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.
Intellectual Snob?

Bill was considered an elitist because he loved to use big words. But he did it not from hauteur but from impishness. This was part of his playfulness. He liked to play games in general, and word games were especially appealing to him. He used the big words for their own sake, even when he was not secure in their meaning. One of his most famous usages poisoned the general currency, especially among young conservatives trying to imitate him. They took oxymoron in the sense he gave it, though that was the opposite of its true meaning. He thought it was a fancier word for “contradiction,” so young imitators would say that “an intelligent liberal” was an oxymoron. But the Greek word means “something that is surprisingly true, a paradox,” as in a shrewd dumbness.

One time Bill’s love of exotic locutions came out when he asked me for the meaning of a word I had written, subumbrous. I said it meant “cloaked in darkness.” He protested that he could not find the word in any of his dictionaries. No wonder, I said, I made it up from the Latin sub umbra. He loved that—it continued the word games. But his lunge toward risky words was like his other ventures into risk. He could write, for instance, that National Review’s “mendacity” prevented the magazine from running free advertisements, when he meant “mendicancy.”

Bill was not, and did not pretend to be, a real intellectual. He gave up on the “big book” that his father and others were urging him to write. For years he tried to do a continuation of José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses. This had been a sacred text for his father’s guru, Albert Jay Nock. Bill took intellectual comrades like Hugh Kenner with him for his winter break in Switzerland, to help him get a grip on this ambitious project. But he told me he realized in time this was not his métier. He was not a reflective thinker. He was a quick responder. He wrote rapidly because he was quickly bored. His gifts were facility, flash, and charm, not depth or prolonged wrestling with a problem.

Bill needed people around him all the time. Frequently, when he told me he had to write a column, I would offer to withdraw from the boat cabin or hotel room where we were. He urged me not to, and as he typed (with great speed and accuracy) he would keep talking off and on, reading a sentence to me, trying out a word, saying that something he was writing would annoy old So-and-So. When I appeared on his TV show to discuss a new book of mine, it was clear to me that he had not read the book—he was given notes on each author he interviewed. Once he asked me if I had read all of Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. I said yes. “Haven’t you?” He had not. I suspect that was true of the other capitalist classics he referred to, by Ludwig von Mises, Wilhelm Roepke, and others. He could defend them with great panache. But he did not want to sit all by himself for a long time reading them. One of his teachers at Yale, the philosopher Paul Weiss, told me that Bill was very good at discussing books he had not read.

Bill was heatedly attacked by Catholic liberals when he dismissed papal criticism of capitalism. He dismissed John XXIII’s encyclical Mater et Magistra for its challenge to the free market. I joked that his attitude was “Mater sí, Magistra no,” playing on a slogan of the time, “Cuba sí, Castro no.” He printed the quip in the magazine and was attacked on the assumption that the saying was his own. He questioned me about church teachings. He felt insecure because his Catholic education was so exiguous—it amounted to one year at a Jesuit prep school in England. I had been entirely educated in Catholic schools before entering graduate school at Yale, and he exaggerated what knowledge that had given me.

He wanted to know more about encyclicals. I told him I did not know much. I had read carefully the so-called social encyclicals—Rerum Novarum (1891) and Quadragesimo Anno (1931)—because Chesterton had admired their praise of medieval guilds. Bill asked if I would bone up on the subject, and I agreed to. After I had done some research on the matter, he drove up from Stamford to New Haven to spend an afternoon discussing it. He had been challenged to a debate with an editor of Commonweal, William Clancy. Bill suggested that each side be defended by a two-man team—Bill and I on one side, Clancy and a partner of his choosing on the other. Clancy did not like the idea. Nonetheless, when it came time for the debate, to be held across the river from Manhattan in New Jersey, Bill asked me to go along with him for some last-minute preparation in the car. We had to grab a quick dinner before the event, so we stopped at a greasy spoon in New Jersey. When Bill asked for a bottle of red wine, it came out ice-cold, so he asked that it be run under hot water for a while, and we kept up our informal seminar on encyclicals.

Bill handled the debate with his customary forensic stylishness. But the Catholic attacks on him continued. By the early 1960s, they had become so voluminous that our friend Neil McCaffrey made a collection of them, to be published with his sulphurous comments on each item. Bill asked me to write an introduction to the collection, on the status of encyclicals. When Neil had the book ready, Bill asked me to come out to his garage study at Stamford. He found Neil’s intemperate running commentary embarrassing. He wanted to cancel the project—unless I was willing to expand my introduction, incorporating some of the acidulous commentary into a calmer treatment of the matter. I said that I doubted Neil would be amenable to having his concept taken away from him. Bill said I should just leave that to him. Somehow, with his smooth persuasiveness, he took the project over without losing Neil’s friendship, and I published Politics and Catholic Freedom, the first of my books on the papacy.

Bill lived and wrote and lectured—and played and socialized and exercised—at a furious pace. Partly this was because he bored so easily. But partly it was to make money. He was commonly thought of as a spoiled rich boy. But he had never had the kind of money people imagined. His wife did—she came from a family far wealthier than his. But he did not want to live on her inheritance. Bill’s oilman father had drilled many a dry hole. John Judis did the numbers, and said that the senior Buckley’s money was exaggerated. After the father’s death, Bill’s oldest brother, John, a heavy drinker, ran the company without great skill.

Bill’s own investments, especially in radio stations, set back rather than advanced his financial affairs—as always, he was too in love with risk. But he made a good living, initially from his heavy lecture schedule and then from his profitable series of spy novels. I remember how delighted he was, in 1960, when for the first time he was paid a dollar a word for a magazine article (a high sum then). He did not, of course, have to work for a living. He could have lived, like his siblings, on a lower scale than the one he did. But Bill wanted to maintain the swashbuckling yachts, the custom-made limousine, the ski lodge in Switzerland, and the great generosity of his gifts to others; and he did not want to do this on his wife’s money. Thus he secretly acquired what some will consider his least plausible identity, that of a working stiff.

For more years than I wish, Bill and I were estranged. Though he had backed off from the southern view of black inferiority, he thought that Martin Luther King Jr. was hurting the country in its struggle with Communism by criticizing America, and he was a strong friend of Henry Kissinger in defending the Vietnam War. Even my own friend at the magazine, Frank Meyer, tried to have my comments against Richard Nixon killed, and Bill finally refused to publish my claim that there was no conservative rationale for our ruinous engagement in Vietnam. Later, when I moved out of my office at Northwestern and reduced my library to what would fit into my home, I gave a used-bookstore owner the pick of my volumes at the university. He went off with many titles that Bill had inscribed to me, and when irate fans of his found them in the store, they bought them and sent them back to him, calling me an ingrate for selling his gifts.

When Bill’s service in the CIA under Howard Hunt came to light during the Watergate scandal, I wrote a column about Bill’s CIA connections. Perhaps he thought I was using confidential knowledge he had given me on the tapes I had made for his biography; but I used nothing that was not public knowledge by then. He circulated my column to the National Review board of editors with the marginal notation, “I think we should smash him”—an item that Judis found in Bill’s papers at Yale. For a time the magazine ran recurring “Wills Watch” features, recording the latest liberal abomination I was guilty of. Rick Brookhiser, an editor at the magazine, writes in his new memoir of working with Bill:

It was clear to me as a reader of National Review that Wills had been an important figure at the magazine, if only because the magazine continued to needle him. One cover pasted Wills’s head on a famous image of Black Panther Huey Newton, enthroned with spear and shotgun on his wicker chair.

John Leonard, another “National Review apostate,” as Bill called us, told Judis:

When Garry said what was happening to blacks was more important than what was reflected in the magazine, and it hurts me personally, morally, he spoke to that best part, that most vulnerable part of the Buckleys. It [the disagreement] went from blacks to Nixon to Vietnam.

M. Joseph Sobran, the principal Wills Watcher, said in comparing me with another “defector”: “I don’t think Kevin Phillips got anywhere near [Buckley’s] heart the way that Garry Wills had. [Buckley] didn’t covet Phillips’s esteem the way he had Garry’s.”

When Bill went to speak at Yale, on one of his innumerable visits there, my son, Garry L. Wills, was in the line of students waiting to shake his hand. When my son gave his name as Garry Wills, Bill said, “No relation, I hope.” Garry, who can be as pixieish as Bill, serenely said, “None at all”—which left Bill turning back with puzzled looks as he moved on down the line. On another occasion, Bill’s son, Christopher, whom I had met years before when he was the boat boy on Bill’s yacht, was a student at Yale, and he invited me to come speak at the annual Yale Daily News dinner. I suspected that Christopher was in one of his moments of conflict with his father, and I declined to take part in that drama.

But Bill’s wonderful and selfless sister Priscilla, who always kept me in her loving circle, trusted to the real regard Bill and I still had for each other. She called me in 2005 and said it was silly for those who had been such friends not to be talking to each other. She set up a dinner at our old restaurant, Paone, where Bill and I resumed our friendship, and after that, our correspondence. Bill wrote to tell me he had given my What Jesus Meant as a Christmas gift to friends. It was clear that our old disagreements had been transcended. And whereas Bill had defended the Vietnam War, leading us to part company so many years before, he ended up a critic of the Iraq War.

When Bill suggested on The Charlie Rose Show that he was ready to die, I found his words heartbreaking, and I wrote to tell him so. When Priscilla told me that in his last days, weakened by emphysema, he could not move across the room without her pulling him up and supporting him, I thought of the figure—lithe, athletic, prompt—who brought his sailboat to rest with one deft turn of his foot on the wheel, and I grieved for one who had brought so much excitement into my life.

Garry Wills is the author of more than 30 books. His most recent, Martial’s Epigrams: A Selection, was published last year.
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