by Pat Louise
William F. Buckley, Jr. Edited by James Rosen, A Torch Kept Lit. Great Lives of the Twentieth Century, Crown Forum, New York, 2016, $22, 323 pages.
Over the course of 53 years — from when he founded the magazine National Review in 1955, hosted the television show Firing Line (1966-99), until his death in February 2008 — William F. Buckley Jr. spoke or wrote the definitive words on the conservative viewpoint.
He also, over this time, wrote the last words on 250 historical figures he had met during his lifetime. His obituaries, most of which ran in the National Review with the standard headline of the deceased’s name followed by RIP, give an intimate, honest – sometimes brutally honest – portrait of many influential people of the last century.
The best of these essays have been collected into the New York Times bestseller, A Torch Kept Lit, chosen and edited by Fox News chief Washington correspondent James Rosen. Published in October 2016, the book delves into Buckley’s thoughts on the famous of the famous, mostly those who were leaders in government, journalism, music and entertainment. In one section he shares his thoughts after the deaths of his parents and his wife Pat, who predeceased him the year before.
Another section covers some of the movers and changers who become personal friends. The final section, to perhaps illustrate that WFB truly did have the last word at this, covers his nemeses.
Rosen refers to these works as eulogies, but Buckley’s thoughts made public would hardly be acceptable by any funeral forum standards. Three weeks after the death of John F. Kennedy, one of five presidents included in the book, Buckley criticizes the national outpouring of grief.
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“The rhetoric has gone quite out of control. The symbol of our emotional, if not neurotic excess, is the Eternal Flame at Arlington.… The lovely and tormented Mrs. Kennedy needs a gentle hand lest in her understandable grief, she give the air of the Pharaoh, specifying his own magnitude.’’
His essay about author Truman Capote includes the story of when then-California Gov. Ronald Reagan joked about using Capote as bait to see if there were any homosexuals working for him.
Buckley opens his column about the death of Jerry Garcia with, “If I ever heard a song played by the Grateful Dead I wasn’t aware of it.’’ Buckley then goes on to criticize Garcia for not going public with his addictions to drugs and alcohol. “If he had done so, how many would have had better prospects for health, love and longer lives?’’ Buckley concludes.
And none of these even falls under the Nemeses category.
To show just how far Buckley could go in landing a death-blow punch to the dead, here is his opening for the essay about Ayn Rand, one of six nemeses in the book: ”Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was, in fact, stillborn.”
He also shows no love for former First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. “She treated all the world as her own personal slum project; and all the papers, of course, remarked on that fabulous energy – surely she was the very first example of the peacetime use of atomic energy. But some publications went to far as to say she had a great mind. Now is the time for all good men to come to the aid of Euclid.”
Not everyone receives such call-it-as-he-sees-it treatment. Buckley’s four family members receive the sort of glowing obituary routinely found in newspapers that encourage such glowing praise as they bill by the word. Buckley treats Johnny Carson with a bashful tenderness, a comment about how many of Carson’s ex-wives would have attended his memorial service aside.
Receiving such gentle treatment is rare, though, and a good thing. That Buckley candor makes this book a delightful read, a combination of intimate glimpses of some of the century’s most well-known figures, before – bam — Buckley skewers them, not just bringing them down to ordinary levels, but making readers recalculate their own high opinions of the dearly departed.
It is difficult, though, to feel sorry for the subjects. To have one’s death come to the attention of WFB rivals today’s stage of being mocked on Saturday Night Live. Yes, it is mockery in front of millions, but to be mocked on SNL is a sign one has reached the upper ranks of People Who Matter.
Buckley honestly acknowledges that what he is offering comes strictly from his viewpoint. Many of the essays begin with “I first met” as Buckley spins an opening anecdote from his perspective; none of them contain the usual facts required in an obituary, such as birth and death dates, lifetime achievements or honors.
Buckley seems to assume with these essays that his familiarity with the deceased parallels that of his readers, since he jumps in with his thoughts without much introduction of the subject. For each one Rosen provides an opening note that helps frame Buckley’s connection to the subject and provide background not contained in the essay. That adds significantly to the depth of enjoyment of the stories.
These 52 essays provide not just a quick character sketch of the subjects, but a more complex review of Buckley’s life, one well lived and peppered with interesting people. The title suffices for both the subjects to find a short resurrection to their glory days in these pages, but also a reminder of the joys of a journalist’s clean and pointed writing style.
Buckley’s death might have caused relief in some who feared what his tribute would say about them. But they, after all, wouldn’t be around to read them anyway. For those still earth-bound, A Torch Kept Lit provides a pleasurable way to confront the demise of others.