Buckley, generally viewed as an ideologist for his long-standing and occasionally quixotic defense of conservatism on principle, in Overdrive defines ideology itself as “a hierarchy of values.” Such a definition explains the apparent absence of any ideology in Overdrive, where the concerns are chiefly about ethical and ontological questions. The author’s well-known public persona, put forward rambunctiously over the years, however, impelled critics to view Overdrive as no more than a vehicle for the author’s image. Initial disclaimers of harboring the least resentment toward Buckley routinely dissolved into parodies of both the man and his style. In reverse counterpart to the boy who cried “Wolf!” too often, Buckley had in the past cried “Sunshine!” so often that even when he was submerged in a gathering darkness, his most eloquent defender, Norman Podhoretz, chided him for showing “all light and no shadow.”
Grounded more deeply than the glitter of Buckley’s life are the two recurring themes in Overdrive: “right reason” and ghosts. Right reason is Buckley’s translation of the medieval Latin recta ratio, whose meaning combines intellectual integrity and simple ethics. Perhaps the unique paradox of Buckley is that his version of intellectual integrity—to which he holds fiercely—is primarily an ethical matter, only secondarily an intellectual matter, and scarcely an academic matter, since it must be manifested through a real application. In fact, Buckley’s wry report on how he preserved his dignity in the face of a hostile audience at Vassar College is perhaps his best example of right reason at work and triumphant. The genesis of right reason goes back to his close-knit family and the Millbrook School, an experience forming the heart of the book.
As for ghosts, Buckley’s most important is Whittaker Chambers. Chambers is no doubt a troubled ghost, but Buckley does not allow himself to entertain the possibility that Chambers perjured himself. His Chambers is a soft-spoken, infinitely weary, benign shade who visits only Buckley’s writing desk. By contrast, Harry Elmlark, the late newspaperman, has so robust a personality that Buckley speaks over his ashes as if Elmlark were alive.
It was no coincidence that the week chosen for the framework of the autobiography, in addition to being a relatively quiet one, was the week...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
Overdrive and the critical reaction to it helped to bring about a quasi canonization of Buckley as the “Patron Saint of the Conservatives” (as John B. Judis aptly, if sarcastically, subtitled his 1988 biography of him). Buckley’s first book, God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (1951), indicated both his political and religious concerns. Nevertheless, the political side predominated in Buckley’s subsequent writing, particularly his newspaper column On the Right, and culminated in his unsuccessful run for the mayoralty of New York City in 1965. A closer association between religion and politics reemerged from the 1970’s onward.
An inadvertent support for Buckley’s “canonization” was provided in a review of Overdrive by John Gregory Dunne, who saw the chief flaw of the work as its failure to address life’s stigmata—that is, the “alcoholism, drug addiction, pederasty, pedophilia”—that infected Buckley’s cast of characters, yet “not a hint of which darkens Mr. Buckley’s journal.” The result, for Dunne, is “a truly alarming vision of a life without shadows.” The critic introduced a parodic bit of religious imagery, calling Buckley’s world “a city of God from which Mr. Buckley dispenses his patronage as if it were sanctifying grace.”
By contrast, Buckley’s partisan apologist, Forrest McDonald, raising a lone voice against the anti-Buckley...
(The entire section is 492 words.)