Ode to Bill, or, Let the Cream Rise!

Bill Buckley was one of my favorite authors in the halcyon days of my late 20s when I was discovering kindred spirits in all things religious and political.   I cut my politically inclined teeth on Buckley in National Review and loved the fact that I needed a dictionary when I read his articles!  It made the reading educational in more than one direction.

Buckley in typical pose.
Buckley in typical pose.

Buckley became a favorite of my wife Cathie’s, not for anything political or religious, but something childish– his children’s book, “The Temptation of Wilfred Malachey.”  Kate discovered Wilfred on our public library shelves (Topeka has always had an outstanding public library) when perusing books on tape for our young girls.  We listened to Wilfred at home and on the road vacationing.  I don’t know if the girls or Cathie and I  liked the story of Wilfred and the Omega god more, but we played and replayed those tapes before returning them, only to check them out again later.

I loved Buckley’s wit and his convictions, his vocabulary, and what he had to say with that voluminous lexicon.  Buckley’s persona was larger than life and made it a delight to listen to him articulate or ask penetrating questions on just about any subject.  Some people in life are like flowers— holding within themselves the perfumes of deeply held opinions and wide ranging knowledge, sources of enchantment and fascination.  Others are more like bees— ranging far and wide in search of one more repository of the nectars of wisdom or discovery.  Buckley was  both— a source of endless fascination as well as one who was forever on the trail of new discoveries, and I loved that.

Miles Gone By cover.

I’ve not read, by a wide margin, everything Buckley wrote, but if you’re curious enough to delve into this mental titan’s life, “Miles Gone By” would be a great place to start.  My daughter Adrienne gave this to me for my birthday almost ten years ago and I made it my Sunday afternoon reading treat, and treat it is.  You get a sense of the incredible privilege, really almost fairy tale quality of Buckleys’ life in these chapters: Life at Great Elm, relating his early childhood; Wine in the Blood, a funny story of privilege, his father’s wealth, and wine; and one of my favorites for sheer joy in life, Christmastime in the Caribbean.  I think few people have been as richly blessed in this life as Mr. Buckley.

Perhaps what I loved most about Buckley was the absolute verve with which he lived life.  He chased life down like a hound on the scent.  He flung himself into one endeavor after another, accomplishing in one lifetime in books, articles, television programs, and travel what would require most of us multiple lifetimes to achieve.  In and through all that, Buckley was simply himself, his own inimitable self.  Robert Frost spoke of the desire in humanity to make each other like ourselves; homogenizing, Frost called it.  But in his reflective lines, he salutes the exceptions to that tendency to sameness when he joyously cries, “I’m against a homogenized society because I want to let the cream rise.”  If it was ever true of anyone, it was true of Buckley—the cream rose.

Buckley, like me, was raised in a large Roman Catholic family, and, like me, delighted in that fact.  Unlike Buckley, I left my Roman Catholic roots in my late teens when I became, what I would only later learn was, an Evangelical Christian.  I was sad to hear of his death at his home in 2008.  The end of this larger than life personality was a painful reminder of the fact that, until Jesus casts death itself into the Lake of Fire, even the greatest of us fall like blades of grass before that Reaper.  

I hope Bill Buckley is among the myriads of myriads who cast their crown at Jesus’ feet and joyously declare His greatness.  I don’t say that because I think he won’t be in the Hallelujah Chorus, but because I simply don’t know.  I don’t believe being Roman Catholic saves anyone anymore than I think calling yourself Evangelical does.  The Gospels are clear that the forgiveness of sin, the restoration of fellowship with God our Maker, and eternal joy in the Heavenly courts are only to be found in the Person and work of Jesus Christ, and those benefits are derived solely by faith in Him and His adequacy (Ephesians 2:8-9).

It is delightful to think of that Northeast accent (all stuttering gone in heaven?) among those praising our Maker, and becoming the full fledged, unique creature God always meant him to be.  Buckley appeared well on his way to that end.   Yes, let the cream rise.

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