Tribute to William F. Buckley

For years I have had a keen love and affection for the word "anthropomorphism.” I don't know precisely what it means, but I always have it loaded and ready in case the cocktail party conversation lags.

Throw "anthropomorphism" into a conversation about presidential politics, FISA legislation, or even the Washington Redskins and one of two things will soon happen: either those who, hitherto, haven't been paying too much attention to you will immediately tilt their head in your direction and try to tap into this obviously deep vein of vocabularic talent — or — your fellow conversationalists will instantly announce that they need to scoot because they just remembered that the babysitter called to announce that she had suddenly decided to hop a red-eye flight to New Delhi in order to study at the feet of the Grand Master of "Hot Yoga.”

I first heard the word (“anthropomorphism,” not "Hot Yoga") when I was a ruffian high-schooler in southern New Jersey in the ’70s. An average student and an underperforming football player with an attitude, I indulged my secret life of being a closet intellectual.

It started in the most innocuous of ways. Secret weekend trips to the library (no Internet or Google in those days), prolonged browsing in the reference section of our local bookstore, and the most decadent activity of all: Late at night, turn the sound down real low so no one in the house would know, and watch William F. Buckley on “Firing Line.”

Soon I was sending away for “Firing Line” transcripts so I could "relive" the lively exchanges that I watched with enthusiasm in my darkened living room.

It soon got completely out of control when, transcripts in hand and dictionary at the ready, I would circle the Buckleyisms that I didn't understand. And there were many.

It became a vicious cycle.

Circled word. Dictionary check. Three-by-five cards with written-out definitions. Rote memorization. And flipping through the review cards as I walked those wintry New Jersey streets on my way to school.

Years later, college degree in hand, I worked as a cub radio reporter in Columbia, S.C.. Upon learning that the great Buckley himself was in town, I turned on my best Woodward/Bernstein investigative skills and called the only hotel in town with an atrium. Sure enough, the hotel operator put me right through to his room.

Upon hearing that legendary voice I suddenly heard myself babbling about multiple ideas for future “Firing Lines,” Mills/Buckley joint ventures, screenplays, books — there might have even been a musical in there somewhere.

In short: I was making a real fool of myself attempting to connect with this man whom I desperately wanted to impress, short, of course, of whipping out "anthropomorphism.” I didn't want to cross that fine line and possibly come across as pushy or arrogant.

When I finally ran out of ideas, not to mention oxygen, Buckley politely said: "Perhaps we could discuss this at a more reasonable hour."

At which point, my best inner Woodward/Bernstein intuition informed me that it was just a little before 1 in the morning.

Through the years, whenever I would catch Buckley on television or at speeches, I would always smile to myself and let that "Perhhhhappps we could discuss this at a more reeeeeaaasaonable houuuur" fill my head, the way it did just a few hours ago when I learned of Buckley's death.

Circling words, looking them up in a battered dictionary, writing definitions down on three-by-five cards, and flipping through them on early-morning walks to school has given way to point, click, dictionary.com and any number of other modern tools that allow us to be the "best that we can be."

Despite having never really talked to the man for longer than a few seconds here and there, his influence on my life, and on the lives of countless others, is real, important, and rich.

His life, and now his death, should remind us all that ideas matter, words matter, muscular defense of one’s views matter. It all matters.

I have had a blessed life with wonderful opportunities and challenges, but it has never gotten any better than having that bounce in my step after those frozen hands ripped up a three-by-five card and threw it in the trashcan outside of my school because I finally had the latest Buckleyism nailed.

I still jot down words I hear but don't understand. The next time I do it I hope I have a glass of wine or bourbon handy. Whether a reasonable hour or not, I will lift the glass to honor a great man who made a difference in this world.