I met Russell Kirk, one of the founding fathers of the conservative movement and the author of the magisterial The Conservative Mind, when I was a junior in high school in 1981. We exchanged letters on and off through the rest of his life, 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. 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. Conservatism, I came to see because of the influence of Russell, was not an ideology but a way of life. There is no official or unofficial handbook for what constitutes conservatism, and in fact the conservative life is various.
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. Russell showed me it was important to live your ideas, that faith and action go together.
He was a commanding public intellectual. 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. I drove to their home, which was about five hours from Fort Wayne. 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.” 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. 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.
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 roaring fire in the fireplace that in those winter months was rarely extinguished. When we walked in, I felt a sense of peace. So many of the books special in my life were written in that library.
Russell taught me to embrace justice, mystery, and an orderly and stable universe, 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 meaningful life. In all of my letters 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. (I began going to the Heritage Foundation in the summer of 1985 when I was an intern for Dan Quayle in the Senate.) 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.
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 at Buckley’s pied-à-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 topics far beyond. Bill had just returned from a sailing trip and was discussing the beauty of Newfoundland with his friend Van Galbraith, who would later become a friend of mine through Bill’s introduction. Dinner followed, eight of us at a large round table in a small, mirror-filled drawing or ballroom, the dogs omnipresent.
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 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 warmth and grace.
After dinner and now in another beautiful room, we had coffee and aperitifs. (Bill and two others had a cigar.) 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.
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, mostly people had speed boats, fishing boats, pontoons, or small sailboats; and that 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. 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 steeled myself for awkwardness and set a date with Bill’s indefatigable secretary, Frances Bronson.
I boarded the Amtrak on an early Friday afternoon at Washington’s Union Station. 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. 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, and 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. He extended his hands in a friendship clasp, and we then sped toward Bill and Pat’s home on Wallack’s Point.
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, as was a pool with statuary and bushes and willow trees. 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.
Danny Merritt, who sailed with Bill for many years, would sail with us that evening, as would Danny’s 12-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 28-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.
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. A sumptuous dinner followed, 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.
We returned to Stamford by mid-morning, lunched with the Buckleys and other weekend houseguests, among them a bridge-playing friend of Pat’s who grew up in pre-World War II Washington when it was still a sleepy southern city and Bill’s priest, Father Kevin. 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 24 hours I had entered a world unto itself, a world I had not been part of two days before. It was a unique entrée, animated by books, music, ideas, humor, good food, and joie de vivre, undergirded by Bill’s unfailing generosity. It 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 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 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 12 years, sailing together at least once a summer and often on a long 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 since then, or ever.
Timothy S. Goeglein is the vice president for external relations at Focus on the Family and a senior visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation. This excerpt is taken from The Man in the Middle: An Inside Account of Faith and Politics in the George W. Bush Era, published by B&H Publishers, a division of LifeWay Books, © 2011.