Pico Iyer Journeys

Morning in America

This confidence, which underwrites the generosity he extends to almost everyone he meets, also seems to make it genuinely hard for him to understand those who don’t share his sanguine view of things. Debating Mailer in 1962, Buckley makes a joke of what he calls his adversary’s fascination with “sexual neuroses” and complains that “only demonstrations of human swinishness are truly pleasing to him.” This may be only a rhetorical strategy, but it certainly has little to do with Mailer’s very real engagement with demons and angels. Confronted, later, by the young John Kerry’s descriptions of the American atrocities he saw in Vietnam, Buckley says, more in sorrow than in anger (anger, indeed, is conspicuous by its absence from these pages) that if America really is a “nation of sadists, of kid-killers and torturers,” we might as well hope for a Flood to wash us all away. This absolute freedom from cynicism is part of what keeps Buckley forever young (the last article of his I came across was in Yahoo Internet Life, applauding the wonders of the Internet). But it also suggests a determination not to look too closely at what’s unsettling. In the very first speech included here–from Class Day at Yale in 1950–the twenty-four-year-old Buckley is found declaiming, “We must punch the gasbag of cynicism and skepticism, and thank providence for what we have and must retain.” Conservatism in this context means mostly conserving the values of old.

When it comes to the printed page, this resolute buoyancy can exact a cost. In the most recent of his 17 novels, for example–Nuremberg: The Reckoning–Buckley chooses to look at the rise of Hitler and the central trial of the century just past through, as ever, the eyes of a hopeful and eager young idealist, Sebastian Reinhard, keen to do good in the world and to learn everything he can of it. Called in to translate for Kurt Amadeus, one of the 23 war criminals awaiting sentencing at Nuremberg (Sebastian is half-German), the young man is a way for Buckley, usefully, to compress the complex event into a single confrontation of individuals and, as is his wont, to show us how titanic events play out in the wide and uncorrupted eyes of a nineteen-year-old Everyman.

Yet what this means in practice is that, even as Hitler is coming to power and embarking on his elimination of six million, Buckley is busy telling us about the “Paprikasuppe” in the Innsbruck Hotel, and informing us that “there is more vodka produced in the area of Lodz than in any equivalent area anywhere in the civilized world.” The book begins with a clubman’s toast (“Unemployment certainly isn’t a problem in the Third Reich”) and seems reluctant to move very far from a tone of frat-house raillery (of Goering, one character opines, “Licking his [itals] ass would certainly take a lot of time”). Faced with one of the great moral, psychological and political challenges of the American Century, our author gives us young men hurrying off to a strip club and exclaiming, of Notorious, “It must be exciting and incredible.”

There’s certainly no shortage of research being done in the Buckley Atelier, and none of it is wasted–we are filled in on the activities of the Munich Symphony in 1899 and the facilities of the Grand Hotel in Nuremberg. And the researchers generally deserve their pay more than do the copy-editors (“She told him it was always he she truly loved,” we read at one point and, as if in response, a little later, “He wondered if his grin was concupiscent as he rose ardently from his chair”). The well-bred gentleman, rising ardently from his chair to greet the guests, does what he can not to speak of anything too serious, and to put his visitors at ease. Yet deeper than this, there is a refusal to look at evil–which is to say depth and intensity and challenge–that makes one wonder why, of all events, Buckley chose to write on this one. He would doubtless say that Nuremberg is a moment that Americans need to be reminded of, and to think about; but the novel can, at times, have the opposite effect. At one point Sebastian reads (in Time magazine) that dropping bombs on Dresden and Hiroshima raises moral questions. “He admitted there was a moral question out there,” the narrative continues. “But he wasn’t a theologian, he comforted himself.”

One comes away from reading Buckley in large does–especially if one’s never met him or even seen him in the flesh–thinking more of the man than expected, perhaps, and a little less of the writer. Certainly he comes across as more pedagogue than ideologue, concerned not so much with imparting theories (let alone a vision) as with passing on the benefits of his privileged position near the front row of recent history, and his enviable sense of enjoyment. It’s always sunny and breezy in his world–you can use any sailing metaphor you like–and the boat never goes very far from the harbor. It’s always morning in America, in fact. His political opponents, I think, could usefully offer him the kind of tribute he’s lavished so often and so graciously on them; it’s his political allies who may have a question or two outstanding.

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