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Remembering Bill Buckley, Keeper of the Tablets

By Brad Miner   |   Tuesday, 04 Mar 2008 07:34 PM

The first time I spoke to William F. Buckley Jr., he called me from his car.

This was in 1986 -- long before most of us had mobile phones -- but that was Bill: Standing athwart history, yet also ahead of his era.

At the time I was an editor at HarperCollins about to publish a new edition of Buckley’s anthology of conservatism, Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?

I didn’t think that 15-year-old title would fly, and suggested The New Federalists as an alternative.

That’s what elicited Bill’s call to me that day.

“No,” he said to me in that voice. “We do not want to spawn yet another typology for conservatives.”

In the end, the book was published in May 1988 as Keeping the Tablets.

A few years ago I spoke to him again by phone and we shared a laugh: In examining the Microsoft Encarta entry on “conservatism,” I told him, I’d found among the books listed for further reading was The New Federalists.

How a working title that never made it into a catalog ended up in the Encarta database I haven’t a clue, but Bill replied with his usual aplomb.

“I knew Microsoft was a powerful company,” he said, “but can they really change the titles of a man’s books?”

I first met Bill face-to-face in ’89 when Wick Allison, then publisher of National Review, asked me to become the magazine’s literary editor.

I had the job, Wick told me, if WFB approved. So for about half an hour the three of us sat in Wick’s office and talked about my background.

Things were going well -- at least as measured by our shared laughter -- at least until I said in passing that I didn’t consider myself an intellectual.

John O’Sullivan, then the editor of NR, was also in the meeting with us. I could see the color drain from his face, and Wick’s.

“That’s a curious thing to say,” Mr. Buckley remarked.

“What I mean,” I explained a little nervously to the world’s leading conservative intellectual, “is that although I have a degree in history and political science, and I’ve read most of the literature of conservatism, and I can hold my own in debates with liberals . . . nobody has ever certified me as an intellectual, which certificate I’m not sure I’d want anyway -- since I hear intellectuals don’t like baseball.”

At that Bill laughed, spilling some of his Scotch. And I felt much relieved.

Working with him was an extraordinary experience. He wasn’t always right about everything, just about most things.

Right or wrong, he was always generous if you disagreed with him, and, as others will attest, there was plenty of disagreement in the editorial conferences at National Review. (What the heck is conservatism, anyway?)

I think it was Bill’s generosity that drew so many people to him, most especially the liberals who appeared on Firing Line. For them, his elegant erudition was simultaneously alluring and infuriating.

On one memorable occasion, my wife and I attended a summer gathering at the Buckleys’ Connecticut home in 1990. My wife was admiring the Buckleys’ King Charles Spaniels, and Bill began expounding on the breed’s history.

He made an arcane connection with the era of Bach, which led to his giving her an impromptu recital on his harpsichord.

After I left National Review, I saw him only occasionally but would receive notes from him, and copies of each of his new books as they were published.

The last was his novel The Rake, published without the customary inscription which, as a printed note explained, he was unable to provide due to ill health.

His passing is truly the end of an era. There was nobody like him, and I am honored to have helped him spill his Scotch.

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