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An erudite farewell for Buckley

Dignitaries attend a New York memorial at St. Patrick's Cathedral for the founder of modern conservatism.

April 05, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

NEW YORK — Henry Kissinger reached the end of his speech.

His voice cracked and tears rimmed his eyes as he addressed the 2,000 people who sat before him, quiet.

William F. Buckley Jr., he said, "was a noble and valiant man who was truly touched by the grace of God."

Kissinger eulogized the progenitor of the modern conservative movement Friday at the vast St. Patrick's Cathedral in a ceremony marked more by erudition and laughter than tears.

Buckley -- writer, editor and television talk show host -- died Feb. 27 at 82 in his Stamford, Conn., home.

"We talked about this day, he and I, a few years ago," said Buckley's son, the writer Christopher Buckley, who gave the only other eulogy. His father had instructed him to hold the memorial at St. Patrick's if he was still famous at the time of his death. " 'If not, just tuck me away at Stamford,' " the younger Buckley said.

"Well, Pop, I guess you're still famous," Christopher Buckley added as he surveyed the crowd.

Seated beneath the Gothic arches was a who's who of American letters and politics: former Sen. George S. McGovern, Sen. Joe Lieberman, William Kristol, Richard Lowry, Tom Wolfe, P.J. O'Rourke, Christopher Hitchens, Charlie Rose, Chris Matthews, Tina Brown. (Actor Tom Selleck was there too.)

As Bill Buckley had requested, there was music by Bach.

But Kissinger invoked another composer.

"He wrote as Mozart composed -- by inspiration," Kissinger said. "He never needed a second draft."

In the days and weeks since Buckley's death, commentators and writers have repeatedly invoked George Will's words in National Review, the magazine Buckley founded in 1955: "Before there was Ronald Reagan, there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind."

For his followers, "before" seemed an easier preposition than "after."

His love of life notwithstanding, Buckley -- a devout Catholic -- didn't shy away from contemplating his mortality. When Rose asked him shortly before his death whether he wished to be 20 again, Buckley quickly answered: "Absolutely not."

"I'm utterly prepared to stop," he said, with a faint pause of contemplation, "living on."

In addition to his television career and busy speaking schedule, Buckley wrote more than 40 fiction and nonfiction books, as well as more than 5,000 articles and essays.

At Yale University, his collected oeuvre takes up 550 linear feet. By comparison, his son pointed out in his eulogy Friday, the spires on St. Patrick's Cathedral are 330 feet tall.

Buckley's "Firing Line" became the longest-running talk show on TV. After the show's end in 1999, Ted Koppel asked him on "Nightline" whether, with just a minute left, Buckley would like to sum up his 33-year television career. "To which my father replied: 'No,' " Christopher Buckley said.

Politically, Buckley described himself as a "conservative controversialist." But unlike some of his right-wing heirs, he did not interrupt his political opponents. Rather, he gave them time to articulate their positions during debates. And Buckley's provocative remarks were mostly ameliorated by humor, elegant diction and a mischievous smile.

During one memorable encounter on ABC with Gore Vidal, however, Buckley lost his temper -- responding with a homophobic slur and threatening to sock Vidal in the face when the author called him a "crypto-Nazi."

The two never made up, and Vidal kept throwing darts at Buckley and his politics.

"Granted, Buckley's brand of conservatism, especially in the early years, had its ugly side," Hendrik Hertzberg wrote recently for the New Yorker. "He embraced [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy and McCarthyism. He conflated liberalism and communism. He dismissed the civil rights movement. . . . . But he did his best to purge the right of anti-Semitism, overt racism, xenophobia, philistinism and anti-intellectualism."

Despite his political influence, Buckley only once sought public office -- in 1965 when he ran for mayor of New York. When asked what he would do if he won, he replied with trademark wit: "Demand a recount."

"He planted a lot of seeds," Christopher Buckley said Friday. "It's not easy coming up with an epitaph for a man like that."

Christopher Buckley told of providing his father with a few items "to see him across the River Styx." Among them: "The TV remote control, a jar of peanut butter and my mother's ashes."

Saying farewell to his father, he borrowed the words of Robert Louis Stevenson's "Requiem":

Under the wide and starry sky

Dig the grave and let me lie.

Glad did I live and gladly die,

And I laid me down with a will.

This be the verse you grave for me:

Here he lies where he longed to be;

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,

And the hunter home from the hill.

--

louise.roug@latimes.com

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