Christopher Buckley Tells All... And He Ought To Be Ashamed

In the interests of full disclosure let me say that I rubbed elbows ever so slightly with Buckley fils in the early ‘80s through my association with his father and National Review. I did not like him. He introduced me to Tom Wolfe and Marshall McLuhan’s daughter one evening. So much for name-dropping. I was cordial toward him out of respect and affection for WFBJr. — and concern for my status on NR’s masthead. I am confident that I have long since vanished from his soft drive.

My contempt for his perspective was established by “Vietnam Guilt” (Esquire, Sep. 1983). He wrote about his successful draft dodging and the exultation he felt upon being classified as 4-F, a mischievous effort that was probably superfluous since he turned 18 only shortly before President Nixon ended conscription. He framed the article around a visit to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. There he saw a Marine Master Gunnery Sergeant in his dress blues, bemedaled with combat decorations. He stood at attention, weeping silently. The author, suddenly ashamed, scurried away like a rat caught in a flashlight beam. After reading the article I wrote to him: “It’s bad enough having to listen to our fellow Vietnam veterans whine about their traumas and their twisted psyches, but now the draft dodgers want a piece of that action, too.”

An excerpt from Christopher Buckley’s new book, the cloyingly titled Losing Mum and Pup, appeared in the Sunday NYT Magazine on April 26th. He is a successful novelist and many consider him to be a talented satirist. In all that he has written I hear the voice of a spoiled, elitist twit, which at least appears to be authentic. For a time he did an eminently forgettable back-of-the-book column for his father’s beloved journal. With his parents safely in their urns he publicly endorsed Barack Obama for President (speaking of elitist twits). His proffered resignation from NR was accepted with what he felt was unseemly haste. I always had the impression that his appearance in those otherwise salutary pages was an indulgence by the nouveau regime motivated by their loyalty to his father. His latest effort is a self-congratulatory essay that recounts his devotion to his distinguished parents despite their many and grievous imperfections.

Mum, the elegant and imposing Patricia Austin Taylor Buckley, appears to have been a borderline alcoholic, although her son refrains from using the word. She was also a pathological liar whose tall tales sometimes had a cruel edge that was directed at the listener.

Pup meanwhile failed to return home from South Africa promptly enough to suit him when Christopher, age 9, was hospitalized. He left his son’s college graduation ceremony early to take some people to lunch. (My parents left mine early when a ferocious thunderstorm caused a power outage in the field house, so I feel his pain.) This piece is only an excerpt, so I do not know if Christopher feels that Pup righted that particular wrong when, already gravely ill with emphysema, he trekked from Stamford to Washington, D.C., to see his granddaughter graduate from high school. I know about this because Bill’s sacrifice was considerable; he missed a lunch with me. He also monopolized the remote control and channel-surfed compulsively, the beast. He failed to rein in Christopher’s Mum.

Give me a break. The malfeasances of some of my recent forebears would make grown men weep and give stalwart women the vapors, but you won’t be reading about them here. Of course, I bear neither the burden of an Ivy League background nor the psychic scars that inevitably result when a boy is raised by a superbly educated father. I probably exceeded my own father’s highest expectations for me — not to mention his level of academic achievement — when I graduated from East Orange High. I therefore have no context within which to judge Christopher Buckley’s smug put-down. It occurs to me, though, that his grandparents raised 10 remarkable children, two of whom died tragically young. I wonder about the volumes of unwritten resentments the surviving children might have produced, but did not. Here of course we deal with a generational divide. Just ask Queen Elizabeth II about the stings of ungrateful children whose first duty is clearly to themselves.

I also wonder at the perverse drive that compelled him to lay bare his parents’ tics. I am far from unique in claiming his father as a friend and mentor whose lessons in generosity, kindness, tolerance, temperance, civility, loyalty and, of course, political philosophy have helped carry me a long way and will continue to do so. Our personal contacts were sporadic and not numerous, but our correspondence lasted from 1975 until Christmas Eve 2007, just 65 days before his death. Can the spirit of such a man be accurately captured by the words of an ingrate? Is it jealousy? Does Christopher feel that his Pup spread himself too thin and deprived him of more of Bill’s personal attention? I doubt it because I know with certainty that Bill adored him. But WFBJr. was known to millions, respected by most of them, loved by many, and was a great guy. Christopher is none of those things. Is that it? Perhaps Mr. Buckley’s scorn can be accounted for by William Hazlitt, who is credited with saying that, “Though familiarity may not breed contempt, it takes off the edge of admiration.”

I know more about Mr. Buckley’s personal life than I care to. If any of his children turn out to be mean-spirited enough to exploit his character for their own self-aggrandizement or as an exercise in soothing their ids, he will be fair game, and an easy target.

Bill seems to have been at times self-absorbed, even oblivious. Pat probably tippled and was not always anchored in objective reality. Yet their son was at the end overwhelmed by Christian charity. Just before she was disconnected from life support he took his Mum’s hand in his and said, “I forgive you.” She and Bill bear some of the responsibility for the person Christopher Buckley became so, just this once, he and I are two minds with but a single thought: I forgive them.