Monday, March 3, 2008

William F. Buckley, Jr., R.I.P.

By Mitchell

What is it about death, I wonder, that holds such a fascination for us? Why do we spend so much time thinking, and writing, about the dead? It seems as if every other piece we write on this site is an obituary on someone or other, an icon of the past that oftentimes few in the present seem to remember.

It is more than just a personal reflection, although there is no denying that our mortality comes into clearer focus for us as the years pass. Likewise, it is more than simple curiosity, even though for those of us who cherish the thought of an eternity in heaven, there is endless wonderment about what it will be like.

But there is more to it than that. We look back on the deaths of people we have never met, and still there is something intensely personal about it. We write elegies, we leave flowers, we grieve as if we have lost a friend who was near and dear to us.

Undoubtedly, the Oprahfication of society has something to do with this, but I think there is more to it than that, something operating on a deeper level. It is, I think, that we become more conscious of the death – the passing, if you will – of a way of life, the only way which we have known.

In our youth, the fundamental aspects of our lives are developed. Our first contacts with life – our family members – are generally also our first contacts with death. And although we meet those passings with grief, we are also intrinsically aware of the importance these milestones play in our maturation. It is popularly said that with the death of our parents we truly become adults, and I suppose there is more than a little truth in that. We are not the same once an event like that has happened.

In a similar way, our lives evolve as we are introduced to elements outside our immediate family. Our schoolmates, our teachers, our friendships – they become an equally important part of our development and growth. We pass through these years into early adulthood, and the formation of our personality continues. Death remains, in these years, a rare intruder. In times of peace, when young men and women are spared the realties of war, we seldom experience the death of a peer, and when it does happen it burns an indelible impression in our psyches.

Eventually, there comes a point in life when we enter into a new relationship with death. This relationship ends with the deaths of those around us – our friends, our siblings, our contemporaries. As they begin to pass away, we are aware that our own time is approaching, and we begin (if we have not already done so) to take stock of our life, to add up the balance sheet, hoping and praying that we come up with a positive number.

I said that this is how our new relationship with death ends. It is, however, the beginning of that relationship that interests me now. And to understand that relationship we need to look back into those formative years I mentioned, the people that helped us create our essential selves. It is as these people die that our relationship with death changes inalterably, for as they do so, we become painfully aware that a way of life – the one we have grown up with, the one that has fundamentally formed us – dies with them, and there is nothing we can do about it. And as our culture continues to fragment, as there are fewer and fewer shared experiences that we can appreciate, we become more and more alone with our memories, and the things we can depend on in life continue to shrink.

So it has been with the many obituaries that have appeared here throughout the years, and so it is now with this one. I think it's quite possible to say that there was a little bit of William F. Buckley, Jr. in all of us, either in the reality or the desire. Perhaps it was the delight he took in life, whether in the intellectual combat of politics or the solitude of sailing on the high seas. Maybe it was his love of fine music or stimulating company. It could have been the sly grin that enveloped his face when, with just the right word and inflection, he was able to stick the knife in sideways during a debate and give it that little extra twist. Or maybe it has to do with the relationships he had formed over a lifetime, and the way in which those on both the left and the right counted themselves fortunate to number him among their closest friends. I don’t think there’s any doubt that most of us envied his quick wit, his sharp tongue, his cleverness of thought. Whether or not we agreed with him, or even understood the words he used, we knew there was a part of him that we would have liked to make our own.

And as far as the conservative movement is concerned, his influence can’t be overestimated. In that sense there is a part of Buckley in all of us, embedded in our DNA. Who can say whether or not there would have been a conservative movement in America without Buckley? One can only say that if there had been, it would not have been the same.

As I look in our library, I count 22 of Buckley’s books on the shelves. I’ve read them all, or most of them. Some, the collections of writings and transcripts from television shows, act more as reference than as something to be read from cover to cover. Others have been part of my essential political education – God and Man at Yale, for exampe, which imbued in me the cynicism toward higher education that I have carried with me ever since. The Blackford Oakes spy novels, delightful stories that combined fact and fiction and featured cameo appearances from real-life historical figures, saying the things that you'd have liked to imagine really did come from their mouths at one time or another. Books on gratitude and faith, interviews and essays offering perspectives on the events that helped shape our times, making one realize that things really have changed a great deal over the years. And this, of course, merely scratches the surface. It's not a bad legacy for a lifetime.

The overriding impact of death, as we've discussed here, is that it changes things. Buckley's death is no exception. The conservative movement, which has seemed rudderless since the end of Reagan's presidency and the fall of Communism, seems now to be in more flux than at any time pre-Buckley. Some even wonder if the conservative movement, per se, even exists. On that point I have my doubts, but wihtout the founding father of conservatism, it is clear there is that much less remaining to hold it together.

Sometimes we are driven to wonder what there is in modern life that can possibly hold our interest. Those of us that are of an age - my age, for example - feel increasingly out of place, as if there was no room for us at the inn anymore, even though there seems to be more than enough room for so much pablum and drivel. And so we find ourselves driven to the past, to a life more familiar, where we might still find a place we could call our own.

Buckley would, I think, urge us not to succumb to that temptation. He would point out that we have come far further than anyone might have thought possible, and he would remind us that life is far to precious to simply give up on it like that. He always found a challenge to be accepted, a white steed in need of a mount, a cause to be championed. He once stood athwart history yelling "stop," and he would tell us that in his absence, someone would have to perform that duty. And the marvelous obituaries which he himself wrote, some of his best writing, are a testimonial to our ability to live with one eye on the future even as we cast the other eye backwards.

Perhaps he would also have reminded us of Christ's reassuring words, that "Heaven and earth will pass away, but My words will not pass away." We can take those words and in them find a reassurance that even though the mileposts of our lives may leave us, the impact they made on us will always remain; and in doing so we can feel that we are not fleeing into the past but honoring it, and the life (our own) that it helped to create. And for those who make up that past, those like William F. Buckely, Jr., we can be eternally grateful.

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