Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

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.

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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 journalistic uproar, pleaded the case for Buckley the writer based in part upon Buckley’s good deeds and personal virtues. Norman Podhoretz, finding the biting hostility that greeted Overdrive in the press to be an interesting phenomenon in itself, defended Buckley, only half jokingly, in terms of the Talmud. Podhoretz, however, can understand the resentment that many must feel toward “this ‘blasphemously happy’ man who is in love with the life he leads.” Like Dunne, Podhoretz faults Buckley for showing “all light and no shadow.”

Once launched, the new perception of Buckley, who heretofore was a primarily ideological figure, in moral and ethical terms became predominant and contributed in a subtle way to the climate of opinion about political figures generally. Buckley’s followers virtually abandoned ideology and began to press their challenge to nonconservative leaders in simple terms: Is he or she virtuous? With all that makes the anticrowd position of Buckley so precarious in a democracy, is he, nevertheless, “right” in a personal moral sense? This focus contradicts Buckley’s own reverence for eighteenth century American constitutional theory, which sought to make government work well and responsibly regardless of the rascals, or paragons, in charge.

Buckley’s patrician probity unexpectedly dovetailed with a popular movement back to reliance on the leader’s moral purity as the sole guarantee of good government (thereby ignoring the lessons of history). The frustration felt by those representing the broad spectrum of opinion to the left of Buckley’s position might, however, find a remedy in the same source, turning to the nonideological ideal of right reason that Buckley shows himself attempting to live by in Overdrive.

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