Fourteen months ago Bill Buckley collapsed and died at his desk in Stamford, Conn. The ground has still not finished shaking. How could it? Two sons — one biological and one professional — have now written memoirs of their lives with Bill. Both make for absorbing reading.
Chris Buckley was the only child of Bill and Patricia Taylor Buckley — two outsized personalities. “When the universe hands you material like this,” Buckley the son explains of his decision to pen the memoir, “not writing about it seems either a waste or a conscious act of evasion.” Bill was, of course, world-famous — the founding father of modern conservatism, an American icon. Pat, too, was formidable — tall, fashionable, witty, and sometimes outrageous. No, I mean really outrageous.
Chris relates an example: His 19-year-old daughter brought her best friend, Kate Kennedy, to dinner with Bill and Pat. Pat rounded on the poor girl and “informed her that she (Mum) had been an alternate juror in the murder trial of Kate’s father’s first cousin Michael Skakel.” Skakel had been tried and convicted for the murder of a 15-year-old. “Having presented this astonishing (and utterly untrue) credential, Mum then proceeded to launch into a protracted lecture on the villainy of Kate’s near relative.” Your mother may not have committed sins like that. She may have done better or worse. But all mothers have done something that requires forgiveness by their children, just as the children will themselves need to ask forgiveness for their transgressions. As she lay comatose and dying, Chris relates, he stroked her hair and “said, the words surprising me, coming out of nowhere, ‘I forgive you.’” The tales of Pat’s misbehavior are florid and accordingly more memorable than the accounts of her virtues. And yet, the deep and true grief borne by her son is eloquent evidence that this proud and domineering woman also loved tenderly.
As for his diamond-bright father, again deep love shines through in a dozen affectionate, sometimes even awed anecdotes. Chris Buckley — I am not breaking news here — can really write. But there are other stories, too. Bill was hardly the ideal father. “When I was 11, I spent three weeks in the hospital without a visit from him.” WFB could be astonishingly selfish, as when, bored at Chris’s college graduation ceremony, he gathered up friends and family and decamped to a restaurant for lunch “leaving me to spend my graduation day wandering the campus in search of my family.”
Losing Mum and Pup is the story of three personalities so large that one family could not hold them without shuddering and shaking. Chris describes some of his conflicts with his father as “locking theological antlers.” Still, the center held.
Richard Brookhiser, in Right Time, Right Place tells an equally gripping tale of being handpicked as WFB’s successor — only to be later dumped. Rick was 14 when he wrote his first cover story for National Review and his precocity clearly reminded WFB of himself. Brookhiser tells the story of his relationship with WFB, as Chris Buckley told the story of his, straightforwardly and honestly. It was easier to be WFB’s protégé than his son — but there were similarities. Brookhiser relates that Bill’s style was to deliver bad news, such as the decision that Rick would not after all be the next editor of National Review, by mail when Bill was safely out of town.
But that painful episode is a small part of a fascinating look back (how does he remember so many details?) at a 30-year friendship and collaboration (part of which I witnessed first hand). Rick’s personal history with WFB parallels the rise of the conservative movement. And it will not surprise fans of Brookhiser’s biographies that this memoir is a brilliant and beautifully written history of the past several decades. Here, for example, is the way Brookhiser describes the Republican Party circa 1984. “ The Republicans were superficially calmer. . . . But because ambition and disagreement never rest, there was a subterranean struggle, as among creatures in the leaf litter on the forest floor, to define what Reaganism meant . . . ” And here is a biting description of George W. Bush “[He] spoke badly out of confidence and indifference, believing that whatever he said was said well enough . . . He was shorter than his father; when he passed through the crowd shaking hands he moved like a lightweight heading up to the ring for an easy bout, perhaps because it was fixed.”
William F. Buckley Jr. was a key figure in American history. His gravitational pull was such that, even now, we cannot get enough of stories about him. Some of the tales in these memoirs are less than hagiographic. It reminds me of the story about Winston Churchill. After repeated episodes of bad behavior on the prime minister’s part, his valet got up the courage to tell him off. When Churchill protested that the valet had been rude, he responded “but you were rude too.” “Yes,” Churchill reportedly replied, “but I am a great man.”