When the terrible sad news of Bill Buckley's death came, I reached for my folder of letters we'd exchanged over the years. It's a thick file, and it makes me well up a bit to realize that I can expect no more bright while envelopes with the familiar blue lettering.
That Bill should have taken notice of me at all was a bit incongruous. By the time I was old enough to write to him -- the 1970s when I was in high school -- he was a world-renowned public intellectual. Yet he took the time to answer a girl's letter. The entire neighborhood must have known that something unusual had happened at 11 Tiffany Drive after the mail was delivered because I was soaring like a kite. Bill did that for literally thousands of people over the years -- it was an aspect of his incredible generosity of spirit.
I was at first drawn to Bill Buckley's columns by a love for words. Anyone who could send me to the dictionary on a regular basis had my attention. But dipping into the Buckley oeuvre proved highly addictive. Before long, I was absorbing far more than new vocabulary. I began to read National Review, which marked me as a bit of an eccentric in a liberal place like New Jersey. Like most ardent Buckleyphiles, I turned first to "Notes & Asides" when NR arrived and savored exchanges like this one reproduced in Bill's book "Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription":
September 23, 1969
Dear Mr. Buckley,
Dear Mr. Kelly: If you had my syntax you'd be rich. Cordially, WFB
On another occasion, he published a mash note from a 16-ish young lady who professed her desire to marry him. He replied (I quote from memory), "I'm spoken for, but you might give Justice William O. Douglas a try." (At the age of 67, Douglas had married a 23-year-old law student.)
As everyone knows, Bill Buckley almost single-handedly created the modern conservative movement in America. Before Buckley, conservatives were scorned as "the stupid party" in John Stuart Mill's memorable formulation. Lionel Trilling argued in the late 1940s that conservatives didn't have ideas so much as "irritable mental gestures."