By David Pietrusza
When it comes to heroes, conservatives are, well . . .
We do not usually gush or fawn, nor fling verbal bouquets like
“brilliant” or “charismatic” as effortlessly as our liberal
brethren. Principles, not personnel, remain our guideposts. Idols,
after all, possess words of gold and often enough feet of clay.
So, the conservative pantheon remains a most exclusive club.
There is Reagan, of course, and Thatcher, and Barry Goldwater.
And, of course, William F. Buckley, Jr.
The current cadre of YAFers is too young to have enjoyed knowing
WFB personally. But YAF’s first generation encountered him at
seemingly every turn-in print at National Review and his
syndicated column, on public television’s “Firing Line,” and in
public policy, either supporting conservative leaders or famously
running for mayor of New York City.
. . . or in person.
Bill Buckley was no mythic figure residing at a distance. He was
surprisingly accessible, and when one met him he was invariably
gracious, aristocratic yet egalitarian all at once. He might easily
have looked down upon his young, obscure acolytes. I never met one
of them who said he did.
And so it was in September 1960 that WFB’s colonial-era family
home, “Great Elm,” hosted the gathering that created YAF’s Sharon
Statement, and it was barely a decade later that two
twenty-something YAFers set off on an unlikely pilgrimage.
The idea popped into my head on a dreary, rain-flecked early
Sunday afternoon in upstate New York: get in the car, reconnoiter
over the Taconic Mountains into north-western Connecticut, and
simply barge into the Buckley family compound, respectfully
requesting to view the site of YAF and the Sharon Statement’s dual
Youth may not always be conservative; it is, more often than
And so in the pre-GPS-era we miraculously wended our way to
Sharon and not knowing what might happen next (this was, after all,
not a well-researched plan), inquired of a native for
directions to the Buckley digs. “Down that road, turn right. You’ll
see it,” came his answer.
His instruction worked and bounding up Great Elm’s steps and
knocking upon the widowed Mrs. William F. Buckley Sr.’s heavy front
door we announced straightforwardly enough, “We are two members of
Young Americans for Freedom who would like to see where the Sharon
Statement was written.”
“Come in!” responded an older female voice from the other side,
“The servants are off today, and the door sticks. Push it in!”
Shoulders assaulting wood, we literally crashed our way into the
Buckley mansion, there to be greeted by none other than William F.
Buckley’s mother, the grey-haired Aloise Steiner Buckley, she
looking quite like a Buckley, though, of course, it was all the
Buckleys who looked like her.
Buckley mère was for that afternoon alone in this
great, colonnaded, 30-room house. A thought invaded my mind: Yikes!
We could just as easily kidnap her and hold her ransom her in
exchange for, say, the right to National Review or
even the family’s Catawba Corporation oil firm! Fear of such
mayhem, however, never seemed to invade her mind, and she proceeded
to escort us first out onto the 37-acre grounds, tennis court and
pool in the distance, and into her garden to show us a large plaque
marking YAF’s founding-and then back through the first floor, where
an entire room shone with a splendiferous collection of the sort of
antique silver service so foreign to today’s more casual fashions
Finally, we entered the portrait gallery, a large, longish
chamber exhibiting portraits of all the Buckleys. Aloise and
her late husband William F. Buckley Sr. adorned on the back wall.
Their progeny decorated either side: WFB Jr., United States Senator
Jim, novelist F. Reid (a dead-ringer for Bill), National
Review managing editor Priscilla (“Pitts”), solid
businessman John, short story writer Aloïse, National
Review subscription director (and mother of the
well-regarded New York political operative Bill O’Reilly) Maureen,
Patricia (mother of the Media Research Center’s L. Brent Bozell
III), Carol, and Jane-all in oils, each tastefully illuminated by
proper levels of museum lighting.
It was, to say the least, impressive.
But not as impressive as what Aloise Buckley then confided.
“This,” she said, somehow both matter-of-factly and with pride,
“was the family nursery.
“It was here I taught my children patriotism.”
“You taught them well,” was all I could say.
She taught them well indeed.
David Pietrusza, a former Associate of the New
Guard magazine, is the author of a series of
critically-acclaimed studies of twentieth-century presidential
elections (1920, 1960, 1948, and the