Pico Iyer Journeys

Morning in America

This speaks, perhaps, to an almost antique 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 from 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 ally the Republican Party to 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 does come away from them thinking that an alien might indeed be catching truths that those of us who think we know him miss. For one thing, toasts and roasts really do seem to be his element, and, at least in his later years, one does not always feels that he has does the stomach or the heart for argument (unless, perhaps, the combatants can make up and be friends afterwards). Certainly 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 antagonist 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’ is,” he says, praising Margaret Thatcher for her ability to transcend her own politics, “but not at all to remember who Charles de Gaulle is.” For very different reasons from E.M. Forster, no doubt, 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 trans-substantiation with an altar boy.”

To his opponents, of course, all this might smack of mealy-mouthedness and an absence of intellectual curiosity; certainly, Buckley is troubled by far 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 staking out new ground or in venturing fresh ideas about America and the world. For those not predisposed to Buckley, his very serenity (the other word that runs through the speeches, describing a quality he finds even in Henry Kissinger) looks very much like complacency. Readers in today’s climate may also feel uncomfortable with the fact that he seems to belong to and to cherish 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 cozy recesses 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 to offer a smiling, eloquent voice of reassurance. 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 V, Buckley was talking of “our responsibilities to mankind,” and asserting, “There are higher values than art.”

This it is, perhaps, that accounts for his great success as a host and emcee: he offers a sense of having made of his hobbies (sailing, say) a passion, and of 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 enquiry and existential urgency here and you will come away deeply disappointed (think, by contrast, of how DeLillo has wrestled with the last five decades of American history, or how le Carre, say, 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. Blackford Oates, he tells us, he endowed 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.

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