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Bridges – Tribute to Bill Buckley

Linda Bridges
Tribute to Bill Buckley

The Philadelphia Society
44th National Meeting
Arlington, Virginia
April 11, 2008


Some of us who
are here this evening were at Vic Milione’s memorial service this afternoon,
and some of us were at Bill Buckley’s memorial Mass just one week ago in
Manhattan, and of course this is all one story. As Ed Feulner pointed out this
afternoon, Bill’s early connection with ISI is not widely remembered, but that
was a story he loved to tell. As Bill put it, “Frank Chodorov told me
one day that I would be the president of the Intercollegiate Society of
Individualists”—as ISI was originally named. Bill continued: “It was my
habit in those days to do anything Frank asked, and so for a while I was
president of ISI. Then one day I got a note from him, a note that sticks easily
to the memory. It said, √ęDear Bill: You’re fired. I’ve decided a Jew will
do better at fundraising as president of ISI, so I have appointed myself. Love,
Frank.’ “

In fact, Frank was not very good
at fundraising, and eventually he was succeeded by his longtime deputy, Vic
Milione, who was not Jewish but a Catholic of Italian and Irish descent, and who
also wasn’t very good at fundraising. But he was a very successful president
in other respects, and it was a thriving, if threadbare, enterprise that he
turned over to Ken Cribb in 1988. Ken has been a very successful
president, including the fundraising department, even though he is a Methodist
of English, Scots, and French Huguenot descent. And come to think of it,
Bill—a Catholic of Irish and Swiss descent— did pretty well too, not to be
sure at ISI, but raising enough money every year for his beloved National
Review
to survive—though, truth to tell, barely. As he put it at his grand
80th birthday party two years ago, “I think there may be an extra-sensory
perception at work, guiding our friends to look after only our exact and direst
needs. Extra-sensory perception—because we are never with a dollar left
over.”

And of course the connection
between ISI and the Philadelphia Society is, as Bill might put it, umbilical.
Back in 1964, in the middle of the Goldwater campaign, a young Hoosier named Don
Lipsett, who had worked for Bill in the early days of National Review,
was Midwest Director of ISI. At that time ISI was focused more exclusively on
students than it is now that it has its impressive publishing arm, and Don saw
the need for an organization for older conservatives. The following year, he and
his old friend Ed Feulner, who at that time was studying at the Wharton School,
managed to get Bill together with Milton Friedman in a New York hotel room.
Incidentally, that was the first meeting of Bill and Milton, who became such
good friends and skiing buddies. Anyway, Bill and Milton
agreed that the new organization Don and Ed were promoting would be a
good thing. But what I love about this story is a mistake that Bill made in
telling it that is absolutely characteristic of him, in understating his own
generosity. The way he put it, speaking to the Society’s annual meeting in
1991, was: “It was almost thirty years ago that Ed Feulner and I each put up
fifty dollars to incorporate the Philadelphia Society. I swear, I never got a
bigger bang for a buck.” Ed agrees with the second part of that statement but
points out that graduate students in 1965 didn’t have fifty dollarses to
spare: the hundred bucks, he tells me, all came from Bill; Ed’s contribution
was to take it to the bank and open the account.

I reckon there are members of four
generations present here this evening, and I imagine that for most of you in the
younger cohorts, William F. Buckley Jr. is mostly a name seen on dust jackets of
books, or on the newspaper column that he wrote till the end of his life. But
for those of us who were following Bill in his glory days—roughly the period
when he hosted Firing Line, from 1966 to 1999—he was a phenomenon like
nothing else we had seen. He was everywhere, from late-night TV with Johnny
Carson to the irreverent prime-time Laugh-In. He was interviewed by Playboy,
at about the same time as he was editing a serious volume of conservative
writing of the twentieth century—to which, however, he gave the cheeky title Did
You Ever See a Dream Walking?
In the 1950s he had devoted most of his time
to National Review—first raising the money to start it, and then being
its hands-on editor. He did not write a book between McCarthy and His Enemies,
published in 1954, and Up from Liberalism, published in 1959. But by that
time NR had survived its infancy, and Bill had capable
lieutenants—notably James Burnham and Bill’s older sister Priscilla. So he
was ready to branch out. Besides the column and the television and a speaking
calendar that took him to every state of the Union, he also turned out a book
nearly every year—and if he missed one year, he often made up for it with a
second book the following year. One of those books, back in 1971, was an account
of a week in his life. He titled it Cruising Speed, and many admirers
took that as an appropriate description of Bill’s life.

Eventually, of course, his
cruising speed had to slow down. He stopped doing Firing Line in 1999,
and said farewell to the lecture circuit in 2001. But he still wrote his column
to the end. True, he was on leave from the column at the time he died, because
of a broken bone in his right hand. But
he was due to resume writing it the following Tuesday. And he still wrote books.
Flying High, a memoir of Barry Goldwater, was published three
weeks after Bill died, and he had just finished drafting a similar memoir of
Ronald Reagan—dictating the last three chapters, because of that broken bone.
We’re pretty sure he wrote enough that it will be publishable.
Keep an eye out for it, in a year or so.

And even though he had slowed
down, his habits of mind hadn’t changed. The last conversation I had with him
was on the afternoon before he died. He had been in New York City that morning
for a doctor’s appointment, and when he returned home to Connecticut he left
behind his pocket diary and phone book. Late that afternoon he phoned me and
asked me to FedEx it to him. Sure,
I can do that, I said. But I
reminded him that his driver, Jerry, was going to be bringing some guests out
the next afternoon, and couldn’t he bring it?
“Well, no,” said Bill. “It
would reach me five hours later that way.”

Bill never wavered in his love for
the Philadelphia Society or his judgment of its importance.
In 2004, he broke his rule of no more speaking engagements and flew out
to Chicago for the Society’s 40th anniversary Gala. He paid tribute to Lee
Edwards, and Ed Feulner, and above all Don Lipsett, of whom he said, “There
was a benignity there which seemed to detoxify any malign culture that was
stirring. The puffs from his pipe didn’t exactly dissipate ideological or
historical or philosophical differences, but they managed to convey to us that
life would go on, strengthening the one impulse dormant in all of us, namely
that we would never permit anything that would disappoint Don Lipsett.”

Bill closed his remarks,
“I have been with you from the beginning, and my investment in our Society has
surely yielded a historic harvest.” The Philadelphia Society, like ISI, like National
Review
, is dedicated to guarding the permanent things and handing them on to
the next generation, and that is enough to ensure on Bill’s part —I want to
say “undying gratitude,” and I’m confident that I can indeed say
that, even though Bill’s earthly life is ended. I am also confident that he,
and Vic, and Don―and maybe even Frank, if the idea wouldn’t be too
appalling to a Jewish quasi-atheist―are, even as we meet here, hymning the
virtues of this Society in the choir celestial.

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