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The Reactionary Utopian
March 6, 2008

A Great Spirit Gone
by Joe Sobran

September 11 has long been a special date for me, well before it became 9/11. On September 11, 1972, I began 21 years of writing for National Review in New York City, my boss being my hero, Bill Buckley, who died the other day at age 82. (My employment ended unhappily, much to my regret now, but I rejoice to say we patched things up a year or so ago.)

I was struck by one thing in the tributes to Bill: the people who really knew him didn’t want to talk about his achievements as a public figure, great and rare as these were: they wanted to talk about him, his goodness, his warmth, the quality his and my friend Hugh Kenner, an eminent literary critic who measured his words carefully, once called “saintly.”

A few nights before Bill died, I happened to mislay my rosary, so I counted my prayers on my fingers. I’d learned to do this from Bill in a casual conversation many years earlier; he’d learned it as a boy from a family servant, and it stuck with him the rest of his life. That was Bill, devout in detail. If you didn’t know this side of him, you didn’t really know him.

And if he was your friend, you really had a friend. One of his old Yale fraternity brothers recalled to me that when his little girl was dying of brain cancer, Bill was the only friend who sat with him and shared his suffering when there was no longer any hope of her recovery. Such tender, self-wounding charity was typical of him, and it accounts for much of the deep affection he inspired.

Of course you can love the man without accepting his politics, and over the years I decided that Bill’s conservatism conceded too much to the liberal statism he opposed. I wish, for example, that he had retained his father’s “isolationism,” as opposing military interventionism is still disparagingly called.

Still, in 1965, when he ran for mayor of New York City, he made what must be the most sublime campaign promise in modern American history: he pledged to give every citizen “the internal composure that comes of knowing there are rational limits to politics.” Well, that would have won him Aristotle’s vote.

What delightful company he was! I don’t remember a boring moment in his company in all the years I knew him. He had a Falstaffian gift for finding fun in every situation. Once, when a Wisconsin newspaper announced it was dropping his column and picking up my new one instead, he sent me the clipping with a note, in his tiny, barely legible red handwriting, “Joe: Morituri te salutamus.” He was both hilarious and endearing. And always so encouraging. He made you feel like a genius.

And there was Bill the raconteur, savoring delicious anecdotes in that rich, resonant cello of a voice. He took pride in having tricked the peerless Vladimir Horowitz into giving him a free performance at his home one evening. How? He had simply disparaged Scriabin, knowing what this would provoke. And sure enough, the pianist leaped to the keyboard to refute the slur by playing a Scriabin piece.

But above all, first and last, Bill was a Catholic, whose ultimate love was Jesus. His secret benefactions — they were countless (except for the ones he did me, I had to learn of them gradually) — were in keeping with our Lord’s injunction not to let the left hand know what the right hand is doing. His faith was put to the test in his last year, when his wife of 57 years died in agony and his own body was tortured by disease. He displayed what I didn’t expect even of him: the courage of a martyr. But I’m not really surprised.

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