His wife was dead, and his own health was failing. In the summer of 2007, William F. Buckley Jr. was in his Stamford, Conn., house, watching television with his son, Christopher, who was due to take a long-planned trip. Apprehensively, the father asked, "When are you leaving for California?"
"I'm not, Pup," Christopher said. "I'm going to stay here with you."
As Christopher tells it in his fascinating new memoir, "Losing Mum and Pup," his father began to cry. "I went over and patted him on the back," Christopher writes. "He recovered his composure and said somewhat matter-of-factly, 'Well, I'd do the same for you'."
The son said nothing. "I smiled and thought, oh no, you wouldn't." When he was 11, Christopher spent three weeks in the hospital and his father remained abroad, in South Africa. On his graduation day from Yale, the son found himself alone after the ceremony: his father, impatient, had gathered the family in the audience and gone off to lunch. After dining alone at the Yankee Doodle Diner, Christopher, "grinding my back molars," confronted the senior Buckley. The father's response? " 'I just assumed you had other plans.' Pup—on my graduation day?" Once, not long ago, when Christopher sent his father one of his comic novels of politics and Washington—it was "Boomsday," one of his best—the paternal reaction came in a P.S. to an e-mail: "This one didn't work for me. Sorry."
Let us be very clear: Christopher Buckley has not written a "Mommie Dearest" for the Evelyn Waugh set. "Losing Mum and Pup" is a subtle, fond and, above all, honest chronicle of his celebrated parents. A word of disclosure: Christopher is a friend of mine, and I am a longtime admirer of his work, so if you are looking for an unbiased appraisal of his new book, you will have to look elsewhere. I am offering these thoughts because I think this is an important work, at once unsparing and gracious—and that is no small achievement.
The anecdotes are rich and numerous. Early one Sunday morning during the Nixon years—too early, in Patricia Taylor Buckley's view—the White House rang for her husband. "The president is calling for Mr. Buckley," the voice announced. "Mum fired back in her most formidable voice—and trust me when I say formidable: a cross between Noel Coward and a snapping turtle—'The president of what?' to which the White House operator calmly replied, 'Our country, ma'am'."
It was that kind of a household, and that kind of a growing up: a towering mother, a certified Great Man for a father and a life, like so many lives, of affection and neglect, love and selfishness. The book particularly resonates with me, I am sure, because of the death of my own father last autumn. My relationship with him was complicated—little surprise there; the news would be if it had not been—and I alternately loved and feared him.
Fear was not an issue in the Buckley case; the tension, it seems, was rooted more in the theatric. There were already two stars on the stage of the Buckley family. Pat and Bill appear to have consumed so much oxygen that their son—a wonderful writer and a good man—was sometimes left gasping for air.
What stars they were. Bill Buckley was the father of the modern conservative movement in America, the founder of National Review and a tireless sailor, debater, lecturer and author—of columns, articles and books covering subjects ranging from ocean voyages to the nature of virtue. Pat Buckley was a pillar of New York society, always described as "chic and stunning." Their maisonette on the East Side of Manhattan and their country house in Stamford were centers of intellectual and social gravity for decades. They were public people, and both adored their publics.
There is no self-pity in their son's book, however, and Buckley has pulled off what eludes many writers: he has written candidly but not unkindly about people whose vices and virtues he sees clearly. A line of Bill Buckley's about Henry Kissinger is useful here. How, Buckley used to wonder, could Kissinger be an enemy to both the left and to the right? It is a good but uncharacteristically weak observation of Buckley's: as he well knew, the most interesting and most consequential of men tend to elude easy categorization, inspiring strong feelings in all quarters. Parents, not just statesmen, are like that, too. They can be infinitely various, alternately the best and worst of people.