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Jewish World Review
April 28, 2009 / 4 Iyar 5769
Under Buckley's Giant Shadow
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. "(W)hen the universe hands you material like
this," Buckley explains of his decision 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
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 own
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. The story of
how their relationship unfolded over time is told, as in Chris Buckley's
memoir, straightforwardly and honestly. It was easier to be WFB's
protege than his son but there were also 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 (a part of which I witnessed firsthand). 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
also 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."
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