Overdrive: A Personal Documentary
It should be stated at the outset that I have known William F. Buckley, Jr., for twenty-three years, that he published the first free-lance piece I ever wrote (about growing up Irish Catholic in Hartford, Connecticut), that my impending marriage, in 1964, was announced not in The New York Times but in the editor’s notes column in the National Review. In the nineteen years since I last laid eyes on him, we have corresponded fitfully. I count seventeen communiqués from him in my files, many scribbled in haste in red ink (“Pots of love” being his usual valedictory in the 1960s), others typed with the somehow unnerving notation “Dictated in Switzerland, transcribed in New York.”
The communications usually arrived with books of his or contained comments on books of mine. Sometimes the comments were trenchant (“Stirring… and altogether orthodox,” he noted about an admiring book I had written about Cesar Chavez), sometimes generous (adding to his benediction the information that he had recommended the book to someone important like Sol Linowitz), sometimes cagey; he detested the motion picture made from a novel of mine, but with his voracious generosity of spirit tried to exempt the screenplay, which I wrote, from his good-hearted condemnation of the rest of the exercise.
The last time I saw Mr. Buckley was in 1964 at a Goldwater rally in New York’s Madison Square Garden shortly before the Republicans anointed the senator as their presidential candidate against Lyndon Johnson. With various members of his family and functionaries from the National Review, Mr. Buckley sat in the $1,000 royal box, conservatism’s viceroy regnant, lavishing his dazzling smile on the 18,000 courtiers gathered in the Garden, all of whom, with the possible exception of Senator Goldwater, seemed prepared to kiss the hems of his trousers. It was an idolatry that Mr. Buckley gave no sign of thinking either unjust or untoward.
The rally was standard right-wing guff, the level of humor peaking when the late congressman John Ashbrook referred to Walter Lippmann as “Walter Looselippmann.” After the rally, there was a party given for the Buckleys and their satraps, one of whom was a genial excommunist who could not keep his hands off AWOL servicemen, a condition made unexpectedly poignant by the repeated droll allegations in the Garden that liberals were double-gaited, limp-wristed, and generally light on their feet. The gentleman in question had stashed his latest find, a youthful marine, in a back bedroom along with the attaché cases, but the gyrene, under the mistaken impression that he was meant to be included in the revelry, kept popping up among the aristocracy of the American right like a stripper out of a birthday cake.
This is the sort of incident for which one will search in vain in Overdrive, the latest installment of the long-run Happy Hour that is Mr. Buckley’s version of his life. As with Cruising Speed, his 1971 excursion along the Buckley Expressway, he sets down the events of a single week, in this instance the Monday to Monday before Thanksgiving 1981. In this eight-day period, Mr. Buckley gives speeches in Tampa, Toledo, and New York, tapes two “Firing Line” shows in Louisville, writes three newspaper columns and a piece for TV Guide (“Memorable Guests on ‘Firing Line’ “), attends Nicholas Nickleby, a performance of the New York City Ballet, and a concert by Rosalyn Tureck, goes sailing twice, gives a luncheon for twenty corporate executives (George Bush, the guest of honor, reneges at the last minute for reasons of state and sends in his stead UN Ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick), has David Niven as a weekend house guest, and decides, in Louisville’s Executive West Hotel, to write this book.
Mr. Buckley set the ground rules: “One, there was to be no coyness in the matter of who-do-you-know…two, remain confidential.” Construed literally, this charter suggests a narrative propelled only by the charm of the narrator, and no constitution has ever been given a stricter construction: Mr. Buckley knows practically everyone1 and he is as discreet as a mother superior. Among those of his huge cast of characters who are known personally to me, there is incidence of alcoholism, drug addiction, pederasty, pedophilia, adultery, cuckoldry, and various other manifestations of life’s stigmata, not a hint of which darkens Mr. Buckley’s journal. The result is a truly alarming vision of a life without shadows. In the world according to Buckley, Gatsby would marry Daisy, Tom Buchanan would find eternal happiness with Jordan Baker, Myrtle Wilson would open a chic and successful boutique, and Nick Carraway would become the Republican-Conservative governor of New York, with William F. Buckley, Jr., as his mentor/adviser/éminence blanche.
The tone is established in the first paragraph:
Gloria brought in my lunch on a tray—two pieces of whole wheat toast each with tuna fish covered with some cheese—something my wife Pat had read about somewhere, a salad, a half bottle of Côte Rôtie (I remember the wine’s name only because it’s the one I have in half bottles) and coffee. I leaned back in the big desk chair that reaches to my withers, tucked the napkin under my chin in case bits of tuna oozed out, and looked out at the lawn as I ate.
There is something beguiling about those lines, as there is about much of Overdrive. One inhales and becomes giddy on the high octane of Mr. Buckley’s personality. He is so sublimely unself-conscious, so “blasphemously happy” with his own life that he wishes to share with his readers what amounts to a 50,000-word advertisement for himself. This is a world stained only by oozings of Pat’s tuna thing, a City of God from whence Mr. Buckley dispenses his patronage as if it were sanctifying grace.
The art of the published journal, as practiced by Harold Nicolson, say, is that it illuminates the entire social tapestry encompassed by the diarist’s personal vision. In Nicolson’s diaries, the countless lunches with Sibyl Colefax, Emerald Cunard, and Philip Lothian open up doors that reveal the machinery of abdication and appeasement. What is peculiar about Overdrive is that Mr. Buckley does not appear particularly interested in the details of his broad canvas, its vanity fair, or its larger possibilities. Overdrive has only one true subject, and that is Mr. Buckley himself. For all his vast acquaintanceship, none of the personalities who crossed his social and psychic horizons that week before Thanksgiving was anything more than a dress extra. Walter Wriston is interchangeable with Huey Newton, Jerry Zipkin with Elmo Zumwalt. Adjectives do the work, rather than incident. “Wonderfully amusing,” “marvelously talented,” “awesomely sensitive,” “young and pretty,” “young and resourceful,” “young, fresh, enthusiastic and resourceful”—these are the bright, empty phrases of a Vogue caption, dropped like a noose around those they are meant to describe.
The spotlight is Mr. Buckley’s alone, and he does not blink in its glare. And yet, at stage center, he is really not very giving about himself, except for that sly self-deprecation that comes so easily to the self-infatuated. In his hands, the art of being disarming is a weapon. We learn that he is ambivalent about the ballet, tries to say a rosary before he goes to sleep, has a customized 1978 Cadillac limousine lengthened two extra feet to give him additional leg room, can catnap easily in ten-minute snatches, gives forty-eight lectures a year, loves peanut butter (“I know that I shall never see / A poem lovely as Skippy’s Peanut Butter”), has an unlisted telephone number, got paid ($3,000) for his Playboy interview, spends every February and March skiing in Switzerland. The details are often arresting, but offer no clue about the performer, only about the part he plays.
For what is presented is Mr. Buckley’s long-run production of his life, a bus-and-truck show he was perfected over the past thirty years for the country-club constituencies of Louisville and Tampa and Toledo. His stages are the lecture platform, the debater’s lectern, the business seminar, the talk show, each perfectly adapted to his style, Henry Higgins as conservative ideologue, all sally and riposte. “It is good to travel aboard a train,” he writes about the Orient Express, quoting from a travel piece dashed off for The New York Times between midnight and 5 AM after a flight from London, “built two years after Lenin died, and fifty-four years after one wishes he had died.” He reproves the former editorial-page director of the Times for not having a sense of humor, perhaps because he “is understandably melancholy about having to live in a world whose shape is substantially of his own making.”
Whereas for most of us the mail is a distraction to be endured, for Mr. Buckley it is a way to keep his trigger finger limber; there is nothing like a gracefully punitive postscript for putting impertinence in its place. He recalls a correspondent from Gettysburg College who had not liked his commencement address, “allowing me to make the obvious reply—namely, that I was hardly surprised, since after all Gettysburg owed its reputation substantially to its historical underestimation of great orations.” Always his passion is for the last word. “Sid, the trouble with you is that you find everybody innocent,” he remarks to Sidney Zion, then a New York Times reporter who was claiming someone’s innocence. Mr. Zion, no slouch himself at having the last word, seems to have had the tact not to reply, “Except Edgar Smith.”
The occasional cloud is wafted offstage, as if on wires. Mr. Buckley is oblique about his family’s difficulties with the Securities and Exchange Commission, which filed a complaint against the Catawba Corporation (owned by Mr. Buckley and his siblings). While specifically exonerating Catawba of fraud, the SEC accepted a consent decree signed by Mr. Buckley’s brother acknowledging violations of SEC regulations. “I have a book-length manuscript describing the outrages attendant on my own brush with the SEC,” he writes in a letter. “I haven’t published the book because my friends tell me it is too goddamn boring, and that part of me which is an editor agrees.” He then spends four pages attacking Time’s story about the SEC judgment, that part of him which is an editor apparently agreeing that it is never too boring to go after Time.
Mr. Buckley is similarly offhand when he recalls once being sentenced to the “Merv Griffin Show” with a bright-eyed young crooner who revealed that he and his wife watched porno movies on their home video recorder. With appropriate irony, he reported this in his column, but since he could not remember the singer’s name and was in a rush to get to Fiji and a scuba-diving holiday, he simply called him a “Pat Boone-type.” This earned him a call from Pat Boone’s lawyer (the qualifier “type” was lost in transmission, not that it mattered legally, and the singer on the show in any case was John Davidson) and it cost Mr. Buckley $5,000 to settle. He blithely absolves this libel as an example of “antonomasia” (“the use of a proper name to express a general idea,” OED), saying rather too airily that in this instance he meant a “Pat Boone-type” to imply any crooner of the well-scrubbed variety. It is not for Mr. Buckley to admit to an inattentive memory and careless writing when the polysyllabic evasion of “antonomasia” is available.
To recognize such an evasion would be to encourage the self-examination that Mr. Buckley avoids as if it were communism. “I do resist introspection, though I cannot claim to have ‘guarded’ against it,” he writes, “because even to say that would suppose that the temptation to do so was there, which it isn’t.” Work is introspection’s saltpeter. “The search for virtue is probably best drowned out by commotion, and this my life is full of. It is easier to stay up late working for hours than to take one tenth the time to inquire into the question whether the work is worth performing.”
In the face of all this purposeful commotion, it is instructive to look for literary antecedents. If the Norman Podhoretz of Making It can be read as Trollope’s arriviste Phineas Finn, with Midge Decter an unlikely Mme. Max, then with Overdrive we are in the country of The Good Soldier. It is a world of surfaces, placid and civilized. The effect is at first glinting and funny, but Mr. Buckley’s vision is so hermetically focused on himself that one begins to wonder if under that coat of thin veneer there is anything but another coat of thin veneer. The spontaneous is not valued, because it opens a window of vulnerability. One remembers Mr. Buckley’s celebrated television encounter with Gore Vidal, when spontaneity spurted from him like pus from a boil. “Crypto Nazi,” Mr. Vidal said. “Now listen, you queer,” Mr. Buckley replied. “Stop calling me a crypto Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.” This is the true territory of The Good Soldier.
Mr. Buckley is an anomaly in American life, a man who has been made, or who made himself, systematically déclassé. “I never knew I was an Irish Catholic until I ran for mayor of New York,” he once told Martin Nolan, then a reporter for the Boston Globe.2 His father made his pile elsewhere, the initial strike in the oil business in Mexico, and having made it set about creating a style. The style was mid-Atlantic patrician, a style that his namesake son further alchemized into patrician celebrity.
Yale was the smithy where this created consciousness was forged. (It is invigorating to speculate how Mr. Buckley might have turned out had he gone to Holy Cross or Seton Hall or any of the more primitive academic stalags of the Irish and the Catholic.) With strenuous Christian energy, he became the quintessential BMOC, the big man on campus, skipping from success to success, from the chairmanship of the Yale Daily News (via the minor scandal of a unanimous vote, having cast his own ballot for himself), to Skull and Bones, to God and Man at Yale. There always has been a sense of the dominant undergraduate about Mr. Buckley, a triumph of managerial style. His is a BMOC view of life; all good naturally flows to the Bones man.
The undergraduate urbanity never cracks. He is positively jaunty about the suicide of a friend who had once threatened to put Yale’s first black football captain, Levi Jackson (“amiable and formidable”), on academic probation just before the Princeton game: “I…happily assume his tragedy was unrelated to any contrition for what he had done, or almost done, to Levi Jackson and the Director of Yale Athletics.” From John Kenneth Galbraith he dragoons a jacket blurb for his son Christopher’s first book, Steaming to Bamboola. “Dear Ken,” he wires Galbraith. “Tell you what. If you read Christopher’s book, I’ll take a dive on Thursday” (when Buckley and Galbraith were scheduled to debate Reaganomics). The plug is almost immediately forthcoming, dictated over the telephone by Mr. Galbraith to Mr. Buckley, who then passes it on to his son’s publisher. There seems no apprehension that his rendering of this episode might pain either Christopher Buckley or Mr. Galbraith. In the senior society of life, it is what friends are meant to do.
And always he views the world with the amused condescension of the entitled. He drives to Mass with the maids, Rebeca, the “solicitous and fussy Guatemalan,” and Olga, “an otherworldly and gay-spirited Ecuadorian,” and on the way home discusses with them the mystery of transubstantiation. We are not told how Olga and Rebeca responded to Mr. Buckley, any more than we are told how all those “young, fresh, enthusiastic and resourceful” famous people responded to his ripostes, When it comes to the thoughts of others, Mr. Buckley exercises his droit de seigneur; but the seigneur himself seems distracted and disjointed, as he approaches his fifty-eighth birthday. The show has been on the road too long. There have been too many plane trips, too many nights spent in Executive West hotels. Mr. Buckley has spread himself so thin that he has begun to repeat himself, repeatedly. Overdrive is Cruising Speed Redux as last year’s Atlantic High is Airborne Redux. In the new versions we laugh at the memory of old stories better told. The ambiance is “dictated in Switzerland, transcribed in New York.” As might be expected, Mr. Buckley is unrepentant. “The unexamined life may not be worth living,” he writes, “in which case I will concede that mine is not worth living.” He clearly does not believe it, but his is a performance sorely in need of the very examination he refuses to give it.
'Overdrive': An Exchange November 10, 1983
More or less in order of appearance, the following people turn up in Overdrive: Whittaker Chambers, Mortimer Smith, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Lounsbury, Levi Jackson, William Sloane Coffin, Jr., Howard Hunt, Charles Frankel, Huey Newton, Bernadette Devlin, Harold Macmillan, Jimmy Hoffa, Frank Stanton, John LeBoutillier, Gordon Liddy, Ronald Reagan, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Jr., Doria Reagan, John Kenneth Galbraith, Norman Mailer, Alfred Kahn, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Clif White, Marvin Liebman, Ralph Davidson, Betty Prashker, Hugh Kenner, William Shawn, William Rusher, John Oakes, A.M. Rosenthal, Punch Sulzberger, James Jackson Kilpatrick, Allen Weinstein, Rosalyn Tureck, David Oppenheim, Merv Griffin, Pat Boone, John Davidson, Norman Lear, Joe McCarthy, Nelson Rockefeller, Henry Kissinger, Nancy Kissinger, Carroll O’Connor, Frank Snepp, Stansfield Turner, Charlton Heston, Frank Shakespeare, Perry Prentice, Estée and Joseph Lauder, Arlene Croce, Arthur Gelb, Barbara Gelb, Drue Heinz, Jack Heinz, Ahmet Ertegun, Mica Ertegun, Stringfellow Barr, Albert Jay Nock, A. Bartlett Giamatti, Irving Kristol, Jeffrey Hart, James Burnham, David Niven, Queen Elizabeth, the Duke of Edinburgh, John Simon, Jerry Zipkin, Sidney Zion, Victor Navasky, Walter Meade, Phil Donahue, Gore Vidal, Alistair Horne, Gene Shalit, George Will, Sam Vaughan, John Chamberlain, Schuyler Chapin, Admiral John McCain, Patrick Buchanan, Roger Fontaine, Elmo Zumwalt, Ellsworth Bunker, Sam Ervin, Barbara Walters, Roy Cohn, Evan Galbraith, Wilfrid Sheed, Peter Glenville, Herb Caen, Fernando Valenti, Michael Novak, Mark Green Don Hewitt, Louis Auchincloss, Ralph Nader, Frank Mankiewicz, John Y. Brown, Warren Steibel, Clare Boothe Luce, Thomas Sowell, Spiro Agnew, Robert Haldeman, Peter Flanigan, Richard Nixon, Dwight Chapin, Orrin Hatch, Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn, Stuart W. Little, the Prince of Wales, Loel Guinness, Richard Clurman, Shirleykins (Mrs. Richard Clurman), William Clark, Al Haig, Lee Annenberg, Thomas Enders, Edgar Smith, David Belin, Marion Levy, William Rickenbacker, D. Keith Mano, Martin Nolan, Thomas Winship, Philip Weld, Carlos Romero Barcelo, Kevin Starr, George Bush, Harvey Shapiro, George Kennan, Pat Brown, Milton Friedman, Frank Borman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, Walter Wriston, Charles Lichtenstein, plus siblings, servants, National Review staffers, mother, wife, son, and Rowley the pooch. ↩
As recalled by Mr. Nolan in a telephone conversation on June 14, 1983. Mr. Nolan and Mr. Buckley subsequently engaged in a spirited correspondence (recorded in Overdrive) after the former took over as editor of the >Globe’s editorial and Op-Ed pages. Mr. Buckley did not think the Globe was running his column often enough (the result, he contends, of Mr. Nolan’s personal antagonism toward him) and Mr. Nolan did not think the columns were good enough, or as good as George Will’s. Mr. Buckley sharply complained and Mr. Nolan canceled his column. The contretemps was brought up before the Globe’s board of directors at its annual meeting. Mr. Nolan asked the paper’s circulation manager if there had been any loss of circulation after Mr. Buckley’s departure to the Boston Herald-American and the circulation manager said no. There the matter was dropped. ↩