William F. Buckley went to be with the Lord yesterday, and I cannot let the moment pass without acknowledging, however inadequately, my many obligations to him. I attended high school in Ann Arbor, Michigan from 1968 to 1971, and those were, as some of you no doubt recall, zany times in a zany town. I was a conservative Christian kid in a whackjob radical environment. My high school had an SDS chapter. One time I came out of my home room to see a line of policemen running by with billy clubs, having arrived to quell the race riot. I walked around to the front of the school, and by the time I got there (just a few minutes later), a radical black lawyer was already holding forth to the media on the front steps of the school. Agitprop, up close and personal.
My inchoate politics were (I suppose) conservative along with my evangelical theology, but I didn’t know that at the time. What happened is that I happened to pick up a copy of WFB’s Up From Liberalism in a bookstore downtown, and when I read it, the lights came on. Desire to imitate this is why my writing has consistently had the same kind of reader in view — I seek to write for the people who are distressed by what is going on around them, but they cannot really say why. Buckley’s writing helped me make some sort of sense of everything I was seeing around me, and gave me a profound sense of orientation. I of course read other books of his, and subscribed to National Review sometime during those years — a subscription that I have not let lapse since. I disagree with the writers at NR much more than I used to, but I appreciate them just as much.
While I was in the Navy, NR published an old essay by Dorothy Sayers called The Lost Tools of Learning. I read it with interest, but since I was a single sailor, there wasn’t much else to do about it. But just a few years later, when we were in the process of founding Logos School, I remembered having read that essay. We hunted it up, adopted it as our foundational educational philosophy, and God certainly blessed it. Today the classical Christian school movement owes its existence to the vision and leadership of William Buckley.
The central thing I learned from William Buckley was how to lean against the besetting sin of conservatives of all stripes — the sin of self-important and indignant shrillness. He was a polemicist, and a controversialist, and a fighter, but he was consistently a man of laughter and joy. He fought like a gentleman and a cavalier. R.I.P.