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                 The Reactionary Utopian
                      March 6, 2008

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 

     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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