NEW YORK, N.Y. — After the newspaper encomiums and magazine tributes, after former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger knighted him “a noble and valiant man, truly touched by the grace of God,” there was still one eulogy left for William F. Buckley Jr. ’50.
It was the simple eulogy of a son whose father belonged to the world.
“We talked about this day, he and I, a few years ago,” Christopher Buckley ’75 told the crowd of some 2,200 gathered here Friday at St. Patrick’s Cathedral for his father’s memorial service. “He said to me, ‘If I’m still famous, try to convince the cardinal to do the service at St. Patrick’s. If I’m not, tuck me away in Stamford,” his longtime home.
“Well, Pup,” Christopher Buckley said, surveying the assembled masses, “I guess you’re still famous.”
Indeed, the father of the modern conservative movement had no trouble filling the cavernous St. Patrick’s on Friday, where the famous and the ordinary alike amassed to pay one last tribute to a man who defined a generation. In a memorial mass filled with laughs and solemnity, a great man, in the words of his son, was given a great send-off.
Buckley, who died Feb. 27 at the age of 82, rose to fame at the helm of National Review, the magazine he founded shortly after graduating from Yale and ultimately used as a vehicle to transform political thought in the United States. But Buckley’s voice was first heard at Yale, where he used his position as Yale Daily News chairman to launch stinging reprimands against what he perceived to be a campus culture of secularism and collectivism promoted by the University.
Americans came to know his face, wit and sesquipedalian vocabulary on the television show Firing Line, which opened in 1966 and closed in 1999, making it the longest-running talk show with the same host in history. Friday morning, Christopher Buckley reminisced about his father’s answer to a “Nightline” question from host Ted Koppel in 1999, after the airing of Firing Line’s final episode.
“Bill, we have one minute left; would you care to sum up your 33 years in television?” Buckley recalled Koppel as saying. “To which my father replied, ‘Um, no.’ ”
In fact, Buckley’s career could not easily be summed up in an hour. He left behind more than 50 books, thousands of columns and a literary oeuvre running, end to end, 550 linear feet — taller than the soaring cathedral spires of St. Patrick’s, his son noted Friday.
“He wrote as Mozart composed: by inspiration,” Kissinger said. “He never needed a second draft.”
Kissinger was a natural choice to deliver the ceremony’s other eulogy; as he put it in an interview with the News on the day of Buckley’s passing, “Bill Buckley was an essential part of my life.”
He was not the only dignitary to stake that claim. From the television personalities Charlie Rose and Chris Matthews to the writers Tom Wolfe and William Kristol to politicians like Sen. Joseph Lieberman ’64 LAW ’67, the personal magnetism that made Buckley into a man larger than life was evident in the composition of the audience on Friday.
University President Richard Levin was on hand, too, according to an aide. So was a contingent of reporters and editors from the News, as well as Thomas Guinzburg ’50, the managing editor who worked with Buckley on the newspaper, where Buckley refined a forceful voice that would rear itself upon his graduation in his headline-grabbing book, “God and Man at Yale.”
Indeed, the extravagant service — replete with a veritable flock of priests, an organ, incense and elaborate floral trappings adorning the cathedral’s sanctuary — seemed fit for a Papal visit; in fact, Pope Benedict XVI will hold Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral later this month, and the younger Buckley made light in his service that Friday’s program served as something of a dress rehearsal for the Pope’s visit.
“I think it would have pleased him,” he said of his father, “though doubtless he would have preferred it the other way around.”
Buckley’s grave lies in Sharon, Conn., the town in which he was raised — and whose proximity to New Haven, about two hours away, was a major reason he wound up at the University in the first place. In his coffin were placed his television remote, a jar of peanut butter, his favorite rosary and the ashes of his wife, Patricia Alden Austin Taylor, who died last April.
Christopher Buckley — an accomplished writer himself — acknowledged Friday that it was difficult to create an epitaph for a man whose newspaper columns over the years are estimated to total some 4.5 million words, for a man whose erudite oratory and perspicacious prose exceeded that of perhaps any man in his generation.
Following Kissinger’s remarks, Buckley rose from his seat in the cathedral’s first pew and walked up to the lectern to deliver his eulogy. He took long, slow, deliberate steps, his eyes focused ahead.
To close, in long, soft breaths, he read that epitaph, which he borrowed from Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Requiem,” the poem he would later repeat at sunset that night before his father’s grave in Sharon.
Then he returned to his seat, and the memorial of William F. Buckley drew to a close. But the crowd lingered, the plebian among the patrician, paying homage in silence to a man who was never at a loss for words.