Book Review: William F. Buckley’s ‘A Torch Kept Lit – Great Lives of the Twentieth Century’
Published: December 6th, 2016
James Rosen, chief Washington correspondent for Fox News, has compiled and edited 50 of the late William F. Buckley, Jr.’s obituaries of both prominent and virtually unknown Americans. (William F. Buckley, Jr., “A Torch Kept Lit – Great Lives of the Twentieth Century,” edited by James Rosen, 323 pages, $22, New York: Crown Forum.)
As a young journalist, long before rising to international prominence, Rosen met with Buckley – the syndicated columnist, founder of National Review, author of several dozen books, and in many respects the founder of modern American conservatism.
In the years after, Buckley was supportive of the rising journalist/star. After Buckley’s death, Rosen read all of his library of obituaries/tributes (several hundred). He then compiled this book as “an expression of gratitude” to Buckley for his massive body of work, which so deeply influenced him and hundreds of other reporters and commentators.
Those who were brought within Buckley’s blazing light of reason and passion were often conservatives (my first meeting with him was in the winter 1980-81 at his office in New York City), but by no means exclusively so.
This book is divided into sections covering presidents, family, friends and nemeses, not to mention arts and letters — generals, spies and statesmen. Each essay ends with the initials: WFB.
Buckley often, but not entirely, upheld traditions to avoid speaking ill of the dead. This allowed him to eloquently critique the Kennedy presidency while recalling the murdered chief executive had wanted us “to keep the torch lit” for human liberty around the world.
He became friends, within three years of JFK’s assassination, with the fallen president’s widow. After her death, he wrote of “Jackie” that “her life, for all its vicissitudes, was about as perfectly conducted as anyone with her beautify, skills and glamour could hope to manage.” He marveled at her “exemplary children” – and her labor “not as a dilettante but as a truly engaged editor.”
In his tribute to actor, artist and best-selling author David Niven, Jackie makes another appearance as Buckley recalls his gifts of humor leaving her and other dinner companions in stitches on a night when “what Jackie most needed … was to laugh.”
In a quote not encountered until after it had become true for myself, WFB once said, unforgettably: “I am a conservative in all things, save my choice of friends.”
This volume is ample proof of that comment.
WFB’s edgier side was illustrated a few weeks after the death of Eleanor Roosevelt. He considered her the “perfect symbol” for the age of “undifferentiated goodness, of permissive egalitarianism.” Long before Bill and Hillary Clinton, he noted a First Lady’s firm departure from her husband’s policy views on a consequential issue. He recounted Eleanor’s rebuke of part of FDR’s legacy, when she sought clemency for sixteen U.S. Communist leaders who had violated national security legislation President Roosevelt had signed.
Buckley soars in brief remembrances of the famous women and men of his day, including Johnny Carson, Alistair Cooke, Milton Friedman, Russell Kirk and John Lennon.
He was not a fan of the latter until late in the song writer’s life. WFB wrote compassionately of the “derivative” grief he felt in the deep sadness of his son Christopher and among the throngs gathered in Central Park after Lennon’s assassination.
The shortest section of the book concerns family members, and is perhaps the most poignant. It includes his tributes to his mother, father, a cousin, and his beloved wife, Patricia. Of the latter, he described their first brief encounter before a blind date arranged by his sister, Trish. That was prelude to his visit to Vancouver — during his stint in the oil business in neighboring Calgary. He said in that visit “the tempo of our congeniality heightened, and on the third day I asked if she would marry me.” Pat consulted with one soul – her mother. He could not monitor their chat, but heard their “loud peals of laughter.” The lady made a point of recalling Pat’s eight previous betrothals. This one was real, in a marriage that lasted 57 years, until her death in 2007.
WFB’s long tribute to Whittaker Chambers — the former communist whose autobiography “Witness” influenced generations of conservatives, including this writer — is alone worth the price of book.
Even for those he held in minimal esteem, Buckley usually noted a redeeming feature or two or more in his obituaries. He observed that New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller – whose speech assailing Barry Goldwater undermined the Arizona conservative within the Republican party – eventually recognized “there were limits” to welfare state adventures.
He credited “Rocky” for a toast the liberal offered to Ronald Reagan: “I feel the urge to confess, that I tried a different approach to state welfare than Governor Reagan. And his has proved more successful than mine.”
Of his friend Goldwater, WFB observed that after decades of hate from many journalists, some concluded the Arizona legend was as “dangerous as your local postman, no meaner than a summer shower.” For at least some people of the Left, Buckley surmised, Goldwater the Individualist, if not Goldwater the Conservative, ultimately pricked the conscience.
Buckley captured Reagan’s leadership of conservatism as putting a stamp on entire era — “in part because he was scornful of the claims of omnipotent government, in part because he felt, and expressed, the buoyancy of the American Republic.” With endearing honesty, he describes experiencing the distance that Reagan put between himself and every person, save one.
WFB assessed Reagan’s most notable achievement: “He succeeded in getting Nancy Reagan to marry him.”
And Reagan, when presenting the Presidential Medal of Freedom to WFB, called him “perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era.”
At least often, if not consistently, those with sharply different views acknowledged Buckley’s merits. Among the most effusive was Kurt Vonnegut. Rosen recounts when the science fiction writer observed WFB’s writings were examples of “unbridled happiness” as well as “shrewd comedies and celebrations of the English language.”
Vonnegut did not stop there:
“[Buckley] is a superb sailor and skier as well – and multilingual, and a musician, and an airplane pilot, and a family man, and polite and amusing to strangers. More: He is, like the Yale-educated hero of his novel ‘Saving the Queen,’ startlingly good-looking. … So whenever I see Mr. Buckley, I think this, and without an atom of irony: ‘There is a man who has won the decathlon of human existence.’”
Bill Buckley died in February 2008, a few months after his beloved Pat’s death.
This important book will remind some, and inform others, of the ways Buckley’s great soul and intellect illuminated American history, while warming the hearts of his friends.