“No other act can project simultaneous hints that he is in the act of playing Commodore of the Yacht Club, Joseph Goebbels, Robert Mitchum, Maverick, Savonarola, the nice prep school kid next door, and the snows of yesteryear,”

Norman Mailer on William F. Buckley, Jr.
 

One of the things about growing older is that, one by one, all the iconic figures of your childhood and early adult life die off. Over the years, you watch them parade by on the television, and slowly come to realize that a whole generation of people whose existence you just took for granted is passing away.

Today, William F. Buckley, Jr.—patriarch of the American conservative movement, perennial pundit, and (almost self-parodying) icon of erudition—died at home. He died, at 82, as he would have wanted—quite possibly writing a final witty column for publication. Author of 45 books spanning the literary spectrum and countless articles and speeches, he was found in his study, slumped at his desk. He died, it would seem, as he lived: fighting the conservative fight in the public arena with, we can presume, wit, poise, and civility.

Next to his (in)famous erudition, it was perhaps his civility that most stands out today. In the present partisan climate, replete with vicious personal attacks, rage-fueled diatribes, and emotional ‘arguments’ on each side of the aisle, Bill Buckley stood aloof, refusing to abandon reason for passion. As others flung handfuls of mud, hoping some might stick out of the sheer volume, he refused to be hurried, and fired his own measured shots at his own pace.

Buckley’s greatest gift was his infectious love of life and political discourse, which led many of his rivals and critics to nonetheless enjoy his company. He was a sort of political scamp, impishly speaking his mind and sparking controversy. Just when you’d think you’d figured him out, suddenly he’d issue a statement, perfectly consistent, but utterly different from your assumptions. A moral conservative who proposed legalizing drugs; a former supporter of segregation who freed the conservative mainstream of the John Birchers and Randian Objectivists; a staunchly conservative pundit who enjoyed the company of many on the left: Bill Buckley was frequently an iconoclastic icon.

Perhaps his self-deprecating wit is best exhibited, as the New York Times obituary remarks, by a line Buckley wrote for a KGB official in “Who’s on First:”

Do you ever read the National Review, Jozsef? It is edited by this young bourgeois fanatic.

All jests aside, William F. Buckley, Jr. was the very opposite of a fanatic. Where fanatics are notoriously humorless about their cause, he was all infectious wit and merriment. Where fanatics eschew the company of those who refuse to see the light, he reveled in it. And where fanatics make it clear by every action that human life is subordinate to the holy cause, Bill Buckley made it clear by his every action that the conservative cause exists to serve human life. To him one did not live to be conservative, one was conservative in order to live to the fullest. As if orchestrating a life-long jest this “hammer of the secular humanists” was a vigorous and life-long champion of real humanism.

In paradisum deducant te Angeli;
in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres,
et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.

Chorus angelorum te suscipiat,
et cum Lazaro quondam paupere
aeternam habeas requiem.

Resquiat in pace, Bill!

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