William F. Buckley, R.I.P.

When the icons of your youth die it’s a shock. It’s one of the things you know, logically, will happen and by the time you reach your 60’s you’ve probably lost friends and family, but when your icons disappear, it comes as a jolt to the system. You feel sadness for their passing of course, but it goes beyond that. Certain people form part of the mental map of your culture and your passage through time. They can be actors, sports figures, musicians, artists, writers, professors — anyone who was part of the zeitgeist.

I first noticed this after both Mantle and Maris passed away. I was a big baseball fan in my young years and although I was a New York Yankee hater in those days (after all I lived in Illinois and rooted for the then perennial second-place Chicago White Sox), those two Yankees with their power and their crewcuts and their World Series rings represented, to a kid, the epitome of the game. The game changes, time moves on, but when figures like this are still around, they provide a symbolic living link to an era that was important to you. When they die, part of you dies with them.

Likewise I suffered an unsettling loss at the departure from this life of people like Alan Watts, Northrop Frye, Marshall McLuhan, Glenn Gould, and especially Carl Sagan. Their thoughts, ideas, and art formed many of my precepts of the world.

Recently, we have lost Canadian singer-songwriter Willie P. Bennett, jazz giant Jeff Healey, and American political pundit and conservative thinker William F. Buckley, Jr. All are grieved, but William F. Buckley (called Bill Buckley by his friends) was very special in my life, unbeknownst to him, of course.

A girl I dated in university would often have me over to her home on Sundays for some home cooking. I liked her dad and mom and a home-cooked meal was a treat after a steady diet of food at campus eateries. Her mom, especially, was a woman I respected deeply. She was a born and bred New Yorker transported to Phoenix and never quite accepting it. She’d been raised on symphonies, operas, art galleries, and sophisticated intellectualism and one of the political shows she watched regularly was William F. Buckley’s Firing Line. When I was visiting I would watch as well, first out of politeness, then out of fascination.

I’ve always been at the opposite end of the political spectrum from Buckley. It was the 60’s, just before my tie-dye days, and we were mired in Vietnam and only beginning to improve our domestic civil rights. Nobody with half a brain, I thought, could be a political conservative.

Buckley showed me how wrong I could be. His trenchant wit and biting thrusts and parries with various towering liberals he debated on the Firing Line showed a lively, masterful, playful, magnificent and kind intelligence at work. He was not a crank or a put-down artist like some of today’s conservative radio personalities. I even began reading his columns. I seldom agreed with him on anything, but I loved his style and his sweeping intellect.

This insight, that the Right wasn’t always wrong (or at least not dumbly wrong), helped balance my world view and to this day I never underestimate people simply because they’re conservative. This was Buckley’s second greatest gift to me. His greatest were his performances while debating. I’ve rarely seen his equal.

His third greatest gift to me was musical. Buckley was a devotee of Bach and had in his home a wonderful Bösendorfer grand piano. For one of his birthdays his wife arranged for Rosalyn Tureck, the well-known concert pianist and Bach interpreter (whom Glenn Gould once said to be the only influence on him), to play a series of concerts for her husband and close friends at their home, on the Bösendorfer. These concerts were recorded and issued as one of the Bach and Tureck at Home series by Troy. It’s one of my all-time favourite recordings. If you love Bach, this one is a must for your collection, though this recording is now difficult to find. Fortunately it is also available as Rosalyn Tureck Plays Bach.

William F. Buckley, thank you. Requiescat In Pace.

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