It is no disrespect to the memory of a remarkable man to marvel at the efforts of disciples he left behind to elevate him to conservative sainthood.
The latest gush is from William Kristol in today's New York Times, asserting Buckley "helped many of us realize there were far richer intellectual traditions available than 20th-century liberalism even dreamed of" and crediting him with the rise of Reagan followed by "victory in the cold war, a revitalized economy and a renewed nation."
Last week, David Brooks was almost at a loss for words, but not quite. "I don’t know," he wrote, "if I can communicate the grandeur of his life or how overwhelming it was to be admitted into it. Buckley was not only a giant celebrity, he lived in a manner of the haut monde. To enter Buckley’s world was to enter the world of yachts, limousines, finger bowls at dinner, celebrities like David Niven and tales of skiing at Gstaad...He took me sailing, invited me to concerts and included me at dinners with the great and the good."
In the Wall Street Journal, Peggy Noonan celebrated Buckley as a "complete American original, a national treasure, a man whose energy was a kind of optimism, and whose attitude toward life, even when things seemed to others bleak, was summed up in something he said to a friend: "'Despair is a mortal sin.'"
Among conservatives, only Andrew Sullivan spoke a truth rare among all the superlatives by asking, "(A)m I the only person who found Buckley close to unreadable a lot of the time? I never read his fiction, but his nonfiction was packed the endless sentences, ridiculously long words, and meaning that sometimes took several reads to excavate. I don't know how many times I finished a Buckley column with the thought: what on earth was he trying to say?"
For benighted liberals like me, there was an even more basic problem. For all the conservative blather about our latte-drinking elitism, Buckley was the most elitist figure of his generation, growing up in inherited luxury with a monstrous sense of entitlement and disdain for those who did not share it.
As he dazzled the likes of Kristol, Brooks and Noonan, the rest of us saw only brilliant rationalizations for the politics of selfishness and "Dieu and Mon Droit." Not quite "Let them eat cake," but not too far removed from it.
But speaking ill of the dead may be churlish and ungracious. Let Noonan have the last word about "the defender of great creeds and great belief": "Good night, sweet prince, and flights of angels take thee to thy rest."