I once wrote a letter to my hero, hoping to get one back. This was early in 1976, and I'd recently taken my first newspaper job. William F. Buckley Jr., who was willing to challenge liberal orthodoxy and defend traditional norms like no one else, was as famous as I was obscure, and I could think of no good reason he would actually write back. He was, after all, the most prolific writer around, and he did his weekly Firing Line show and all the speeches, and then there was the skiing in Switzerland, the transatlantic sailing, and more.
But the busy Buckley-"Dictated in Switzerland, Transcribed in New York," it said atop the page-wrote back. He answered a question I'd asked him about Albert Jay Nock, ending with this: "By the way, I own the holograph of Jefferson," Nock's biography of Thomas Jefferson. That "by the way" sentence served to invite me into my hero's company: The two of us could discuss Nock and maybe other writers and ideas.
But it was the next sentence that bowled me over: "That was a splendid essay you did on C.S. Lewis." It had appeared eight months earlier in the old Alternative, soon to be renamed the American Spectator, and it was my first magazine piece ever. That Buckley could remember it at all astonished me. That he liked it was a huge encouragement to someone toiling in the newspaper equivalent of low-A ball.
What I didn't understand then was that my hero had an unusual gift for friendship. I began to see that two months later when I went to a lecture he gave at High Point College in North Carolina. Afterwards a large crowd gathered around him. I got just close enough to introduce myself. I thought that would be that. But Buckley greeted me as though we'd known each other for years and began walking me out, asking whether I'd like to get something to eat. The crowd parted before the two of us like the Red Sea.
Later that year the Democrats were to hold their convention in New York. I wrote Bill that I'd be up to cover it. He responded that since I hadn't said where I'd be staying, he'd try calling my newspaper to find out, as he wanted "to see if you can join us for dinner." The thought of Bill Buckley calling my paper to find out where I was staying in New York was amazing. But that was Bill. He'd go to such lengths. As it happened, I managed to reach him. And to make it to his home for dinner.
A year later I was in San Diego working for the morning newspaper. Bill was to lecture at a local college, and I wrote to say I was looking forward to the event. In reply, remembering that I'd told him I recognized his High Point speech as one previously published in the Alternative, he told me he might give that old speech and didn't want me to have to sit through it again. "If I see you in that front row, I shall cut either my throat or yours. Possibly yours, since otherwise"-flashing his characteristic wit-"I would not get my fee."
Bill invited me to drop by his hotel at 5:30 P.M. on the day of the speech. I watched him compose his column in maybe 20 minutes. Then we ordered from room service. It wasn't necessary to cut either throat, as I had to go back to work right before he was due to go speak. I left struck by the fact that he'd not thought about his speech in the two hours before he was to give it.
I think Bill's days somehow went longer than 24 hours. They had to, to accommodate his innumerable friendships. I remember the time I checked into a room in Norfolk late one night and heard a voice in the hall that could have belonged only to one man. Surely not, I thought, too coincidental. But stepping outside my door, I saw that the man entering his room with a huge bag in each hand was indeed Bill Buckley. It was too late for a visit. But Bill invited me in and dialed up room service.
The times I saw Bill were infrequent. But he overcame distance with notes and letters. Many of his friends-and they ran across the political spectrum-knew him as I did from afar, through the mail. And in my case, and doubtless others, he often had something generous to say. Once he observed that a review I'd written of one of his collections was "simply the best" he had ever received. I like to think he wasn't joking.
Bill's legacy is found all over politics and the media today. But he was critically important for those of us who came up in the fevered sixties and then had to endure the seventies, for he helped us make our way athwart history to the better time of the Reagan years. For us, he'll always remain a hero, and for many, too, he'll remain in memory an abiding friend.