Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir
By Christopher Buckley
(Twelve, 251 pages, $24.99)
Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement
By Richard Brookhiser
(Basic Books, 243 pages, $27.50)
As long as I’ve known of him, Christopher Buckley has struck me as an odd piece of work. In early 1981, shortly after I joined this magazine, Bob Tyrrell received a letter from him. Christopher was very upset. Much as he had liked The American Spectator, he would no longer be able to recommend it to friends or purchase gift subscriptions. Bob’s sin? He’d apparently made light of former Beatle John Lennon’s death (“historic expiration” were, I believe, the offending words).
Some time later I came across Buckley’s first (and most memorable) book, Steaming to Bamboola, about the post-college year he spent working on a tramp freighter. (Imagine if Somali pirates had tried to kidnap him!) It was during this adventure that he had had “FUCK YOU” tattooed onto his saluting hand. It wasn’t intended for Gore Vidal, and as such it greatly irritated Christopher’s father, who begged and begged him to have it removed. It would be years before he grudgingly did so.
In early 2001 he served as a master of ceremonies at the Media Research Center’s farewell to the Clinton era. He gave a command performance: suave, eloquent, and bitingly funny and even partisan. It was a rare occasion that Christopher ever displayed his conservative bona fides. Indeed, the open suspicion was that he’d made his literary career by mocking his own side—including someone he’d worked for, Vice President Bush—for liberal consumption. His coming out for Barack Obama last fall was simply a return to form. Now, with the highly publicized release of Losing Mum and Pup, his memoir of his famous and glamorous parents’ deaths and life, the controversy and mischief he has enjoyed engendering reach new heights.
Who knows why individuals act the way they do. By all accounts, Christopher Buckley is as wonderfully— regally—polite, kind, generous, and warm as those Buckleys I have met over the years, not just his father, Bill, but also his uncle Reid and aunts Priscilla and Trish. Yet he seems insecure enough in his princeliness to blurt out, about his parents, “They had—how to put it?—class.” But having class means never having to talk about it. Sadly, there is much in this memoir that isn’t classy at all.
For most of the book, Buckley plays up having been orphaned, a conceit planted in his mind by his “old pal” Leon Wieseltier. But an orphan is a child that loses its parents, not a 55-year-old adult. Late in the game Buckley suddenly concedes his “prattling” on this score has been “pathetic,” compared to the “sense of orphaning” that the young children who lost parents on 9/11 must feel. This is characteristic of Buckley’s having it both ways.
As he gets set to describe what reviewers are calling his parents’ “flaws,” “warts and all,” he lets on, “my sins are manifold and blushful,” though he hopes “callousness and arrogance” aren’t among them. (Not to worry, they are.) Or in recalling another of his countless contretemps with his father, he begins, “But being a devious little shit, I…” So that’s all the cover he needs? But the topper comes when he informs us that in bidding farewell to his comatose mother, he whispered to her, “I forgive you.” It reminded me of a recent CBS interview with Patti Davis in which she was asked if she had “forgiven” her mother, Nancy Reagan. It wasn’t clear for what, though one can imagine. Being raised by the mother who married her no-goodnik father must have been endlessly traumatic. But that can’t be Buckley’s excuse.
Having introduced his own mother to readers on her deathbed, at her most defenseless, he subsequently explains her monstrous side. She told whoppers. She embarrassed Buckley’s daughter and humiliated her best friend, a Kennedy (yes, of those Kennedys). He remembered a huge lie from when he was only six years old (“my introduction to a lifetime of mendacity”). She never finished college. She didn’t read books. A third of the time she wasn’t on speaking terms with her husband. Some of the time she and son weren’t speaking either. Once you know all that, Buckley for all intents will say, Never mind! Or in his words: “Thinking back on it now, I’m filled with a sort of perverse pride in her.” A good many purring anecdotes ensue.
Besides, he has a bigger fish to fry. That would be Pup. Why such lingering grievances? Religion and maybe sex, for starters. Pup simply could not accept that Christopher was agnostic (“his inner Savonarola was released at the merest hint of…impiety”) and non-practicing. When Christopher was in boarding school, in response to one of his pranks, Pup asked the headmaster to inquire whether Christopher was involved in “an amorous dalliance” with another boy. But a larger cause seems to have been nothing more than a precocious Boomer’s resentment of a father who supposedly hadn’t offered him enough time and affection during those critical formative years. Amid his account of his father’s difficult, illness-racked final year, he observes, “It is contra naturam (to use a WFB term) to say no to someone who has raised you, clothed you, fed you from day one—well, even if, in Pup’s case, these duties were elaborately subcontracted.” You’d think he was turned over to gypsies to be raised.
To his everlasting credit, Buckley did spend a great deal of the 10 months that separated his parents’ deaths caring for his father. And though he provides more grisly detail than decency requires— and not once expresses gratitude to his parents for anything, or asks their forgiveness for, say, bringing an out-of-wedlock child into the world (not that readers are told about the boy either, a strange omission in “an honest book,” as he has called it)—by mid-book he is calling off the dogs and displaying a filial affection toward his father that can only be described as genuine and moving. This allows him to grapple with the real source of his permanent frustrations: his father’s greatness, brilliance, and individuality, with which he never could quite compete, as if anyone else could. But as the only son of a giant, he might have been too close to the man to understand that, however much he also wanted to distance himself from him.
If the reader will carry one lasting good feeling from the book—and whatever else might be said about it, the writing is splendid—it is when Christopher recounts moments he now treasures, usually involving just him and his father together, at sea, in Mexico, over a meal. And he doesn’t even complain there were too few of them. But in the end, how could there not be?
ONE WILL NOTICE THAT in the New York Times Magazine’s splashy excerpt from Losing Mum and Pup, the words “National Review” do not appear. They hardly appear in the book itself. Clearly, as some of Christopher’s friends might put it, the flagship magazine of the conservative movement has never been where his head is at.
That can’t be said about Richard Brookhiser, a longtime National Review editor and writer once assumed to be heir apparent to William F. Buckley at the magazine. Then for some reason, by the early 1990s, although he continued to write for NR, he drifted away to become an independent (and respected ) author and contributor to mainstream publications.
One assumed the decision was his. But we learn it wasn’t. In a sense, Rick (he used to write for us a lot) is another Buckley son taking advantage of Bill’s death to settle a long-standing score with him. Yet despite everything, his heart was and remains forever National Review’s. How can that be? As he recounts in Right Time, Right Place, Rick was NR’s famous prodigy—prominently published by the magazine while still in high school and brought on full-time after his graduation from Yale.
When he was 23, Bill Buckley made him a secret offer he couldn’t refuse. He would be Bill’s successor as editor in chief; in the meantime, he’d become senior editor and eventually managing editor. Eight years later, Buckley withdrew the offer, coldly, in a letter left on Rick’s desk in an envelope marked “confidential,” while Buckley himself was out of the country. He praised Rick’s writing but said he lacked “executive flair.” Nothing in this memoir suggests Buckley’s assessment was unfair. The mistake was extending the offer to Rick in the first place, whether to keep him from going on to Yale Law School, where he’d been accepted, or to treat him as a surrogate for Christopher, who clearly was not disposed ever to succeed his father at the helm of National Review.
If any good came from this devastating blow it was Rick’s being reminded of the decency and goodness of his own father, who, in case he wanted to pursue them now, offered to pay for his law school studies. “[H]e was a better man than the idol I had put in his place,” Rick notes. Throughout the rest of his book, though friendly enough toward Buckley (Rick is never that outwardly friendly to begin with, as he’d be the first to admit, calling himself “consumed with snobbery” and a “know-it-all”), he persists in taking snipes at him, or at bringing him down a peg if he can, and taking great satisfaction when in later years Bill did ask him for editorial help only he could provide.
He provides memorable portraits of various NR writers, not all of them (D. Keith Mano) my cup of tea, or figures he properly appreciates (John Simon), though surely he is on target recalling the wondrous Joe Sobran:
He loved the great actors, and was an excellent mimic. He could begin some soliloquy—“Now is the winter of our discontent”—as Olivier; I would call out Gielgud, Burton, and he would change voices like gears.
Less defensible are the friendly words he has for figures who on Buckley’s death criticized or even savaged him in print. He is kind toward Bob Tyrrell and our magazine, though he does give a hint as to why he stopped writing for us in the mid-1990s: he found the jokey shots taken at the newly elected Clintons at our 25th anniversary dinner unbecoming and had absolutely no use for any of the subsequent political wars, finding the 1990s “high pitched and frantic.” He does spare a best friend, however, praising him as someone who made his mark in those years publishing “hard-hitting” books. What he doesn’t tell you is that they were anti-Clinton books. It could also be, regarding The American Spectator, that the National Review-firster in Rick didn’t like the higher profile we acquired at the time. I don’t take it personally. You should see how dismissive he is of the Weekly Standard—even though by book’s end his expression of support for the Iraq War could have been dictated by Bill Kristol.
Years ago, at a dinner honoring Buckley not long after he’d stepped down as NR editor, Rick offered a toast to Bill. Buckley liked it so much he asked for a copy. But Rick hadn’t spoken from prepared text, and never did follow up, in part because there still were “wounds…too fresh to be bandaged over.” He now reproduces those words at the close of his book, too late for Buckley to read them. Call it another Pyrrhic victory for a surviving son.
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