Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive,
But to be young was very heaven!
WITHIN just a few weeks of each other, America recently lost two of its finest sons—William F. Buckley Jr. and E. Victor Milione. One was known to millions, while the other preferred obscurity, but both were seminal figures in the modern revival of political and intellectual conservatism. I eulogize them together not only because of their shared convictions, but for a simple reason: they were my first two employers. They literally gave me my start in life.
In the summer of 1980, I could be pardoned for feeling like William Wordsworth at the time of the French Revolution: a new dawn was breaking and I was an idealistic youth ready to become an ardent herald for that sunrise.
I was not yet twenty-one, and yet I had a strong sense of the historic nature of the moment. My father had left a lucrative career in advertising to become a pioneering member of the conservative movement; he was sitting in the room in 1953 when the young William F. Buckley Jr. came to pitch the idea of a new magazine, to be called National Review, to a group of movement leaders.
By the time I graduated in May from a college known for its close association with conservatism, Ronald Reagan had wrapped up the Republican nomination for president. The hostage crisis in Iran was dragging on, and President Carter’s doleful moral earnestness was faltering in the face of Reagan’s buoyant wit and actor’s poise.
Like the son of an exiled king, I looked forward to Revolution and Restoration.
As the heat waves shimmered off the sidewalks of Manhattan, I had a ringside seat at National Review—Ronald Reagan’s favorite magazine—where I had won the summer internship gig. The atmosphere in the cluttered offices on East Thirty-fifth Street was electric, and never more so than at the biweekly editorial meetings, when outside contributors would come to New York and join the regular staff, and the editorials for the issue to come would be assigned.
The summer intern at NR might have had to sort the mail, but he or she was also allowed to submit paragraphs for the unsigned editorial section at the beginning of the magazine. That meant I got to sit in on the editorial meetings. When Bill Buckley was in town he would chair these sessions. He sat at one end of the conference table, rumpled of shirt, aquiline of nose, sporting the trademark grin that seemed to stretch his face a bit too tight. His limbs always seemed akimbo—he would prop his legs up on the table and lean over to one side, achieving configurations that would have made a circus contortionist proud.
I sat through these gatherings, transfixed and more than a little intimidated. I might have been a big man on my college campus, but in the editorial offices at NR I felt out of my depth. Writing those editorial paragraphs was almost more than I could handle: you had to be witty, droll, knowledgeable, and politically savvy, all at once. Bill once returned one of my efforts with a single word in red ink at the top: Banal.
Though I knew instantly that he was right, I couldn’t help but feel devastated.
While he may have been a tough editor, and perhaps a little unfeeling with that comment, Bill was unfailingly kind to me in person. In the years after I left NR, Bill would write forewords for two of my books. When I sent him the pilot issue of Image he sent a check for a thousand dollars, becoming our second donor. Nothing about Image served any immediate agenda of his.
Anthony Dolan, in his own tribute to Buckley, noted that a young friend of his had asked him why those writing eulogies to WFB could not write “more on the great man himself and a little less on the authors and what they said, discussed, or did with the great man.” Dolan’s response was: “‘Hard to do.’ Meaning that, in writing about Bill, in appreciating him, it is just hard to leave yourself out. Or what he did for you.”
Much has been said about the way he provided conservatism with an urbane, sophisticated face, and the diplomatic skills he wielded, bringing together the coalition of disparate sects and interest groups that triumphed in 1980.
All that is true, but it misses a deeper truth. Whatever you make of his political positions, Bill Buckley served the commonweal because he cared above all about language. His love of esoteric words became something of a running joke, one that he played up (as in his championing of the word steatopygous), and he was known to be a master logician.
But Bill was devoted to the art of rhetoric—not in the modern, pejorative sense of the word but in the ancient sense of the judicious and precise use of persuasive speech. He loved the power of ideas, but he understood their tendency to become abstractions. He ceaselessly offered homage to the thinkers he admired and never pretended to be, and he undertook to translate their concepts into contextualized speech—into real-world situations. In this sense he also upheld another ancient principle: that of prudence, the wise application of principle to ambiguous situations. He was known occasionally to change his mind and to break ranks with fellow conservatives when he felt strongly about an issue.
Despite a strong libertarian streak, Bill’s vision was grounded in a rich, Catholic conception of life. He might have opposed church pronouncements that seemed to rely too heavily on government solutions to social issues, but he championed the Catholic concept of subsidiarity, the idea that problems should be solved not from above, but from the local, immediate places of neighborhood, family, and voluntary association.
Above all, he was a political commentator who knew how little politics could really change the world. Many of those who met him marveled that in private conversation he almost never spoke of politics. The topic was more likely to be Bach, or the pleasures of sailing.
In an era of ideological polarization and broadcast barbarism, Bill Buckley stood for responsible political engagement—precisely because that engagement drew its sustenance from deep cultural and philosophical roots.
When I left the employ of National Review I took a position at the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, an organization that sought to defend conservatism in academia.
ISI’s president, E. Victor Milione, was, in most regards, the polar opposite of Bill Buckley. Bill was gregarious, extroverted—a born performer, whether in front of a typewriter, television camera, or harpsichord. Vic Milione may have been the shyest man I ever met. He often struck people as taciturn, but when he laughed, you felt that the world had just received a last-minute reprieve from the Apocalypse.
Bill was famous, his life a blur of movement from transatlantic sailing trips to talk shows to the commencement circuit. Vic was known only to a few, and his greatest gift was his immovability.
Vic Milione presided over ISI for many years. He, too, had the ability to bring various factions together in a lively, if contentious, coalition. As conservatism gained political power, he was repeatedly approached by donors who promised large sums of money in exchange for ISI’s becoming more heavily political. While he held strong political convictions, Vic believed that ISI should remain academic in character, devoted to scholarship rather than the promotion of platforms.
Even as conservatism swept into office in the 1980s, Vic sensed the dangers of power. One of those dangers was the suppression of thought in favor of a party line. When I made some of ISI’s programs and publications a little edgier, stirring up what I thought was healthy intellectual debate, Vic stoutly defended me from those who preferred a more bland and placid approach. He probably lost some grant money in the process.
Vic stubbornly resisted the lures of power and money, preferring a leaner organization to selling out. He saw ISI’s mission as the defense of the western synthesis of classical philosophy and the Judeo-Christian tradition. Vic—whose father was a sculptor and gardener—held that politics can be changed only when culture changes, and that culture is enriched not by the hardened positions and shrill pronouncements of the “culture wars” but by the matrix of imagination derived from art and faith.
Ironically, it was this vision of the world that caused me to walk away from the conservative movement. Even in the euphoria of 1980, I began to feel ambivalent about the direction of conservatism. After Reagan’s election I fielded dozens of phone calls at National Review from right-wingers seeking references for government jobs, including some in departments that conservatives had pledged to abolish.
Later in his life, William Wordsworth came to regret his early enthusiasm for the French Revolution, preferring the conservative Edmund Burke’s philosophy of slow, organic change grounded in local custom and experience to radical discontinuities brought about by fiat. It strikes me now as ironic that conservatism should so often pursue policies, whether foreign or domestic, that are redolent of the imposed abstractions of the French Revolution.
Burke believed that only the “moral imagination,” which sees humanity in the light of its transcendent destiny, could oppose the forces of politicization, which strips us down to categories. Burke, too, was a man of prudence and a master of rhetoric. For Burke, the problem was not change—because life is always changing—but how to adapt ancient truths to current circumstances.
I still understand the mission of Image—presenting contemporary art and literature that engage the Judeo-Christian tradition—as honoring the older, humbler vision of Burkean conservatism espoused by great men like Bill Buckley and Vic Milione.
May we see their like again. Requiescant in pace.