Morning in America

William F. Buckley
William F. Buckley; drawing by David Levine

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…

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