Fortunate Friendships with Russell Kirk and Bill Buckley
Timothy Goeglein was Special Assistant to President George W. Bush and Deputy Director of the White House Office of Public Liaison from 2001 to 2008. This essay is an edited version of the tenth chapter of Timothy Goeglein's recently published book, The Man in the Middle (B&H Publishing Group).
Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: "What! You, too? I thought I was the only one." -C. S. Lewis
In Washington, D.C., relationships matter. During all my years in Washington, I have been the beneficiary of some fortunate friendships but two towering intellectual friendships of my life were formed long before I came to the White House. These men actually guided me in ways more important than I ever would have thought possible in the days when our friendships were new. I met Russell Kirk, when I was a junior in high school in 1981. I met William F. Buckley Jr. during my early years working in the U.S. Senate, and ours solidified into a warm friendship almost immediately.
With Russell, a fellow Midwesterner, I developed a friendship by letters, all of his typed personally and neatly and with nary an error, flowing as if each one was written for publication, so lucid and eloquent were they, word upon word. We exchanged letters on and off through the rest of his life, well into the 1990s, and we saw each other whenever he came to Washington, which was at least two times a year on average for lectures and speeches.
Russell changed my life by seeding my intellectual curiosity. I came to see that his external life was much smaller than his internal world, which was large, deep, and wide. He taught me to be wary of ideologues because they got in the way of a good life. He famously said "ideology is anathema."
Conservatism, I came to see, because of the influence of Russell, was not an ideology but instead a way of life. There is no official or unofficial handbook for what constitutes conservatism, and in fact the conservative life is various. Through all our letters, through our many conversations, through reading his prodigious oeuvre - both fiction and nonfiction (his ghost stories are remarkable) - I came to see I was not exclusively a social conservative, an economic conservative, or a defense/foreign policy/national security conservative. I was a conservative without prefix or suffix, one who believed, with Russell, that "the 20th-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character - with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest."
When I read those words for the first time in The Conservative Mind, I knew I had found a soul mate, even if we did not agree on all things. In fact, I once raised this point with Russell, and he was pleased that in fact we did not agree in all matters. He told me disagreement is a key part of conservatism, that there is no single document or manifesto that guides the conservative but that there are precepts rooted in transcendence, custom, order, and tradition that guide the thinking and faith of those who find wisdom in prescription.
When William F. Buckley Jr. once visited Russell in Kirk's small ancestral Michigan village of Mecosta - Russell liked to refer to that part of Michigan as "the stump country" - and asked him what he did for intellectual companionship there, Russell pointed at the wall of books comprising his library.
That is not an inapt description of how Russell's friendship impacted my own public service in the Senate and the White House but especially the latter. Russell showed me it was important to live your ideas, that faith and action go together and not one without the other. He was a commanding public intellectual, deeply respected by men and women of the Left as well as the Right. I remember having lunch with the librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, in the Senate dining room and asking him who had not only most profoundly shaped his intellectual life but effectively challenged it. He told me it was Russell Kirk; he said Russell was one of the most astute thinkers he had ever known.
I remember spending a winter weekend with the Kirks in Mecosta. When I arrived, I thought it was one of the bleakest days of the year: The skies were grey; the fields and forests were cropless and leafless; and the bitter wind seemed endless. When I came into their village, I did not know precisely where their home was. Annette had said, "Just ask anyone when you arrive," as it was a small village. So I stopped at the first place I found, a kind of combination gas station and gift shop.
"Oh, the Kirks. Yes, they live in that haunted house down there," pointing just down the street. I chuckled, but the woman gave me a lame grin as if to say, "Just wait. You'll see what I mean." The Gothic house was indeed a landmark in Mecosta. The original Kirk homestead burned to the ground many years before on Good Friday, but Russell and Annette built a beautiful Italianate home in its place. It was not grandiose or luxurious; but it had a remarkable personality, perfectly capturing its patriarch.
The highlight of my time with the Kirks was when Russell and I took a short walk down a snowy old lane to the former cigar factory that became his library. Thousands of volumes animated the place, but there were two focal points in the room: the desk where Russell did his writing, usually in the dead of night while his family slept, and a large, roaring, crackling fire in the fireplace that in those winter months was rarely extinguished. When we walked in, I felt a sense of serenity and warmth and peace. So many of the books special in my life were written in that library.
The last time I saw Russell was on his final visit to Washington. We had tea on the rooftop of the old Hotel Washington where he stayed when he was in the city. It was a glorious afternoon, and the terrace where we sat overlooked the White House and the Department of the Treasury. I made a comment about the statue of Alexander Hamilton that stands just behind the Treasury, near to the East Gate of the White House. Russell began to expound on the key chapters of Hamilton's life, the centrality of his role in the Federalist Papers, and was discussing the importance of Hamilton to America's founding as if he, Russell, was literally sitting having tea in the 18th century. He was not lecturing or moralizing but rather discussing and evoking in the most remarkable fashion, from his great mind, one of the central characters of all of American history. Russell's comments had a learnedness and vastness of knowledge that astounded me, and yet there was not a scintilla of pedantry in his approach. When I was with him, I always felt a sense of calm. He was a gentle man.
Russell's friendship, animated by the first postulates of the good life, guided me in practical ways time and again. His was a worldview animated by a realm of noble ideas, mysterious splendor, and the ways God affronted confusion, doubt, and fear. Russell taught me to embrace justice, mystery, and an orderly and stable universe that was God-ordained and true. He showed that literature and civilization matter to the man or woman who chooses public life and that being guided by those central, exciting ideas - truth, beauty, justice, goodness - was a wonderful way to navigate a good and meaningful life.
In all of my letters, lunches, dinners, and time with him, he never once raised a political idea or discussion. With Russell there was never a time of punditry or current events. If I made a comment about something in the news, he might express an opinion, but by and large we discussed history, biography, poetry, philosophy, theology, or shared a bit of humor. Russell Kirk's impact on me was indelible.
So was Bill Buckley's. In the 1990s I attended a noontime lecture at The Heritage Foundation, which was just three blocks from the Russell Senate Office Building, my office for nearly a decade. After the lecture I was particularly intrigued by an idea raised there. I wrote a letter about it to my friend, the Dartmouth professor and senior editor of National Review Jeffrey Hart, to get his perspective. Jeff shared my letter with Bill. I didn't know Jeff shared the letter, and I had never met Buckley.
Shortly thereafter, in my postbox in the Senate, I found a letter from Buckley. He told me Jeff shared my letter with him, that he agreed with me on that particular point and would like to discuss it further. He invited me to have dinner with him and members of the National Review editorial board (the senior staff at NR) at Buckley's pied-e-terre in New York City.
As a young Senate deputy press secretary, who read virtually everything Bill wrote, watched innumerable Firing Line episodes from a young age, and enjoyed his Blackford Oakes fiction series, I was astounded that he was inviting me to dinner at his home based on a letter I sent not to him but to a colleague of his. I accepted the invitation; took the train to New York City two weeks later; and spent one of the most enjoyable evenings of my life with Bill, his wife Pat, and a small coterie of NR editors and other guests at their home at 73rd Street and Park Avenue.
I remember walking into their apartment: King Charles Cavalier dogs barking and nipping at my feet; a tuxedoed young butler offering me a drink from a silver tray; Pat Buckley in a flowing white dress, perfumed aplenty; a harpsichord in the entry hall Bill was plucking; brightly colored paintings on every wall, many of them abstracts; and thence into a reddish-orange library for drinks and conversation before dinner.
This was the first real salon I ever joined, and the conversation ranged from that day's New York Times editorials to many topics far beyond. Bill had just returned from a sailing trip and was discussing the beauty of Newfoundland. Dinner followed, eight of us at a large round table in a small, mirror-filled drawing or ballroom, the dogs omnipresent. The range and scope of that evening flew by as if in a dream. I suppose I have never felt more like an arriviste as I did that night.
I remember the most humbling part of the evening. During dinner Bill went around the table, raised a point or two, and then asked the guests what they thought, encouraging and prompting excellent conversation and humor. I soon realized he was being fairly systematic and eventually would come to me. I rarely feel intimidated, but I was surrounded by people whose work, both journalism and fiction, I read for years and wasn't quite sure I was actually supposed to be there. When Bill got to me, he put me completely at ease. He shared with the group the narrative of my letter that seeded our friendship, and he made me feel welcome in such a way that I intuited, for the first time, his legendary friendship, warmth, and grace.
The evening was among the most satisfying of my life. After dinner and now in another beautiful room, we had coffee and after-dinner drinks (Bill and two others had cigars). The longtime publisher of NR, Bill Rusher, was there, and at one point cited from memory a gorgeous poem by A. E. Housman. Near 10:00 p.m. we all said our good-byes. As we were doing so, Bill sat at the harpsichord, plucking a few more keys, and then saw me and his group of guests to the door. "See you again, my friend," he said to me and gently latched the large front door after we departed. The group quickly dispersed in a hail of cabs, but I chose to walk back to my hotel to try to understand what had just happened. I simply never had an evening like that before and was certain I never would again.
Two weeks later I found another letter in my Senate postbox, again from Bill. When I was in New York for dinner, he asked me in passing if I had ever been on a sailboat. I told him I was born and raised in Northeastern Indiana; that while we had lots of lakes, I had never stepped foot on a sailboat. I knew, of course, of his fame as a sailor but did not think again of our conversation. Bill asked if I would like to rectify never having been on a sailboat and come to his home in Stamford, Connecticut, for an overnight sail across the Long Island Sound, on a Friday evening in the early fall. Again I was surprised by the invitation and the generosity of it but felt sheepish: I envisioned it would be a party of ten or so people who all sailed, and then there would be me, the landlubber.
I knew it was an invitation I could not turn down, so I steeled myself for awkwardness, happily accepted, and set a date with Bill's indefatigable secretary, Frances Bronson. Frances told me Bill would likely collect me from the Stamford station; and indeed, when I arrived in a light drizzle, Bill was there to meet me in the smallest Ford station wagon I have ever seen.
Though fall, the weather was unseasonably warm. I noticed a Catholic Missal was between the gear shaft and the passenger seat, along with plenty of other reading material: a copy of National Review that was about ten years old, a dog-eared copy of The Human Life Review, a copy of Commentary magazine, and a copy of a Patrick O'Brien novel. Bill was wearing khaki pants, a cashmere sweater with the words National Review stitched into the upper left side, Sperry topsiders, and an old Greek-style light-blue sailing cap. His casual informality made him seem like a prep school senior and not a man in his seventies.
When we arrived, despite the rain, many of the home's windows were open, as was the front door, allowing the sea breezes to pour into the house. The view of Long Island Sound fronting the manse, just down the vast front lawn, was beautiful. The rain slowed, the clouds were dissipating, and the late afternoon sun was slowly emerging. A beautiful evening was breaking forth, a great night for a sail. I kept waiting for the other sailing guests to arrive, but this turned out to be a phantom concern.
Danny Merritt, who sailed with Bill for many years, dating from his own boyhood friendship with Bill's son Christopher, would sail with us that evening, as would Danny's twelve-year-old son. I asked Bill if it was just the four of us. Yes, just four; it was a hard and fast rule with Bill. Four was the perfect number for his twenty-eight-foot sailboat called Patito, he said, and five would be a crowd. The car was quickly loaded with all kinds of gear and provisions (I kept thinking: All this for an overnight sail?), and we then went to the Stamford docks, loaded the boat, and proceeded to have one of the most autumnal glorious sails. The wind was just right, and the sails were beautiful against the emerging sunset.
The clouds folded back; the twinkling stars emerged as if on cue; the Manhattan skyline was clearly visible and shining out of the near darkness. The mast, the sails, the retreating clouds, the dark water: There was an intensity bordering on grandeur.
We sailed across into Oyster Bay ("Fitzgerald and Roosevelt territory," I remember Bill saying), with Bach's music playing during most of our trip across the Sound. The whole evening seemed serendipitous. A sumptuous dinner followed, which was prepared earlier by Bill's chef Julian and reheated by Danny. As dinner commenced, Bach slowly gave way to jazz by the pianist Dick Wellstood, one of Bill's favorite musicians. The evening was now getting chilly, and fresh air was pouring into the boat as we slept that night, with only the sound of waves lapping against the boat during the night. Bliss.
A wonderful breakfast followed, with Bill rising early and the sound of a New York City radio newscaster giving the headlines and the weather. We returned to Stamford by mid-morning and I spent the rest of the day reading and relaxing. We watched a movie that evening in a leopard-rugged music room that doubled as a small theater, and I departed Sunday morning.
As I settled into my Amtrak seat, I realized that over the previous twenty-four hours I had entered a world unto itself and very much unlike my own, a world I had not been part of two days before. It was a unique entree, animated by books, music, ideas, humor, good food, and joie de vivre, undergirded by Bill's unfailing generosity. Our friendship was really born that weekend and during the short sail. It also dawned on me that during my entire time with Bill he never once raised a political issue. Like my time with Russell, unless I referred to politics or some current public policy issue, the political scene never arose. We shared love for music (classical, jazz, the American songbook), ideas in literature, classic and contemporary movies (Bill referred to them as "flicks"), new and old novels, and the big and various personalities he had known in a remarkable lifetime including movie stars, politicians, writers, and journalists. These were the people and ideas stimulating our friendship, and it had the net effect of widening my world far beyond the Beltway and the life of pure politics. We would see each other twice a year or so in the course of the next twelve years, sailing together at least once a summer and often on a long summer sailing cruise as far north as the Bay of Fundy in Canada, the Saint John River, much of Nova Scotia, and most of the East Coast, from Blue Hill, Maine, into Penobscot Bay, to visits on Nantucket, Block Island, Martha's Vineyard, and Newport. During those summer sails, I felt a sense of relaxation and insouciance that I have rarely enjoyed since then, or ever.
My friendships with Bill Buckley and Russell Kirk changed my life. *