Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Book Review: William F. Buckley Jr.’s “Overdrive: A Personal Documentary” (1983)

Paperback cover of "Overdrive."

William F. Buckley in his limousine, 1974. (Photo by Jill Krementz.)
William F. Buckley Jr.’s 1983 book “Overdrive: A Personal Documentary,” is a fascinating look inside Buckley’s day to day life. “Overdrive” chronicles just a week in Buckley’s life. Specifically, it covers the events in Buckley’s life from November 16, 1981 until November 23, 1981. And during that week, Buckley packs in more than most people could do in a month. “Overdrive” is a follow-up to Buckley’s 1971 book “Cruising Speed,” which followed a similar formula as he chronicled a week in his life in 1970.

Politically, I am very liberal, and there are few areas in which William F. Buckley and I share the same position. That being said, I find Buckley to be a singularly fascinating person. Last year I read his son Christopher’s book “Losing Mum and Pup,” which is a memoir about the deaths of his parents. I was an admirer of Christopher Buckley’s political satire, but “Losing Mum and Pup” blew me away. It’s a fantastic book, funny, warm, sad, and touching all at the same time. As I read “Losing Mum and Pup” I said to myself, “I have to find out more about William F. Buckley, because he sounds like an amazing guy.” I had known of Buckley since I was a kid, even though I grew up in a thoroughly Democratic household. I’m not sure exactly how I knew who William F. Buckley was, but I grew up during the 1980’s, so it was probably just osmosis. 

Reading “Overdrive” gave me an appreciation for Buckley’s intelligence and his personal integrity. Buckley had many friends who were liberals, and the fact that they held different political opinions did not affect their friendship. Buckley was tenaciously loyal to his friends, no matter who they were. “Overdrive” also gave me an appreciation for Buckley’s incredible energy and stamina. “Overdrive” takes place during the days just before Buckley’s 56th birthday, yet his schedule would be taxing for a man half his age. Buckley wrote a syndicated newspaper column three times a week, hosted a weekly television show “Firing Line,” and was the editor of the biweekly magazine “National Review.” 

It seems peevish to wish for more details in a book that covers just one week in pretty minute detail, but I do wish that Buckley would have provided an hour-by-hour breakdown of his time. I’d like to know: when did he get up? When did he go to bed? How long exactly did it take him to respond to those five letters? How exactly did he allocate his time in order to make the most out of it? In a 1978 interview, Buckley gave the answer to his productivity: “Deadlines. I have deadlines for everything. I find them liberating.” Buckley expounded a little more in a 1983 interview: “I had three deadlines this weekend. And because they simply had to be done, they were done…The people I pity are not the people who have deadlines, they’re the people who don’t have deadlines.” That sounds easy enough, right?

It’s obvious from “Overdrive” that Buckley made the most of every moment. Even during “down” time he is always working on something, even if it’s just responding to his mail. And Buckley frequently responded to his mail as he was being driven around in his limousine. This brings us to the somewhat touchy subject of William F. Buckley’s limousine. In the Introduction to the paperback edition of “Overdrive,” Buckley answered those who had criticized the book. Excerpts from “Overdrive” appeared in “The New Yorker” in January and February of 1983, and they caused something of a critical firestorm. Critics were harsh on what they perceived to be Buckley’s solipsistic attitude in penning such a book. Of course, a book written by anyone covering a week in one’s own life is by its very definition solipsistic, but there you go. When “Cruising Speed” was published in 1971, an interviewer asked “Don’t you think it a bit much to write an entire book devoted to the events of a single week?” Buckley’s tongue in cheek response was “I don’t know. John Keats devoted an entire ode to a single Grecian urn.” (p.154) Upon publication of “Overdrive” in August, 1983, the book encountered a frosty reception from many book reviewers. As Buckley himself writes, “These critics were uniformly…upset, might be the generic word to describe their emotions…They found the book variously boring, boorish, presumptuous, vain, arrogant, illiterate, solipsistic, and other things.” (Introductory epilogue, p. xviii-xix) Critics were also upset at what they perceived to be Buckley’s delight at his upper-class lifestyle. Nora Ephron, writing in “The New York Times,” said “He has written a book about money.” (p.xix) Ephron then goes on to criticize Buckley’s emphasis on his limousine, seeing it as emblematic of his lifestyle. But Ephron had missed the point. “Overdrive” is not a book about William Buckley’s money; it’s a book about William Buckley’s life. And yes, William Buckley’s life might look very different from yours and mine. But, if we’re reading a book written about a week in someone’s life, the type of people who would write such a book will probably lead a very different life than you and me. Yes, William F. Buckley had a customized limousine. William F. Buckley was also a very successful writer and speaker who made a lot of money during his life. Thus, his life will be quite different from most people’s lives. But that is exactly why Buckley’s life is interesting to read about.

1981 was a perfect time for Buckley to write “Overdrive,” as it was the first year of Ronald Reagan’s Presidential administration, and Buckley was one of the people in the conservative movement most responsible for Reagan’s ultimate rise to power. Reagan and Buckley were quite close, and that makes “Overdrive” a little more interesting. Throughout “Overdrive” Buckley shifts between the past and present, as something in the present invariably brings back a memory. And while this style is very true to life, as many random memories come our way during the course of a day, it sometimes makes “Overdrive” a trifle challenging to read. More than a couple of times I had to go back and double check myself as I wasn’t sure if an event was actually happening in the present or if it was a past memory.

Buckley begins Monday, November 16th, 1981, at his desk in his office, which is a converted garage in his home in Stamford, Connecticut. The first few pages of the book bring about reminiscences about buying the house with his wife Pat, the pheasant he always sees on his lawn in the morning, and the desk he’s working at, which he bought in Mexico in 1951 when he was working for the CIA. (Buckley’s superior officer in the CIA was E. Howard Hunt, of Watergate infamy.) By the time the reader first encounters Buckley at mid-day on Monday, he has already written his newspaper column for the day. Buckley doesn’t go into much detail about his newspaper columns, as he doesn’t even tell us what his column that day was about. Buckley was able to write extremely quickly, and could polish off a column in half an hour! However, Buckley claimed to not enjoy writing. He compared himself to his fellow conservative columnist George F. Will, who said “I wake in the morning and I ask myself: ‘Is this one of the days I have to write a column?’ And if the answer is ‘Yes,’ I rise a happy man.” (p.76) In contrast, Buckley writes, “I, on the other hand, wake neither particularly happy nor unhappy, but to the extent that my mood is affected by the question whether I need to write a column that morning, the impact of Monday-Wednesday-Friday is definitely negative. Because I do not like to write, for the simple reason that writing is extremely hard work, and I do not ‘like’ extremely hard work.” (p.76-7) This coming from a man who often produced 350,000 words a year for publication, a man who wrote a newspaper column three times a week for 45 years, and who published 57 books during his lifetime! Methinks he doth protest too much.

What exactly did Buckley’s week chronicled in “Overdrive” look like? Here are thumbnail sketches of WFB’s activities for each of the days he covers:

Monday-Buckley writes his column at home in Stamford, then goes into New York City, in his limo. Goes to “National Review” offices, meets with editors. Hears classical pianist Rosalyn Tureck at Carnegie Hall. 

Tuesday-up early to fly to St. Petersburg (Florida, NOT Russia) for a lunchtime lecture. Flies back to New York City for a benefit for the New York City Ballet. After the ballet, goes to the home of Ahmet Ertegun, the President of Atlantic Records.

Wednesday-Writes his column early. Lunch with his sister Priscilla, who works for “National Review.” Attends an 8-hour theater performance of Charles Dickens’ “Nicholas Nickleby,” with Ron Reagan, the President’s son. Buckley writes of the play, “Surely the most captivating theatrical experience I’ve ever had.” (p.98)

Thursday-Prepares remarks for a 20-minute speech at the Waldorf. Writes a letter to Ronald Reagan. Accepts offer to act as host of American showing of miniseries “Brideshead Revisited.” Gives speech at the Waldorf, and then flies to Toledo, Ohio to give another speech at a dinner for the Friends of the University of Toledo Libraries. Writes his Friday column late Thursday night before going to bed.

Friday-Flies to Louisville, Kentucky, to tape two episodes of “Firing Line.” Writes the introductions for his guests on “Firing Line,” which he finds to be the most difficult of the many things he does. The first episode to be taped deals with the issue of busing to effect school desegregation. Buckley admits that he doesn’t get the show off to a smooth start, as he botches the names of scholars who have written reports on busing. The rest of the show goes better. Between shows Buckley gets the message that President Reagan was calling for him. Buckley calls the White House, but the President is unavailable right now, but will be available in half an hour. Buckley knows that won’t work, as he has another hour-long “Firing Line” to tape, so he tells the White House he’ll call back in an hour. Such was the power of William F. Buckley in 1981! The second episode of “Firing Line” features John Y. Brown, then the Governor of Kentucky. The show goes well, although Buckley writes “The effort to get him to intellectualize his point is not working.” (p.149) After the show finishes taping, Buckley talks to President Reagan on the phone. Buckley has tickets to fly back to New York City, but the flight is canceled, so he must spend the night in Louisville. 

Saturday-Flies back to New York City. WFB responds to more letters. One of the highlights of “Overdrive” is reading Buckley’s responses to the letters he receives. In letters to strangers, Buckley is usually very witty, and with his friends he is very kind and generous. I greatly admire what a nice person Buckley seemed to be; throughout “Overdrive” he exudes a kindness and graciousness to all of his friends. Buckley is always quick to praise his friends, which is an appealing trait. One thing that struck me as I revisited some passages from the book is that for an American male born in the year 1925, William F. Buckley was very much in touch with his emotions. Very early in the book Buckley reprints the moving eulogy he delivered at his friend Harry Elmlark’s funeral. Elmlark worked for Buckley’s newspaper syndicate, and Buckley had worked closely with Elmlark for many years. Most of their working relationship was over the telephone, and Buckley writes “When he called and you were occupied, he would not call again. ‘I always know you’ll call me back,’ he said to me once; and it is a sadness very nearly disabling to know that I cannot call him back again.” (p.25) That’s a lovely thing to say about a friend. Another great quote is from a letter that Buckley wrote to author Keith Mano, who had dedicated a book to Buckley. “There is no way to thank you for this, except to insist that you should know the measure of my gratitude, and to accomplish that will require a lifetime.” (p.192-3) Another good friend of Buckley’s, the British actor David Niven, is staying at their house for the weekend. The Nivens and the Buckleys wintered in the same resort town in Switzerland, which is how they became friends. Buckley writes of the problems that Niven has been having controlling his voice lately, which a doctor has told Niven is due to overwork. Sadly, the doctor was very wrong, and Niven’s trouble controlling his voice was the first sign that he had ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, which would kill Niven in July, 1983, just before “Overdrive” was published. 

Sunday-Buckley starts the day by saying, “I rose early because the day would be crowded.” (p.206) You know, as opposed to the other days of the week he’s just described. Buckley answers more letters before Mass. We learn that WFB didn’t care for the Vatican II reforms of the Catholic Church. WFB visits his friend Tom Hume in the hospital. David Niven is in rare form at lunch, doing many wonderful impersonations-no trouble with his voice today. After lunch WFB’s son Christopher makes a surprise visit. At this time Christopher was a speechwriter for Vice-President George H.W. Bush. WFB goads Christopher into taking the boat out for a quick sail. 

Monday-Halfway into writing his column, Vice-President Bush calls WFB. Bush has to cancel his appearance at a fundraising lunch that day for “National Review.” Bush cannot leave Washington because of a federal government shutdown. WFB attends the “National Review” editorial conference. Goes back to his apartment for lunch, Jeane Kirkpatrick, then US Ambassador to the United Nations, is replacing Bush as the speaker. After the lunch, WFB writes his “Notes and Asides” column for “National Review.” Works on the book jacket cover for his forthcoming book about sailing, “Atlantic High.” Visits his mother at her apartment. Has dinner with his “National Review” editors. Goes to bed.

That’s quite a week. As I noted at the beginning of this review, I’m impressed with William F. Buckley as a person, even when I don’t agree with him. I’m impressed by Buckley’s obvious intelligence and his love for the arts. Some of the most fun passages of “Overdrive” are Buckley writing about the music of Bach. I’m also impressed by Buckley’s loyalty and devotion to his friends. He always makes a point of mentioning his friends’ good qualities, and he is generous in his praise of them without ever seeming sycophantic. “Overdrive” is also a testament to how much Buckley enjoyed his life. Throughout the week he doesn’t complain about being tired, or being frustrated that he has to spend the night in Louisville. He seems to enjoy all of his experiences, taking them as they come, and being happy that he is doing work he enjoys while surrounded by family and friends. Who could ask for anything more?

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