The Reactionary Utopian
                     May 30, 2006

by Joe Sobran

     In 1993 I pretty much defied William F. Buckley Jr., 
my boss at NATIONAL REVIEW for 21 years, to fire me, and 
he did. I was sorry it had to end that way, but things 
had become very strained between us. I've told my side of 
that story before.

     What I've never told is what Bill was really like. 
And now that I want to, I hardly know where to start.

     I just got the news that Bill has emphysema and has 
checked into the Mayo Clinic. At 80, he hasn't looked 
well lately in his television appearances, so this 
shouldn't have been a shock. But it's a shock, all right 
-- such a shock that I'm not really writing, I'm 

     Like millions of young conservatives in the 1960s, I 
adored Bill Buckley. I met him at my Michigan university 
in 1971, and a few months later he invited me to come to 
New York to write for him. I was thrilled, and on 
September 11, 1972, I went to work at NATIONAL REVIEW's 
Manhattan office, a starstruck kid of 26. The biggest 
news story was still being called "the Watergate caper."

     What fun it was! In private Bill was every bit as 
witty as his public reputation, but warmer and funnier. 
He kept the office as happy as a nest of singing birds, 
with affectionate and gracious gestures for all of us. It 
pains me to recall how callow I was in those days, but he 
was always too encouraging to let me feel like anything 
but a prodigy.

     He had help. Two of his sisters worked in the office 
too, Priscilla, his managing editor, and his kid sister 
Carole, whose desk was next to mine. They shared that 
Buckley radiance and humor. So, I learned, did all his 
siblings. Magic seemed to run in the family.

     Bill had founded the magazine in 1955, and had 
gathered and fostered remarkable young writing talents: 
Garry Wills, John Leonard, Joan Didion, Arlene Croce, 
George Will, Richard Brookhiser, Paul Gigot, and many 
others were among his discoveries. He'd also attracted 
such notable older conservative intellectuals as James 
Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer, 
and Richard Weaver. These brilliant, headstrong people 
sometimes had sharp differences among themselves, but 
Bill's genially magnetic personality usually kept the 

     Over the years I came to know another side of Bill. 
When I had serious troubles, he was a generous friend who 
did everything he could to help me without being asked. 
And I wasn't the only one. I gradually learned of many 
others he'd quietly rescued from adversity. He'd 
supported a once-noted libertarian in his destitute old 
age, when others had forgotten him. He'd helped two pals 
of mine out of financial difficulties. And on and on. 
Everyone seemed to have a story of Bill's solicitude. 
When you told your own story to a friend, you'd hear one 
from him. It was as if we were all Bill Buckley's 

     It went far beyond sharing his money. One of Bill's 
best friends was Hugh Kenner, the great critic who died 
two years ago. Hugh was hard of hearing, and once, after 
a 1964 dinner with Hugh and Charlie Chaplin, Bill scolded 
Hugh for being too stubborn to use a hearing aid. Here 
were the greatest comedian of the age and the greatest 
student of comedy, and Hugh had missed much of the 
conversation! Later Hugh's wife told me how grateful Hugh 
had been for that scolding. Nobody else would have dared 
speak to her husband that way. Only a true friend would. 
If Bill saw you needed a little hard truth, he'd tell 
you, even if it pained him to say it.

     I once spent a long evening with one of Bill's old 
friends from Yale, whose name I won't mention. He told me 
movingly how Bill stayed with him to comfort him when his 
little girl died of brain cancer. If Bill was your 
friend, he'd share your suffering when others just 
couldn't bear to. What a great heart -- eager to spread 
joy, and ready to share grief!

     Compared with all this, the political differences 
that finally drove us apart seem trivial now. I saw the 
same graciousness in his relations with everyone from 
presidents to menials. I learned a lot of things from 
Bill Buckley, but the best thing he taught me was how to 
be a Christian. May Jesus comfort him now.


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