Fresh out of Brown University in 1987, I started working at National Review, the opinion magazine he founded in 1955. I had never met so many intense--if idiosyncratic--Christians, mostly Catholics like Buckley, as he had assembled there under a dilapidated roof on New York's East 35th Street. Buckley's overt Christian commitment, mixing urbanity with great passion, brought many young conservatives, including many who had started out as liberals, to rethink the bland, content-free, secularist pieties we had been brought up on. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home, I knew few people of any serious spiritual orientation whatsoever. Sometimes, envy can be a positive force in a person's spiritual development. I wanted what Buckley, and others, had.
Example is a more powerful instructional tool than lecturing. This may be the most compact way of expressing what Bill Buckley has contributed to the conservative movement in American political life, as its intellectual, and spiritual, leader. His retirement this past week as owner of NR, where I worked for nine years most recently as a senior editor, offers an occasion to recall what makes him such an important religious figure.
To be precise, this isn't the first time he has retired. The first was in 1990, at NR's 35th anniversary dinner. Everyone was drunk and crying and wondering how the magazine could go on. However, while giving up the title editor-in-chief, Buckley retained the option of getting involved in anything at all in the editorial department that he wanted to. He exercised the option liberally. Years after his "retirement," he phoned me to critique the punctuation in a book review I had edited. Buckley went over it line-by-line, pointing out this semicolon that should have been a comma; that comma that was extraneous; the other comma that should been placed there but was absent.
I'm making a careful distinction between commas and semicolons as I say that his spiritual legacy has three components: He provided a personal model of what it means specifically to be a religious conservative; he swept the vestigial anti-Semites from the right-wing scene; and he made us see how little religious, or political, orthodoxy means in the absence of a softer virtue: kindness.
It wasn't that he pontificated about religion, but, rather, inspired us by being that thing you might otherwise have doubted could exist in modern intellectual life: the spiritually engaged soul that is not the least bit embarrassed to express very publicly the most earnest thoughts about God. Buckley wrote movingly of a visit to Lourdes, and even, seven years before Gibson's "Passion," about the Crucifixion in the most excruciating detail. He had discovered the writings of Maria Valtorta, the 20th-century Italian mystic who wrote down what she believed were true visions of the terrible event. In his beautiful spiritual memoir, "Nearer, My God," Buckley quotes Valtorta at great length: Jesus "seems to be turning ominously livid, because of the beginning of putrefaction, as if He were already dead. The body begins to suffer from the arching typical of tetanus....The face of Christ passes, in turns, from very deep-red blushes to the greenish paleness of a person bleeding to death."
Regarding the anti-Semites: before Buckley founded National Review in 1955, the Right had a problem with crankery--a condition proceeding from a tendency to see the world through the scrim of your own private resentments. He created NR to make a difference in public life--and that required getting rid of the kooks who made conservatism look like nothing more than an eccentricity.
However, this tendency to gather cranks was no more the fault of conservative ideas than gathering dead bugs is the fault of your windshield on a long highway trip. Buckley installed a set of windshield wipers to keep the glass clean for the long haul.
Three famous instances: He ruled in 1959 that no one who wrote for a certain older right-wing journal--The American Mercury, which promoted the "Protocols of the Elders of Zion" among other faked evidence of Jewish conspiracy--could appear among National Review's contributors. In 1986, he was compelled to speak out on the crankiness of Joseph Sobran, an NR senior editor, who had begun a descent to the fever swamps. In 1991, Buckley parsed the writing of Patrick Buchanan and noted evidence of a similar descent. The ranks of the cranks, who may still be found carrying on their tiny causes, not least in that crank-heaven, the Internet, still resent him for this. On the websites of paleoconservative individuals and organizations--such as Lew Rockwell, Chronicles Magazine, and American Renaissance--you'll find the compulsion to denounce Buckley indulged over and over, like a dog that can't help scratching at fleas that aren't there, succeeding only in scratching himself raw.
Buckley didn't lecture against anti-Semitism. Rather, he showed how an editor, an intellectual, and a highly civilized man acts when taking into account, as he put it, the "certain immunities properly attach[ing] to pro-Israel sentiment for historical reasons." I remember, as a college student, reading his NR column in 1986 explaining why Sobran would no longer be allowed to write in the magazine about Israel. Buckley said, "I here dissociate myself and my colleagues from what we view as the obstinate tendentiousness of Joe Sobran's recent columns." He commented later to his biographer about how "terribly painful" this was--very much, I think, like having to "dissociate" yourself from a beloved but seriously erring son. But his own pain was necessary, he concluded, as was Sobran's.
The much more pleasant legacy that he continues to generate is, for all the slashing dissections of ideological opponents, the example of a man of uncommon kindness and loyalty. Liberals talk about compassion, but it's curious how few, when they reach a position where they are employing or leading many subordinates, come to be known as generous, sweet-hearted bosses.
Perhaps this is because liberalism emphasizes the moral obligations of the society rather than of the individual. Buckley, when he still owned NR was like the beloved liege lord of a medieval castle town--existing in a little bit of a different plane from everyone else, but intensely protective of us all, to the point that in all the time I worked there no one was ever fired by National Review.
At 78 years old, Bill Buckley has lost nothing of his compassion, nor of his accustomed illuminating brilliance. I hope at 78 I'm as vital, as full of the spark of life, as he is. As we Jews say, may he live to be 120. He might just do that.