September 4, 2009
All My Sons
by James Panero
Two memoirs of William F. Buckley outline his towering shadow.
A review of Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir, by Christopher Buckley (Twelve, 272 pp., $24.99) & Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic Books, 272 pp., $27.50)
Since the February 2008 death of his father, William F. Buckley, Jr., Christopher Buckley has courted his share of controversy. As last fall’s presidential election approached, he publicly backed Barack Obama on Tina Brown’s website The Daily Beast. He withdrew from writing for National Review, the magazine that his father founded in 1955. Then came Losing Mum and Pup, a tell-all memoir of his parents’ painful sickness and death—a book heavily promoted and embargoed until its publication date. An advance excerpt published as a cover article in The New York Times Magazine in late spring seemed particularly harsh, yet Losing Mum and Pup could not be easily dismissed. The book became a bestseller. Instead of being opportunistic or shameless or even a product of personal or political retribution, the book succeeded on its literary merits.
Losing Mum and Pup is the story of a political leader’s death, deliberately stripped of politics. Some might see this as a disservice or even a repudiation of Buckley’s beliefs. But what results is an engrossing, universal story of a son who confronts the death of both parents in less than a year. The lack of politics also distinguishes the book from nearly all other contributions to the growing Buckley memorial shelf. The spirit of the ailing WFB, the private WFB, shines from its pages. So does the figure of Chris’s mother Pat, the Norma Desmond of New York society, on whom WFB was a doting Max von Mayerling.
The particular resonance of Christopher’s story builds on more than the fame or gossip surrounding his subject matter. “There are seventy-seven million of us boomers,” he writes. “Many of us have already lost the ’rents, and the rest of us will be going through the experience later if not sooner.” Buckley’s story addresses generational division, specifically the divide between the Baby Boomers and the Greatest Generation. In the Buckley household, this divide seems to have been particularly pronounced. The neo-Edwardian WFB led the national consensus against much of what his son’s generation came to represent with its counterculture, its doubt, and its self-obsession. Christopher, in turn, took up the position of his father’s antagonist. “Pup and I exchanged, over the course of a lifetime,” he writes, “letters of deep and abundant affection. But we fought, and hard. Of the perhaps—I’m guessing—seven thousand or so letters and e-mails we exchanged, I’d estimate that one-half were contentious.”
Christopher plays the part of the Boomer con brio, and much of the book relates more to the author rather than to his subject matter. A father now in his fifties, Christopher declares himself an “orphan” after the death of his parents. “Today I got a call, and I cried. Grandfather dies, father dies . . . you’re next,” he writes. Many observations come off as similarly self-indulgent: “I suppose one way or the other I’ve spent a good deal of my life, despite my protestations to the contrary, trying to measure up to my father. . . . I felt—for the first time in my life—entirely independent of paternal authority or rebuke. . . . I stroked [my mother’s] hair and said, the words surprising me, coming out of nowhere, ‘I forgive you.’” For all of the faults he finds in his family, in fact, Christopher comes off worse—I would imagine, consciously so. At the outset he writes: “I hope to avoid any hint of self-pity, any sense that I’ve been dealt some unusually cruel hand.” That Losing Mum and Pup fails so dramatically in this regard elevates his story from cautious encomium to an engrossing discussion of family dynamics, one told through a certain reckless honesty.
The Buckleys’ only child, Christopher begins his story with the illness and death of his mother. Pat was going downhill fast after suffering through amputations made necessary by her poor circulation, the result of a lifetime of smoking. (Is it notable that Christopher, author of the satirical novel Thank You for Smoking, lost both of his parents to complications from tobacco?) A towering figure in the New York social scene, Pat could be one part Lenny Bruce and another part Wicked Witch. Christopher may have inherited his father’s literary chops, but his wounded wit comes off as 100 percent Mum. “One morning, during the Nixon administration,” Christopher writes of one of his mother’s more famous episodes, “the phone rang in Stamford at what Mum deemed an inappropriately early hour on a Sunday. ‘The president is calling for Mr. Buckley,’ the voice announced. Mum fired back in her most formidable voice—and trust me when I say formidable: a cross between Noel Coward and a snapping turtle—‘The president of what?’ To which the White House operator calmly replied, ‘Our country, ma’am.’”
William F. Buckley was only one-half of the family drama: Pat commanded her own marquee. Just as WFB “had a paladin code of conduct that the show must go on,” writes Christopher, “she’d once said to me, only half-kidding, ‘I’ve got the best legs in the business.’” Pat both deferred to and dominated WFB. “She took possession of her husband,” writes Christopher. “And he was desolate now that she had gone. It was only now, seeing him so helpless without her, that I saw the extent of his devotion to her. The phrase unconditional love has always been an abstraction to me. Now I understand. I think he even missed her being cross with him.”
Losing Mum and Pup traces the death of Pat to the descent of her husband less than a year later. “Industry is the enemy of melancholy,” Christopher writes of his father’s philosophy on grief, and in his last year WFB labored over his own mortality. He could be difficult in his own way. He confronted a host of failing bodily systems, brought on by emphysema and diabetes and a lifetime of self-medication. “It was as if his mind were a still brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body,” Christopher writes. The son’s efforts as caregiver often put him at odds with his restless father: “Pup’s daily intake of pills would be enough to give Hunter Thompson pause.” Ritalin and sleeping pills were to Buckley the opposite of recreational drugs. They were his work drugs, an extension of his efficiency, impatience, and control. “Pup’s self-medicating was, I venture, a chemical extension of the control he asserted over every other aspect of his life. . . . I did not, as a young bacchante in the sixties and seventies, absent myself from the garden of herbal and pharmacological delights—far from it—so I found myself in an ironic position, lecturing a parent about drugs. The child/parent relationship inevitably reverses, but to this degree I had not anticipated.”
For Christopher, the necessity of these confessions comes in clear view when he discusses his father’s despondency. A pious Catholic with an ailing spirit, in his final months WFB discussed the ethics of suicide with Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times’s Book Review and Week in Review sections as well as WFB’s official biographer (the work remains in progress). Hours after Buckley’s death, Tanenhaus told Christopher about the suicide discussion and said that he wanted to publish an article in the Times about it. Christopher worried that such a story would fuel speculation about the cause of his father’s death (listed on the official death certificate as “cardio-pulmonary arrest”) and told Tanenhaus that his father’s statements were made to him “in your capacity as his biographer. Not as a reporter for the New York Times.” As his father’s literary executor, Christopher then threatened to cut off Tanenhaus’s access to the Buckley archive if the story ran.
It didn’t, so it may seem curious that Christopher chooses to describe the incident in detail. Yet here he reveals what must be the ultimate intention of writing Losing Mum and Pup: divulging the secrets of his father’s final year so that others will not do it first. This is a book about setting the record straight, on Christopher’s terms. His deployment of the narrative is his own. Yet in his desire to control the story, Christopher is his father’s son.
One might say that William F. Buckley was far more organically than politically conservative. In matters of philosophy and spirit he was an ultimate conservative force, but he was more taciturn in conservatism’s application, especially in his later years. In Right Time, Right Place, his own memoir of WFB, Richard Brookhiser writes: “Liberalism prevailed, Buckley said, because it was socially acceptable. He therefore wanted to lift taboos on thought and discussion; once that happened, elections would take care of themselves.” Buckley left the wonkery and political leadership to others. Looking to his columns for political direction could be like consulting the Delphic Oracle. He wrote no defining political treatise. His literary totality, ranging through letters and spy novels and celebrating the joys of life, good friends, and a love of God, formed an anti-manifesto. Too much of Buckley’s universe was unknown. It needed exploration, not explanation.
And the issue of succession is more easily determined in the realm of politics than in this one of philosophy and temperament. Who would succeed Buckley at the helm of National Review? The answer seemed to emerge in the fall of 1969, when Brookhiser, then a mere 14 years old, submitted an essay reacting against anti–Vietnam War sentiment at his upstate New York school. Buckley ran the piece and began to see a reflection of himself in the budding young talent. By 1978, Brookhiser, by then a graduate of Yale (like his mentor), had already become an editor at National Review. Buckley privately tapped him as his heir apparent.
Buckley’s mentorship of young writers was a defining trait, yet his vitality could often outstrip that of his protégés. “The puer eternus,” writes Brookhiser, “the eternal youth. Hermes/Mercury represented this type in classical religion. The puer is quick, clever, verbal, sometimes shifty. Bill was unquestionably a puer eternus. He would always be on the lookout for others. He had found a number of bright young writers already—John Leonard, Garry Wills, Joe Sobran—and there would be more in the years that I knew him. But I was the one he tapped in the spring of 1978.”
In choosing a successor early on, writes Brookhiser, Buckley may have been reacting against the career direction of his natural-born heir: “Bill’s conservatism and his role in the world had not replicated themselves. . . . Chris shared his father’s convictions, but he did not live them in the same way. He was not on the firing line week after week, as Bill was; as we at National Review were; as I was. This necessarily gave his convictions a different quality. Chris was conservative from habit, more in the manner of my parents (if my parents had been raised by wealthy Yalies). Chris must have decided, very early on, not to become his father. Chris’s decision to go his own way may have added a share of urgency to Bill’s efforts to find a successor.”
Then a decade later, just as suddenly as Buckley had conferred the crown, he took it away. “One summer day in 1987,” writes Brookhiser, “I came back to my desk after lunch and found a surprising letter. It was from Bill, and the envelope was marked ‘Confidential.’ ‘It is by now plain to me [it began] that you are not suited to serve as editor-in-chief of NR after my retirement. This sentence will no doubt have for a while a heavy heavy effect on your morale, and therefore I must at once tell you that I have reached this conclusion irrevocably. . . . You do not have executive habits, you do not have an executive turn of mind, and I would do you no service, nor NR, by imposing it on you.” It is unclear from Brookhiser’s book why Buckley had his change of heart. While Brookhiser offers theories (he did not flatter Buckley enough at an editorial dinner; he disliked Buckley’s novels), one senses that the answer remains unclear to Brookhiser himself.
If the WFB of Losing Mum and Pup leaps from the surface of Christopher’s book, the WFB of Brookhiser’s book is embedded in its depths. But Right Time, Right Place compellingly captures the editorial world of Buckley’s National Review. As a book about recent conservative politics and magazine life, it can be fascinating. While National Review often gets credit for starting the Reagan Revolution, for example, Brookhiser reveals the editorial indecision over Reagan’s 1980 candidacy. “Bill assumed Reagan ‘would come to grief early and drop out,’” he writes. WFB first backed George H. W. Bush.
In the 1970s, Garry Wills, one of Buckley’s most prized protégés, took a turn to the left. The break vexed Buckley, and National Review began running a regular “Wills Watch” (Wills writes about their reconciliation in a recent issue of The Atlantic). The Buckley protégé Joe Sobran then made his own break. After Reagan’s disastrous visit to the Nazi cemetery at Bitburg, Sobran blamed Jews for the media fallout. He began to see Zionism as a conspiracy akin to Communism, and WFB pushed him away. “He imagined that Bill was bullied and terrorized by Jews—the ‘Zionist apparat’ of New York, the elders of Gotham,” writes Brookhiser. “But he was acute about aspects of Bill’s personality. Bill, he thought, rejected Jew bashing because it was declasse, and he cared above all for maintaining ‘la bella figura.’”
“Joe’s fall was personal,” Brookhiser continues. “Joe was his discovery, his protege, his failure.” Brookhiser similarly blames Buckley for the shortcomings in their own relationship: “Bill’s failing (apart from cowardice) was to have made the offer he did in 1978, having wrongly decided that I, at age twenty-three, was the second coming of him.” The rate of apostasy within Buckley’s young circle ran high. It produced some interesting (and also alarming) talent, as protégés became adversaries and attempted to engage Buckley on equal if opposite footing. Though he engaged in no ideological break with his mentor, with Right Time, Right Place Brookhiser now enters those ranks as the reluctant apostate.
Buckley created a personal mythology that he was careful to control. His 2004 “literary autobiography,” Miles Gone By, gathered much of this mythology in one place. A shimmering, 1,000-watt reflection of the late conservative icon that remains the single best book about him, Miles Gone By dispensed with the standard work of history and memoir. Instead, Buckley set about collecting essays from 50 years of his books, articles, and columns “in which I figure directly,” he wrote in the book’s introduction, “sometimes actively, sometimes only in a passive way, but always there.” Miles Gone By began with Buckley’s childhood memory of fireflies at Great Elm, the family estate in Sharon, Connecticut. The chapters then ranged through governesses, sailing, music, his son, wine, parents, Yale, skiing, an ill-advised solo airplane flight, dozens of friends and eminences, language, travel, politics, private clubs, and finally “Thoughts on a Final Passage.” “There would be no point in contriving an autobiography from scratch,” Buckley wrote. “Why? I have already written about the events and the people that have shaped my life; any new account would simply paraphrase these.” Miles Gone By presented the Buckley myth with the magnolias let back in. Buckley soaked his prose in his own blend of perfume, and he cared little about changing the formula.
Buckley exercised as much control as he could over his own story because that control was central to his overall mission. Will, word, and action were inseparable for him, and all were lushly conceived. But he needed to be the one crafting the plot. He bristled at incursions on his authorship far more than at political disagreements. When a relationship took an unexpected turn or a friend was written out, it was done decisively, and on Buckley’s terms.
Which is why both Buckley memoirs ultimately seem so controversial. Neither Losing Mum and Pup nor Right Time, Right Place departs from Buckley’s politics in a marked way, but both books provide what we might call “unauthorized” accounts of the Buckley story. They are products of, at times, seething exasperation with their subject, yet each pays tribute to him in its own manner. William F. Buckley cast a long shadow. In their inability to get out from under it, Christopher Buckley and Richard Brookhiser reveal the height of the figure towering above them.