Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1624
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 during that week, ranging in tone from adulatory to condemnatory, he muses over the dialectician’s proper attitude toward his adversary. He addresses the matter of giving an enemy his due. He states that he has always been by temperament a fair person. He sees no justification for disparaging another’s talent or abilities because he disagrees with that person’s views. He cites his friendship with liberals such as John Kenneth Galbraith and Daniel Patrick Moynihan (ironically, Moynihan would eventually defeat James Buckley for the Senate seat which the latter had just won). He implies that he can remain on amicable terms with any opponent who approaches polemics with the same attitude. On the other hand, Buckley does not believe in showing false deference. He recalls a 1965 debate with black novelist James Baldwin at the Cambridge Union. Baldwin won the debate, on racial prejudice in America, by a margin of three to one or better. Buckley concludes, however, that so flimsy was Baldwin’s case and so far below his capabilities was his performance that the British students’ wild enthusiasm for his arguments could only have constituted an act of racial condescension.
As the week progresses, Buckley is shown in his role as editor-in-chief of National Review, the journal of conservative opinion that he founded in 1955. Later, he gives a lecture at Princeton University: “Reflections on the Current Disorder.” He debates comedian and activist Dick Gregory at the University of Bridgeport and Ramsey Clark at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel before the National Association of Manufacturers. On the Sunday night which ends the diary, he and Pat have just flown into Washington on the private jet of Frank Stanton of CBS. The next morning, he will attend a meeting of the United States Advisory Commission on Information, of which Stanton is chairman and he is a member. Before his speaking engagements, there are receptions and dinners. He is wined and dined by university presidents and senior faculty members.
Buckley also squeezes some play into his week. He attends a Bach concert conducted by Rosalyn Tureck (whom he considers wonderful). He attends another Bach concert by the organist Virgil Fox (whom he considers miserable). He sees Gimme Shelter (1970), a film documentary about a concert by the Rolling Stones before 300,000 rowdy fans. The film furnishes the material for the column he is writing as the book concludes. Buckley is always a writer, and everything he sees or does is evaluated as potential copy. While dining with Truman Capote, he finds himself in an awkward social situation. One of Capote’s guests is the daughter of the former publisher of The Washington Post. Buckley has written unsympathetically of her father’s suicide, and the atmosphere is very tense.
The central idea which dominates Cruising Speed is very much dictated by the political circumstances of the time of its composition. Antiwar protesters are challenging the legitimacy of the government. Black activists have branded American society as racist and are demanding that it be radically restructured. Liberal elements within the Roman Catholic church are clamoring for changes that they insist are long overdue. Activist students are accusing the universities of being insensitive and irrelevant dinosaurs and are pressing, sometimes through rowdyism, for their immediate democratization. In his lectures and debates, Buckley makes the Burkean argument in favor of those efficacious myths and traditions by which men have long lived, that over time have produced a cohesive society. Further, he makes the argument that society has a right, indeed an obligation, to defend itself against unwarranted attacks, and that such a defense is not inherently antidemocratic or totalitarian.
The title of the book is, not surprisingly, related to this central idea. Buckley has set himself at cruising speed—in part because he is a man of tremendous energy and wide-ranging interests. Primarily, however, he cannot slow down because he must fight the intellectual and rhetorical battle on all fronts. The liberals are everywhere, and, like Don Quixote, he must sally forth to engage them, singly or en masse. His book has a fatalistic tone. It is clear that in 1970 Buckley had little reason to believe that the country would turn to a genuine conservative (such as Ronald Reagan) at any time in the near future.
One of the most striking features of Cruising Speed is the enormous role that correspondence plays in the author’s week (and, presumably, in all the weeks of his year). The book portrays Buckley as quite literally a man of letters. In his study on Seventy-third Street in Manhattan, in his office at National Review, in his limousine as he rides from one engagement to the next—in every spare minute, he is reading and responding to letters. He includes in the book a broad sampling of the week’s correspondence. He receives letters of praise, letters of good-natured criticism, letters of bad-natured criticism, elegantly written letters, crudely written letters. Then there are the letters asking something of him: a recommendation, a speech with a waiver of his fee, help in getting a play with a conservative theme produced. He purports to answer all that interest him or place him under some obligation, and many fall into these categories.
He discusses his ideological conflicts with elements on the Right as well as with those on the Left. He admits, in so many words, that there is a lunatic fringe on the Right, Robert Welch and the John Birch Society serving as examples thereof. He rejects the atheism and self-centeredness of Ayn Rand and her followers. He refers, with a trace of sadness, to his break with Brent Bozell, his brother-in-law and collaborator in writing McCarthy and His Enemies (1954).
As usual, Buckley indulges in the exotic vocabulary for which he is so well-known. He peppers his text with such terms as “palindromic,” “apodictic,” and “supererogatory,” designed to force all but the most erudite or incurious readers to resort occasionally to their dictionaries.
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