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Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography
William F. Buckley Jr.
Regnery Pub, 2004
594 pp., 29.95

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The Fall of the Berlin Wall
The Fall of the Berlin Wall
William F. Buckley
John Wiley & Sons Inc, 2024
212 pp., 23.9

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Jeremy Lott

Exit Smiling

William F. Buckley's long farewell

In his own reckoning, William Frank Buckley, Jr., is not an introspective man. A few years back, I caught an episode of the Charley Rose Show in which the emotive host tried to get the writer to imagine something he would have done differently, given the chance. Buckley refused to bite, expressing a disinclination most fully articulated in Overdrive, a week-in-the-life "personal documentary" published when the Reagan administration was still young: "I do resist introspection though I can not claim to have 'guarded' against it, because even to say that would suppose that the temptation to do so was there, which it isn't." If it's true, he remarked elsewhere, that only the examined life is worth living, then his life has been misspent.

Here, as so often, one envies Buckley's facility with languages; my designation of him as a big fat liar would sound so much more dignified in French or Spanish. His has been a spectacularly examined life, as Overdrive and its predecessor, Cruising Speed, attest. To conduct such sustained acts of public self-examination, all the while affecting absolute indifference to "introspection," is a triumph of the Buckley persona. From his playful intellectual jousting on Firing Line, the PBS show he hosted for 37 years, to his witty one-line replies in the "Notes & Asides" column of National Review, the political journal he founded, he has maintained an air of passionate nonchalance, suggesting that he was too busy speechifying, editing his fortnightly magazine, taping his talk show, dabbling in politics, dashing off three columns a week, sailing the globe, and churning out books while skiing in Switzerland to look inward.

But over the last 15 years, as he has gradually pulled back from public life, Buckley has allowed his readers to see past this genial fiction. At his retirement party from the editorship of National Review in 1990, Buckley disclosed, "one month from today, I will set out on a small sailboat from Lisbon, headed toward Barbados via Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape Verde, forty-four hundred miles of decompression at sea, the cradle of God." This is related in the introduction to Wind Fall: The End of the Affair. And the change was duly noted. Literary man about the globe P.J. O'Rourke wrote, "For the first time in my experience, Mr. Buckley's prose does not sound young. Not that it sounds old. Rather, his words are autumnal, even mellow." O'Rourke judged the book to be chock full of, yes, "introspection and sensitivity."

Buckley retired his hero Blackford Oakes after ten novels, the end of the USSR having narrowed the market for old CIA hands, but decided to keep at it as a novelist. For my money, the best of the post-Cold War pack was 1995's Brothers No More, a meditation on bravery sharply critical of U.S. actions in Vietnam that led up to the war. Other surprises include The Redhunter, the closest he will ever get to publicly acknowledging McCarthyism was a mistake, and Elvis in the Morning, a sweet set piece about the king and one of his fans. Other major projects included Nearer My God—a mixed bag but, basically, the written form of what would have been a series of Firing Line programs, as applied to the Catholic faith—and a collection of nearly 100 of his speeches.

On almost a one-to-one ratio, the releases of new major projects have coincided with Buckley's severing another longstanding obligation. The frequency of his syndicated column dropped from thrice to twice a week. He cut Firing Line back to half an hour and then folded in 1999 because he did not "want to die onstage." The collection of speeches marked the end of his regimen of public oratory. So it should have come as a shock to no one that Bill Buckley's two offerings in 2004 marked further adjustments. Still, these were doozies.

The first book, The Fall of the Berlin Wall, part of publisher Wiley's Turning Points series, could have been written by the author of Ecclesiastes after he'd downed a few martinis. Though there is plenty of blame-placing (on JFK, France, and the West in general for capitulating to the Communists over the wall's construction), the book lacks the old polemicist's instinct. Reagan's entreaties to tear the wall down are set in a broader historical context that shows plenty of cracks already formed. There is some humor but no rah-rah cheerleading. The actual physical destruction of the wall occupies less than three pages all told. In sum, it is the work of an old man who has seen beyond the struggles of his youth into the longer run of human affairs, and perhaps beyond. The wall, Buckley notes, was built by men who served a failed empire. Most of them are dead, but then so are the wall's opponents, now including the most vocal one. And one season gives way to the next.

Miles Gone By: A Literary Autobiography has been widely noticed for the actions that surrounded its release. Though Buckley retired from his magazine in 1990, he retained his ownership in the enterprise and exercised it. In 1997, he fired editor-in-chief John O'Sullivan for, among other things, overdoing the anti-immigration fusillades. Since then, there had been a lot of fevered speculation about the future of the magazine, post-Buckley. This past year, he decided to settle the matter. In June, he gave ownership over to a board of five people, including his son, novelist Christopher Buckley.

His departure was notable in itself, but during an exit interview with a reporter for the New York Times, the elder Buckley let slip that, against the hawkish editorial position of his magazine, he now viewed the recent war with Iraq to have been a mistake. He then amplified this apostasy by praising an antiwar article in The American Conservative, as well as the magazine itself, in his syndicated column.

Then there is the matter of his boat. If there is one thing that Buckley has been more closely associated with than the conservative movement, it is sailing. His voyages have been the subject of several books, and nautical themes figure prominently in his novels. Re-reading Overdrive, I was struck by how he exploited any sliver of spare time at his Stamford, Connecticut, estate to set sail. He writes in Miles Gone By that his father bought him a small sailboat in June 1939. Named Sweet Isolation in deference to Buckley Sr.'s America First-style politics, "It was a torrid affair from the moment I sighted her." The lasting relationship was with the sea. And now, after more than 60 years of sailing, Buckley has announced that he is putting the latest boat up for sale, never to be replaced. The old mariner expounds:

When you are in the harbor, four congenial people around the table, eating and drinking and conversing, listening to music and smoking cigars, the wind and the hail and the temperature outside faced up to and faced down, in your secure little anchorage—here is a compound of life's social pleasures in the womb of nature. So that deciding that the time has come to sell [the boat] and forfeit all that, is not lightly taken, bringing to mind a step yet ahead, which is giving up life itself.

So there it is: William F. Buckley, 78, finally packing it in. In recent interviews, he's dropped broad hints that he's not long for this vale of tears and so he's putting things in order. It is, for lack of a more precise term, the twilight of the soul: The old man uses these last moments to watch the sunlight play on the water, from the dock for once, while he thinks on his life and contemplates infinity. At the end of a peripatetic life, he has to be still and examine his own reflection.

And yet, touching as this picture may be, I doubt that it's entirely accurate. It assumes Buckley was not reflective until recently, but most of his statements on the subject have been delivered with a twinkle in the eye that was all the brighter because the audience failed to get such an easy joke. After his categorical dismissal of introspection in Overdrive, he persisted in asking "Why do I do so much?" Answer: "I expect that the promptings issue from a subtle dialectical counterpoint. Of what? Well, the call of recta ratio and the fear of boredom. What is recta ratio? … We know that the term translates to 'right (rightly) reason(ed),' and that the Scholastics used it to suggest the intellectual instrument by which men might reason progressively at least to the existence of God, at most to how, under His aegis, they should govern themselves." And then he ends his account of a particularly busy day thus:

I read something by somebody and, turning off the light, remembered to count on my fingers the five decades of the rosary, a lifelong habit learned in childhood, and remembered about half the time. That half of my life, I like to think, I behave less offensively to my maker than the other half.

While Buckley isn't likely to be canonized, it's clear that the faith is woven through the fabric of his life. Observe him, in Overdrive, promising to pray for ailing friends; falling asleep to the decades of the rosary; piling those servants who are Catholic into the station wagon and driving them all to mass on Sunday; fretting the whole time over post-Vatican II reforms and vague calls for social justice in the homily; writing one of his weekly columns about how, really, sermonizing isn't the point of Catholic worship and so maybe father could keep it short, or, better, skip the homily and jump right to transubstantiation. (Amen.) Look at the long run of his syndicated column and see him rage against pro-choice Catholic Democrats, clerical abusers, attempts by the state to break the confessional seal.

If you want introspection, look no further. Catholics are ordered to take inventory of their grievous sins at least once a year and report to the local confessional to lay it all out there. They are ordered to reflect on their own faults as an article of faith, in order to help effect the sacrament of reconciliation. But this is largely a private affair—between the supplicant, the priest, and their maker—and Buckley should hardly be damned for refusing to come clean about this process. His attempts to cover it up by feigning shallowness rank, at most, as venial sins, which should be some relief as he prepares for the final voyage.

Jeremy Lott is a contributing editor to Books & Culture and the foreign press critic for GetReligion.org.

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