When I saw a headline a few months ago, A WORLD WITHOUT BILL BUCKLEY, my blood ran cold. A smaller, drabber world indeed, I thought. The appropriately adulatory text (a book review, as I recall) calmed me down, but anyone who had seen Bill recently knew that the smaller, drabber world was at hand.
In illness, he became, if possible, even more gallant. At a party he gave a while ago to celebrate the publication of his brother Jim’s memoirs, he spoke with his usual wit, warmth, and eloquence—but seated on the stairs. He apologized for his ridiculous position, as he called it, explaining that he didn’t feel well enough to stand and would now go back to bed. Not so long afterward, he replied to the condolence note I had sent when his vivid and unforgettable wife Pat died. Its whole point was to make me feel good, an act of gracious generosity that, under the circumstances, took my breath away.
When I heard of his death this morning, a phrase of Edmund Burke’s popped unbidden into my mind: “the unbought grace of life.” Many will write, in due course, about Bill’s towering importance in our nation’s political and intellectual life. But beyond that, his whole being provided an answer to that ultimate question, How then should we live? From first hearing him speak at my high school when he was a young man, through watching him in sparkling, imperious, and rather intimidating action as his guest on Firing Line, I saw his character become ever more clearly the unmistakable, irreplaceable Buckley: witty, cultivated, playful, urbane, gracious, brave, zestful, life-affirming, tireless, and gallant—the incarnation of grace. He taught many not only how to think but also how to be.