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The Conservative Movement Elects Its U.S. Senator
The day Jim Buckley won his seat as junior senator for New York, my family became camp.
The next day November 7, 1970 the New York Times called my brother Bill and asked him to write a piece entitled "The Buckley Mystique," which made him acutely uncomfortable. He tracked me down to the Midwestern college where I was lecturing, proposing that I discharge the commission. As I recall, it was eleven o'clock in the morning. The piece had to be completed within the hour and telexed to the National Review offices, whence it would be relayed to 229 West 43rd Street.
The assigned topic made my flesh crawl also. We were not Roosevelts. We were not Kennedys. There was no "mystique" about us at all. We were an ordinary, though large and rambunctious, American family. We had extraordinary parents, principled as no Kennedy going back to old Joe (and from him back to old Nick) ever was, inclining us to a radical dissent when it came to popular culture and to political opinions that were at the time unpopular and that are now once again in eclipse. I'd never have used mystique in connection with my family. Difficult, yes. Talented, yes. Pugnacious, yes. Argumentative, yes. Principled, yes. We were brought up to be fastidious about the English tongue. The term charisma was loosely flung about in those days, particularly in connection with John F. Kennedy, but if that rogue was filled with the grace of God, I'll eat my broccoli. The Times's use of mystique descended from a hero-worshiping inflation of language that we Buckleys as a tribe detested and that was to me and my brethren disgusting. As br'er Bill pointed out, however, the Times was willing to pay one thousand bucks.
The prospect of earning such a fat sum from the cathedral of Northeastern liberalism was too tempting to resist. I secured a classroom where I could seclude myself, placed my battered Smith-Corona on the desk, and batted out the eight hundred words. What I did was to deny that there was any "mystique" about us. The whole point of our politics was what our parents drilled into their children: that "God, family, and country," in that order, demanded our unswerving loyalty, that we as individuals we Americans had to have "character," that we individually had to develop integrity, and that the people of a republic (and a proud country like the United States) had to be self-reliant. We were not serfs, beholden to crown or state.
Our upbringing was peculiar. Though Father was a man of almost painful personal shyness, respecting his children, he abandoned modesty for a pride that could be ludicrous. Privately he fretted over our moral and intellectual failings. At dinner parties, on the other hand, he was complacent that his poor guests were hugely entertained by hearing us howl through Mexican ballads or by listening to me, age seven, Charge Through the Light Brigade. We like to died.
At the age of eight, I finally put a stop to calls for my recitation by whipping out a toy but lethal-looking metal sword and, with wild histrionic thrusts, brandishing it at Cossack to-the-right-of-me and Cossack to-the-left-of-me, nearly slicing the choker chain off one venerable lady and all but decapitating her husband.
I was the rebellious child, among nine others of similar deplorable nonconformity. Checked, but never daunted, Father persisted in embarrassing us right down to the toenails, even when we were adolescents, grasping our upper arms in his freckled rancher's grip and propelling us into the breast or bosom of startled visitors, proclaiming our most recent accomplishments, say a B in math. He would beam on us those round, pale blue eyes, magnified by his pince-nez into exophthalmic infractions of a delight perfect in its assumption that we were wonderful.
Yes, we revered our Texan sire; and reciprocated his with our love; and were painfully conscious that our accomplishments did not approximate our father's boundless fantasies. We have all been moderately possessed by the compulsion to make good on his (and Mother's) enormous (and undeserved) pride. This has stung us into working harder than some people, if not as hard as a good many others. And it has caused us to shrink with the same childhood embarrassment from the limelight, something frequently observed about my brother Jim during his political campaigns, less often about Bill, except by those who know him well. Sister Priscilla, who became the formative managing editor of National Review (arguably the most influential political journal in the second half of the twentieth century), once flew all the way to France in order to escape an (otherwise unavoidable) speaking engagement. Aloise Allie could not bring herself to stand up and ask a question at a public meeting. Patricia, managing editor of Triumph, an ideologically embattled Catholic magazine, had to disguise herself in a red beret before summoning the courage to demonstrate against the abortion laws.
I doubt any of us enjoys public attention, which is why so many of us have hidden behind the metal arras of the typewriter. Professionally, Bill has been soaked in klieg light since he wrote God and Man at Yale back in 1952, when he was just 27. There survived in him, nevertheless, the self-deprecatory spirit that, often by sleight of wit, objectified the public personality he doesn't allow himself to be confused with those who sell themselves into believing in their own myths. The status of celebrity, as distinguished from the obligations thereof, Bill treated always as frolic, hoping you wouldn't be so undiscriminating as to take it too solemnly, either. And so with Jim, different as he is: temperamental humility that made campaigning an agony, until the cause began to carry him.
As a tribe, we find it difficult to blow our own trumpet, to pose as charismatic leaders, to feel the self-assurance that permits others to believe in their indispensability to the world at large. We are, therefore, happier as advocates of someone else (a sibling will do); of, by preference, an intellectual or moral idea.
The strength of personality of Father and Mother and their rigorous systems of belief nourished in us, their children, a similarity of perceptions that has characterized us our whole lives long. Our bonding as a family of individuals has expressed itself in the social, spiritual, and intellectual dimensions in astonishing degree. Though we differ widely among ourselves, and almost always, when coming together, argue fiercely, it's often as though the ten of us were extruded from the same toothpaste tube.
And that's so. I don't know how to reduce this in abstract fashion, and I can only hope that what I venture to hypothesize is not nonsense; but the strong unity of consciousness that we siblings have always exhibited is directly received from our parents. Take things mechanical. Mother famously spent half an hour in the kitchen attempting to open a can of tamales with a pencil sharpener. Father understood intellectually what consequence a hammer had on a nail, but he was deprived of motor intelligence. If ever he had tried to bang a nail into a wall, it would have entered at an inauspicious angle, he would have smashed his thumb, or the wall would have collapsed. Bill is fatally fascinated by mechanical wonders, possibly because, though their dialectic is at least in design autotelically dispositive, conceptually evoking a theorem in Euclid or the perfection of a Bach fugue, in practice they defy him. Reading his books on sailing the high seas, one concludes that Bill is cursed either by a native ineptitude or by an inherited ill fate. His sonar and other expensive systems of navigation are forever breaking down. This puts him out of sorts, as I have suggested, because mechanics demonstrably are based on the elementary logic of cause and effect, and it is unjust that he, a master of such relationships in statecraft and prose if one says A, one must say B; if the adverb accomplishes no purpose, strike it; if a wing nut is attached to a bolt here, there is a discernible explanation for the connection there is more often the victim of disorder than the agent of effect. Once sailing into Stratford-on-Avon (Connecticut), as we were setting forth for a bit of the bard and supper in town, he switched the bilge pumps on, and when we got back, only the tippety-top of the mainmast was visible, its burgee bravely fluttering. The pumps had reversed, flooding the hold, and the boat had sunk at its mooring. That was spectacular.
Jim, I am told by his wife, Ann, used to assume a bemused expression when she handed him a screwdriver, directing him to a cupboard door that was hanging from its hinges, at which he would stare and then retire to his study for some reading. Our sister Aloise was fascinated by gadgets and novelties, but they almost never performed for her as advertised; the funky birthday candle that could not be blown out set the tablecloth on fire. Priscilla uses word processors and such with aplomb but is wisely content to inquire nothing about the zillion little gremlins inside who do her bidding at the touch of a key. Our sister Maureen was given the fouled-up subscription department of the fledgling National Review magazine to put in order. Subscriptions conceptually are a simple mechanism, but not at National Review. To one frustrated gentleman who, alternately, received either no copy of the magazine or two copies, and for whom there was nothing that could be done, no matter how often he complained, she wrote, "Dear Sir: Having reviewed the record, my advice to you is that you cancel your subscription and then resubscribe under an assumed name." As for me, there is nothing mechanical with which I am not at odds. The history of my tractors, my bush hogs, my balers, my disk harrows, my irrigation systems, my ice makers, my laptops, my ink-jet printers (which jet ink profusely but do not print), has been of one calamity after another. 1964: As I reached to open the front door of my shiny-new Spanish SEAT 1400 station wagon, the handle came off in my hand. 1986: As I eased my brand-new Jeep Cherokee from first gear to second, the stick shift came off in my hand. (There is little so stupefying, or such an instant's reduction to impotence, as to be holding a detached gearshift lever in the air. When I asked the laconic chief mechanic at the American Motors agency had that happened often, he replied, "Not hardly.") 2007: The Check Engine Oil dashboard warning on my four-month-old Ford Explorer flashed on when I had just recently changed the oil, and there was no coming to an understanding with it. Only our brother John had a don for the workings of complicated instruments, such as state-of-the-art cameras and high-powered rifles and scopes, but he never could get the heaters of the Jaguars he persisted in buying to function, so that he drove through Connecticut winters cocooned in wool overcoats, his neck wrapped in a wool scarf, lips blue.
There is a metaphor here. Our incompatibility with the twentieth and twenty-first centuries is expressed in our failure to come to terms with ordinary expectations. This has placed us at odds lifelong with contemporary American culture and political expression. It has inclined many of us to tilt at windmills, which creak. There is no excuse for a national Mother's Day, an invention by shopkeepers inspired by avarice and playing to the most awful sentimentality in the human soul, as though written by Hallmark, produced by Disney, and pronounced by Eleanor Roosevelt, but we are stuck with it. Sentimentality is a moral evil.
We were taught that early. In our society, sentimental worship of power and glitz is a plague. Just try stomaching another Oscars celebration on television. And why, for example, has George Washington's birthday vanished from our national calendar, to be replaced by Presidents' Day? Who is responsible for this abomination? (I suspect Lyndon Baines Johnson, who exposed his gall-bladder scar to the public.) It's like fascist architecture. It belongs to 1984. This is rank royalism. I have scant personal regard for the majority of our presidents. Most of them were either forgettable mediocrities or sorry mistakes. George Washington was the father of our country. By honoring his birthday, we were paying tribute to a great man, not to the office. We sons and daughters of the Revolution do not do homage to the office; we are not a subject people. How sneakily has that distinction been erased, and with it critical discrimination in the public. The vulgarity of the conforming egalitarianism is revolting to us. This was, I think, material to our father's contempt for Roosevelt and the New Deal, in which (as in its successor, the Great Society) vulgarity of perception, of aspirations, and of ideals are rampant. We inherited his fastidiousness.
All of which makes us Buckleys prickly. Our parents possessed quick, sharp, analytical minds, moral balance, and an indissoluble integrity: their intellect and their emotions were symbiotic as well as congenial and produced an uncanny similarity of mind and feeling in their offspring. One dreary early February in 1972, I was booked into Scottsdale, Arizona, for an address before a meeting of that state's GOP. The prospect made me morose, first because I am not comfortable in political company, where the meanest human venalities are on display, from obsequiousness to naked ambition, and second because Richard Nixon had in my opinion betrayed conservative tenets wholesale flamboyantly during the high summer of that year, when he slapped wage and price controls on the country. Little could have been economically more ignorant, and as far as pandering to his left-wing critics, more abject. In a press conference that fall, he had similarly made hash of the intellectual justification for our gruesome war in Vietnam, reducing it to the most trivial dimensions. Asked at a press conference why we were fighting in that godforsaken land, he answered that it was to afford the South Vietnamese the right of self-determination. Was that it, Mr. President? Yes; we have no other ambition, territorial or otherwise. "Do you mean, sir," pressed one dumbfounded reporter, "that once North Vietnamese aggression has been contained and the people of South Vietnam are secure in their freedom, should they nevertheless vote 51 percent to 49 percent to elect a communist regime, this would be okay by you? You'd be satisfied...our sacrifice in blood and treasure would be justified?" Nixon answered yes.
The frivolousness of that reply was so appalling that, reading of it in the Spanish newspapers, I was stupefied. I thought he had been misquoted or that the translation had been bungled. (Not, alas.) And now, as I prepared for the evening, our president was in Beijing courting the favor of Mao Tse-tung, the most monstrous of all twentieth-century tyrants, who publicly boasted of slaughtering millions of his countrymen. My disgust was the more keen because I was performing in the hometown of Barry Goldwater, to whom such betrayals of conscience as these would have been unthinkable. I had cochaired the Goldwater effort in Europe. A few months after his defeat (we won in my territory, by the way), I had gotten to know the senator well. He visited me several days at the four-hundred-year-old mill I rented in the enchanting valley of the Tajuña, outside Alcalá de Henares, recovering from the brutality of the campaign, which had wounded him to the quick. All through the overlong preliminaries of the GOP banquet, I brooded. Had Barry Goldwater suffered slurs, slanders, and defamations of a viciousness not equaled since the Quincy Adams-Andrew Jackson brouhaha, to prepare the way for Richard Nixon? When I was at last called to the lectern, I tossed away my prepared remarks, instead delivering a eulogy to the integrity of the senator from Arizona coupled with a diatribe against the skunk in the White House. For thirty minutes, I tore into Richard Milhous Nixon. It was a bitter, savage, and merciless rant...and it was received with shocked disfavor by the local Republican nabobs. (Never again was I to be invited to address the faithful.)
Getting back late that evening to my hotel room on the outskirts of Phoenix bitterly aware that I had expelled myself from lucrative bookings I flicked on the late night's news...to behold the image of my brother Jim, junior senator of New York, announcing his break with the president on matters of conservative principle. God bless Jim! The next morning, I read Bill's column, posted from Beijing, in which he roasted Nixon for his ignominious opening to Red China. God bless Bill also.
Of note here is this: there had been no prior consultation among us. We three brothers had not been in personal contact for weeks, and in my case months, past. We were not telephone chatterers; we shrank from airing our private thoughts even to one another, the paternal taciturnity we had inherited cringing from emotional excess. On occasion, we wrote one another letters, which placed a decent distance between our interior lives and the sibling to whom we might be confiding something intimate. I lived in Spain, furthermore. I had been on lecture tour since early January. To my knowledge, I had never mentioned to Bill or Jim my growing disenchantment with Nixon. I don't know whether they had voiced similar discontent to each other they were brought professionally close in those days. But dismay at the man in the White House who was masquerading as a conservative gestated in us at roughly the same time, and though we were thousands of miles apart Reid, the least of the brothers, in Arizona; Jim, maverick Republican senator, in Washington, D.C.; and Bill, the founder of the conservative renaissance, in faraway China we went public at roughly the same time.
This took place, I should add, months before the scandal of Watergate hit the airwaves. Our disaffection with the president was philosophical, and we were unable to live with it. Our actions emphasize the seriousness in which we hold the moral and intellectual underpinnings of the conservative case, which are to us more precious than reasons of state, than politics, than political opportunism. Despised by the liberal left for mostly the wrong reasons, Richard Nixon was (as far as we Buckleys were concerned) indeed despicable. Why? Because he was not sérieux. He had revealed himself as shallow in his convictions, whatever they were other than desire for power. The happy consequence of this episode was that I telephoned Tasa Leguina in Madrid and persuaded her to fly to Los Angeles the next day, so that we could elope and be married. Richard Nixon is responsible for thirty-seven years of bliss.
We were uncannily close yet very different. It had required the flush of triumph and the euphoria of election night two years earlier than the episode I have just related for Jim to pronounce that "there is a new conservative politics, and I am the voice of that politics." (Bill quipped: "Who in hell does Jim think he is? La politique nouvelle, c'est goddam well moi!") I am confident that Jim was flushing with mortal embarrassment the next morning, even though the proposition may have been, at that time, in a way, true.
My elder brothers stood out. When Bill had run for mayor of New York five years earlier (1965), the freshness of his views tossed conventional thinking into a twit. One morning at the 60 Sutton Place South apartment on 54th Street that Jim, Priscilla, and our mother shared, Jim and I were having coffee for breakfast. He was reading the news section of the New York Times; I was buried in the sports pages. He said to me, "See this?" He had the Times opened to a full-page photo of Bill (it was an ad for a charitable function of some kind). Shaking his head, half smiling in disbelief, Jim said, "I'm afraid we have to get used to this, Reid. Our brother is a celebrity." As in a few short years he himself was to become.
Jim's instant rapport with the people he met during the 1970 senatorial campaign was quite wonderful. Here was a second paladin of conservative thought, a brother of William, and in his stammering, wholly unpretentious manner, as hard to stereotype. His simplicity has been evident always. Compared with Bill, Jim can seem stodgy. (This first impression is wildly wrong: Jim, like our sire, is an adventurer to the quick.) Bill having sliced a path through the left-wing hegemony with his wit, Jim didn't need to conceal the sweetness of nature that is his special gift. (From our mother.) There's charm when he evokes even the "eternal verities," and in just those words, without a stylistic shudder plainly because he believes so wholeheartedly in them.
Bill and Jim are as different as brothers can be in their expression of a shared philosophical context, and in whom that essential is evident. If there is a "Buckley mystique," it is embedded in the abiding recognition of our moral and intellectual deficiencies measured against the goal of perfection that our parents held out to us. We learned from them to prefer the good man to the brilliant man. It is a sacred humanity in people that we respect. Our compassion is engaged in the equality of the human condition. People are surprised to discover that we, princelings of Dame Fortune (as we have been judged to be), tread the same hard interior landscape.
And it may be this that comes through, that attracted public attention, that prompted the New York Times to commission such an embarrassing op-ed...because we do not presume, "Come, let us lead you," instead petition, "Come, our philosophy is your true way, the human way, and it is you who will and must lead yourselves." We have never been, God help us, messianic, though reflecting upon these past sixty years, I have now come to wonder whether our role has not been that of Cassandra. We remind people that self-reliance in all spiritual and intellectual dimensions is everyone's sweet burden, the dread price of our dignity as human beings who are endowed with a free will. And we are forever letting people know that we believe in their God-given capacity for shouldering that burden. We therefore reflect the higher estimation for the self that every man may aspire to: his fulfillment as a moral being.
I wrote way back then for the Times, "And this is an ennobling philosophy, to which everyone can be attracted: that we are all aristocrats in the private domains of the soul." The ebullience of this statement is historically tracked in the following chapters. Copyright © 2008 by Reid Buckley
In one of the many delicious footnotes that he includes here, my uncle Reid notes that he has already had his tombstone carved and that it says, "Shut Up At Last." After reading this book, with which, he notes toward the end, "I have finished my oeuvre," I'm grateful that he wasn't silenced before he was able to finish it. While I can't predict whether the general reader will be as mesmerized as I was by Reid's account of our Buckley family, I can truthfully and flatly aver that it strikes me as some kind of masterpiece of the genre.
What genre exactly is harder to say, and this brings me back to the wonderful footnotes. Inevitably, after he has told some riveting story, generally about his father, my grandfather, William F. Buckley Sr. (note the "Sr."), there will be a footnote stating, "My sister Priscilla adamantly rejects this version of Father talking Pancho Villa out of shooting the train conductor." If I found these clarifications, such as they are, deflating at first, I soon began to look forward to the next one.
Reid does nothing conventionally which is why he is so beloved of his nine siblings (five of whom survive) and forty-five nieces and nephews. So why would any of us expect that he would produce a conventional family history? It was said of Edward Gibbon that he lived out his sex life in his footnotes. Mutatis mutandis as William F. Buckley Jr. might put it there is something of that in Reid's luxuriant footnotes.
Take this one, for instance, about the great elm tree in Sharon, Connecticut, which lent its name to the house my grandfather raised his family in:
It fell to the Dutch elm disease in the late 1950s; the four sugar maples planted in the gaping hole it left are now half a century old, and large, and serve in my eyes only to remind me of the grandeur of the old elm, one of whose gigantic branches, sprouting off the main trunk about twelve feet from the roots, three feet or more broad and almost horizontal until it swept upward, I could lie upon in perfect security on my back, as though on a garden bench gazing up at the sky through the elm's corona of bright green leaves, its canopy falling all about me and hiding me from view. It required seven adults holding hands to circle its base. In my mind, as a young man, I associated the Great Elm with my father and when it was stricken, I remember looking anxiously at him, whose absence would leave a corresponding hole in my existence; who was felled by the first stroke at just about the same time that Great Elm was diagnosed with the disease.
This book is substantially about the world that man, my grandfather, created for his children and other descendants. However qualifying some of the footnotes are, he was by any measure remarkable, and though I knew a great deal about him before picking up Reid's book, I didn't know the half of it.
He was born poor in Texas in 1881, the same year as the shootout at the OK Corral and Garfield's assassination, and died a wealthy man in New York City in 1958. His grandfather had been an Irish Protestant who married a Catholic girl from Limerick and, as a consequence, had to leave the country. A good thing, too, as he and my great-great-grandmother beat the Irish potato famine by just a few years. They debarked in Quebec and moved to Ontario, where their son, a future Texas sheriff, was born. The reason I am American this I learned from Reid is that he had asthma, which forced the family to get into a Conestoga wagon and trek south in search of drier climes. They ended up in the very dry clime of San Diego, Texas, a hardscrabble place northeast of Corpus Christi. Now I know why asthma has been such a part of my life. This may not be riveting to you, but I assure you it is to me. More interesting to you might be the detail that one of Sheriff John C. Buckley's closest friends was Pat Garrett, the lawman who shot Billy the Kid. He that is, Garrett, not The Kid was a frequent guest at my great-grandfather's home.
The story gets more interesting when Reid's father William F. Sr., the sheriff 's son goes to Mexico after getting out of law school and sets up shop as a lawyer and wildcat oilman. He lived in Mexico between 1908 and 1921, which would be like living in Paris, say, between 1789 and 1802. And he was in the thick of it; he knew everyone. It was to his house that U.S. Marines went after bombarding Veracruz in 1914, asking him to be governor civil. He indignantly refused. He detested Woodrow Wilson's interventionism as did another American of the time, Mark Twain and became a minor hero to Mexicans. The Huerta government paid him the great compliment of asking him to represent Mexico as its legal counsel at the ABC Conference in Niagara Falls. Later he was expelled from Mexico by the then-government-of-the-month. I'm out of here. Gracias for the memories.
You'll find my grandfather in the midst of great adventures. On one page, he's talking Pancho Villa out of shooting the conductor; on another page, he's escaping execution by bandits who have taken him and a colleague out into the desert to be killed. His fellow captive, a close friend, presented them with a laundry slip and told the illiterate would-be murderers that it was a note from the local chief granting permission for their prisoners to "stretch their legs." He and his colleague stretched their legs energetically that rain-swept night, through a jungle and across a swollen river. He later named his oil company Pantepec after that river. I never knew that until now.
He had guts, my grandfather, but my favorite Mexican anecdote again rendered in a footnote isn't about heroics but involves a nifty bit of one-upmanship on a train that will have you laughing out loud. I won't give it away.
I never knew him. I was only six when he died, but Reid has given him back to me and my forty-nine cousins and their umpteen children and grandchildren, and I'm humbled, not just by the man he was but also by his son's ability as a writer and a historian to re-create him.
He's only half the story. The other half is his wife, my universally adored grandmother, Aloïse Steiner Buckley. We grandchildren called her Mimi. Here I'll confess to being frustrated at a secret hope I've long nurtured.
Mimi's maiden name was Steiner. Her mother was a Wassem. Looking at some old family photos one Thanksgiving, one of my cousins grinned and said, "Tell me we're not Jewish." When I mentioned this suspicion to my friend, the distinguished author and editor Walter Isaacson like my grandmother a native New Orleanian he laughed and said, "Most of the old German Catholic families I knew from New Orleans were Jewish." Alas, no such luck. Mimi's maternal grandfather, George Henry Wassem, fought (quite valiantly) for the Confederacy at Shiloh and other engagements. His father fought with oh, dear the Hessians, alongside the British in the Revolution. (We can only hope less valiantly than his son fought in his war.) George Wassem hung up his battlefield decorations and became a New Orleans barber.
As for Mimi's paternal side, the Steiners, they were Swiss, from the canton of Saint-Gallen and the city of Bergt as my uncle Jimmy relates here, "the only Swiss municipality I have ever seen that seemed totally devoid of charm." No wonder our forebear left there in 1845 and set up shop in New Orleans as a boot and shoemaker. So we descend from a barber, a shoemaker, and a sheriff. How did we end up Republican?
As I write, I have this creeping feeling that I'm sounding like that person on the bar stool next to you, droning on about matters of absolutely no interest to you. If I do, then I have truly failed and can only promise you that this book is far more interesting than I am making it out to be. So let me tell you now just a little bit about its author, my uncle Reid.
We Buckleys are a scribbly lot. My father has written fifty-five books and is now, at age eighty-two, at work on his fifty-sixth. (Never mind his other writings, which are voluminous enough to choke the Yale archives, where they reside in one thousand boxes.) Of the ten Buckley children of W.F.B. Sr. and A.S.B. seven wrote books, most of them more than one. Seven.
Reid is...how do I describe to you my uncle Reid? I, a professional writer, grope for words. Reid was the fun uncle. He'd turn up to visit his son and me at boarding school, ginger-bearded, dressed in plus-fours and Inverness cape (I'm not making this up) and smoking a calabash pipe. The monks didn't quite know what to make of him. He was a dashing expatriate who lived in Spain and wrote about bullfighting and knew all the great matadors and was close friends with Ava Gardner. He returned from Spain after fifteen years remarried to a glamorous, beautiful Spanish widow with five children of her own. He's spent the last thirty-five years in Camden, employing half the town at the Buckley School of Public Speaking and Written Expression. So Reid is...I revert to my prior statement, as we Washingtonians say: Reid is Reid.
But the Reid who concerns you is Reid the writer. His 1973 novel Servants and Their Masters, a family saga set in late-Franco Spain, is a considerable work of art. I was a Yale English major, and I know literature when I see it. It's the only eight hundred-page novel that I've read a half-dozen times and hope to read another half-dozen times before I die. It's a masterpiece. I was reminded of that book as I read this very different one. I don't quite know, as I mentioned earlier, how to classify this one. Life with Father meets Treasure of the Sierra Madre?
It is not a feel-good book. Of tragedy my family has deeply supped. Though you may not personally know the players, I doubt that you won't be moved by the image of my eighty-nine-year-old grandmother Mimi, herself less than months away from death, weeping alone in a limousine at the graveside of her eldest son; or of Reid, walking alongside the train platform as his father's train pulls away, tears streaming down Grandfather's face, knowing that this is their final parting. There are so many deaths told in this book, and so many left to come.
But there's happiness here, too, in abundance. My family's profound Catholic faith has allowed us, in the midst of these and other, worse griefs two of Reid's sisters were taken cruelly young, one leaving five children, the other ten if not a triumphalist note, at least an echo of Saint Paul's "Death, where is thy sting?"
And good times. Heavens, what great times, especially in the chapters about growing up in those teeming households in Sharon, Connecticut, and Camden, South Carolina. They tell of worlds gone now, perhaps all the sweeter for having vanished. Gone, as it were, with the wind, to quote another Southern writer.
Children will never again sled down almost two steep miles of ice-and-snow-crusted road, hitching their Flexible Flyers to milk wagons pulled by plow horses to get back up to the top of the hill. Nothing will ever replace or restore the elms of Sharon Green. Nothing will ever replace or restore the Sterling elm, our Great Elm. Nothing will ever restore or replace the America of the first years of her bursting upon history. Nothing will ever replace or restore our parents, Aloïse Steiner Buckley and Will Buckley, individually and bonded together one flesh, one body, one will, one devotion.
My grandfather and grandmother left behind ten children, fifty grandchildren, and Lord knows how many great-and great-greatgrandchildren enough, anyway, to swing a presidential election in Florida. Among those they left behind was a son, my uncle Reid, to tell their story. This is an elegy, but amidst its melancholy strains you'll catch the bagpipe notes of joy.
Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Buckley