in my own race for state Assembly. Knowing how my Long Island neighbors despised the limousine liberal Lindsay, I said: Mayor Lindsay could denounce me by name. The devil didnt make me say that; William F. Buckley, Jr. did.
When Buckley debated Governor Ronald Reagan about giving away the Panama Canal, I invited my fellow Coast Guard officers to watch it on TV. As we gathered in the Officers Club, I assured them that Buckley clean up the floor with Reagan. At that time, I happened to agree with Buckley that the U.S. ought to give away the canal. I agreed with California Senator Hayakawa who said we stole it fair and square.
What we saw instead was Ronald Reagan at the height of his powers. I switched parties and positions on the spot. I became a Reagan man. And Bill Buckleywrong as he was on the canalbecame one of Reagans best boosters. My Coast Guard buddies never asked for my political advice again.
Perhaps my favorite Buckley quote is the one that summed up his political philosophyand mine. It wasnt just because he was a Yale man that he put down Harvard so memorably. He said: I should sooner live in a society governed by the first two thousand names in the Boston telephone directory than in a society governed by the two thousand faculty members of Harvard University. He was, after all, a good democrat.
He would have agreed with Edmund Burke: Individuals are foolish, but the species is wise. William F. Buckley, Jr. understood that ideas have consequences. And he did his best to advance the ideas of faith, family and freedom. He did it with wit and energy. God rest ye, Merry Gentleman!