NEW YORK CITY — It is difficult to imagine a more appropriate processional hymn could have been chosen to echo through the resplendent sanctuary of St. Patrick’s Cathedral at William F. Buckley’s memorial mass last Friday than John Bunyan’s “He Who Would Valiantly Be.” The lines seemed tailor made for the National Review founder and conservative icon — There’s no discouragement shall make him relent/His first avowed intent to be a pilgrim…No foes shall stay his might/Though he with giants fight.
Much of what followed was touching as well: Buckley’s sister Priscilla and brother James offering biblical verses. The Reverend George W. Rutler ruminating during his witty and heartfelt homily that whether the devout WFB was “reading a book or writing one, opening a bottle of wine or sailing some sea, he was near Jerusalem,” before surmising in his upcoming “heavenly election” Buckley would almost certainly “not demand a recount.” Henry Kissinger’s voice cracking with emotion as he eulogized a “noble and valiant man” who possessed a “special serenity” that could sustain those around him in times of turmoil.
None of this, even in sum, was quite as powerful as Christopher Buckley’s turn at the dais. Soon the mourning son would share memories of his father’s bravery at sea (more vividly and thoroughly recalled in the wonderful essay “My Old Man And The Sea”), the items he chose to place in his father’s casket (mother’s ashes, a jar of peanut butter, the television remote), the ratio of his father’s collected stacked work to St. Patrick’s spires (550 versus 330 feet, respectively), and how his father might feel about his memorial service being used as a dress rehearsal for Pope Benedict’s upcoming visit (“I think it would have pleased him, though doubtless he would have preferred it the other way around”).
At the outset, however, Buckley the Younger simply took stock of the vast swath of humanity before him, stone saints observing the crowd as it hummed with the low rumbling white noise of living that cannot quite be quelled even by rapt attention or solemnity.
“We talked about this day, he and I,” Buckley began as he settled in to give the father he described as “the world’s coolest mentor” his due. “He said, ‘If I’m still famous try to get the cardinal to do the service at St. Patrick’s. If I’m not, just tuck me away in Stamford.” The humorist waited two beats then added, “Well, Pop, I guess you’re still famous.”
As one might suspect, the funeral of a famous man attracted other famous people. It was only after begging a spot in a mid-church pew that I realized I was sharing it with Charlie Rose, not far back from Chris Matthews. Tom Wolfe and Christopher Hitchens could be seen milling about, and much ado has been made in the press over (now conservative?) Sen. George McGovern’s attendance. Later outside, reporters would swarm Tom Selleck and snap pictures of Bill Kristol chatting with P.J. O’Rourke. New York 1 led with the headline: Rich, Famous Wish Multi-Talented William F. Buckley Farewell.
Yet these luminaries were but pinpricks in a tapestry of more than two thousand ordinary people, many of whom had traveled great distances to pay their respects and, often as not, proudly announce, with little prompting and a hint of the desire to testify, the year they first discovered National Review and how profound its impact was on them. (It was, invariably, profound.) Apropos of nothing, a man related to me on the church steps that Buckley’s writings on religion had turned the tide of his agnostic mind toward belief — and then took great pains to insist he was not at all alone in this experience.
And, of course, one could hardly walk through the crowd without tripping over one aspiring writer or another with an incredible story of Buckley’s personal generosity and encouragement. As National Review editor Rich Lowry would marvel a few hours later during his own eloquent reminiscences at a joint Manhattan Institute/National Review Institute symposium, Buckley would often seat a Secretary of State on one side of him at his storied dinner parties, an intern on the other, and be “equally interested” in both.
Thus, reporters who came to St. Patrick’s in order to split the crowd like fame-seeking missiles whizzed straight by the transcendent actuality of the gathering. If Buckley’s memorial service proved anything, it was that the man did not use his stature and fame to wall himself off into elite company. Instead, despite his own unyieldingly rigorous schedule, he deliberately chose to reach out and constantly invite others into his circle.
When later at the Manhattan Institute symposium George Will, taking a momentary break from his epic-if-not-quite-Buckley-centric thrashing of Woodrow Wilson, said, “We are all Buckleyites now” — Hear, hear! replied a smattering of voices — you could only wish it were more true.
IF ANY ASPECT OF BUCKLEY’S life was more remarked upon Friday than his vocabulary, it was, as Roger Kimball of The New Criterion put it at the symposium, that for Buckley “politics in any ordinary sense was…subservient to more humanizing concerns.”
“Bill touched and improved countless lives,” Kimball continued. “He created and nurtured a score of important institutions. He was part of that tonic that revitalized the appetite for ordered liberty and helped to defeat one of the most monstrous tyrannies in history. It speaks less to the irony than to the amplitude of Bill’s vision that he undertook these initiatives not to further a political agenda but to rescue us from one.”
It’s a timely lesson for many conservatives, who in electoral success have become ever more enthralled with the idea of “pragmatic politics” and all the moral leeway such an attitude allows, even as they’ve been giving away the philosophical farm piece by piece to win election by election. As the Claremont Review of Book’s Charles Kesler noted, while conservatism may have “had its innings at the end of the century,” the “structure of the government, size of the government, the function and ambitions of the government” have nevertheless all widened inexorably. A constant philosophical “renewal” will be required every generation to blunt the worst perennial collectivist dreams, Kesler said, never mind roll back what the already considerable infantilizing achievements of the American left.
The loss of a figure of such singular importance, whose categories, as Reverend Rutler had intoned earlier in his homily, were “not right and left, but right and wrong,” clearly brought the anxiety and Whittaker Chambers-esque gloominess over conservatism’s ultimate prospects to the surface. Buckley’s ability to strike the right balance — setting the foundation for political victories while maintaining, fostering, and holding tight to the philosophical underpinnings of libertarian conservatism — is an alchemy that has yet to be fully decoded, if it ever can be. We all know, however, some approximation of it will be necessary should we hope to meet the challenges ahead from an increasingly powerful progressive movement.
Toward the end of the session, former New York City Mayor Ed Koch — an idiosyncratic Democrat, to be sure, but a Democrat nonetheless — rose to tell the small group of conservative movers and shakers about how not long ago Buckley had sent him a note apologizing for not having been in better touch and a promise to host a dinner when he had recuperated a bit.
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H/T to National Review Online