Garry Wills has nice things to say about Bill Buckley

Historians in the News

Hour by hour, day by day, Bill Buckley was just an exciting person to be around, especially when he was exhilarated by his love of sailing. He could turn any event into an adventure, a joke, a showdown. He loved risk. I saw him time after time rush his boat toward a harbor, sails flying, only to swerve and drop sail at the last moment. For some on the pier, looking up to see this large yacht bearing down on them, it was a heart-stopping moment. To add to the excitement, Bill was often standing on the helmsman’s seat, his hands clutching the shrouds above his head, turning the wheel with his foot, in a swashbuckling pose. (He claimed he saw the berth better from up there.)

I once saw the importance of his swift reflexes on the boat. We had set out for a night sail on the ocean, and Bill’s Yale friend Van Galbraith—later President Reagan’s ambassador to France—had got tipsy from repeated shots of Tia Maria in his coffee. He fell overboard while the boat was under full sail. In a flash, Bill threw overboard a life preserver with a bright light on it, and called for us to bring the boat about. We circled back toward Galbraith, found him in the darkness, and fished him out. It was a scary moment, one that only Bill’s cool rapidity kept from being a tragic one.

Bill wrote the way he sailed, taking chances. Once, he called me up to ask about some new papal pronouncement. He had got into trouble with fellow Catholics by criticizing papal encyclicals, and I had become a kind of informal adviser on Catholic matters. The statement at issue that day was obscure.

He wanted to launch an immediate attack on it. I asked why he did not wait to see what impact it would have. “Why not wait? Because I don’t have falsos testes.” He was referring to an earlier discussion, in which he asked whether even papal defenders admit the pontiff can err. I said that medieval commentators claimed that such an error could happen if the pope was given imperfect evidence (propter falsos testes). He asked, “Isn’t testis [testifier] the same word in Latin as testicle?” Yes. That was all the warrant he needed.

He was always ready to plunge in. Another time he called me and asked, “Have you ever heard of Joe Nuh-math?” This was when everybody had heard of the way Joe Nay-math won the 1969 Super Bowl as quarterback for the New York Jets. Bill had only just read the name in an editor’s letter asking him to write about the man. I told him how Namath had beat my hero, Johnny Unitas, in the Super Bowl. There were large gaps in Bill’s knowledge of popular culture, especially of popular sports. His father once wrote to Bill’s future father-in-law, complaining that he had tried for years, without success, to interest his son in the ordinary games—golf or tennis or team sports. But Bill had a relish only for solo performances—sailing, skiing, horseback riding, or flying an airplane. I asked if Bill was going to write about Namath. Yes. “That should be an interesting interview.” He said, “Oh, I don’t have time to learn enough about football to interview him.” He wrote the piece by comparing Namath’s career to something he did know—the record of a famous bullfighter. ...
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