Me and William F. Buckley: A True Story

A giant has died.  William F. Buckley Jr., the founder of National Review magazine and the modern conservative movement, passed away on Wednesday, February 27, at the age of 82.

We will be dedicated one of the rooms at FreedomFest (www.freedomfest.com) in his honor.

To me, Bill Buckley was a distant hero. As a teenager, I frequently read his “National Review” magazine.  I had met him several times, starting with his appearance at Jim Blanchard’s Gold Conference in the late 1970s when he ably debated John Kenneth Galbraith.  He was also the emcee at the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE)’s 50th anniversary party at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in 1996, where I witnessed Margaret Thatcher upstage him — a first!

Despite his fame and fortune, Buckley was always friendly and helpful. He never put on airs. He never insisted on being called “William.” He was always “Bill.” His interests were ubiquitous. He loved to pontificate, travel, sail, ski (especially with Milton Friedman), play chess, drink fine wines, smoke, and entertain, listen to classical music, write, debate (“Firing Line”), appear in public (the Johnny Carson Show), defend the undefendable (Joe McCarthy), worship (as a practicing Catholic who was no prude — he wrote frequently for Playboy magazine), and even befriended enemies (John Kenneth Galbraith but not Norman Mailer).  He was married only once, to his sweetheart Patricia, with which he had one son, Christopher (also an entertaining writer).  His only weakness was his passion for wine and cigars.  He was a heavy drinker and may have become an alcoholic.

I became his friend when I was president of the FEE in 2001-02.  And, through a miraculous unpredictable series of events, he landed me a position at Columbia Business School!  Here’s the story:

When I moved to New York to became president of FEE, the oldest free-market think tank, I contacted Bill Buckley about getting together, since I knew he was friends with the founder, Leonard Read. He graciously invited my wife Jo Ann and me over to his ocean-front home in Stamford, Connecticut, for lunch. It was a beautiful, warm spring day in 2002, and we spent a delightful two hours together reminiscencing about the conservative movement.  After drinking a couple of glasses of red wine, he smoked a couple of cigarettes, which surprised me. (I found out later that he died of emphysema.)

I brought with me my first edition of “God and Man at Yale” for him to sign. It is a classic that will, in my judgment, become his most famous book (although I have a fondness for his sailing books.)

After touring his house and study where he writes his books and columns (located in his garage!), he pointed to multiple copies of all his novels and political books, and offered to give me and my wife any book we wished.  I picked up the third in his trilogy of sailing books, which he promptly autographed.

As we were leaving, I thought at the last minute to give him a copy of my book, “The Making of Modern Economics,” which had just been published.  I had no idea if he had more than a passing interest in the history of the great economic thinkers such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, or John Maynard Keynes, but I gave it to him anyway.  We said our good-byes and drove away.

A Surprise Invitation

I didn’t think any more about it, until a month later I got a surprise call from John Whitney, a professor of management at Columbia Business School, who said he had read a highly favorable review of my book in National Review, written by Bill Buckley himself.  Buckley praised my history and ended his review with the statement, “What an absolutely ideal gift for college students.”

Professor Whitney read my book and invited me to give a guest lecture at Columbia……and a few months later, Whitney said he would like to recommend me to the dean to take over his course at Columbia Business School. I immediately accepted.

I will be eternally grateful to William F. Buckley, Jr., for opening this door to my career.

Listening to His Memoirs

Bill and I corresponded by letter after that, and occasionally got together at a social function in New York City.  When Regnery came out with his memoirs, “Miles Gone By,” I read it from cover to cover.  I told Marji Ross, the publisher, that that the one small CD attached to the hardback only whetted my appetite for a full reading, and lo and behold, a few months later, my wish came true and I listened to Bill Buckley’s melodious voice for days on end.  If you want a lasting memory of the private and public persona, buy the audio version of “Miles Gone By.”  It’s priceless.

Jeff Carneal, the president of Eagle Publishing, invited me to join him at his table for Buckley’s 80th birthday celebration on November 17, 2005.  As celebrities honored him, I thought of the great Chinese-American philosopher Lin Yutang, who wrote the following about “Growing Old Gracefully” in his classic libertarian work The Importance of Living (one of my favorite philosophy books), pp. 193-195:

“A natural man loves his children, but a cultured man loves his parents….

“It is to be assumed that if man were to live his life like a poem, he would be able to look upon the sunset of his life as his happiest period, and instead of trying to postpone the much feared old age, be able to actually look forward to it, and gradually build up to it as the best and happiest period of his existence.

“In my efforts to compare and contrast Eastern and Western life, I have found no differences that are absolute except in this matter of the attitude toward age….The East and the West take exactly opposite points of view.

“This is clearest in the matter of asking about a person’s age or telling one’s own.  In China, the first question a person asks the other on an official call, after asking about his name and surname is, ‘What is your glorious age?’

“Enthusiasm grows in proportion as the gentleman is able to report a higher and higher age, and if the person is anywhere over fifty, the inquirer immediately drops his voice in humility and respect….

“The sixty-first birthday is a happier and grander occasion than the fifty-first and the seventy-first is still happier and grander, while a man able to celebrate his eighty-first birthday is actually looked upon as one specially favored by heaven.”

I sent a copy of this essay by Lin Yutang, which he graciously received.

A year later, I met up with him for the last time on the National Review cruise around Great Britain.  Although he was no longer making public appearances, he still had a sparkle in his eye, and he said, unexpectedly, “I keep your economics book at my bedside and tell all my friends to read it!”

Praise does wonders for the sense of hearing!  William F. Buckley will always be #1 in my book.

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