Daredevil

Riding motorbikes without a helmet, flying planes while half asleep—not to mention discussing books he’d never read and using words he didn’t understand—William F. Buckley courted adventure in all that he did. Here, the conservative godfather’s onetime protégé and longtime nemesis fondly recalls their friendship—and argues that Buckley was not the snob many thought him to be.
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Image: Steve Schapiro/Corbis

Hour by hour, day by day, Bill Buckley was just an exciting person to be around, especially when he was exhilarated by his love of sailing. He could turn any event into an adventure, a joke, a showdown. He loved risk. I saw him time after time rush his boat toward a harbor, sails flying, only to swerve and drop sail at the last moment. For some on the pier, looking up to see this large yacht bearing down on them, it was a heart-stopping moment. To add to the excitement, Bill was often standing on the helmsman’s seat, his hands clutching the shrouds above his head, turning the wheel with his foot, in a swashbuckling pose. (He claimed he saw the berth better from up there.)

I once saw the importance of his swift reflexes on the boat. We had set out for a night sail on the ocean, and Bill’s Yale friend Van Galbraith—later President Reagan’s ambassador to France—had got tipsy from repeated shots of Tia Maria in his coffee. He fell overboard while the boat was under full sail. In a flash, Bill threw overboard a life preserver with a bright light on it, and called for us to bring the boat about. We circled back toward Galbraith, found him in the darkness, and fished him out. It was a scary moment, one that only Bill’s cool rapidity kept from being a tragic one.

Bill wrote the way he sailed, taking chances. Once, he called me up to ask about some new papal pronouncement. He had got into trouble with fellow Catholics by criticizing papal encyclicals, and I had become a kind of informal adviser on Catholic matters. The statement at issue that day was obscure.

He wanted to launch an immediate attack on it. I asked why he did not wait to see what impact it would have. “Why not wait? Because I don’t have falsos testes.” He was referring to an earlier discussion, in which he asked whether even papal defenders admit the pontiff can err. I said that medieval commentators claimed that such an error could happen if the pope was given imperfect evidence (propter falsos testes). He asked, “Isn’t testis [testifier] the same word in Latin as testicle?” Yes. That was all the warrant he needed.

He was always ready to plunge in. Another time he called me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Joe Nuh-math?” This was when everybody had heard of the way Joe Nay-math won the 1969 Super Bowl as quarterback for the New York Jets. Bill had only just read the name in an editor’s letter asking him to write about the man. I told him how Namath had beat my hero, Johnny Unitas, in the Super Bowl. There were large gaps in Bill’s knowledge of popular culture, especially of popular sports. His father once wrote to Bill’s future father-in-law, complaining that he had tried for years, without success, to interest his son in the ordinary games—golf or tennis or team sports. But Bill had a relish only for solo performances—sailing, skiing, horseback riding, or flying an airplane. I asked if Bill was going to write about Namath. Yes. “That should be an interesting interview.” He said, “Oh, I don’t have time to learn enough about football to interview him.” He wrote the piece by comparing Namath’s career to something he did know—the record of a famous bullfighter.

Another time, I was on Bill’s boat racing to Bermuda. We saw on the horizon a huge shape like an island—it was a World War II battleship taken out of mothballs and put out for a shakedown cruise before being sent to the Vietnam War, a breathtaking sight from our lower vantage point on the water. Bill could not resist hailing it on the radio, though radioing was against racing rules except in an emergency. When we reached Bermuda, Bill was disqualified. One of the other boats had heard his conversation with the battleship and reported him. He said it was worth it. He reminded me of one of Wodehouse’s blithe young men—Psmith, say, or Piccadilly Jim—who act forever on impulse.

He took risks even in routine and mundane ways. One night, after dinner at his town house in Manhattan, he wanted to continue our conversation, so instead of calling me a cab to take me back to my hotel he gave me a ride on his motorbike. New York law required that bikers wear a helmet, so a policeman stopped us—neither of us was helmeted. When the cop recognized him, he let us go with just a warning, since Bill was popular with cops for opposing police review boards. Needless to say, the next time he gave me a ride, there were still no helmets.

It is amazing that Bill’s risks did not end his life. At Yale he secretly learned to fly, and bought a small plane with a couple of friends, without letting his father know about it. He landed the plane on his sister’s prep-school campus in a spectacular visit. On the day of his college tests, he took the plane out for a celebratory flight, all by himself. He had been up the night before cramming for the exams, and he fell asleep. Fortunately, he woke in time to land the plane. A great career might have ended before it began.

For a while I was Bill’s designated biographer. A shared friend of ours, Neil McCaffrey, commissioned the book for his new publishing venture, Arlington House. Bill approved the idea because, like many celebrities, he was constantly pestered by people wanting to interview him for books or magazines. With me as his chosen scribe, he could turn them down by saying he was already committed. I recorded many hours of tapes with him, his wife, his siblings, and his friends for the project, before giving it up over political disagreements. He was stunningly candid, so much so that I, like many people close to him, came to feel I should protect him from his own reckless truthfulness. He was too trusting of people he liked. He set up a former boat boy in a partnership to buy radio stations, and afterward found that his young partner had bilked him. He argued for the innocence of a prisoner who wrote him winning letters, and worked to have Edgar Smith released, only to see the man convicted again, this time of kidnapping and attempted murder.

Some of the things Bill told me on the tapes I have never repeated, except to my wife. One thing I can partly tell now that he is dead. When he entered the CIA, in 1951, he beat the polygraph test that all prospective agents have to take. (Always willing to risk.) He was determined to protect a family member from an embarrassing disclosure, and he did. I asked him how he accomplished that. “I guess that if you think you have a right to tell a lie, it will not register as one.” At least it did not with him. He told me what he lied about, though I promised then to keep the secret, and I have.

From what I have said so far, it might be thought that Bill was self-centered. That was far from the case. He was thoughtful of others, almost to a fault. When he found that a summer intern at National Review was a promising young pianist who missed his practice hours back in the Midwest, he gave him the key to his town house (which had been UN Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld’s) and told him he could use it, while his wife was away, to play on his splendid Bösendorfer piano.

His generosity was unfailing. He liked to do things for people, surprising them with unexpected gifts. When the writer Wilfrid Sheed was ill, Bill, who knew he was a deep student of popular song, sent him the latest books on the subject. One day in the early ’60s, a large package was brought to my front door. It was the 24 volumes of the new edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Another time I got a package containing framed copies of two charcoal portraits by the famous British newspaper artist David Low. These were studies of G. K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc, men Bill knew I admired. I asked where he had got the pictures. They were a gift to him from the British broadcaster Alistair Cooke. Bill said, “They will mean more to you than to me.”

He spent a lot of time thinking of what he could do for friends. When he heard that I needed a passport in a hurry, he pulled strings at the State Department to get it for me. On another occasion, when my new bride and I could not find a cheap sea liner to England for our honeymoon, he found a ship for us leaving from Canada. Bill ingeniously invented a way to institutionalize his love for giving special gifts. Because his family was so prolific, he had 49 of what he called “N and Ns” (nieces and nephews). He took care of the education of many of them. But supplying necessities was not enough for him. He set up a fund he called the Dear Uncle Bill Trust (DUBT, soon pronounced “Doubt”), whose administrators gave surprise treats to N and Ns—a valuable guitar to an aspiring musician, a vacation in a favorite spot—on a rotating basis.

His desire to do things for people made him an inveterate matchmaker. He did all he could to encourage his Yale friend Brent Bozell to marry his favorite sister, Patricia (Trish), which Bozell did in 1949. He hinted that another Yale undergraduate, Bill Coffin, should date another of his sisters. When I went to National Review in the summer of 1957, I was just two months out of a Jesuit seminary, where I had been starved for opera music, and I soon found the Sam Goody music store. But the apartment I was staying in had no phonograph. When I mentioned this to Bill’s younger sister Maureen, who was working part-time at National Review that summer, she gave me the key to her apartment and said I could use the phonograph there any afternoon while she was working. Bill noticed that Maureen and I got along well, and when we would all go out to dinner at the end of the day, he’d put us together in one cab and take another with the rest of the party. We laughed at his matchmaking attempts. It was a family trait. Trish had met Pat Taylor at Vassar and decided Bill should marry her—as he did.

Perhaps it was his matchmaking urge that made Bill want to connect people with his church. After he learned as a child that any Christian can baptize a person in need of salvation, he and Trish would unobtrusively rub water on visitors to their home while whispering the baptism formula. In the National Review circle, those who were not Catholics to begin with tended to enter the fold as converts—Bozell, Russell Kirk, Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, William Rusher, Jeffrey Hart, M. Joseph Sobran, Marvin Liebman, Robert Novak, Richard John Neuhaus. The major holdouts were James Burnham, a born Catholic who left the faith and never went back, and Whittaker Chambers, who was drawn to Richard Nixon’s Quakerism. It was always easiest to be a Catholic around Bill. I believe Bill was so nice to me because I am what the Lutheran scholar Martin Marty called me, “incurably Catholic.” There were different concentrations of people at National Review—Yale alumni, ex-communists (Burnham, Meyer, Chambers), ex-CIA members (Bill, Burnham, Kendall, and Priscilla Buckley, another of Bill’s sisters)—but the Catholic contingent outnumbered all others.

Bill went to church on Sundays with the many Spanish-speaking house servants he had over the years. That did not fit his reputation as a snob. He was accused, at times, of being a social snob, an ideological snob, and an intellectual snob. None of these was the case in any but the most superficial sense.

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