- - Monday, November 7, 2016



By William F. Buckley Jr.

Edited by James Rosen

Crown Forum, $22, 336 pages

William F. Buckley Jr., the late founder of National Review, was one of the most talented and erudite writers the world has ever seen. Yet, for all that we have read and admired about his books, columns, reviews, essays and speeches, very little has been discussed about his mastery of a most difficult literary form: the eulogy.

To his credit, Fox News Chief Washington Correspondent James Rosen has identified this missing field of intellectual study. His new book, “A Torch Kept Lit: Great Lives of the Twentieth Century,” collects more than 50 scintillating examples of lives lived — and how a great conservative interpreted their place and value in our society.

Mr. Rosen divides the eulogies into six categories: Presidents; Family; Arts and Letters; Generals, Spies, and Statesmen; Friends; and Nemeses. Each tribute is geared in a different fashion, depending on the individual, public profile, personal relationship, and list of accomplishments. As Mr. Rosen writes in the book’s introduction, “[a]t all points, these remembrances bring us Buckley’s distinct voice: the greatest pleasure of this volume.”

And what a voice it was.

The October 1958 eulogy for his father, William F. Buckley, Sr., is simply magnificent. His beloved pater “worshipped three earthly things: learning, beauty, and his family.” The love of learning was satisfied “by reading widely and by imposing on his lawless brood an unusual pedagogic regimen.” Beauty was accomplished with a “meticulous attention to every shrub, every stick of furniture that composed his two incomparable homes.” As for his family, there was a “constant, inexplicit tenderness to his wife and children of which the many who have witnessed it have not, they say, often seen the like.”

Meanwhile, the February 1999 tribute to his friend, President Ronald Reagan, on the occasion of his 88th birthday — five years before he passed away — is also tender and poignant. Mr. Buckley wrote that it’s “only a government leader who can critically affect a national mood or put his stamp on a historical period,” and while “Reagan’s period was brief … he did indeed put his stamp on it.” This was because the late president “had strategic visions” and “told us that most of our civic problems were problems brought on or exacerbated by government, not problems that could be solved by government.”

Even a longtime nemesis, Ayn Rand, the spiritual force behind the political philosophy Objectivism, received a memorable eulogy in March 1982. His opening lines crackled like thunder, “Ayn Rand is dead. So, incidentally, is the philosophy she sought to launch dead; it was, in fact, stillborn.” They disagreed on many issues published in the pages of National Review, so much so Mr. Buckley mildly teased, “I fear that I put the lady through a great deal of choreographical pain.” Yet, he was also gracious, calling her a “talented woman, devoted to her ideals” who was an “eloquent and persuasive antistatist, and if only she had left it at that — but no, she had to declare that God did not exist, that altruism was despicable, that only self-interest is good and noble.”

Other eulogies and tributes in “A Torch Kept Lit” contain many memorable lines, too.

This includes: civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. (“Dr. King’s faults, and they most surely existed, were far from the category of the faults of those whose assassination is more or less tolerated”), pianist Vladimir Horowitz (“a great musician … also a man of considerable polemical shrewdness”), Princess Diana (“It is an ironic masterstroke that the descendent of Henry VIII has been freed of an encumbrance by a midnight accident in an automobile”) and singer Elvis Presley (“What are they there at Graceland to venerate? An aspect, perhaps, of the spiritual inclination of the American people, who do not require that the memory being venerated should have been a martyr or a prophet.”)

It’s a shame that this extensive body of Mr. Buckley’s work — roughly 250 eulogies in total — received such little attention during his life, and long after his death. As Mr. Rosen notes, “A keen observer of people and mannerisms, Buckley used his eulogies both to mourn and as a kind of conjuring act: a final chance to savor the deceased as he had.”

Fortunately, Mr. Rosen’s powerful book ensures that the Buckley eulogy will always play a vital role in intellectual discourse — and have an important place on many conservative bookshelves.

Michael Taube is a contributor to The Washington Times.

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