I still remember discovering National Review as a freshman almost twenty years ago, on the rack of a small library in Markley. Little did I know that I would come to write for the magazine professionally, or that I would get to know its famous founder, William F. Buckley, Jr.
But that’s what happened, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot since Bill died on February 27.
When people learn that I write for National Review-I’ve been on the staff for ten years now-they often ask me about Bill. What’s he like? How’s he doing? What’s the deal with his accent? The night before his death, I was at a Washington Capitals hockey game with a few friends. They wanted to hear about Bill.
It’s no wonder. With the exception of Ronald Reagan, Buckley was the most important conservative of his era. Without him, America’s postwar years probably would have seen the rise of the Right, but it would have looked and sounded different: less libertarian, less spirited, less eloquent–and a lot less successful. Maybe there wouldn’t have been a Reagan.
In truth, I wasn’t around Bill a lot. I’m based in D.C. and he spent most of his time in Manhattan or Connecticut or elsewhere. I don’t remember ever seeing him in our Washington office. When he came to town, he was always hurrying to a function and leaving soon after.
The first time we met was at his home in New York City. I had been on the staff for a little while and he had let it be known that he wanted to meet me. So I was invited to a regularly scheduled dinner with the editors. I was both excited and intimidated. As the owner of National Review, he was my boss’s boss. As its founder-and as one of the country’s great public intellectuals-he was also a Legend.
My goal for the evening was simply to avoid saying anything dumb in his presence.
I soon discovered that he was a most gracious man. He was renowned for his big words, of course. Even before I worked at National Review, my parents used to give me a Buckley-themed word-a-day desk calendar for Christmas. This may be a good time to look up a word we already know. Gracious, according to my dictionary, means “characterized by kindness and warm courtesy.” That was Bill, precisely. Next to the word, they should print a picture of him.
He asked me what I was working on for the next issue. I can’t recall the topic of the article. I do remember his interest and curiosity. He listened. He asked questions. He raised his eyebrows in that distinctive way. It was strange to think that I was talking to him more than he was talking to me. Yet that’s what happened, and Bill made it seem natural. I never felt anything but comfortable around him again.
A few hours after he died, we posted a short obituary on National Review Online. It observed that Bill had “a talent for friendship.” He sure did. I wouldn’t call myself his friend-I was more like a fawning admirer who knew him slightly-but I caught a glimpse of what friendship with him must have been like. It was a gift. His friends-and he had plenty of all political persuasions-were lucky people.
As a freshman in Ann Arbor, I fell in love with National Review. It spoke to my conservative instincts and articulated them in ways that I hadn’t yet imagined were possible. It was also a funny magazine that combined a seriousness of purpose with good cheer. Bill had a first-class wit and one of the world’s great grins. His smile was so radiant you could almost see it when reading his prose. National Review became a chief inspiration for my joining the Michigan Review, which owes its very name to the magazine Bill created and built. After becoming editor during my sophomore year, I would sometimes daydream about writing for National Review. Like an anxious prospect in the farm system of a major-league baseball team, I wondered if I would ever be good enough.
How many 38-year-old men can say that they occupy the jobs they aspired to have when they were half a life younger? I’m blessed to be one, thanks to Bill’s efforts.
The conservative writer Russell Kirk-who wrote a National Review column for a quarter century from his home in tiny Mecosta, Mich.-used to say that modern people are dwarves who stand on the shoulders of giants. If we can see farther than our ancestors, it’s only because of their great stature and the accident that they preceded us.
I’m a dwarf. Bill Buckley was a giant. MR
John J. Miller, The Michigan Review’s Editor-in-Chief from 1990-1991, graduated from the University of Michigan in 1992.