'Mum and Pup,' and Son, Face a Different Firing Line

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 26, 2009

The book is not even out and already, Christopher Buckley says, he is hearing about certain Manhattan society ladies sniffing that he should "never darken their dinner table again."

He sums up his painfully intimate portrait in "Losing Mum and Pup" this way: "He was impossible. She was impossible. And sometimes their impossibilities acted like great magnetic force fields." Which is to say, William F. Buckley and Patricia Buckley had a stormy marriage and an equally volatile relationship with their only child.

The Washington novelist goes beyond a mere warts-and-all rendering of his father, who died 14 months ago, and his mother, who passed away a year before that. He includes such cringe-inducing revelations as how Pup would relieve himself through the opened door of a moving car, or how, while hooked up to an oxygen machine, the ailing icon summoned him at 2:30 a.m. to plan an immediate lunch for "very important players in the conservative community" -- including some who happened to be dead. Why yank back the curtain that far?

"You mean," says Buckley, clad in a peach-and-blue striped shirt, over a bowl of Yucatan tuna soup at a Foggy Bottom restaurant, "am I drawing a mustache on the portrait?" He ponders the question, begins an answer, stops himself, quotes Melville, and tries again.

"They were extraordinary people," Buckley says. "Why anyone should expect extraordinary people to have perfect lives would be beyond me."

At 56, Buckley is the successful author of 14 books, but the shadow cast by the founder of National Review is longer and darker than anyone might have imagined. When Buckley's well-reviewed novel "Boomsday" was published weeks before his mother died, the entirety of Pup's comments were delivered by e-mail: "This one didn't work for me. Sorry."

At the same time, Buckley doesn't hide his awe of a man who, approaching death, wheezing from emphysema, unable to type, dictated to his son the final, perfectly punctuated chapter of a book on Barry Goldwater -- "as if his mind were still a brightly burning fire deep within the wreckage of his body," Buckley writes.

These twin personas -- dazzling intellectual to the outside world, insufferable at times in his New York and Connecticut homes -- are, in the son's mind, intertwined. Bill Buckley was a giant, and such men expect others to bend to their will. "There were times," he admits, "when I happily would have traded them for Ozzie and Harriet."

The book, hammered out in 40 days, was not the one that Chris Buckley intended to write. Under the working title "You're Next," it was supposed to be a yuppie reflection on loss, "my guide to parental death. But my fingers went in another direction. And bang! There you are at my mother's deathbed."

There was even more raw and personal material in the first draft, which Buckley removed at the urging of relatives. That manuscript will remain under seal at Yale until Buckley's own death.

"It's an honest book," says Buckley, editor at large of ForbesLife magazine. "Some people will not like some of it. It is ultimately a loving book. They were complex people -- hell, every set of parents is complex. They just occupied a slightly larger stage."

That they did. George H.W. Bush, for whom Buckley was a speechwriter, called when Christopher's mother died. George W. Bush called when his father died. Everyone who was anyone knew the public Buckleys. But for the kid who found Norman Mailer evaluating his fourth-grade essay at the dinner table, the vantage point was very different.

His mother, who grew up in British Columbia, may have been a society queen and prodigious charity fundraiser, Buckley says, but she was also like "a character out of a Noël Coward play" -- a serial liar capable of outrageous misbehavior. At one dinner with his own daughter, Caitlin -- whom Mum "had more or less lovingly ignored for 19 years" -- Buckley's mother lectured Caitlin's friend Kate Kennedy on the villainy of Kennedy's cousin Michael Skakel, who was convicted of having murdered a teenager back in 1975. Mum said she had been an alternate juror in the trial, which was a fabrication.

While cleaning out his mother's desk after her death, Buckley found a number of unopened letters from him. One began: "That really was an appalling scene at dinner last night . . . "

"That was a crushing moment for me," Buckley says, pausing for a sip of iced tea and looking genuinely pained. "She had just died, and here I found that she had stopped opening my letters because so many were scolding about her behavior. It was horrible."

Roughly half the letters between him and his father, he estimates, were contentious as well. The elder Buckley loved to debate, and for the son it was like being on "Firing Line" even before the show was launched in 1966. Christo, as his parents called him, once discovered a letter his father had sent the headmaster of his boarding school, inquiring whether his son had "an amorous dalliance" with another boy. (He had nothing of the sort.)

And there was the time that, 10 minutes into his Yale graduation ceremony, Pup grew bored and left, family and friends in tow, abandoning his son for the rest of the day.

Some of their fiercest arguments were over religion. The father was a devoted Catholic, while the son came to doubt the entire enterprise.

"He was the most loving man I knew," Buckley says, "but it was very often on his terms," pronouncing the "t" in "often," the words cascading in his father's inimitable cadence. "Here was a guy with a wonderful sense of humor, which was suddenly deactivated at the first sign of what he called impiety. He was the classic father who thought the gates of heaven were going to be shut against his own son."

Many father-son relationships mellow as the years go by, but not this one. When Buckley was in his 30s and his wife had their first child, Pup would send him messages through a primitive form of e-mail and expect a reply before the day was out. Christo resisted, not wanting to feel attached by a literary umbilical cord, and besides, as a new dad, he was busy. His lack of timely responses led to their not speaking for a year.

"He had National Review, a big staff, two secretaries, a household staff of five. I don't live with servants. I do the grocery shopping. I don't think Pup ever washed a dish in his life, or changed a diaper. He would say, 'There will be 12 for dinner,' and it would happen."

The book contains glimpses of Buckley the prominent pundit and his close friendships with Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger. At times he is portrayed as a lovable rogue, the risk-taking sailor who smacked his boat into so many docks that he was nicknamed "Captain Crunch." He and his son sailed across both the Atlantic and Pacific, and Mum was sometimes reduced to cooking for the men, scrubbing the toilet and muttering, "I was made for better things."

But when Pup, in 1997, insisted on dragging his son across Long Island Sound in a devastating nor'easter that knocked out power to half a million homes, the experience was "terrifying," Buckley says. He wrote his dad a blistering letter.

Was his father . . . reckless? "Imprudent, perhaps," Buckley says. Great men, he explains, have great courage, "but it can be a little unnerving for the un-great ones who are aboard." A moment later, he drops the linguistic distinctions and allows that his father was "absolutely reckless" as a sailor. Still, Buckley delights in recalling how he passed on the family legacy by teaching his own son to sail.

Buckley's differences with his dad became especially pronounced after his death, when he took the audacious step last fall of backing Barack Obama and, in the ensuing uproar, volunteered to give up his column in National Review. The offer was quickly accepted by the magazine, in which he retains a financial interest.

The part of "Losing" that feels the most intrusive -- and yet most oddly compelling -- is the tale of Pup's final months, as he remained in denial about the various ailments that would claim his life. The 82-year-old played down his symptoms. He popped pills and lied about it. He missed his own sister's funeral to go to Washington and accept his umpteenth award.

As the pain became unbearable, Pup considered ending his life, his son writes, but felt his Catholicism proscribed such a course. "If it weren't for the religious aspect, I'd take a pill," Buckley recalls his father saying.

That proved unnecessary, as Pup died of a heart attack. Two days later, Buckley got a call from Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review, who was writing a biography of WFB. Tanenhaus said the dying Buckley had told him about his thoughts of suicide and that he planned to report this in the Times.

Buckley argued that his father had confided the information for the future biography, not for a newspaper story. Tanenhaus, who did not respond to requests for comment, told Buckley he was under pressure from top Times editors, the book says. Buckley made a not-so-veiled threat to cut off access to his father's papers.

"It would have been a nightmare," Buckley says as lunch draws to a close. He feared the inevitable headline: "Buckley Contemplated Suicide in Last Days." "Run that through the blogosphere and see what Gawker makes of it: 'Lion of the Right Offed Self.' " Tanenhaus agreed to forgo the news story.

In the book, Buckley wonders whether Pup is in heaven after all: "If he was, then at least I stood some chance of being admitted on a technicality, with the host of 'Firing Line' up there arguing my case."

As he prepares to leave for a C-SPAN shoot on the Mall, it is clear that this sort of discussion is a tad harder for Buckley than, say, promoting "Thank You for Smoking." Has he besmirched two revered public figures, depicting them in their worst light when their own voices have been silenced? Or has he humanized them, showing that even the wealthy and famous have the same human frailties as ordinary mortals?

"I don't think I will ever write a better book," Buckley says with a note of finality. "I have an absolute calm conscience about this one."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company