William F. Buckley Jr. made himself difficult for others to eulogize by writing finer eulogies than any living soul. There were elegant tributes to Eisenhower and Reagan and Goldwater, capturing whole lives in a few quick, sure strokes. But the column that I remember most vividly was on Buckley’s mother. “Five days before she died,” he explained, “one week having gone by without her having said anything … the nurse brought her from the bathroom to the armchair and—inflexible rule—put on her lipstick, and the touch of rouge, and the pearls. Suddenly, and for the first time since the terminal descent began a fortnight earlier, she reached out for her mirror. With effort she raised it in front of her face, and then said, a teasing smile on her face as she turned to the nurse, ‘Isn’t it amazing that anyone so old can be so beautiful?’ “ Her son concluded: “The answer, clearly, was, Yes, it was amazing that anyone could be so beautiful.”
Words such as these were enough to inspire generations of young writers (including me) to failed emulation. But they also reveal something about their author. Buckley’s writing always served his deepest loves—his large and exceptional family, his Roman Catholic faith, his blessed and wayward country. Buckley was playful, but not cynical. He was a political showman who knew that politics is more than a carnival. He was a controversialist with larger goals than his own renown.