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The Straggler

Dinner with the Buckleys

by John Derbyshire

For some time I had wanted to meet James Buckley, fourth of the ten in his generation. (Bill Buckley was sixth.) This man had an extraordinary career. He served at a high level in all three branches of the federal government: as a U.S. senator, as an under secretary of state, and as a federal appeals-court judge. Somewhere along the way he also had careers in private law, business, and the military. James Buckley is one of those people who leave most of the rest of us feeling we have frittered our lives away to not much purpose.

His 2006 book, Gleanings from an Unplanned Life, gives a clear and attractive picture of the man, seasoned with solid conservative good sense: “I believe . . . that there is only one road to true reform, and that is to rediscover and reapply the principles of federalism and, in that way, reduce the scope of federal responsibilities to manageable size.”

I mentioned my wish to a friend who lives near the Buckley home in Sharon, Conn. My friend kindly agreed to help out; and on a warm evening in late May, at the Sharon Country Club, I found myself shaking hands with the smiling, fit-looking, 87-year-old . . . what? senator? judge? under secretary? lieutenant?

“Just ‘Jim,’ please.”

Jim had brought with him his sister Priscilla, third of the ten siblings. Her presence induced some nervous guilt in me. At National Review’s 50th birthday in 2005 Priscilla had published a memoir of her 43 years with the magazine, Living It Up with National Review. I had acquired a copy at the time, but it had disappeared under the drifts and mounds of books silting up my study and passed from my mind before I could get round to reading it. Nor had I read Priscilla’s earlier book String of Pearls, about her working life prior to National Review. By the time I knew Priscilla would be joining us for dinner it was too late to remedy any of this. Of my two distinguished dinner companions, I was properly read up on only one.

I need not have troubled myself. Brother and sister were both warm and friendly, with that ability Bill had to put one at ease without preliminaries. Good nature is a Buckley family trait. I never saw Bill out of humor, even in his last months when his health was failing. To be sure, he could lose it when confronted with the furthest extremes of human obnoxiousness, as the famous exchange with Gore Vidal showed; but we all have our limits.

My dinner companions were from the same happy mold. From Jim’s book:

Interviewer: Do you have a temper?

JLB: I’m told that I had a temper when I was one, two, and three years old.

Interviewer: And not since.

JLB: Very placid.

In Living It Up, Priscilla describes her brother as “the world’s most mild-mannered and courteous man,” a judgment I’ll concur with. (Yes, I have remedied my omission. Better late than never, I have salved my conscience and gotten much incidental pleasure and instruction by reading both of Priscilla’s books. String of Pearls is the funnier: A Year in Provence meets Scoop. Living It Up is the deeper book: The death of Priscilla’s sister Maureen, whose baby, four years earlier, Priscilla had delivered with her own hands, is hard to read.)

Over dinner we of course talked current affairs. Me: “Things look bad for the U.S.A., don’t they?”

Jim: “Without divine intervention I see no way out.”

He said it in a perfectly matter-of-fact way, with no trace of facetiousness, just as one might say to a friend: “Without overshoes your feet will get wet.” I was reminded of the tributes in Jim’s book to his parents’ piety. To his mother’s, at any rate; I had momentarily forgotten what he said of his father. Was Buckley père religious, too? “Oh yes. That was one reason he was expelled from Mexico in 1921, for protesting the government’s persecution of the Church.”

As an unbeliever, I was out of my depth here. There have been very few occasions when I have envied the devout their devotion. I think every one of those occasions in recent years has been in the presence of a Buckley. “My faith has not wavered,” wrote Bill in his seventies (in Nearer My God), and I believe it. I am pretty sure James and Priscilla would have said the same if I had asked them, though it seemed indelicate to do so. This is beyond my understanding; but however it happens, the cheerful, useful, philoprogenitive Buckleys are a good advertisement for it.

Neither brother nor sister showed the slightest sign of fading faculties. Memories came through clear and colorful across 80 years and more. Here is a story Priscilla told — one of many gems, though the brightest in my recollection of that evening. When she was a little girl (Priscilla said), she slept in the same room as her mother. She was put to bed early, of course. She very much wanted to stay awake till her mother came to bed, but could never manage it. One evening, however, though she had drifted off to sleep as usual, she was later woken by her mother’s presence in the room. Her mother was on her knees, praying. “What are you praying for, Mother?” asked little Priscilla. Replied her mother: “I am praying for a very brave young American man who has set out to fly from New York to Paris.”

That would be Charles Lindbergh; that would be May 1927.

Coming away from my evening with the two Buckleys, I found myself recalling — somewhat absurdly for a person of my age (I turned 65 a week later), and surely for the last time in my life — Edgar’s lines at the end of King Lear: “The oldest hath borne most; we that are young / Shall never see so much, nor live so long.”

Was there ever a family that bore it all with such good humor and joy of life, with such steady faith and mutual support, while making themselves so useful to their fellow citizens, as the Buckleys?

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