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Books & CultureJanuary/February 2005



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 ...

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