Commentary Magazine


Overdrive, by William F. Buckley Jr.

A Celebration

Overdrive: A Personal Documentary
by William F. Buckley, Jr.
Doubleday. 262 pp. $16.95.

The first thing to say about Overdrive is that it is a dazzling book. The second thing to say is that it has generally been greeted with extreme hostility. Are we dealing here, then, with the drearily familiar case of a literary injustice perpetrated for political reasons? On the face of it, certainly, that would seem to be a plausible inference. After all, William F. Buckley, Jr. is famous for holding political opinions that are very unpopular with most of the people who review books in this country, and those opinions are richly in evidence in Overdrive. To be sure, the hostile reviews have not explicitly attacked Overdrive on political grounds, but reviewers who object to an author’s politics nowadays know enough to attack his literary or scholarly equipment instead. "I have never understood the point in disparaging the skills of your adversaries," Buckley writes in an earlier book. "That sort of thing shouldn’t go beyond Virginia Kirkus and the Donald Duck school of literary criticism, or at the other end, John Birch." No doubt it shouldn’t, but it does, so great is the power of the dogma that an author must be granted what Henry James called his donnée and that a critic is there-fore only entitled to pass judgment on his powers of execution. (Of course this not only leads to disparaging the skills of adversaries; it also leads conversely to exaggerating the skills of allies, a sin of which Buckley himself is often guilty.)

Yet repugnant though Buckley’s conservatism undoubtedly is to his critics, I do not believe that the injustice done to Overdrive can be explained in strictly political terms. Something deeper and more interesting is at work here.

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 inbeing frankly and deliberately written for publication.

The epithet Buckley uses to describe this form is "documentary," which suggests a movie or a television program; and indeed, what he gives us here-another difference from most journals-is more action than introspection. He himself says at one point that he has never developed the habit of introspection: "The unexamined life may not be worth living, in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living." Having made this extraordinary confession, he quickly adds: "But excepting my own life, I do seek to examine, and certainly I dilate upon, public questions I deem insufficiently examined." So he does–through National Review, the magazine he has been editing for more than twenty-five years; through the syndicated column he has been writing for about twenty years; through Firing Line, the television program he has been moderating for about fifteen years; through the nineteen books and innumerable articles he has produced over the past thirty-five years; and through the two hundred or so lectures he delivers every year.

In addition, Buckley carries on an enormous correspondence (he gets about 600 letters a week and seems to answer most of them), sits on committees, entertains and is entertained practically every night by friends and acquaintances, spends six weeks every year skiing in Gstaad and another month or so crossing the Atlantic or some other body of water in a sailboat.

All this activity comes into Overdrive, as it also did into Cruising Speed. But Overdrive (subtitled "A Personal Documentary" whereas Cruising Speed was only "A Documentary") zooms in much more frequently on the material circumstances in which Buckley lives his unexamined life. There is the big house in Connecticut which is not only on the water but also contains "the most beautiful indoor pool this side of Pompeii." There is his marvelous 36-foot sloop which seems "to ice-skate over the waves." There is the outsize limousine driven by the perfect chauffeur (one of a host of equally perfect servants) to carry him from Connecticut to his apartment on East 73rd Street in New York, where the furnishings and the appointments would also be at home in Pompeii.

Buckley’s social environs are no less richly furnished than his material environment. He throws a party for National Review’s twenty-fifth anniversary "at which everyone was present except Reagan." But the President, an old friend and a charter subscriber to his magazine, is still in frequent touch, and Buckley goes to the theater with the First Lady, which means "no tickets to buy, or crowds to thread through." When he goes to the ballet, it is as a guest of Joe and Estee Lauder (of cosmetics fame), after which they all have dinner at the home of Ahmet Ertegun ("He either owns the Rolling Stones, or else they own him, something of the sort"). Heads of major corporations fly in from all over the country to attend a lunch at his New York apartment, and when the guest of honor, the Vice President of the United States, is unable to make it at the last minute, the U.S. ambassador to the UN cancels another appointment to fill in. A great lover of music, Buckley not only numbers the eminent Bach specialist Rosalyn Tureck among his friends but is able to get her to perform privately for him at home both on the piano and the harpsichord, which harpsichord has been given to him by another close musical friend, the great virtuoso Fernando Valente. An ailing David Niven (who has since died) spends the weekend with him in Connecticut along with the current U.S. ambassador to France, Evan Galbraith, whose only relation to his namesake, the famous economist, is that they are both Buckley’s pals.

As is evident from his friendship with John Kenneth Galbraith, Buckley is not limited to fellow conservatives for companionship. Norman Mailer has breakfast at his apartment after they have debated on a morning TV show, and on the way out they are nearly run over by Senator Daniel P. Moynihan’s station wagon ("Damn," says Moynihan, whose wit has something in common with Buckley’s, "I could have gotten you both with one swipe," to which Buckley without missing a beat replies that "Norman had already been killed once that morning").

Nor, finally, are only the famous and the powerful admitted into Buckley’s social circle. Many people make appearances in Overdrive who are neither movers nor shakers but who still command Buckley’s regard and affection–professional colleagues, relatives, acquaintances out of the distant past.

The material is fascinating in itself, and all Buckley’s virtues as a writer are called forth in the recording of it. The prose flows smoothly and elegantly, its formality tempered with colloquial touches that somehow never jar, its mischievous wit coexisting in surprisingly comfortable congruence with its high rhetorical solemnities, its narrative pace sure-footed enough to accommodate detours and flashbacks without losing the necessary forward momentum.

In general, there is so much humor, exuberance, and energy in this book that it is hard to believe Buckley when he says at one point that he dislikes writing. The relish with which he writes certainly seems to belie him, as his own "voluptuous fecundity" (to borrow a phrase he uses somewhere of someone else) seems to belie his statement that he finds writing "extremely hard work." Of course many (most?) writers dislike writing and find it very hard to do, but most writers cannot turn out pieces in twenty minutes (which is about what it takes Buckley to do a column) or compose anywhere they hap-pen to be located or that they are on the way to, whether in an automobile, an airplane, or a sailboat.

If he denies the relish with which he writes, however, Buckley revels in the relish with which he lives. Here I must quote the historian Garry Wills, who began as a contributor to National Review and eventually drifted even farther to the Left than he once was on the Right (thinking of Wills and two other National Review alumni, the literary critic John Leonard and the dance critic Arlene Croce, Buckley notes: "For a while I thought we were running a finishing school for apostates"). Wills has rightly said that Buckley is "in love with life," and that his "gift for appreciation is the greatest of his many talents." What indeed (with the surprising exception of ballet) does Buckley not appreciate? His worship of Bach goes to the edge of idolatry and possibly beyond, but he also adores his Smith-Corona electric portable typewriter and a special brand of peanut butter he has discovered that is even better than Skippy ("It is quite simply incomparable. Charlton Heston, who had sent me a jar of his favorite stuff, just plain surrendered when I introduced him to Red Wing").

Of his Connecticut home he writes:

My wife and I know what it is to learn to love a piece of property wholly; defiantly; truculently, even. …. We’ll always be here, then, in the warm summers when the leaves make invisible the houses of our neighbors to the south and north; in the spiky fall season, days like today with the little chill that makes one feel freshly laundered; and in the truly cold cold of the cold days….

Thus the country. And here is a weekday morning in the city:

I have read the newspapers and breakfasted in the beautiful, cloistered, red-red library Pat has so ingeniously decorated and then, in my dressing gown, I climb up the stairs to my little study, which incidentally looks out, between 8 and 8:30, on the handsomest, gayest, most cheerful parade of children aged six to twelve, the youngest of them accompanied by nurses or governesses, all of them carrying sackfuls of books, bouncing off to the multifarious schools concentrated in the area.

If his awareness of these fixed blessings never seems to lose its sharpness for Buckley, he is equally ready to appreciate the transient pleasures of the day. Going out to lunch, he reflects: "It is hard to devise a happier couple with whom to share lunch than Priscilla Buckley and Joe Sobran." Staying in for lunch, he eats "the perfect chicken sandwich" brought to him by a servant and washes it down "with a glass of cool white wine." And so it goes, hour after hour, day after day, with this "blasphemously happy" man who is in love with the life he leads.

In commending Buckley for this, Wills makes a point of distinguishing between being in love with life (good) and being in love with one’s own life (bad). To be in love with life, Wills explains (paraphrasing Chesterton), is to "have the energy to give things their proper response of stunned gratitude or generous combat." Yes, but the "things" in question are in the first place one’s own circumstances, and if these should include great luxuries of every kind, gratitude for them is not only proper but (being so hard to sustain) requires even more energy than is needed for greeting the unexpected. And that Buckley should so appreciate the privileges his wealth has brought is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that he was born rich and could so easily have taken it all for granted or pretended hypocritically to dissatisfaction, or actually felt dissatisfaction. (The talmudic maxim, "Who is rich? He that is content with his lot," applies as much to the rich themselves, especially those with inherited wealth, as to the poor.)

I for one, then, do not doubt that the delight Buckley takes in his privileges is an exemplary spiritual virtue. If I do have a doubt, it concerns the extent of this delight. I mean, is he always so cheerful? Does he never suffer from anxiety? Does he never experience chagrin? Surely he must, and yet there is no sign in this book (or in any of the other books he has written in a similar mode) that he does. All light and no shadow by no means makes Overdrive a dull book, but it does tend to undermine Buckley’s spiritual achievement (much as, for example, the courage of Wagner’s Siegfried is morally compromised by the fact that he has never known fear).

A similar problem arises in connection with Buckley’s appreciation of his friends. He is so good at delivering tributes that one would choose him above all others (well, perhaps not above Daniel P. Moynihan) to deliver the eulogy at one’s own funeral, or better still, the speech in one’s honor on some appropriate occasion. There are samples of both kinds of speeches in Overdrive and they are, without exception, masterpieces of the extremely difficult art of praise. Yet as one character after another parades through these pages sumptuously garlanded with hyperbolic tributes, one’s trust begins to falter. Are all his friends and acquaintances really so wonderful?

Here, as it happens, knowing some of the same people he does, I am in a position to check him out, and I can say categorically of several cases that one of us is blind–either I to the brilliance or he to the dross. Nor is my confidence in the reliability of his judgment strengthened when an American woman we have both met and whose features are unmistakably Occidental is described in Overdrive as a "beautiful Oriental." Obviously Buckley has never looked at this woman; therefore his appreciation of her is not a sign of "the energy to give things their proper response," but rather of the opposite–of carelessness and inattention. Like the literary critic who indiscriminately dispenses extravagant blurbs (Buckley himself does this, for example, when he calls a piece of perfunctory hack work like Wilfrid Sheed’s book about Clare Boothe Luce a "work of art"), he not only inflates the currency of appreciation with his unvarying words of praise for the people around him, but raises questions about the steadiness of his capacity for a "proper response."

The same tendency toward carelessness and inattention has been visible in some of Buckley’s recent public performances. On Firing Line, he no longer seems as sharp as he once did; often he even strikes one as ill- or hastily prepared (a suspicion for which there is some evidence in Overdrive). He was even more slapdash and somnolent as commentator for the television adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited, making the excellent work Alistair Cooke does along the same lines for Masterpiece Theater look even better by contrast. What this suggests is that Buckley’s ability to accomplish so much is no longer a manifestation of the energy he once commanded by virtue of his extraordinary alertness, but is beginning to be maintained at the expense of just such alertness.

This failing, however, is least visible in Buckley’s prose, which has never been wittier, more pointed, more charged with electricity than it is in Overdrive. And it is not in any case Buckley’s failings that account for the ridicule which has been heaped on Overdrive. On the contrary: far from being troubled by doubts about the full authenticity of Buckley’s celebration of his own life, the critics seem to have been offended by the very fact that he celebrates it at all. To experience and express gratitude for one’s blessings may be a virtue in the eyes of Buckley’s Christian faith (and of Judaism as well), but it is not a virtue in the eyes of contemporary American culture, where dissatisfaction with one’s lot is the mandatory spiritual state and obstreperous whining the prescribed form of prayer. It is sinful enough, by the standards of this perverse pietism, to be happy, especially if one is rich, but the sinner should at least have the decency to shut up about it and not publish it in Gath.

In this decency Buckley is even more outrageously lacking than he is in the correlative political attitudes. Thus at the very end of Overdrive, dining at home with his National Review colleagues, Buckley is moved to the following reflection:

… if there were nothing to complain about, there would be no post-Adamite mankind. But complaint is profanation in the absence of gratitude. There is much to complain about in America, but that awful keening noise one unhappily gets so used to makes no way for the bells, and these have rung for America, are still ringing for America, and for this we are obliged to be grateful. To be otherwise is wrong reason, and a poetical invitation to true national tribulation. I must remember to pray more often, because providence has given us the means to make the struggle, and in this respect we are singularly blessed in this country, and in this room.

To my mind, the only "proper response" to such a passage is Amen. But it is not surprising that those who both make and applaud "that awful keening noise" should have been moved instead to curses, contumely, and scorn.

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