The first twelve pages of Cruising Speed characterize the author’s way of life and immediately establish the tone of the book. Implicit are the Buckley attitudes which are so endearing to some readers, so infuriating to others. He introduces himself to the reader as a man who owns at least two homes, who goes everywhere in a chauffeured limousine, who has a loyal maid traveling with him, a loyal and efficient secretary juggling his commitments and correspondence, and loyal and skilled researchers constantly feeding him crucial information; thus, he is freed to maintain a virtually nonstop schedule of writing, editing, lecturing, and debating. He is, in short, a rich and influential man (a wag once characterized him as the champion of the overdog). So strong is the egalitarian strain in the American character that the reader is accustomed to people of wealth and influence either downplaying the extent of their privilege or making an oblique apology for it. Buckley never does either. He matter-of-factly recounts how his father abruptly sent the five youngest children to English boarding schools because he found their mumbling speech exasperating. He reminisces at some length about his brilliant undergraduate days at Yale University. He writes easily of his annual skiing trips to Gstaad. His writing persona is that of a man totally comfortable with himself.
The book is topical, but, because it is representative of Buckley’s thought, behavior, and literary style, it does not stand or fall on topicality. The college campuses where Buckley has speaking engagements during the week of his diary are often the scene of student unrest and turmoil. Radical leftist groups are calling for revolution, and Buckley considers the liberal establishment irresponsible for paying them lip service. In his college lecture he meets the question head-on: How does a free society defend itself against those who, pressing the claims of an extreme democracy, would mindlessly destroy it? Buckley is engaged in a running verbal feud with the Black Panther Party and its supporters. On his Firing Line television show, he has recently clashed with Eldridge Cleaver, later to become a Fundamentalist Christian and a candidate for office on the Republican ticket but in 1970 still a revolutionary living abroad as a fugitive from justice. It is within this volatile political and intellectual atmosphere that Buckley turns his notes on a typical seven days in his life into a book.
Though not requisite to an enjoyment of the book, a knowledge of Buckley’s precise status as a thinker and writer in November, 1970, is useful. When Buckley wrote Cruising Speed, the United States had a Republican president, but it was widely believed that Nixon’s narrow victory in 1968 had been freakish, resulting from the strong showing of a third-party candidate who siphoned off votes from the Democratic ticket. Furthermore, the president did not come from the Goldwater (Buckley’s) wing of the party. Nixon’s landslide reelection in 1972 and Ronald Reagan’s decisive victories of 1980 and 1984 were all in the future. Conservatism had not yet formally ascended to power or to intellectual respectability, and it sometimes seemed that Buckley’s was the lone conservative voice in the noisy marketplace of ideas. During a time when there was so much talk of political, social, and sexual revolutions, Buckley relentlessly and eloquently made the arguments for tradition, authority, and orthodoxy. Five years later, he would begin yet another literary career, as a successful writer of spy novels. By the 1980’s, he would be praised, or blamed, as a key contributor to the flowering of American conservatism. In 1970, however, he was still regarded for the most part as a charming but exotic character.
Throughout the book, Buckley uses specific events or activities as springboards into the realm of generalization or conjecture. For example, while reviewing the letters he receives...
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William F. Buckley, Jr., burst upon the literary scene in 1951 with the publication of God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of Academic Freedom. Therefore, Cruising Speed furnishes an intimate picture of the conservative icon at roughly the midpoint in his career (although Buckley in his sixties has shown no sign of reducing speed). As with all autobiography, the degree of self-revelation is problematical. Buckley is not a man given to finding fault with himself, but his air of self-satisfaction may be in part a defense mechanism, the result of years of arguing the less popular side of the question. He states in the book that to some attacks he responds only with hauteur. He does admit to a few inoffensive imperfections: He cannot think without a pen in his hand, he reads slowly, and he has a poor memory. The first will not come as a surprise to any reader who has seen Buckley perform on television; the latter two are surprising.
His insouciance has proved maddening to more than one critic. The adverse comments on his work almost always center upon his ideology, his attitudes, his manner. Few deny that he is a brilliant prose stylist who maintains a consistently high quality of work despite the fact that he is usually writing occasional material under strict deadlines.
Buckley (who in later books would deal with the nautical enthusiasms at which his title also hints) wonders in conclusion if he can maintain his cruising speed. He was to repeat the form of a week’s diary in Overdrive: A Personal Documentary (1983) with less success, to judge by its critical reception. From the purely literary point of view, Buckley may be—like earlier Tory polemicists John Dryden, Alexander Pope, and Jonathan Swift—a writer whose political and literary enemies will be known to history only in the pages of his occasional pieces.