Morning in America

Were an alien, in a happy state of ignorance, to drop out of the skies today and pick up a piece of the large, and daily increasing, oeuvre of William F. Buckley Jr., he would, I think, come to some interesting conclusions. Freed of preconceptions, knowing nothing about Buckley’s long-popular TV show, Firing Line, which he hosted for many years, or the political convictions that lie behind National Review, which he founded, the alien might come up with a very different image from the one that sometimes confounds the rest of us. He would see, I suspect, an earnest, largely cheerful man, not anxious to tax himself too strenuously, and yet eager, in a rather old-fashioned way, to pass on what he knows of recent history—and his sense of fun—to as many readers as possible.

The man’s interests (the alien would soon notice) are rooted, even in the age of globalism and of the Pacific Rim, in the issues of the cold war and of the war that led up to it; France, Germany, and Russia are his principal concerns abroad, and the people by whom he seems fascinated (James Jesus Angleton, say, the center of his 2000 novel Spytime) are hardly in many people’s thoughts today. While such contemporaries as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal and John Updike chafe and prod at the state of things, investing even the lightest of their books with their driving concerns and a sense of exploration, Buckley’s work is distinguished mostly by its sense of ease. He seems content, in fact, to present himself as little more than a host, guiding visitors around the stately home of history.

The alien might know nothing of the two long columns of previous works listed at the beginning of every new book (with such titles as Cruising Speed, Racing Through Paradise, and WindFall). He might be unaware of the 1,429 episodes of what the author’s biography always calls “television’s longest-running program,” the 227 obituaries he has written (of everyone from E.E. Cummings and John Dos Passos to Jerry Garcia and John Lennon), even of the thirty-nine years of twice-weekly columns that take up 162 double-columned pages of his 310-page bibliography. What such a newcomer would be struck by, in fact, is not the sense of ambition, but rather its absence; the books he picked up randomly might baffle him in part through their seeming lack of interest in making, or scoring, a point. Most writers are anxious to insist on how much lies behind their work and how much the books into which they’ve thrown themselves aim to change a reader’s life; with Buckley, the impression is very much the opposite. At the beginning of his collection of speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things, he tells us how little he puts into each oration and confesses that, during the seventy or more speeches he gives each year, he sometimes hardly knows whom he’s addressing or where he is; he seems to sit outside even himself (the author of See You Later Alligator) with a smile.

This insouciance raises the question, inevitably, of why this most easygoing of souls, as he appears to be, turns out books at such a furious rate. Of all current writers, Buckley seems among the ones least in need of ready cash; and the celebrity the books have brought him (or, more likely, consolidated) is of the kind that has removed him from serious consideration in many quarters. Some see him as the writer that the masses regard as an intellectual and that many intellectuals regard as one of the masses, producing books that hardly begin to overlap with those of many of his peers.

The easy answer to all this would be to say that he is a professional amateur of the old school, still more often found in Britain than here, akin to those men who throw off gardening books in their free hours, or write detective stories, say, when not running for public office. Buckley gives the impression of being eager to put every moment to use, though not being unduly concerned about what that use might be (not every writer, after all, would preserve for posterity his speech before the Girls Club of New York, his introductory remarks to the Sales Executives Club of New York, or a “valentine” offered to the society columnist Suzy). Read through several of his books in one go and you come away with a grand, and infectious, sense of diversion and amusement; you also enter a universe that seems to have no place for pain.

Take, for example, his recent novel Elvis in the Morning, a highly unexpected product even before one gets to the large picture of a shirtless Elvis on the back of the hardcover edition, the blurb from the author of Musical Chairs (“I loved this book”), and, on the inside back cover, a picture of the author that is, in fact, a “painting of Mr. Buckley” (at his least Elvisian). To prepare for this work, the opening pages tell us, Buckley read, among other tomes, The Elvis Encyclopedia, Good Rockin’ Tonight, and Let it Blurt, a biography of the gonzo rock critic Lester Bangs. He also paid a visit to Graceland, and the “Chief Executive Officer of Elvis Presley Enterprises” is warmly thanked.

As in many Buckley novels, the action that follows is seen through the eyes of a likable, largely guileless young man by the name of Orson Killere, who is growing up on an American army base in Germany in the Fifties, and is much taken by “the rapturous sound, the beat, the joy on the godlike face of the performer” known as Elvis Presley. When fourteen-year-old Orson is arrested for breaking into a PX in Wiesbaden to filch some Elvis records, and sentenced to thirty days’ confinement, the King gets wind of the act of devotion and suddenly descends to croon, “Missin’ you dahlin’, missin’ you” before the startled boy and his mother. From such unlikely beginnings a lifelong friendship is born.

As the book goes on, Orson develops, conveniently enough, into a kind of politicized Forrest Gump, getting expelled from Ann Arbor, where he is a student activist, in 1964, hoboing across America with a copy of On the Road and some joints, and falling into a company that’s beginning to make computers. In the middle of his journey he meets an equally fresh and openhearted Mormon girl (sometimes dressed in a “brand-new Goldwater-for-President sports shirt, the top two buttons unfastened”), and learns from her that “Mormons have problems, like everybody else.” As Elvis embarks upon his passage through Hollywood, the White House, and Las Vegas, Orson is brought into his circle as a token regular guy, and (more important, perhaps) as the kid who introduced the King to his teenage schoolmate Priscilla. When Elvis dies, Orson’s “eyes were flooded with tears” and he is left to wander down “memory lane.”

If a typical American, not blessed with an alien’s innocence, were to be asked what William Buckley is famous for, she would most likely mention conservatism and a large vocabulary. Yet it must be said that these are two of the tendencies least apparent in Elvis in the Morning, as in all of the Buckley novels I’ve read. Few conservatives I know in their seventies would devote so much of their already oversubscribed time to detailing the life of a “world revolutionary socialist” with such sympathy and sincerity—or would make him almost the moral center and guiding voice of a long narrative (to the point where we are moved to recall that “Orson” is a corruption of “our son,” and a way, perhaps, for Buckley to try to imagine himself into the younger generation of the Sixties). And at no point in the book does the language suggest excessive education.

In his opening pages, with customary grace, Buckley thanks an “extraordinary” copy editor, another copy editor, a member of his four-person unit who also “helped with the copy editing,” and at least five others who went through the manuscript, quite apart from his beloved editor, a “Philemon” to his “Baucis.” None of them, one has to assume, demurred when Elvis, singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” to the fourteen-year-old Orson, reveals a face “wreathed with pleasure” (or seven pages later, when a woman invited to Elvis’s bed “gurgled her assent”). Nobody is likely to suspect that a stylist or a thinker is at work in these pages, and yet there is a kind of boyishness, a friendly absence of worldliness, that disarms some of one’s skepticism: “Lying naked at her side, he stroked and kissed her. She moved her hands about his body, coming to rest finally on his tremulous and worshipful sex. He hoped and prayed that it would last forever.”

One can easily read all 328 pages of Elvis in the Morning without knowing why exactly Mr. Buckley has seen fit to fill us in on Elvis’s opening act in 1975 (and then to amplify the details ten pages later), or why he wishes to immortalize the “great, booming caterwaul of Grace Slick.” The book startles one not with the pressure put upon the narrative, but rather with the almost complete absence of all pressure: people go through near-fatal accidents, revolutions break out, and no event is presented as more urgent than any other. In some ways the brisk skim across the decades reads like a blueprint for a screenplay (with Tobey Maguire, no doubt, taking the part of Orson). People who hear that Buckley has written about Elvis may assume that he is making a bid for the marketplace and hoping to attach himself to the glamour of one of America’s undying icons. Yet in reality he never tries to make his story racy or sensational (just as he never tries to make it searching or thoughtful or very suggestive). One comes away feeling that he probably wrote it in just the position of pastoral ease—sitting on a summer’s day outside a Connecticut country house—suggested by the “painting of Mr. Buckley.”

In certain ways, perhaps, the book allows him to take stock of the Six-ties, and of all the revolutions that turn around the world of his boy-hero, a champion debater who’s half-American and half-French. Yet as the story went on, I began to see another parallel being suggested by the large, glad-handing Southerner with a much younger woman at his side, and a grand charm always about to be undone by his appetites. Elvis is portrayed throughout as compulsively chatting people up, on the phone night and day, encircled by a war-room entourage, and given to ordering in girls to keep him company in the lonely hours of the night. When sometimes he so oversteps propriety that he seems about to self-destruct, Orson is brought in, like a fledgling George Stephanopoulos, to tell the boss all the things his full-time flunkies cannot say, and to soothe the waters with Priscilla.

The Berkeley critic Greil Marcus has devoted an entire book to playing out the correspondences between Elvis Presley and Bill Clinton, noting that the familiar identification of the two “began as a joke and has not quite held that shape.” Buckley is too much of a gentleman to belabor the point, and, in any case, his treatment of a political opponent is strikingly free of rancor or unease. He does raise his eyebrows a little that Elvis, addicted popper of pills, should volunteer to help President Nixon in his war on drugs, and that the man who goes through women as if they were Kleenex should fulminate against American morals; but for the most part his treatment of the King is remarkably benign, ending with a brief valedictory that notes that “practically everybody liked Elvis.” When the young Priscilla (blessed, in Buckley’s words, with “stately legs” and skin “bronzed by the sun of Tennessee”) is brought to Graceland for a special tour, she “shrieked with glee. ‘Oh, Elvis, it’s so-oh beautiful the way you have it lit for tonight! It’s just like the White House!’”

Not many readers, I think, will remember Buckley for Elvis in the Morning and not many may remember Elvis in the Morning even with the Buckley name attached to it. Yet it does, to a surprising degree, reveal many of the qualities that distinguish his more substantial work. In Let Us Talk of Many Things, he offers a testimonial to his National Review colleague John Simon that praises his “gentility” and “wit,” and then adds, “There is something about him that is a dramatic betrayal of the person one expects from the public reputation.” As often in these pages, the description best applies to Buckley himself. He begins his collection of speeches by singling out two orators he regards as all but peerless—Hubert Humphrey and Bill Clinton; and at one point, addressing a society of underground and underwater engineers on the night that the Senate is discussing Clinton’s impeachment, he actually argues against bringing the President down if only, in part, on the eminently practical grounds that to do so would be to bring Al Gore into the White House with a much better chance of carrying the 2000 election.

An impressive number of the tributes collected in the book are, in fact, directed at the very men who have been his longstanding political antagonists: John Kenneth Galbraith, Murray Kempton, Walter Cronkite, and the man Buckley calls “the original activist,” Allard Lowenstein.

In his affectionate introduction to the speeches, David Brooks wonders, more than once, what it is that makes Buckley run. But he ends by highlighting the man’s graces, his companionable warmth, and his gift for friendship, and, regardless of one’s political preconceptions, it’s hard indeed not to be won over by these qualities as one makes one’s way through the often elegant encomia collected here. Though Buckley is too modest to mention it, one of the great contributions of his National Review to American letters has been its discovery, and cultivation, of many distinctive voices not at all conservative (those of Garry Wills, Joan Didion, and John Leonard, among others). Brooks himself, we read, first came to Buckley’s attention when, as a student at the University of Chicago, he wrote a parody of Buckley’s frenetic account of his social calendar, Overdrive. Buckley was so delighted by the spoof, he tells us, that he included it in the paperback edition of Overdrive and gave Brooks a job at his National Review.

What emerges most clearly from the speeches is a willingness not to take himself, or anything, too seriously, and a kind of mischievous glee at his ability to cross ideological lines (he collects blurbs for the book from such political opponents as George McGovern, a slightly guarded Michael Kinsley, and Galbraith). Though it has been the misfortune of Christopher Buckley often to be regarded in the light of his famous father, it may be more useful to see Buckley père in the context of his son: as a cheerful, effortless-seeming purveyor of jeux d’esprit less important for ideology than for the wish to give pleasure.

The word that reverberates through the speeches is “generosity.” Buckley singles out the “reckless generosity” of the writer John Chamberlain (“surely the most generous heart anyone in this room has ever known”), and, extolling James Burnham as the intellectual star and hero of National Review, settles finally on his “generosity.” He even finds “generous instincts” in Margaret Thatcher, and one recalls that the single most arresting phrase—and interesting perception—in Elvis in the Morning is a late reference to the “explosive generosity of the twenty-one-year-old icon.” Speaking on behalf of his older brother James, who was running for senator from New York in 1970, Buckley remarks that his brother would stand up even for Eldridge Cleaver if Cleaver were involved in a car accident with James Buckley’s best friend and Buckley saw that Cleaver was in the right.

This speaks, perhaps, to an almost vanished sense of what it is to be a gentleman, prizing fairness above all else. But it also speaks to what comes to seem a deep-rooted suspicion of all ideologies. Growing up at a time when the news was full of the atrocities of Hitler and Stalin and Mao seems to have left Buckley with a compulsive revulsion against what he calls “the most exotic and the most mortal illness of our time, the mania of ideology.” Introducing his spy-novel hero Blackford Oates, he begins (with characteristic impishness, perhaps) by citing Carlyle’s observation that politics is the preoccupation of the quarter-educated. Even addressing the Ethel Walker School for girls, in 1977, he says,

Man is a creature not—as their rhetoric would sometimes lead us to believe—of the Democratic Party, but of a divine plan, whose mysteries we will never fully understand, but which vouchsafes us some moments of pleasure and of tranquil gratitude.

His enemies might say that he is effectively using rhetoric of his own here to identify the Republican Party with the party of God. But to my ear he’s putting both parties in their place, next to a higher commitment that is sovereign in him. A large part of his calm seems to come from the faith he shares with Chesterton and Waugh.

The pieces collected in Let Us Talk of Many Things are, of course, mostly public occasions for celebrating private ties, and to that extent they are made for forbearance and magnanimity, and the avoidance of divisive issues. Besides, these represent only the few of the many Buckley speeches over five decades that he has chosen to include. Yet one comes away from them thinking that an alien might indeed be catching truths that those of us who think we know about him miss. For one thing, toasts and roasts really do seem to be his element, and, at least as he grows older, one does not feel that he has the stomach or the heart for argument (unless, perhaps, the combatants can make up and be friends afterward). You will find here none of the ferocious wit and forensic intensity of, say, Vidal, writing even now on the case for Timothy McVeigh. The quality that seems to possess and define Buckley—again, he applies it, approvingly, to his brother—is that of “transideological attraction.” As he says of an old liberal critic and friend, “Murray Kempton will help anybody when he is down.”

If there is a dogma apparent here, it is the refusal to let philosophy ever get in the way of humanity. “One has to struggle to remember exactly what ‘Gaullism’ was,” he says, praising Margaret Thatcher for her ability to transcend her own politics, “but not at all to remember who Charles de Gaulle was.” For very different reasons from the ones E.M. Forster had, and in spite of his reputation, Buckley gives the impression that he would always put his friend before his cause. Even visiting the Soviet Union, in 1971, and being subjected to apparatchik propaganda, he regrets the stray joke he makes, and notes that it is “the remark of a bully. One does not make light of the doctrine of transubstantiation with an altar boy.”

To his opponents, of course, all this might smack of mealy-mouthedness and an absence of intellectual curiosity; certainly, Buckley seems troubled by fewer questions than most of us are, and doubt, anxiety, unsettledness seem strangers to his world. If you put this collection of speeches next to Vidal’s United States or Updike’s Hugging the Shore—not to mention Mailer’s Presidential Papers—you come away with a startled sense of someone not deeply interested in venturing fresh ideas about America and the world. For those not predisposed to Buckley, his very serenity (another word that runs through the speeches, describing a quality he finds even in Henry Kissinger) may look very much like complacency. Readers in today’s climate may also feel uncomfortable when he gives the impression of belonging to and cherishing an earlier America of exclusive, all-male clubs, where power is in the hands of a very few and women are treated with an appreciative courtliness that can look like condescension. Over and over, in his thinking and his person, Buckley returns to Yale, and one can feel that at some level he’s never strayed very far from the cosier regions of Connecticut.

The more you read, in fact, the more you come to see how much he has in common with his friend Ronald Reagan: a great gift for seeing the best in things, a determined refusal to be troubled by too much complexity, a readiness to let his assistants take care of the details, and a winning ability, once the team has completed its research, to come on-air or in print to offer a smiling reassurance and some eloquence. Even in the earliest speeches here, when Buckley was in his twenties, there is none of the fury of revolutionary impatience or restlessness of mind one might expect from an energized student; at an age when Mailer was writing The Naked and the Dead, and Pynchon was writing V, Buckley was talking of “our responsibilities to mankind,” and asserting, “There are higher values than art.”

It is this gift, perhaps, that accounts for his great success as an emcee: he offers a sense of having made of his hobbies (sailing, say) a passion, and of his passion no more than a hobby. And he conveys such information as he’s gathered with an excitement so unfeigned it’s contagious. Look for a spirit of inquiry and existential urgency here and you will be deeply disappointed—think, by contrast, of how Don DeLillo has wrestled with the last five decades of American history, or how John le Carré probes at the divisions in his half-German, half-English characters. Yet go in search of optimism and a fretless innocence—the very blitheness that makes Elvis in the Morning so hard to dislike—and you will come away well-satisfied. At times it feels as if Buckley is ready to like everything except the dark. He endowed Blackford Oates, he tells us, with some of the qualities of a “Yale man,” notably “self-confidence” and an “American look” that “wears quite offhandedly its special proficiencies.” I don’t know if those traits are peculiar to New Haven, but they certainly are distinctive in Buckley.

This confidence, which underwrites the generosity he extends to almost everyone he meets, also seems to make it genuinely hard for him to understand those who don’t share his sanguine view of things. Debating Mailer in 1962, Buckley makes a joke of what he calls his adversary’s fascination with “sexual neuroses” and complains that “only demonstrations of human swinishness are truly pleasing to him.” This may be only a rhetorical strategy, but it certainly has little to do with Mailer’s very real engagement with demons and angels. Confronted, later, by the young John Kerry’s descriptions of the American atrocities he saw in Vietnam, Buckley says, more in sorrow than in anger (anger, indeed, is conspicuously absent from these pages), that if America really is a “nation of sadists, of kid-killers and torturers,” we might as well hope for a flood to wash us all away. An absolute freedom from cynicism is part of what keeps Buckley forever young: the last article of his I came across was in Yahoo Internet Life, applauding the wonders of the Internet. But it also suggests a determination not to look too closely at what’s unsettling. In the very first speech included here—from Class Day at Yale in 1950—the twenty-four-year-old Buckley is found declaiming, “We must punch the gasbag of cynicism and skepticism, and thank providence for what we have and must retain.” Conservatism in this context mostly means conserving old values.

When it comes to the printed page, this resolute buoyancy can exact a cost. In the most recent of his fifteen novels, for example—Nuremberg: The Reckoning—Buckley chooses to look at the rise of Hitler and the central trial of the century just past through, as ever, the eyes of a hopeful and eager young idealist, Sebastian Reinhard, keen to do good in the world and to learn everything he can of it. Called in to translate for Kurt Amadeus, one of the twenty-three war criminals awaiting sentencing at Nuremberg (Sebastian is half-German), the young man provides a way for Buckley, usefully, to compress the complex event into a single confrontation among individual people and, as is his wont, to show us how titanic events play out in the wide and uncorrupted eyes of a nineteen-year-old Everyman.

Yet what this means in practice is that, even as Hitler is coming to power and preparing for his elimination of six million, Buckley is busy telling us about the Paprikasuppe in the Innsbruck Hotel, and informing us that “there is more vodka produced in the area of Lodz than in any equivalent area anywhere in the civilized world.” The book begins with a clubman’s toast (“Unemployment certainly isn’t a problem in the Third Reich”) and seems reluctant to move very far from a tone of frat-house raillery: of Goering, one character opines, “Licking his ass would certainly take a lot of time.”

There’s certainly no shortage of research being done in Buckley’s atelier, and none of it is wasted—we are filled in on the activities of the Munich Symphony in 1899 and the facilities of the Grand Hotel in Nuremberg. And the researchers generally deserve their pay more than do the copy editors (“She told him it was always he she truly loved,” we read at one point and, as if in response, a little later, “He wondered if his grin was concupiscent as he rose ardently from his chair”). The well-bred gentleman, rising ardently from his chair to greet the guests, does what he can not to speak of anything too serious, and to put his visitors at ease. Yet there remains a reluctance to look at evil—which is to say depth and intensity and challenge—that makes one wonder why, of all events, Buckley chose to write on this one. He would doubtless say that Nuremberg is a moment that Americans need to be reminded of and to think about; but the novel can, at times, have the opposite effect. At one point Sebastian reads in Time magazine that dropping bombs on Dresden and Hiroshima raises moral questions. “He admitted there was a moral question out there,” the narrative continues. “But he wasn’t a theologian, he comforted himself.”

Reading Buckley in large doses—especially if one’s never met him or even seen him in the flesh—one comes away thinking more of the man than expected, perhaps, and a little less of the writer. Certainly he seems more pedagogue than ideologue, concerned not so much with imparting theories, let alone a vision, as with passing on the benefits of his privileged position near the front row of recent history, and his enviable sense of enjoyment. It’s always sunny and breezy in his world—you can use any sailing metaphor you like—and the boat is guaranteed always to return to harbor. His political opponents, I think, could usefully offer him the kind of tribute he’s lavished so often and so graciously on them. It’s his political allies who may have a question or two.