Friday, February 13, 2015

Book Review: Cruising Speed: A Documentary, by William F. Buckley (1971)


My well-worn paperback copy of Cruising Speed, by William F. Buckley, 1971. Yes, that's my shelf of books by William Buckley and his son Christopher. (Photo by Mark Taylor.)


William F. Buckley at his desk.
On December 5, 1970, while at a nightclub with Truman Capote, William F. Buckley decided to write a journal covering one week in his life. This experiment ultimately resulted in the highly entertaining book Cruising Speed: A Documentary, published in September, 1971. Buckley would later revisit this same formula in his excellent 1983 book Overdrive, which I previously reviewed here. 

Cruising Speed covers the week of November 30th to December 6th, 1970. This was an exciting time for Buckley, as the previous month his older brother James was elected to the U.S. Senate from New York. Buckley was a uniquely busy man, as he was writing a nationally syndicated newspaper column three times a week, hosting Firing Line, a weekly television show about current events, and editing the bi-weekly magazine that he had founded, National Review.  

Buckley encounters many different people throughout the course of the week, from former heavyweight boxing champion Gene Tunney, who “has been a very old friend and supporter of NR,” (p.27) to Otto Von Hapsburg, heir to the thrones of Austria and Hungary, who asks Buckley “whether I would join a very small organization that meets two or three times a year, in Europe usually, but sometimes in America, to discuss deeply, and off the record, public policies affecting the future of the West.” (p.150) William F. Buckley led a remarkable life, and the nine page index at the end of Cruising Speed gives some idea of his varied pursuits and interests. Someone should really write annotated versions of Cruising Speed and Overdrive, so future readers will know who all of these people Buckley interacts with were, instead of having to constantly look them up on Wikipedia. 

One of the more interesting tidbits that came up in the course of Buckley’s week is a letter from Edgar Eisenhower, Dwight’s older brother, concerning the foundation of John T. Gaty. Gaty was a businessman from Wichita, Kansas, who bequeathed a significant part of his estate to a foundation that would support conservative organizations. The trustees that Gaty named to the foundation included Buckley, J. Edgar Hoover, Edgar Eisenhower, Barry Goldwater, John Tower, and other prominent conservatives. Incredibly, all of these men meet in Wichita once a year for ten years to distribute money from the foundation. (Hoover never attended, sending an alternate in his place.) Someone should really write a book about the Gaty trust, as a fascinating footnote to the nascent conservative movement. 

Buckley’s excellent sense of humor is on display throughout the book, and perhaps my favorite humorous anecdote from Cruising Speed is the story that Buckley tells about a friend of his who was entertaining guests from France. Buckley’s friend turned on Firing Line, as Buckley was interviewing Hugh Hefner. There was a problem with the sound on the TV, so everyone watched in silence. When the sound came on, the French visitors were shocked as they had concluded from the body language of the two men that Buckley was the libertine publisher of Playboy magazine, and Hugh Hefner was the conservative Republican writer. (p.53)

Throughout both Cruising Speed and Overdrive you see how much William F. Buckley enjoyed his life. At the very end of Cruising Speed Buckley writes that his friend John Kenneth Galbraith, the liberal economist, urged Buckley to give up his newspaper column, Firing Line, and National Review, to enter academia and write books. (p.229) Unsurprisingly, Buckley turns down Galbraith’s suggestion. It’s clear that Buckley loved all of the different things that he did, and if he had just focused on one thing, he probably wouldn’t have been happy. I suspect that Buckley enjoyed the challenge of keeping all of those balls up in the air. 

I wish that we saw more of how Buckley wrote, but he was able to write so quickly that maybe he didn’t have much to say about his writing process. On the Wednesday covered in Cruising Speed, Buckley is late delivering his column, so he has to go to the offices of his syndicate, which he only does when the column must be written immediately. He writes it in half an hour. There are many excellent passages throughout Cruising Speed, and one concerns dealing with writers and artists as editor of National Review, “…what it comes down to is this-that concerning certain things, everyone is inaccessible to reason, and the trick is to find out what those things are, and simply accept the given in the situation.” (p.6) That’s a great piece of advice, and not just for editors. 

After Cruising Speed was published an interviewer asked Buckley “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.” (Quote from Overdrive, by William F. Buckley, p.154)I wish more people would write books like Cruising Speed, as I would be fascinated to read what a week in the life of other public figures is like. I suppose that now, in the never-ending news cycles of 2015, one might encounter more resistance to the idea, and get more flack for being so supremely solipsistic. The interesting thing about both Cruising Speed and Overdrive is that while they both look into Buckley’s life, they are not overly confessional. Although Buckley does catalog some personal faults, as he writes, "I do not know why my memory is so bad, or for that matter why I read so slowly." (p.57) I find it difficult to believe that William F. Buckley did anything slowly, but there you have it. Buckley tell us that book critic Isabel Paterson thinks these problems stem from him not learning to read until the age of 6 or 7, which is also when he began speaking English, his first language having been Spanish. 

 Cruising Speed humanizes Buckley. Even if you disagree with his politics you get to see his incredible work ethic and the humanity that animated his work. As Malcolm Muggeridge once said of Buckley “What Buckley has is a sort of sparkle and grace, equally in his speaking, writing, and television appearances. It is not just a question of agreeing with Buckley. Rather, it is that in our time free minds are desperately rare and precious, and in him I detect one.”

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