WASHINGTON — lt happens to us all; we grow old and slow down. Even Bill Buckley, who has led the good life for 66 years -- an existence of endless possibilities, of extraordinary achievement -- couldn't go living the way he had.
So in late 1990, he retired as editor of the National Review, the landmark journal of conservative thought that he had founded 35 years before. He then took a 30-day trans-Atlantic sail with some close friends to contemplate his future, and his life, and what it had all meant.
And now, this is how William F. Buckley Jr. is spending his retirement:
He still writes three columns a week.
He still is host of the weekly television show "Firing Line" for PBS.
He is hard at work on research for a lengthy book on Catholicism (he is a devoted Catholic).
That's the major stuff. Then there are the minor things, such as the numerous newspaper and magazine pieces he --es off in the odd free hours. On the Thursday he was being interviewed, he had a piece for New York magazine to do, and another for Playboy -- just a few loose ends to tie up before leaving Sunday for Greece and a 10-day sail. Sailing, of course, remains a favorite diversion, as does playing the harpsichord, which he has done competently with several symphony orchestras.
"I'm never really happy unless I'm working," he confides unnecessarily. "It's not quite a disease, but next door to it."
Even when he's relaxing, he's working. Take "WindFall: the End of the Affair," the most recent of his 30 books and the fourth to chronicle a trans-oceanic sail. In it, Mr. Buckley spends little time in quiet contemplation or reading great books ("I read 'Moby Dick' on trip No. 1, but that's the most reading I've ever done on one of these trans-oceanic sails"). He's usually hard at work on a column, or answering correspondence from, say, his old music professor at Yale, or the editorial page editor of the Atlanta Constitution, or, seemingly, anyone who has ever slapped a postage stamp on an envelope.
This remarkable restless energy has brought Mr. Buckley where he is today -- influential journalist, best-selling spy novelist (he's written nine thrillers starring CIA agent Blackford Oates) and, most important, revered father-figure of the American conservative movement. In a 1988 biography, "William F. Buckley Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives," John B. Judis wrote that Mr. Buckley was "singularly responsible for transforming the fractious and irrelevant Right of the early fifties into a conservative movement . . ."
This energy isn't apparent upon meeting him. In his Washington hotel room, Mr. Buckley comes across just as he does on "Firing Line": Slouched way back in his chair, chin in hand, he is the picture of languorous reflection. The famous Buckley speech mannerisms are all there: the slight stutter, the frequent clearing of the throat, the swallowing of whole words and phrases in a distinctly idiosyncratic accent that seems one part East Coast prep school and one part "Upstairs, Downstairs." Witness the way he answers the phone: "Hallow?"
He's a charming conversationalist, given frequently to humorous asides and digressions, and an attentive listener. There's a bit of the old salt, too. When Mr. Buckley talks about why he no longer participates in sailing races, he explains, "After a while, you feel, 'F--- it. Let's shorten them out a little bit and have a pleasant night.' "
Across the ocean
Now he's talking about the trip he wrote about in "WindFall," which basically followed Christopher Columbus' trip to the New World in 1492.
"I was 65 years old, and I guess it is proper to say I don't expect to live forever," he says. "So there are intimations of that in the book. And at the time of the sail I was also observing the 40th
anniversary of my graduation from college, and the 40th anniversary of my marriage. So it seemed to be a logical terminus."
And sailing was a logical way to observe those landmarks. He had learned to sail as a youngster growing up in Connecticut, and in the decades that followed, he always found time for sailing -- whether it was racing from Newport, R.I., to Bermuda, or traveling the South Pacific (chronicled in the 1987 book, "Racing Through Paradise: A Pacific Paradise").
His trans-oceanic trips have always been elegant affairs. In "Racing Through Paradise," he and his friends packed 50 cases of beer and 32 cases of fine wine, and no one on any of the trips had to subsist on hardtack and beef jerky (a full-time cook is part of the crew). To bide their time during the slow hours, Mr. Buckley and his friends brought along dozens of movies, not to mention many cassettes of all types of music.