Maclean's Interview: Christopher Buckley - Macleans.ca

Maclean’s Interview: Christopher Buckley

The novelist talks with Kenneth Whyte about growing up Buckley, losing his parents, and facing down the right

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Maclean's Interview: Christopher Buckley

Q:Your father was a leader of a conservative movement in America for 50 years, publisher of National Review, host of Firing Line for 30-some years, a social force in New York and America, a writer of spy novels, a father and a family man. How would you rank these things in importance to him?

A: You mean what was most important to him in his career? Probably National Review, the magazine that he founded in 1955. That was his most important single endeavour, because it made conservatism respectable again at a time when it had been in pretty precipitous decline.

Q: And among the other accomplishments where does father and family man belong?

A: He was devoted in both those departments but he was also a great man—in the literal sense of that term—and that takes time, so it becomes a sort of a complex equation. He was away a lot and so he wasn’t always available. But that’s a trade-off you make. My mother, my Canadian mother, was a devoted wife to him and made his home really quite spectacular, and they were very much on the social scene, and she gave him a dose of glamour. Which is funny when you consider that she always used to call herself a simple girl from the backwoods of British Columbia.

Also at Macleans.ca: A book exerpt from ‘Losing Mum and Pup: A Memoir’, by Christopher Buckley

Q: She was a daughter of a prominent British Columbian industrialist and raised in fine style—private schools, Vassar—and she seems from the outset to have been the fashionable presence and the social dynamo in the relationship.

A: Yes, very much. Her parents, Austin Taylor and Kathleen Taylor, were big deals in Vancouver—they were civic leaders and he raced horses in the Kentucky Derby—and my mother grew up a debutante. And when she and my dad were married there were about a thousand guests at that reception. It was the biggest wedding, up to that point, in Vancouver’s history . . . It was a big deal, you know, motorcycle escort. I didn’t have a motorcycle escort at my wedding!

Q: It was an enduring relationship.

A: They were married in 1950, just as the Korean War was breaking out, and she died in April 2007, so 56 years.

Q: You mention that there were fights, times of tension between them.

A: Yeah, sure. Show me a marriage that doesn’t have any of that and I will not believe you! They were both larger-than-life characters, and he was impossible in his way and she was impossible in her way. I remember when I was very young he came back one day and said, “Oh, Duckie, there will be 12 for dinner tonight, not four.” This was at 5:30 in the afternoon. Well, how would you feel? I think I would have thrown a piece of crockery at him. He was used to being taken care of, and she always took care of him, and even when she was furious with him, not speaking with him—which was probably about a third of the time—she would provide the dinner for 12, or if he was going away on a business trip she would pack his clothes and make sure he had everything, even if she wasn’t speaking with him, because it was the way she’d been raised. Her mother had taught her that you take care of your man.

Q: In your new book, Losing Mum and Pup, there are amusing anecdotes about your mother involving the Kennedys.

A: Well, they went to Switzerland for 40 winters and for 25 of those years they rented a chateau, an honest-to-goodness castle near Gstaad, and the ritual was that after dinner everyone would go down and paint. My dad had set up a room as a painting atelier, and everyone came: Princess Grace and Rebecca West and David Niven and Roger Moore and deposed kings and queens. One night Teddy Kennedy was there, and it was late. His wife, I guess, had taken their car to go back to Gstaad, so he asked if he could borrow a car, whereupon my mother said, “Don’t give him one! There are two bridges between here and Gstaad!”

Q: You mention your mother’s tendency to tell whoppers—she is, you might say, a recreational liar—and one of the stories was that when she was young, the king and queen of England would meet at her place in Vancouver. Why did she do that?

A: Sometimes when you tell a story you reach a little bit too far just to make the story a better one. But she did have some underlying insecurities: she never finished college. I mean, who would have cared if she finished college? A lot of women didn’t finish college in those days. They got married, you know? I think it left her with a little insecurity that would every now and then manifest itself, sometimes in strident ways. She was literally capable of stopping Henry Kissinger—who was a dear friend—at the dinner table, while Henry was halfway through an explanation of the Middle East, to inform him that he knew absolutely nothing whatsoever about what he was talking about. Her bearing was so formidable that very few people ever challenged her.

Q: So Henry started doubting himself.

A: Well, his eyes would sort of flicker side to side and my dad would jump in and change the subject or whatever. In the process of writing the book—all these things had made me very angry—suddenly I saw them in a different light, almost a comic light. Sometimes time can give you that perspective.

Q: Your father wrote a note about your last book, saying something to the effect of, “This one didn’t really work.”

A: “This one didn’t work for me, sorry. P.S. f–k off.” I have to say, that hurt.

Q: What would possess a man to do that to his son?

A: Well, I don’t know, maybe he was in a cranky mood that day. He was mostly, as I was starting off, very generous and encouraging, although he was always a tough grader. As he should have been. He always said he thought it was a terrible unkindness to encourage someone who didn’t have writing talent, and I get that.

Q: Were you ever critical of his work?

A: I was fairly reticent. The way I dealt with it was I would go the no-comment route. But if he wrote something that I thought was good then I was very, very enthusiastic.

Q: And he was delighted.

A: Well, yeah, he cared. I remember toward the end, he wrote a column. He was in terrible shape, he was suffocating, and he couldn’t sleep, and he had diabetes, and he was worried that his book wasn’t going well. I thought, “My God, this guy, he has nothing left to prove and here he is beating himself over the head because his book isn’t going well.” But he wrote a column in the midst of that that was just aces, and I wrote back. I said, “You know, I do not see how you can do it, even suffering as you are. I’m just so, so proud of you.” And he wrote me back right away and he said, “Oh, Christo, that means so much to me,” and it did.

Q: When your mother embarrassed or upset you, you usually responded in writing rather than on the phone or in person.

A: Well, I tried the face-to-face, or the phone, and that didn’t work. But I was crushed when I found these unopened letters. She had just simply stopped opening them, and some of those letters were “I love you.” But we had a repaired relationship toward the end. I hope that comes through in the book.

Q: You’ve taken some heat from conservative bloggers for revealing your father’s dependence on prescription drugs, his habit of peeing out of moving cars, and his cruelty toward certain people. Did you see this coming?

A: Oh, I couldn’t give a f–k about the conservative bloggers. It’s my father; this is my story, not theirs. Do these stories diminish him in any way? I don’t think so, I think they make him a more complex, textured person.

Q: How did he get into Ritalin?

A: Forty years ago he fainted one afternoon, and so he went to a doctor. He had very low blood pressure and the doctor said, “Well, there’s this pill you can take, or you can eat a pound of chocolate a day,” so my dad said, “Well, give me the pill.” So he was an early taker of this drug that we now know is given to hyperactive kids. He used it minimally for most of those years, but toward the end, he started to take more of this stuff, and he was just self-medicating like crazy.

Q: How exactly does one pee from a moving car?

A: You roll over—he’s in the back of his limo—and you open the door and you just sort of roll to the right. It’s doable. The funny one was the scene in Montreal where he went up and started peeing against the side of the Basilique Notre-Dame in front of about 200 people. At that point, I made a beeline in the opposite direction. It’s like Life with Father on acid, you know, the William Powell movie.

Q: Are there still places in the world where people call one another Duckie and Ducks and go down for brekkers together?

A: I wonder. She was very English Canadian. And he grew up speaking Spanish and then spoke French and then learned English—at age 6—at an English school in London. And his mother was from Louisiana, his father was from Texas, so no wonder he sounded exotic. And she did have this Anglophilia, so it would be brekkers, or Duckie. She had this amazing way of coming up with phrases—she would say, “It is of an imbecility not to be credited.” And I thought, “Wow, where did that come from?” Or she’d say, “That woman is so stupid she ought to be caged.” I thought, “Yeah, God, I wish I’d come up with that.” She was the wittiest woman I knew.

Q: You mention your father and you feeling, after the death of your mother, a lot of grief but also a slight sense of liberation. At the loss of your father you again mention moments of liberation and the grief. Has that continued?

A: Yeah, I’d say so. You know, I reach for the phone several times a day. At the same time there is also this sort of primal sense of, “Hey, I can stay up all night!” At the other level, perhaps I wouldn’t have gone public with my endorsement of Barack Obama, which caused this s–tstorm. I can now speak my mind. Pop was a devout Roman Catholic; I’m a lapsed Catholic. I’m not the village atheist, but I exert my right not to believe, and I doubt I would have been very public about that were he still alive, simply just so as not to hurt his feelings.

Q: This may be unfair but you were identified, to a certain extent, with conservative politics for a long time.

A: Well, not really. It was only in the vestigial sense. I’m a satirist.

Q: Okay, so it wasn’t fair.

A: I think my identity as a “conservative” is entirely inherited. People see the name Buckley and they think “conservative.”

Q: You did work for a Republican president.

A: Yeah, yeah, I was George Bush’s speechwriter when he was vice-president, yeah.

Q: You did move in those circles for a long time; you were a regular at National Review events.

A: Sure, but I also moved in liberal circles, too. I think I can freely say most of my friends are liberals!

Q: Are you going to be more assertive about your politics, and are you going to be, do you think, more estranged from the conservative movement?

A: I think I’m probably the turd in the conservative punch bowl at this point, and this book, from what you tell me and what my wife tells me, will probably make me even turdier. On the other hand, this book is also, oddly, the main selection of a conservative book club, so it’s a mixed bag, and I’m still on the board of directors of National Review. I’m, you know, I’m kind of independent. In most of my books you won’t even find the word Democrat or Republican.

Q: That said, what shape do you think the Republican party is in at the moment in this age of Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter?

A: I think it’s in terrible shape.

Q: Does it need a William F. Buckley?

A: Well, they don’t come along all that often, but yeah. I think it is in need of inspiration, and a figure, perhaps a unifying, gallant figure. There are some very talented people out there, and one of them happens to be from Canada: my friend David Frum, who is probably as smart as they get. I think he will be an important figure in this debate. In terms of the political leaders, the guys who actually run for office, I think probably the most interesting guy on the scene is Newt Gingrich, but I think he’s already had his day in the sun. He throws interesting spaghetti up on the wall. You know, he’s—I think, to my mind—the most interesting to listen to. From where I sit I don’t think we’ve seen yet the guy—or woman—who’s going to do this. But some very hot talent is out there, people like David Brooks or Ross Douthat, but they’re the knights and bishops and rooks on the board, I think. We’re looking for the king, and I don’t know that we’ve found him yet. Or the queen.

Q: How did your relationship with your parents affect your own relationship with your children?

A: I was largely raised by nannies, because my parents were out a lot and away a lot. My father and I started writing long letters to each other when I went off to boarding school when I was 13. My children and I don’t do that. The longest communication I can manage to get from them is usually a 14-character text message: “Hi, Dad. Love you.” That’s the way it seems to go these days. But I have something with them that perhaps my father and I didn’t have, which is more the day-to-day thing.

Q: Another impertinent question. You did have a child outside of your family, and you appear to be estranged from him.

A: That’s an ongoing legal situation and I really can’t talk about it simply for that reason, other than that I am working very hard to resolve that. I look forward to having a relationship with the child, but the legal aspects have to be settled first.

Q: You mention in the book the outpouring of letters that you got when your father died.

A: It was extraordinary. You know, when my mother died I got a handwritten note from Al Gore, whom I don’t know, and he didn’t owe me anything. Canada oughta be real proud of Pat Buckley, because she conquered this country as surely as it has ever been conquered. Her memorial service at the Metropolitan Museum was a big deal. New York was mourning one of its queens. At her memorial service Henry Kissinger said, “Pat used to say, ‘I am just a simple girl from the backwoods of British Columbia.’ If Pat Buckley was a simple girl from the backwoods of British Columbia, I would tremble to meet a sophisticated girl from the backwoods of British Columbia.” He brought down the house.

Q: I was shocked that McCain made no effort to communicate with the family after your father died?

A: Well, I thought it was a little odd. But there was George McGovern: old, frail, cancer-ridden, and with literally 15-foot snowdrifts outside his house in South Dakota, calling me and then being there. You know, that was extraordinary. I saw more name-brand Democrats there than I did Republicans.

Q: That’s an astonishing thing, and a really admirable trait in your father. It’s something you don’t seem to see nearly as much of in this age.

A: No, you don’t. His friendships included Ken Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who defeated my uncle for Senate re-election; Al Lowenstein, whom Pop endorsed, a very liberal Democrat; Ira Glasser, head of the ACLU, for heaven’s sake; Mary Benton, the great liberal journalist. Pop had the gift of friendship. I mean, he had conservative friends too, to be sure, but I think that the ones with the lefties were in a way the most poignant, and I think it’s these kind of relationships that could be so important now. And that’s why I thought it a little odd when I got attacked, as I did, for endorsing Obama, because I think in a way I was almost keeping up the family tradition, sort of reaching across the aisle.