Having been my father’s remote control, I recall one Sunday afternoon in the 1960s being told to stop and back up to the “educational channel,” as it was called.
The Sirico household were not big viewers of what was then Channel 13 in New York, so I wondered what my father was thinking.
I click over to the channel and my father said, “Sit down; you’ll learn something.”
Indeed, I did.
That was the first time I had heard or seen William F. Buckley Jr., who died in his study on Wednesday while at work on yet another erudite page of insightful, urbane, and scintillating prose. Buckley (or Bill, as he almost insisted people call him) holds the record of sending me to the dictionary more than anyone I have ever read in the English language.
He was more than just a stylist. He was a thinker, and a very serious one. He made a mighty contribution to the intellectual culture — raising it as high as he possibly could and never becoming despondent when it refused to budge.
He will be lauded by numerous pendants and scribes for the incredible number of his accomplishments, preeminent of which is his historic role as godfather of the modern conservative/libertarian movement in the founding of the National Review.
He was also a decent harpsichordist, a sailing enthusiast, an avid skier, world traveler and adventurer, lover of Latin, and debater par excellence. If he could do all these things at once, which I am sure he attempted, all the better. All of which is to say that he loved life and lived it to the fullest.
When the time came for me to found the Acton Institute, I was concerned in the early years with establishing our credibility and I conjured up the idea to write Bill Buckley, whom I had met only once or twice in passing, and ask if he would consider being the inaugural speaker of what I’d hope would become an annual dinner.
To my utter amazement he promptly replied (he was always prompt in his replies) that yes, he would be delighted to come, waiving his usual five-figure speaking fee to launch us on our way. That was almost 20 years ago.
We remained in contact over those years, and he was always unfailingly supportive and gracious and, in fact, was a personal donor to our work.
My most memorable time with Bill was just 10 years ago, in, of all places, Havana, Cuba. We were both there for the historic visit of Pope John Paul, II. Meeting in the lobby of what had been the gangster Myer Lansky’s hotel on El Malecon, Bill asked if I would like to join him in exploring the city. Would I like to meander around Old Havana with the author of a novel about a spy who attempts to assassinate Fidel Castro? And have drinks with said novelist in Hemmingway’s old bar, mischievously attempting to order Cuba Libres? Would I like to help him negotiate (Buckley’s first language was Spanish) the black market purchase of Cuban cigars from a man we met on the street, who would take us to his cramped apartment to display his wares out of the view of prying eyes?
Would I like to explore the Old Cathedral and pray together there for freedom of that beleaguered land? And would I like to end the day with a delicious meal, smoking our cigars and laughing about having committed a capitalist act among consenting adults in one of the last bastions of socialism on the planet? Would I?
And so we did. It was one of the most unforgettable days of my life, a memory I will always treasure.
Buckley was one of those writers who could both inspire me in my own writing, and at times lead me to the precipice of despair in thinking that, because I could never be as good a writer as he, I might just as well give up the craft.
Bill Buckley was as generous as he was intelligent, and as humorous as he was cultured. I suppose that one of the secrets I learned from Bill Buckley in building a movement for human freedom was to be encouraging of other efforts pulling in the same general direction.
He was a man of faith and principle and while I know he had many, many friends of far longer duration and of far greater intimacy than myself, I shall count it as one of the true blessings of my life to have been one of them.
In paradisum deducant te Angeli; in tuo adventu suscipiant te martyres, et perducant te in civitatem sanctam Ierusalem.