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Barely Relevant Notes on Bill Buckley

February 28, 2008

By John Leo

He never wasted a minute. One night at the Buckleys, Bill rose from the dinner table, patted his breast pockets absently and excused himself, saying he had to find his cigars. When he returned seven or eight minutes later (cigarless), it seemed clear he had batted out a column at warp speed. He and Pat were leaving early the next morning for Gstaad. Why not use that downtime between entrée and dessert?

He had a phenomenal ability to convert critics into friends. As a snotty young liberal, editing a liberal Catholic paper in Iowa, I once wrote that Buckley's attempt to generate an army of young conservatives was an illusion, since this alleged army could convene comfortably in the back of a Volkwagen. This unastute judgment drew a thunderous printed retort from WFB, who for some reason had been reading the Catholic Messenger of Davenport rather closely. An invitation to meet him duly followed and we became friends.

He taught a generation of debaters and polemicists that adversaries were to be opposed, but not loathed or hated. (Gore Vidal was the understandable exception.) His style was to fight tooth and nail, then invite his opponent out for a drink or dinner afterwards. His detractors saw this as a ploy to unsettle opponents. Occasionally it was. But debate was about ideas. It wasn't personal.

In the early debates, I regularly made money betting someone that Bill would use at least two of these three terms: "paradigm," "charismatic" and "mutatis mutandis." When audiences caught on to these words, he dropped the first two. But he loved the rhythm of "mutatis mutandis" too much to let go.

Until about the mid-60s, he occasionally would descend into slippery rhetoric, such as "mincing" and "epicene" for protestors of the Vietnam War, and "tribal" for the black caucus. He seemed astounded by this accusation of unpleasant meta-messages, and as far as I could see, he dropped them.

In 1965, when he ran for mayor of New York City, with no danger of winning, he tossed out a number of ideas that were clearly ahead of their time (bike lanes, for instance, and charging drivers a dollar to enter Manhattan during the day). He drew 341,000 votes and may have put John Lindsay in office. Lindsay won by 102,000 votes.

The key to serving fresh seafood on his boat was simple--he pulled up somebody's lobster trap, removed several lobsters, put way too many dollar bills in a bottle to pay for them and placed the corked bottle in the trap. Shopping made simple.

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