A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century
William F. Buckley Jr.
Edited by James Rosen
(Crown Forum, 324 pages, $26)
As most TAS readers know, the late Williams F. Buckley Jr. was eloquent in the written and spoken word. On the page he could beguile, inform, and amuse in every form, from the 800-word column to book-length nonfiction as well as spy novels. Comes now-author and Fox newsman James Rosen to present and give context to 52 examples of a genre at which Buckley excelled, the eulogy.
Reading these fine remembrances makes one regret that Buckley himself did not have a Buckley to send him off when he departed this world. Scholar Ernest van den Haag paid him this compliment: “Buckley has re-elevated the art of eulogy to the high standard from which it had long ago fallen. So much so that I am firmly resolved to leave this world before he does, for his eulogy is bound to be much better than mine.”
This touches on a distinct downside for the subjects of these fine treatments, that is one had to be dead to be the subject of one. Only one person had an opportunity to get around this disadvantage, and he turned it down. This would be the captivating writer and speaker, author, TV host, and long-time Buckley friend, Alistair Cooke. Learning that Cooke’s doctor had given the 95-year-old only two months to live, Buckley composed a short but heart-felt obituary of his friend and sent it to him. Cooke declined to read it. The obituary praised Cooke’s humor, his talent for friendship, his geniality, his vast knowledge, and his always entertaining conversation.
Most Americans remember Cooke as the host of Masterpiece Theatre. The erudite Brit, who became an American, also hosted the weekly Letter from America, on the BBC from 1946 to 2004, wherein he explained the colonies to Britain. One London journalist, Buckley tells us, “said that news of Cooke’s ending his broadcasts to England was on the order of news that the Queen had died.”
The liberal Cooke and the conservative Buckley became friends after Cooke had reviewed one of Buckley’s books favorably in the early seventies, and they remained friends and in frequent touch for the duration. “What a piece of luck,” Buckley said, “of lunching with Alistair Cooke for 30 years.”
In Torch, Buckley sees off both heroes and villains. Never flinching from deserved criticism of the dearly departed, but also finding the finer points in those one might not think Buckley would have anything uplifting to say about. To cite just one example, there’s Norman Mailer, a certified humbug who was married six times but only stabbed one of his wives. Buckley referred to him as “a towering writer” (clearly not referring to the diminutive Mailer’s height) who “created the most beautiful metaphors in the language.” Most charitable of the godfather of conservatism to say this of Mailer, an aged-in-the-barrel leftist and constant disturber of the peace.
In his long career as a public intellectual, magazine editor, TV host, debater, whooper-up of the conservative cause, Buckley came to know, and became friends with, many of the leading political, literary, and artistic lights of the last century. Final profiles of household names include political giants like Dwight Eisenhower, Winston Churchill, Barry Goldwater, and Richard Nixon. There are entries from the world of high art, the Vladimirs, Nabokov, and Horowitz, and from not-so-high art, Truman Capote, Jerry Garcia, and John Lennon. There are friends, some with recognizable names such as Whittaker Chambers and David Niven, others unlikely to be recognized.
Just a few samples:
On the sentimental Camelot nonsense that followed JFK’s death, Buckley correctly observed, “The rhetoric has gone quite out of control.” But while conscious of Kennedy’s shortcomings, he complimented “those qualities in national life that John Kennedy at his best exemplified: courage, dignity, fortitude, toughmindedness, independence.”
In another instance of misplaced deification, Buckley declared John Lennon was “greatly talented as a musician,” but “as a philosopher he is as interesting as Jelly Roll Morton, less so, as a matter of fact.”
In the case of another initial president, Buckley threw the flag on those who banged on about LBJ’s accomplishments: “What accomplishments? He sought a Great Society. He ushered in bitterness and resentment. He sought to educate all the population of America, and he bred a swaggering illiteracy, and a cultural bias in favor of a college education so adamant and so preposterous that if John Milton applied for a job at Chock Full o’ Nuts, they would demand first to see his college diploma.”
Buckley enjoyed unexpected friendships both with Mailer and with Truman Capote, of whom he said he had “an ear wonderfully acute for detail, irony, and speech.” While Buckley praised In Cold Blood, Capote’s “non-fiction novel,” he went on to say that Capote “did not have a powerful novelistic imagination, and in this at least, he resembled Norman Mailer, whose In Cold Blood was The Executioner’s Song, Mailer’s best book.”
The famously un-academic Winston Churchill is celebrated as “the man who flunked everything at school and then kept a generation of scholars busy interpreting his work and his words.”
Of the pretty-boy, liberal Republican mayor of New York, Buckley said: “John Lindsay died many years after history was done with him.”
Of the bon vivant and thoroughly amusing gent that was David Niven, Buckley said making people laugh was his mission: “He was a radiant host, attentive to every need and whim; indeed after a while my wife suspected that his magic was to induce a whim so that he could gratify it.”
Buckley could be forensically fierce in debate, as regular viewers of Firing Line can attest. But as these pages show, he could also be warm and charitable, able to show his zest for life even while writing about the end of life. Buckley received many fine eulogies himself when he died in 2008. I feel comfortable expressing my doubt that many of them were as fine as the selections Rosen presents here for our enjoyment.