Pico Iyer Journeys

Morning in America

In certain ways, perhaps, the book allows him to take stock of the Sixties, 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 till all hours, 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 pledged to self-destruction, Orson is brought in, like a fledgling 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 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 his political opponent is strikingly free of either rancor or unease. He does raise his eyebrows a little that Elvis, addicted popper of pills, should volunteer to help the President in his war on drugs, and that the man who goes through women as if they were pieces of 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 [itals] 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 ever in these pages, the description best applies to Buckley himself. He begins his collection of speeches by singling out two orators he regards as peerless–Hubert Humphrey and Bill Clnton; 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 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 lifelong political enemies: John Kenneth Galbraith, Murray Kempton, Walter Cronkite and even what Buckley calls “the [itals] 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, above all 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 nurturing, 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 the 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 pere in the context of his son: as a cheerful, effortless-seeming purveyor of jeux d’esprit less important for their ideological intent than for their 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 the 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 was 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 of New York in 1970, Buckley remarks that his brother would stand up even for Eldridge Cleaver, if Cleaver were involved in an a car accident with James Buckley’s very best friend, and James Buckley saw that Cleaver was in the right.

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