Kingdom of Priests

Kingdom of Priests

William F. Buckley & the Kings of Judah

Christopher Buckley has an excerpt from his memoir about the loss of his parents, Mr. & Mrs. William F. Buckley, in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine. It’s affecting but uncomfortable in what I’d regard as the inappropriate detail he goes into about his parents’ faults and their physical decline at the end. How can we know what’s inappropriate? Just imagine if he had written these things when his parents were alive to read them. Does their death and the passage of a year or two make the airing of all this dirty laundry OK.

Not in my view. Your thoughts?
The piece is suffused with religion — or rather, with memories of battling with his father over it. Chris is not a believer — he says this repeatedly — and tells of his directing doctors to pull the plug on his mother. His father was among the most powerful exponents of Catholicism (and incidentally influenced my spiritual evolution).
I’ve never met Chris, though I worked for his father, a great man, at National Review. I don’t have an opinion about the younger Buckley, who is 56 years old and whose humor writing I’ve never been able to appreciate. But something about his memoir does remind me of the pattern you see in the Bible, the books of 1 and 2 Kings, where the greatest kings were often followed by sons who were not so great, to put it mildly. The drop off is often dizzyingly steep.


Among the more notable kings of Judah, Hezekiah (righteous) was followed by Manasseh (spectacularly not righteous), Josiah (very great) was followed by his son Jehoahaz and three successive kings after that who all “did what was evil in the eyes of the Lord.” After which God let Babylonia overrun Jerusalem and burn the Temple.
By point this out, I do NOT mean to imply that Chris Buckley is evil. He may a wonderful, delightful person. I have no idea. But it would be hard to identify a significant way in which he is carrying on his father’s intellectual and spiritual legacy. You may remember his endorsement of Obama back in the fall.
Yet you would think that something in the greatness of a great father would in all likelihood rub off on his son. In Kings, this expectation is disappointed so dramatically that you have to wonder if the Bible is trying to tell us something by it. I’ll save my theory about that for a later post.
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posted April 23, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Maybe his father wasn’t around to mold him–it’s hard to shine brilliantly in public and private life at the same time, and unfortunately, it looks like WFB didn’t. Yes, it’s ungracious and indefensible to air your parents’ dirty laundry. But you have to wonder if the son’s whole inner being would have been radically (or conservatively!) different if his father had been there to guide him. Why is he so bitter? It’s sad, anyhow–I don’t really want to believe these sorts of things about WFB, but he doesn’t sound like he’s lying…

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posted April 23, 2009 at 7:45 pm

Christopher Buckley is a brilliant satirist who has written 14 books of wide acclaim. See “Thank You for Smoking.” Bill Buckley was on record as saying that one of his greatest achievements and sources of happiness was the astonishing success of his son’s literary career. I find it rather presumptuous on your part — as a nondescript and unknown blogger on an obscure religious website — to denigrate Christopher Buckley’s accomplishments with your offensive comparison of his situation to that of (probably fictitious) Jewish royalty from thousands of years ago (!!!). Your inability to comprehend the appeal of his work does nothing to dispel the commonly shared perception that irony and satire are incompatible with the religious mentality.

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posted April 24, 2009 at 8:54 am

Sorry, John. To those of us who worked for WFB’s National Review, David Klinghoffer is scarcely “a nondescript and unknown blogger” and, put bluntly, his views count — and I, for one, find his comments apt.

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posted April 24, 2009 at 9:36 am

David: You wrote a memoir, and if memory serves painted a portrait of your adopted parents’ religiosity that some readers might have found uncomfortable or inappropriate. I’d like to hear your thoughts, as an experienced memoirist, on how you navigated between the personal and the public (and how you neogotiated the commandment of kibud av v’em).

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posted April 24, 2009 at 10:59 am

Mr. Klinghoffer—
What comes through in Chris Buckley’s piece, at least to me, is that his parents were great people despite some great flaws. If the younger Buckley is a good writer who pushes some uncomfortable truths on his readers, isn’t he really showing himself to be his father’s son?

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posted April 24, 2009 at 6:40 pm

I once advocated that any man who gets his name in Who’s Who should automatically lose custody of his children. Admittedly that was before I found out how easy it was to get into Who’s Who, and one of my clients put me in there. But I still think the basic principle is sound.

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Neil L

posted April 26, 2009 at 2:33 pm

David K, I think your parallel to the kings of Judah and the Northern Kingdom is not apt. Chris Buckley wrote a phenomenal, luscious and dynamic essay and celebrated his parents while not venerating them. His parents were flawed – as we all are. Buckley wrote with love and humor – and, yes, with some cathartic memories that paint his parents as human.
I would leave what “is evil in the sight of the Lord” to the Lord and be very reluctant to draw parallels myself.

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Sue M

posted May 3, 2009 at 4:43 pm

I have seen several interviews of Buckley and he has never stated anything other than his father was great and he is a more limited successor to his father. By his own admission, his accomplishments are pale in comparison. So, Mr. Kinghoffer, I suspect he would agree with your assessment of him in comparison to his father.

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