Remembering William F. Buckley Jr.

A friend of mine gave me a copy of Christopher Buckley’s Remembering Mum and Pup. “Mum” and “Pup” were his pet names for his parents, Patricia Taylor Buckley and William F. Buckley Jr.  It wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the book otherwise, but it was more interesting than I expected.

William F. Buckley Jr. was once the face of the conservative movement in the United States, through his magazine, National Review, his syndicated newspaper column, his TV program “The Firing Line” and his many books.  I thought his opinions, except for anti-Communism, ranged from the misguided to the morally reprehensible.  His first books were an attack on academic freedom and a defense of Senator Joe McCarthy, and he was a champion of white supremacy in the American South and South Africa (a position he retracted after it was too late to make any difference).

At the same time I always watched “The Firing Line” on PBS, and often found food for thought in it.  Buckley did his homework, was courteous to his guests and debated issues of substance and not trivialities.  He made me think through my own positions.

I think the fact that Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck occupy Buckley’s niche in the conservative movement says something about how that movement has evolved over the years.  I think the fact that Limbaugh and Beck have the influence formerly held by Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite says something about how American society has evolved over the years.

William F. Buckley Jr. was ecumenical in his friendships.  His inner circle included John Kenneth Galbraith, Henry Kissinger, David Niven and George McGovern.  He was on good terms with the Reagans, the Bushes and the younger Kennedys.

I have mixed feelings about this.  It’s good that people of differing views can be friendly to each other.  At the same time I have misgivings about rich celebrity conservatives and rich celebrity liberals being part of an elite whose members associate more with each other than any of them to with people who are worried about keeping their jobs and paying their bills.

I once saw John Kenneth Galbraith on TV jokingly chide Buckley for having a bigger and more expensive Swiss chalet than his.  I have no quarrel with Galbraith and Buckley being able to afford Swiss chalets.  They earned their money honestly through writing and lecturing.  Galbraith was a famous liberal economist, and I consider myself a liberal, but I don’t feel represented by people like him.

One great thing about William F. Buckley Jr. was his gusto for living, which is well-captured by his son’s memoir.  It could be said of him, as of Malcolm Forbes Sr. of Forbes magazine, that “while he was alive, he lived.”  He had a reckless, unconventional streak that doesn’t fit his television persona or my stereotype of a conservative.  He was fortunate, as the memoir makes clear, in having a brilliant and accomplished wife who devoted her life to providing a support system for his activities.

But everybody, no matter how rich, famous and strong-willed they are, has to face the reality of death and dying.  The fact of death is that few of us get to die all at once.  For most of us death is the culmination of mental and physical decline spread out over weeks, months or years.  Some people face death with serenity, some with fear and some, like William Buckley, resisting the inevitable to the end.  Very few enjoy the serene death of a Socrates.

Christopher Buckley’s memoir begins with him being called to the deathbed of his mother in 2007 and ends with him arranging the interment of his father in 2008.  It is not an easy process for anyone, not even if you have devoted full-time family servants to share the burden of caregiving, not even if you have the freedom to pop over to the family Swiss chalet for a week to unwind when the stress becomes too great.

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