WASHINGTON, D.C. -- When Robert Burns penned "Auld Lang Syne" in 1788 and set the poem to the melody of an old Scottish folk tune, he certainly didn't know that it would become the ballad for New Year's Eve celebrations around the globe. One of my grandchildren asked me if it was "a sad song."
I replied that it was "not really sad, but nostalgic -- because it reminds us at year-end of times past, old friends and people who have made a difference in our lives." But afterward, I recalled that during 2008 some people who made a difference in my life left us all.
First, there are the 216 military personnel in Iraq and 133 in Afghanistan who were killed in action or who died of wounds during 2008. Some of them I knew from covering them over the last seven years in both theaters in this war against radical Islam. All of them left grieving families, and all of us should thank God for their sacrifice.
On Feb. 28, William F. Buckley Jr., "the Godfather of American conservatism," died, without a replacement. I read his first book, "God and Man at Yale," while I was a young Marine, and it helped shape my worldview long before I ever met him. He went on to write 50 books -- but devoted his life to founding and publishing National Review, hosting the TV show "Firing Line" and writing a twice-weekly newspaper column, read -- usually with the aid of a dictionary -- in over 300 newspapers. In so doing, he paved the way for other conservative voices in the media.
In 1971, he invited me and two other Marines to appear on television to rebut a slanderous article about Vietnam that Seymour Hersh had published in The New York Times. Hersh was a "no show," but Buckley put us on anyway. We stayed in touch -- and years later, Buckley was kind enough to encourage my own television career, hosting "War Stories" on FOX News Channel.
On April 5, my friend Charlton Heston left us. Like millions of others, I first came to recognize his "chiseled jaw, broad shoulders and resonating voice" on the silver screen in his Academy Award-winning role in "Ben-Hur," and other classics such as "The Ten Commandments," "Planet of the Apes" and "El Cid."
But his "off-screen" roles made him a friend. In 1992, the man who had once marched with Martin Luther King Jr. joined me in protesting the release of a violent rap song called "Cop Killer." In 1998, he was elected president of the National Rifle Association (NRA) and increased the rolls from 2.5 million to more than 4 million members.
In 2000, when Al Gore campaigned for president on a gun-ban platform, Heston, who called political correctness "tyranny with manners," held a flintlock rifle over his head and declared the only way to take his gun was "from my cold, dead hands, Mr. Gore!" It was so effective that former President Bill Clinton acknowledged that the NRA cost Gore the White House.
Liberals called U.S. Sen. Jesse Helms "Senator No." But when he died at 86 on Independence Day, he was recalled as a man of rare principle and fortitude in a town full of politicians who stick their fingers in the wind to determine how to vote. A steadfast anti-communist, I first met him in 1981 when he was President Ronald Reagan's staunchest ally in achieving victory over the "Evil Empire."
He led the fight in the U.S. Senate for supporting the Nicaraguan resistance and, later, against ratification of the Clinton-era Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), aimed at prohibiting the United States from modernizing our nuclear arsenal, and amendments to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty, which would have prevented us from deploying ballistic missile defenses.
During the long, hot summer of 1987, his notes and phone calls were a constant source of encouragement to my family and me. And later, when my future daughter-in-law worked for him on Capitol Hill, Helms told me, "If your son is smart, he'll marry this lovely young woman." He did -- and they now have five children of their own.
July also marked the passage -- at the age of 53 -- of one of the most decent, most articulate and bravest men I have ever known: Tony Snow. He was a devoted, loving husband, father, a colleague and faithful friend. By the time he died of complications from colon cancer, he had been a newspaperman, a syndicated columnist, the chief speechwriter for President George H.W. Bush, the first anchor for FOX News Sunday, host of his own radio show and press secretary for President George W. Bush. Even Fourth Estate liberals admired his quick wit, self-deprecating humor and unapologetic defense of conservative values.
Shortly before he died, Tony told me: "Don't feel sorry for me, I know where I'm going. My only regret is that I won't be here to see grandchildren like you."
Just two weeks before the end of 2008, Paul Weyrich, father of modern conservative activism, died at the age of 66. The co-founder and first president of the Heritage Foundation, Paul also started and led the Free Congress Foundation and the American Legislative Exchange Council.
He coined the phrase "Moral Majority" and encouraged people of faith to engage in the political process. Paul's promotion of democratic reforms in the Soviet Union was so effective that the KGB classified him as an "agent of influence." Our friendship of more than a quarter-century was a treasure. His courage in the face of crippling disability was an inspiration.
Maybe Auld Lang Syne is a sad song after all. Happy New Year, anyway.