Politics aside—and I do believe in putting politics aside in personal matters—I could not help but admire what beer commercials call the “gusto” of his lifestyle. To me, he was one of the last of the lions: the great literary and political figures of the ’50s and ’60s—Norman Mailer and Susan Sontag were others—who made the world their own but said quite a few silly things on the way. Whatever he thought about this or that, the man knew how to live, and he created both a lifestyle and a persona, that, as a young political writer with both literary and intellectual ambitions, offered up a model, however unreachable, to which I might aspire.
The first time I laid eyes on Buckley in person was when he gave a paid lecture at Cornell during my freshman year there. The night before his speech, a bunch of lefties had gone around campus and turned all the “Buckley” signs into “Fuckley” signs. (It was 1978, and that’s what passed for political protest.) Buckley spoke on behalf of a flat 15-percent income tax for everyone, I believe, but what made the evening memorable was when, during the question period, one of the lefties stood up, and with a quivering voice, said he wished to ask “one simple question: Mr. Buckley, have you ever gone hungry?” Buckley replied, “Why, yes. My yacht experienced an unfortunate shortage of stuffed goose recently off Nassau in the Bahamas.” Since I identified with the questioner politically in those days, I found myself feeling guilty for thinking that the punk had gotten what he deserved. But I learned a lesson: Humor always trumps self-righteousness, no matter how weak one’s case.
I managed to stay out of Buckley’s way for the next 13 years. I got a master’s degree at Yale, but unlike some of my contemporaries there, I did not get invited to Buckley’s estate in Sharon, CT, to swim naked in between martinis and harpsichord recitals (as the stories at the time went). But in 1990, shortly before returning to graduate school to get my doctorate at Stanford, I authored an article in The Nation in which I—mistakenly, I now think—defended Patrick Buchanan against the charge of anti-Semitism then being leveled in semi-hysterical tones by New York Times columnist (and former executive editor) A. M. Rosenthal. Not long after, Buckley devoted an entire issue of National Review to an essay on the topic of anti-Semitism and ended it by citing my argument as an implied model of good sense on the topic.
Naturally, I was pleased. I had been making a decidedly meager living as a lefty freelance writer—the future prospects of which had sent me back to graduate school—and here I was being cited as an authority on a big topic by a big man in a big way. The “old” right was paying tribute to the “new” left. I imagined the phone call that would invite me on sailing trips in the Côte d’Azur with “Kenny G” (as I thought I might call Galbraith) and a princess or two. We’d all fly back on Buckley’s private plane in time to knock off a Firing Line before a midnight meal at ‘21.’ I wrote Buckley a thank-you note and that, dear reader, is where my troubles began.