Editor’s Note: This eulogy was delivered on the occasion of the Memorial Mass for the Repose of the Soul of William F. Buckley Jr. on April 4, 2008, at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
We talked about this day, he and I, a few years ago. He said to me, “If I’m still famous, try to convince the Cardinal to do the service at St. Patrick’s. If I’m not, just tuck me away in Stamford.”
Well, Pup, I guess you’re still famous.
I’d like to thank Cardinal Egan and Msgr. Ritchie of the archdiocese for their celestial hospitality, and Fr. Rutler for his typically gracious words. I’d also like to thank Dr. Jennifer Pascual, musical director of St. Patrick’s, as well as the St. Patrick’s Cathedral Choir, and organists Donald Dumler and Rick Tripodi for such beautiful music.
Pope Benedict will be saying Mass here in two weeks. I was told that the music at this Mass for my father would, in effect, be the dress rehearsal for the Pope’s. I think that would have pleased him, though doubtless he’d have preferred it to be the other way around.
I do know he’d have been pleased, amidst the many obituaries and tributes, by the number of editorial cartoons that depicted him at the Pearly Gates. One showed St. Peter groaning, “I’m going to need a bigger dictionary.” If I disposed of the cartoonist’s skills, I might draw one showing a weary St. Peter greeting the Fed Ex man, “Let me guess — another cover story on Mr. Buckley?”
My mother is no longer with us, so we can only speculate as to how she might react to these depictions of her husband of 56 years arriving in Paradise so briskly. My sense is that she would be vastly amused.
On the day he retired from Firing Line after a 33-year long run, Nightline (no relation) did a show to mark the occasion. At the end, Ted Koppel said, “Bill, we have one minute left. Would you care to sum up your 33 years in television?” To which my father replied, “No.”
Taking his cue, I won’t attempt to sum him up in my few minutes here. A great deal has been written and said about him in the month since he died, at his desk, in his study in Stamford. After I’d absorbed the news, I sat down to compose an e-mail. My inner English major ineluctably asserted itself and I found myself quoting (misquoting, slightly) a line from Hamlet,
He was a man, Horatio, take him for all in all,
I shall not look upon his like again.
One of my first memories of him was of driving up to Sharon, Connecticut for Thanksgiving. It would have been about 1957. He had on the seat between us an enormous reel-to-reel tape recorder. For a conservative, my old man was always on the cutting edge of the latest gadgetry — despite the fact that at his death, he was almost certainly the only human being left on the planet who still used Word Star.
It was a recording of MacBeth. My five-year old brain couldn’t make much sense of it. I asked him finally, “What’s eating the queen?” He explained about the out-out-damned spot business. I replied, “Why doesn’t she try Palmolive?” So began my tutelage with the world’s coolest mentor.
It was on those drives to Sharon that we had some of our best talks. This afternoon, I’ll make one last drive up there to bury him, alongside with his sisters in the little cemetery by the brook. When we held the wake for him some days after he died, I placed inside his casket a few items to see him across the River Styx: his favorite rosary, the TV remote control — private joke — a jar of peanut butter, and my mother’s ashes. I can hear her saying, “Bill — what is that disgusting substance leaking all over me?” No pharaoh went off to the afterlife better equipped than he does.
The last time I was with him in Sharon was last October. It was a fundraiser for the local library, billed as “A Bevy of Buckleys” — my dad, Uncle Jim, Aunt Pitts, Aunt Carol, me — reading from the aggregate Buckley oeuvre — a word I first heard from his lips many years ago, along with other exotic, multi-lingual bon mots: mutatis mutandis; pari passu; quod licet Jove, non licet bovi.
An article had appeared in the local paper a few days before, alerting the community to this gala event. As I perused the clipping, my eyes alighted on the sentence: “The Buckleys are a well-known American family, William F. Buckley being arguably the best known.”
I kept my amusement to myself, and handed Pup the clipping and waited silently for the reaction I knew would come. Sure enough, within seconds, he looked up with what I would describe as only faintly bemused indignation and said, “Ar-guably?”
He was — inarguably — a great man. This is, from a son’s perspective, a mixed blessing, because it means having to share him with the wide world. It was often a very mixed blessing when you were out sailing with him. Great men always have too much canvas up. And great men set out from port in conditions that keep lesser men — such as myself — safe and snug on shore.
One October day in 1997, I arrived from Washington in Stamford for a long-planned overnight sail. As the train pulled into the station, I looked out and saw people hanging onto lampposts at 90-degree angles, trying not to be blown away by the northeast gale that was raging. Indeed, it resembled a scene from The Wizard of Oz. When the train doors opened, I was blown back into the carriage by the 50-mile-an-hour wind. I managed to crawl out onto the platform, practically on all fours, whereupon my father greeted me with a chipper, “We’ll have a brisk sail.”
I looked up at him incredulously and said, “We’re going out in this?”
Indeed we did go out in it. We always went out in it. Some of my earliest memories are of my mother, shrieking at him as the water broke over the cockpit and the boat pitched furiously in boiling seas, “Bill – Bill! Why are you trying to kill us?”
But the cries of timorous souls never phased him. He had been going out in it for years, ever since he published his first book, God and Man At Yale. Nor did he need a sailboat to roil the waters. His Royal typewriter — and later, Word Star — would do.
How many words flowed from those keyboards. I went up to Yale recently to inspect his archive of papers. They total 550 linear feet. To put it in perspective, the spire of St. Patrick’s rises 300 feet above us. By some scholarly estimates, he may have written more letters than any other American in history. Add to that prodigal output: 6,000 columns, 1,500 Firing Line episodes, countless articles, over 50 books. He was working on one the day he died.
Jose Martí famously said that a man must do three things in life: write a book, plant a tree, have a son. I don’t know that my father ever planted a tree. Surely whole forests, whole eco-systems, were put to the axe on his account. But he did plant a lot of seeds and many of them, grown to fruition, are here today. Quite a harvest, that.
It’s not easy coming up with an epitaph for such a man. I was tempted by something Mark Twain once said, “Homer’s dead, Shakespeare’s dead, and I myself am not feeling at all well.”
Years ago, he gave an interview to Playboy Magazine. Asked why he did this, he couldn’t resist saying, “In order to communicate with my 16-year-old son.” At the end of the interview, he was asked what he would like for an epitaph and he replied, “ ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth.’ ” Only Pup could manage to work the Book of Job into a Hugh Hefner publication.
I finally settled on one, and I’ll say the words over his grave at sunset today in Sharon, as we lay him to rest. They’re from a poem he knew well — Robert Louis Stevenson’s Requiem – each line of which, indeed, seemed to have been written just for him:
Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live, and gladly die.
And I lay me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be.
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.
– Christopher Buckley is the author of Boomsday.