Friday, June 26, 2009

Not to Praise WFB but to Bury Him

Cross-posted from FrumForum.

As you may have heard, the novelist Christopher Buckley and the popular historian Richard Brookhiser have each written a book about Buckley’s father, the late William F. Buckley Jr. Neither is just about WFB. Buckley’s Losing Mum and Pup tells what it was like – from battling grief to ghostwriting eulogies – to bury both parents in one year. Brookhiser’sRight Time, Right Place gives his perspective on a career’s worth of political history, from Nixon’s downfall to Bush v. Gore. (WFB appears in Right Time, Right Place only a handful of times.) Still, most readers will be looking for the gossip, and for what those closest to WFB really thought of him. The answers in both cases are surprising.

The most scandalous bits in Losing Mum and Pup are already so notorious that by the time you read it they’ve lost their shock. Among them: To empty his bladder, WFB would open the car door and urinate on the highway without so much as telling his driver to slow down. (I can’t figure out how exactly WFB managed the feat without soiling himself or the limo, though I trust Buckley could tell us.) Told that his 11-year-old son might be dying, WFB flew back through eight cities en route to the hospital bedside. (He arrived with an armful of exotic gifts.) Ten minutes into Christopher’s Yale commencement, WFB walked out, leaving Christopher to wander campus in search of his family before settling for a hamburger at the neighborhood dive.

You might think – and many do that these revelations dishonor WFB’s memory. If anything, they do the opposite. As Buckley says, WFB was a “great man.” He founded a movement, edited a magazine (which he also founded), wrote 56 books and 5,600 columns, and hosted an acclaimed television program. He also sailed the Atlantic and the Pacific, played the harpsichord with the Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, delivered thousands of lectures, and kept up perhaps the most prolific correspondence in American history. Plainly this was not a man centered in the sphere of common duties. I would have been more surprised to learn that WFB actually made a point of finding a men’s room before taking a leak.

His own son is as much in awe of WFB as his legion fans. The public only saw him on TV. Christopher saw him suffocating and collapsing, yet still able to dictate prose of the kind that the rest of us will never match in perfect health. He saw WFB sail into a Nor’easter as if it were a favonian breeze. He saw WFB complete one book in 12 afternoons. Again and again, Buckley returns to the theme: his father was a great man.

Losing Mum and Pup solves one important but neglected mystery of WFB’s greatness, namely, his spending habits. The cash burn in the Buckley household far exceeded what others in their station can afford. They had a Park Avenue maisonette, a waterfront house in Connecticut and a succession of sailing yachts, not to mention limousines, a swimming pool that WFB had installed in his basement and a Bosendorfer grand piano. They kept a full time staff of five, including a chauffeur and a butler, chartered yachts in Bermuda and rented a castle in Switzerland every winter. They entertained the good and the great virtually every night. I meet not a few of the superrich in my day job. The Buckleys lived better than nearly all of them.

They also indulged in unparalleled generosity. Once the Buckleys invited my wife and me to dinner; midway through dessert, the Yale Whiffenpoofs arrived to sing us goodnight. That was perhaps a $10,000 evening, spent to please two young friends WFB had only just met. The abundance in the Buckley household seemed so natural that one rarely stopped to wonder where it even came from. His friends just took it for granted that, like the Count of Monte Cristo, WFB was sitting on an inexhaustible fortune.

Yet he didn’t actually have a fortune to exhaust. WFB’s father, a swashbuckling oil man, lost as many millions as he won. What wealth he died with would have been divided among WFB’s nine siblings, leaving only a modest provision for each. WFB’s wife Patricia Taylor hailed from a prosperous British Columbia family. Presumably, some of the Taylor fortune was held for her benefit (she did not manage it herself: like many a grand dame, she couldn’t put two sums together). Still, the Buckleys spent far more than any trust fund would pay out. WFB in any case would never have put himself at anyone’s financial mercy, the Taylors included.

In Losing Mum and Pup, Buckley confirms in a footnote that his parents were not “rich rich.” His mother had a trust fund, but it was “not nearly sufficient to sustain their lifestyle.” In the 1950s, WFB lost all his inheritance in the stock market. Christopher Buckley himself does not live in the Lucullan fashion of his parents. He makes his own living; his father, he says, did too. Gary Wills in a recent essay in The Atlantic agrees. Put together the twice-weekly column, the annual books, the television program and the lectures and maybe you do come up with enough to pay for all that the Buckleys enjoyed. Contrary to legend, WFB was a self-made man.

Nonetheless, the Buckleys were as insouciant about money as French aristocrats idling in the gardens of Versailles. Most professional writers, living from check to check, think about money a lot. WFB didn’t. I suspect that he saved almost nothing — at least, I can’t imagine WFB squirreling away a few dimes in the hope of funding a quiet retirement (or, for that matter, passing on some wealth to his descendants). That WFB never saved explains why one never heard the buzz of accountants, lawyers and advisors who normally swarm the super-rich. Great men don’t worry about making ends meet.

He faced danger with the same nonchalance. In his “literary autobiography,” Miles Gone By, WFB recounts two particularly appalling incidents. Then a freshman at Yale, WFB and some chums purchased a small airplane. After a total of 1 and 1/2 hours of flying lessons, he volunteered to fly a friend to Boston. It was no problem getting there, for the friend had flown 20,000 hours in WWII. Too impatient to stick around Beantown, WFB flew back solo, only to miscalculate the hours of daylight left. He followed the New London railroad tracks through the darkness before at last spotting a runway and landing. A few months after this harrowing flight, WFB pulled an all-nighter, finished his last exams, went up (this time with a license), and fell asleep in the cockpit. Miraculously, he woke up in time to land. To the things that fright ordinary souls — death, injury, running out of money — WFB paid no heed at all.

He paid almost as little heed to the future of National Review and the conservative movement he founded. As Right Time, Right Place reveals after thirty years of secrecy, when Brookhiser was 23, WFB promised to hand over ownership of National Review to him. The story should alarm all who care about National Review and what it stands for – that is to say, all who at any time have identified with the conservative movement. National Review meant too much to too many people to have been pledged to a twenty-three-year old, no matter how talented. Brookhiser says that WFB liked the Big Gesture. I think he liked the Big Gesture more than what the Big Gesture signifies. WFB delighted in his god-like powers to mark out another as a man of destiny.

On a much smaller scale, he did something like that to me. We were living in Denver when he called. He asked whether I would take part in National Review’s upcoming “novation” – a word I’d encountered in contracts class in law school but had already forgotten. Not having the foggiest what he meant, but also not wishing to displease the great man, I complaisantly agreed to whatever he was asking. The conversation took all of a minute. A month later, a friend called to congratulate me: The New York Times was reporting that WFB had transferred his National Review shares to a 5-man board of trustees. I was the only one under 50.

Why was I chosen? WFB claimed that he wanted someone who was “extremely young and extremely talented.” In fact, WFB knew nothing about me (apart from my youth). I had had dinner with him a handful of times and had been invited on a couple of his Friday evening sails. He never asked about my convictions or ambitions, nor did he ever clue me in on what he expected of me. His estimate of my talents was based on no more than a few thousand words. Once I had to correct a Times reporter doing a follow up story. No, I told him, I had not made Harvard Law Review – as, I suppose, WFB had simply assumed. His decision to appoint me as Trustee made no sense. But it was a Big Gesture — big enough, at least, to catch the attention of the Times.

WFB’s caprice changed Brookhiser’s life forever. He declined an offer from Yale Law School to work full time at National Review. He performed well; as all agree, Brookhiser would have made a superb editor-in-chief. A decade later, the inevitable: WFB wrote Brookhiser that “It is by now plain to me that you are not suited to serve as editor-in-chief of NR after my retirement.” WFB gave reasons, but, as Brookhiser writes, the real one was that he never became the dazzling phenom that WFB himself had been. Who else could have? Brookhiser writes ruefully that WFB might as well have written: ”It is now plain to me that the evidence of your name is indicative of a larger truth: you are, in fact, not me.”

Not surprisingly, Brookhiser does not subscribe to Christopher Buckley’s Great Man theory of WFB. He writes with great restraint — learned perhaps from many years of repressed bitterness and disappointment — that only occasionally slips. At one point, he compares WFB to Klingsor, the villain of Wagner’s Parsifal, then tells us that according to a psychoanalyst who taught Brookhiser’s wife, “a narcissist no more considers the feelings of other people when he makes demands on them than we ask a lightbulb if it wants to be turned on.” The argument goes from WFB to Wagner to Brookhiser’s wife to Brookhiser’s wife’s mentor before it is clear that, by property of transitivity, Brookhiser is calling the beloved William F. Buckley Jr. a narcissist.

Where Christopher Buckley sees greatness, Brookhiser sees egotism. He calls the suggestion made one evening that WFB run for president “one more roof tile in the tornado of flattery that whirled around him.” (To be precise, Brookhiser says that it seemed that way at the time, thus leaving the reader to judge for himself whether the suggestion was flattery in fact.) On the next page, Brookhiser confesses that he too felt entitled to praise, even if undeserved. “Bill wasn’t the only victim of flattery,” he concludes. Complete that line of reasoning, and it’s clear that Brookhiser doesn’t think that WFB deserved all the praise he has received.

How overrated does Brookhiser think WFB was? He gives hints. Comparing WFB to Reagan, Brookhiser writes that “in certain circumstances, [WFB] spoke as well.” Others would have written that Reagan and WFB spoke differently but both very well – extraordinarily well. Brookhiser reports that he only read the Blackford Oakes novels to quiet WFB’s importuning. Eventually, Brookhiser gave his opinion that “the characters never came alive, the writing was functional, the sex scenes were ludicrous. The third and fourth novels seemed no good at all.” Critics have routinely panned WFB’s fiction, though even the harshest call Saving the Queen a success. Brookhiser is asking – or, to be precise, was asking a bit much from a series of spy thrillers. If he finds anything remarkable in WFB reinventing himself mid-career as a best-selling spy novelist, Brookhiser does not say so.

Even when acknowledging WFB’s achievements, Brookhiser’s praise stops short. He says that Cruising Speed – WFB’s first book retelling a week of his life – had “the freshness of pulling off a new trick, and Bill’s own freshness in the media-god life he lived.” “Media-god” would today suggest vanity, showiness, lack of substance. Elsewhere he describes WFB’s prose as having “tingle.” “The effect at its best was a lively rattle, like someone playing a harpsichord or a washboard.” In other words, WFB’s writing compares favorably to an instrument best known in popular culture from the Adams Family TV show. At its best.

Brookhiser most admires WFB for founding the conservative movement. By the end, however, he is puzzling over WFB’s late ambivalence about the Iraq War. Charitably enough, Brookhiser rejects first racism (WFB had no faith in dark-skinned peoples), then venality (WFB sought money or praise) and finally callousness (WFB had no sympathy for the oppressed) as the reason. Finally, he concludes that WFB had simply grown weary. WFB had lost his stomach for the good fight.

Even for WFB’s critics, this is an implausible judgment. Not once does Brookhiser consider that he and WFB had an honest disagreement. Brookhiser writes matter-of-factly that in Iraq, “we took the war [initiated by 9/11] to our enemies.” But Brookhiser’s view that invading Iraq was an appropriate response to 9/11 is not self-evident. (For one thing, it was not Saddam Hussein who attacked us on 9/11.) Rather, it rests on a variety of assumptions (for example, that lack of democracy causes of Muslim terrorism) that should at least be articulated, if not defended. WFB did not have to be weary to reject some of these assumptions, only skeptical. (Though there is truth in what Brookhiser says: Towards the end, WFB probably was too weary to take a stand on Iraq clear enough to provoke the chirping of more zealous friends.) He deserves better than to have his views reduced to some underlying character flaw.

In the end, it seems that Brookhiser wrote Right Time, Right Place not to praise WFB but to bury him. WFB blessed Brookhiser at a young age with something like divine favor. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away. Brookhiser has made his peace with a man whose whims changed lives forever, his included. Like Job, he prospered, suffered, and prospered again. It would be impious to ask for more.

Oddly, Brookhiser never finishes the story. WFB offered him ownership of National Review in 1978. Twenty-six years later, WFB turned his shares over to an independent board of trustees. Today, however, NR is effectively owned by the management. I can’t say that my time on NR’s board of trustees deepened my faith in director control. Directors of a corporation seldom have an incentive to collect enough information to challenge what the officers tell them. Even if one director does bother to understand a corporation’s affairs, to make a difference he still needs the support of his colleagues, who themselves won’t know enough to reach an informed judgment. The problem is compounded in a non-stock corporation such as the one WFB created to control National Review. At least in a for-profit corporation, directors must ultimately respond to shareholders, who demand a return on investment. The trustees of NR, by contrast, are responsible to nobody. Lacking any incentive to second-guess management, they are no match for the insiders.

NR’s board was in fact completely neutered less than two years after WFB’s handover, when the one insider on the Board contrived to stack it with two more. The plan was announced as fait accompli before my dissent or anyone else’s could even be registered. For better or worse, Rich Lowry’s leadership is unlikely ever to come under any serious question. The package of rights and powers that he enjoys as Trustee and Editor-in-Chief gives him as much control as WFB ever enjoyed. In thirty or forty years, he can even handpick his own successor.

I wish I could say I resigned on principle. In a sense I did: I wanted to resign but didn’t have an excuse. The excuse came in a letter from WFB a few weeks later. ”I know busy people,” he wrote, “but you must be in the company of the busiest” — quite a remark coming from the author of Cruising Speed and Overdrive. Noting my unexcused absences from NR events, he said he regretted appointing me as Trustee and asked me to resign. He wasn’t right on the specifics, but he was right in general. Some basked in WFB’s attention; I fled from it like Jonah into the mouth of the whale. On the whole, I didn’t really enjoy his company. Plainly, he liked me, but I found his constant boredom embarrassing. I lacked the skill in speech to relieve it.

I resigned promptly. In my last letter to WFB, I reproached him for showering me with honors that I could not live up to, and myself for accepting them. Not that I always had a choice. ”Fifteen hundred conservative grandees,” I reminded him, truthfully, “once heard you compare my writing to that of Seneca.” Seneca! Inevitably, I wrote, I had “swelled the rout / of lads who wore their honor out.” I thanked him for his kindnesses, but told him that “each one hung on me like lead.” “Your final kindness,” I concluded, “is to let these burdens drop.”

So ended my brief and ignominious career as a Buckley protege. Unlike Brookhiser’s, my life went on as before — though under a cloud of failure of regret. Brookhiser, who found fame as a popular biographer of the American Founders, eventually dispelled his. William F. Buckley Jr. gave and took away. One could not ask for more.