• William F. Buckley, Jr., wrote books as easily as most people write letters, and most of them, not at all surprisingly, have proved to be of ephemeral interest. Such is the near-inevitable fate of the journalist, who writes not for posterity but for the immediate moment. Bill had a different kind of claim on posterity’s attention. But I suspect that some of his essays will also prove to have a lasting life as will at least one of his bonafide books, Cruising Speed: A Documentary. Published in 1971, Cruising Speed is a present-tense diary of a single, randomly chosen week in Bill’s phenomenally hectic life, written on the fly as a kind of literary experiment. It is, so far as I know, sui generis, a genre all to itself save for the companion volume, Overdrive, that Bill wrote in 1983, at which time Norman Podhoretz succinctly described the rules of the game in a glowing review that appeared in COMMENTARY:
Like Cruising Speed (1971) before it, Overdrive is an account of a single, and presumably typical, week in Buckley’s life. Everything he does or that happens to him in the course of that week is recorded, along with such background information or reminiscence as is needed to make the present moment fully intelligible. The form, in other words, is a journal, but one that differs from the usual journal in being frankly and deliberately written for publication.
I liked Overdrive very much, but its publication inevitably detracted from the uniqueness of Cruising Speed, which seemed and seems to me the most aesthetically satisfying piece of writing that Bill ever did, just as it conveys his wholly original personality more fully and precisely than anything else he wrote. He was not by nature an introspective man—that was why he never succeeded in writing the systematic exposition of conservative philosophy that had long been his great goal—but a journalist pur sang, and in Cruising Speed he miraculously found a way to tease art out of his unreflective hastiness.
The book’s most striking passage comes at the very end, when Bill pauses for a moment to consider a letter he had just received from “Herbert,” a friendly left-wing historian who urged him to turn from his incessant public pursuits and spend more time in intellectual contemplation. “What will be your thoughts,” Herbert wrote, “if when you come to your deathbed you look back and realize that all your life amounted to no more than one big highly successful game of power and self-glorification?”
The letter brought Bill up short, and caused him to ask of himself the hard questions that can be found in the penultimate paragraph of Cruising Speed:
Herbert is hauntingly right—c’est que la vérité qui blesse—what are my reserves? How will I satisfy them, who listen to me today, tomorrow? Hell, how will I satisfy myself tomorrow, satisfying myself so imperfectly, which is not to say insufficiently, today; at cruising speed?
I have been no less haunted by that passage ever since I first read it many years ago. It never occurred to me to ask Bill about it—I didn’t know him well enough—but I wondered whether he still asked himself the same questions. Certainly he was asking them in 1983, for Overdrive contains an equally striking sentence on a similar theme: “The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living.”
It goes without saying that Bill’s life was worth living: he was one of the greatest public figures to come along in my lifetime, and one of the most consequential journalists of the century. But the fact that he should have thought to question the ultimate value of his own crowded life—and that he had the courage to do so in public—says something deeply moving about his own essential seriousness.