A Torch Kept Lit, the collection of obituaries written in real-time, is truly the great book William F. Buckley never knew that he’d written, a panoramic and novelesque tale of New York and the world in the late 20th century, a melange of Foreign Affairs, Vogue and National Review, the magazine that he founded around the conservative movement he led.

His precision, his perception, his generosity (compassionate conservatism!) and his prose style are on full display, as his essay on Truman Capote is better than anything Capote could have written, and a number of others — on Jackie Kennedy and John Lindsay, for instance — are equally dazzling.

There were only two instances on which his judgment seems faulty: He misses the point of our 34th and 35th presidents. He dismisses them as charmers who were nonetheless big disappointments, having been far too passive versus the Soviet Union, and too left-wing at home, Dwight Eisenhower having failed to become a conservative, and John F. Kennedy having been liberal only too well.

How was he to know then that history would judge them correct, and Buckley too rash, in relation to war and the Soviet Union?

And how was he to know that almost 60 years later, they would be regarded as the latter two of a historic string of four giant figures from a lost age of leadership; that Ike would be revealed by Fred Greenstein as a shrewd and conniving “hidden hand” president; and Kennedy as a model, not for liberals, but for a new generation of young conservatives (Marco Rubio among them) who find his blend of American exceptionalism and tax-cutting programs close to their right-leaning hearts?

Who knew partisan tides would shift quite so far as to turn JFK into a neoconservative? And who knew that Harry Truman, Eisenhower and Kennedy, who weren’t much alike, and didn’t much like each other when they were living, would be seen in history’s eyes almost as brothers-in-arms, who worked from 1946 on and until their deaths to build and maintain the Cold War alliance, by way of which, through the work of Ronald Reagan, Bill Buckley’s great hero, the Cold War was finally won?

In 1957, Buckley called Kennedy an “ideological wraith,” and in 1969 blamed Eisenhower for “his dismal unconcern with the philosophy of conservatism … at a point in the evolution of America when a few conservative philosophers at his side might have accomplished more for the ends he sought to serve than the battery of sycophantic (and opportunistic) big businessmen” with whom he liked to pass time.

But Buckley was an ideologue to his core (and the best of that genre) while Eisenhower and Kennedy were pragmatic centrists, the least partisan and the least ideological of all of our presidents. They would have taken Buckley’s critiques as a complement; they were people who were catholic (small ‘c’) in their associations, and to whom love of country was all.

Buckley believed a lack of adherence to a fixed point of view was the sign of a hollow man both in morals and intellect; to them, ideology was the sign of a fixed and fanatic intensity a person (and nation) were better without. Their relations with their party’s conservative and liberal wings were strained and contentious; and they lived in the days before the big “sorting out” in domestic arrangements, in which Buckley got the conservative party he wanted, but the liberals got their own party, too.

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Since then, things have gone rather less well for this country, and ideological presidents who pass purity tests have also fared poorly. Those days, from these days, can look pretty good.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of “Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families.”

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