Feb. 27, 2008—William F. Buckley Jr., the father of the modern American conservative movement in America, died at age 82 of a heart attack in the study at his Stamford, Conn., home, after months of enduring emphysema, diabetes and the loss of his wife Patricia.
I will leave to others to examine the multiple contributions over a half-century of this columnist, National Review editor, television debater, candidate, and friend even to people whose views he scorned. I don’t share the ideology of this indefatigable literary politician, but as someone vitally interested in history, I owe him more than the kind of cursory treatment of his life and legacy that I could summon at this point.
No, because this blog is, by its essentially essayistic form, personal, I prefer to focus on the aspect of his life with extra resonance for me these last few weeks: how a son copes with the passing of a father of strong, persistent faith.
Christopher Buckley attempted to make sense of his parents’ passing—and his own complicated relationship with them—in his 2009 memoir about their final year, Losing Mum and Pup. Few children have had parents as famous as Bill and Pat, but more than a few suffering bereavement will identify with Christopher’s tangled emotions on their legacy.
After their parents’ deaths, even children who loved them will often wonder how they came to be so different from them. For all their shared humor, love of sailing, and passion for the written words, the differences were especially bothersome for Bill and Christopher. Each said, wrote or did something frequently to peeve the other.
Religious faith proved a particular stumbling block for the Buckleys. Although I am more captivated by Christopher’s contrarian political principles and sharp satiric sense, I am more drawn to the Roman Catholic Church that claimed Bill’s lifelong devotion.
“People die, God endures,” Bill wrote. That belief, as fundamental to the Anglophile aristocrat as to my working-class Irish father, sadly eluded Christopher. Religious skepticism, particularly the brand favored by his friend, journalist Christopher Hitchens, was more the son’s style.
But it is moving to see him struggle not to disappoint his father by giving full vent to his feelings about atheism, a subject about which Bill had (surprise!) powerful opinions. “I believe that the duel between Christianity and atheism is the most important in the world,” Bill wrote in the 1951 polemic that made him the enfant terrible of conservatism, God and Man at Yale.
In the end, it is profoundly moving to see Christopher struggle not to disappoint his father by restraining his opinions—and to cope ruefully with the ache left by his own lack of belief:
"That night, going to sleep, I looked out the window and the thought invariably came, So, Pup, was it true, after all? Is there a heaven? Are you in it? For all my doubts, I hoped he was. If he was, then at least I stood some chance of being admitted on a technicality, with the host of Firing Line up there arguing my case. I doubt St. Peter was any match for him."
And, as I have been discovering firsthand the past few weeks: “Once they’re both gone, your parents’ house instantly turns into a museum.”