About the Book Edited by Bill Meehan Titled “Getting About: Travel Writings of William F. Buckley Jr.”

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Matthew Continetti headlined “Around the World With William F. Buckley Jr.”:

William F. Buckley Jr. kept busy. Between the publication of “God and Man at Yale” in 1951 when he was 25 years old and his death in 2008 at age 82, the founder of National Review magazine and leader of the conservative intellectual movement in America rarely stopped to catch his breath.

In addition to penning a thrice-weekly newspaper column and innumerable magazine essays, Buckley gave speeches, hosted the television program “Firing Line,” wrote 57 books, performed on the piano and harpsichord, flew planes, painted, skied, traveled the globe and crossed oceans on his sailboat. He packed more activity and experience into a single year than most people could fit into a century.

Buckley’s enemy was tedium. He resisted indolence with the same intensity he brought to his fight against global communism and intrusive government. “Boredom is the deadliest poison, and it is a truism that it strikes hardest at the most comfortable,” he wrote, adducing one of Solzhenitsyn’s most memorable characters: “Ivan Denisovich suffered everything—except boredom.” Buckley inherited wealth from his father, a Texas oilman, but did not succumb to idleness. His collected writings record decades of sustained engagement in the political, cultural, social and recreational life of his country.

This summer offers a chance to revisit Buckley’s wit and zest for life. Editor and scholar Bill Meehan has gathered Buckley’s travel pieces and essays in a volume titled “Getting About.” Meanwhile publisher Rowman & Littlefield has reissued the first two of Buckley’s four sailing books—“Airborne” and “Atlantic High”—with new introductions by his novelist son, Christopher. These volumes are delightful reminders that the famous polemicist was also a gifted memoirist and raconteur.

It’s become something of a cliché to point out that the intellectual right no longer features a leader as unifying or a personality as large as Buckley. This sentiment, while true, overlooks the dramatic and aspirational dimensions of his appeal. Neither the right nor the left has writers today who pursue nonpolitical interests and subjects with the same breadth and elan as their midcentury predecessors. Buckley didn’t just comment on the news. He taught the rising generation that there is more to life than partisan combat.

Buckley had an extraordinary ability to convey his enthusiasms to audiences and bring them along for the ride. You needn’t be a political conservative or a frequent flier or a sailor to share in his joy at venturing into uncharted territory, weathering unexpected storms and plying open seas. His conversational style is inviting, informative and discursive.

No one subject dominated Buckley’s attention. “I am attracted by adventure, repelled by marathons,” he wrote. “I could be persuaded to jump out of an airplane and land in a well in Death Valley; I could never be persuaded to hike across Death Valley or, for that matter, up the Matterhorn. Evel Knievel makes more sense to me than the Long-Distance Runner.”

It was a thrill to be Bill Buckley, and he was eager to let others in on the fun. Living vicariously through his refined sensibility and elevated tastes is a pleasure. Cocktail hour on the yacht, gourmet dinner on the Orient Express, skiing in Gstaad, Switzerland, exploring the wreckage of the Titanic—Buckley’s descriptions give the reader access to places most of us will never go. “I tend to travel first class,” he wrote in a 1996 piece on air travel, “thanks to the hospitality of my own clients, combined with hedonistic inclinations cultivated with great sweat over a period of many years.”

“Getting About” ranges widely. Detailed accounts of Buckley’s visits to Israel, Italy and the Soviet Union are interspersed with jeremiads about luggage weight restrictions and a lack of pretzels on commercial flights. On one page he visits a spa and assesses the merits of jogging versus bicycling; on the next he embarks on a Concorde trip that circumnavigates the globe. The cumulative effect is like spending an evening with an entertaining dining companion. The wine and talk flow.

Buckley was a champion name-dropper. His allusions to colleagues and adversaries make up a Who’s Who of the 1970s and ’80s. Younger readers may have trouble identifying the pageant of notables whose names march across these pages, from actor David Niven to literary critic Hugh Kenner to economist John Kenneth Galbraith to columnists Anthony Lewis and Harriet Van Horne.

These forgotten personages and events aren’t an obstacle to enjoyment. They are an invitation to learning more about the raucous intellectual life of a previous era. They are reminders that Americans in the last century benefited from a thick middlebrow culture of shared references and common experience.

However far Buckley journeyed abroad, he kept returning to his favorite pastime: sailing. The first piece in Mr. Meehan’s collection, from 1958, is on boats, and so is the final piece from 2004. Over the course of his life Buckley owned four yachts—the Panic, Suzy Wong, Cyrano and Patito. Each of them appears in “Getting About,” as do numerous other vessels that Buckley boards as a passenger, charters for a cruise, or uses as a platform for scuba diving and swimming. What drew Buckley to boats was not only the physical and mental challenges they presented but also the sense of freedom and possibility they offered. “The sea,” he writes in an essay reprinted in “Getting About,” “is the last area on earth where total spontaneity of movement is possible.”

“Airborne,” first published in 1976, describes a trans-Atlantic cruise on the Cyrano. He and his crew departed Miami on May 30, 1975, made intermediate stops in Bermuda and the Azores, and arrived in Marbella, Spain, on June 30. The voyage was not easy. Equipment broke down. Rain squalls erupted. The ship was in danger of running aground. Buckley grins through these setbacks, enchanting readers with sea stories and apothegms (“My happiest superstition is that if I take saccharine in my coffee, I can have hot-fudge sundaes for dessert”).

Accompanying Buckley are his sister-in-law, a few close friends and Christopher, fresh out of Yale. Buckley told his companions to record their thoughts and impressions. The pages of “Airborne” are enlivened by quotations from their journals, especially Christopher’s. The young Buckley’s talent is already plain. His direct, emphatic, clipped voice complements his father’s baroque prose. “Aunt Bill [Christopher’s affectionate name for his aunt Kathleen] sleeps soundly in Cabin B next to her medicine chest,” Christopher writes in a typical diary entry. “The sum knowledge and technology of the AMA, the California Red Cross, and Blue Shield all tucked, compressed, and compartmentalized into a deep-sea fishing tackle box.”

For Bill Buckley, the object of sailing was not only to reach one’s destination but also to enjoy good company. Humor was a requirement of passage. The sailors in “Airborne” throw parties, get into scrapes, crack jokes and play games. Whoever finished a wine bottle, for instance, had to write out an anticommunist statement, place it inside the bottle and throw it overboard. “Someone contributed . . . ‘CIA will guarantee one (1) free assassination upon retrieving this message.’ ”

“Airborne” was such a success that it inspired a sequel, “Atlantic High,” recounting a second trans-Atlantic cruise that Buckley undertook five years after the first. Several absences make “Atlantic High” slightly less enthralling than its predecessor. For one thing, Christopher is missing—he was busy writing his first book. What’s more, the vessel is different. Buckley so loved the Cyrano, which he had refurbished, that it became another character, a participant in the first narrative.

The Sealestial, by contrast—“pronounced Celestial by anybody who intends to board and stay aboard”—had another owner and its own captain. The custom details, the family ties, the comforts of home that Buckley brought aboard the Cyrano are absent, and replaced by, among others, unfamiliar crewmen, a professional photographer and a distant acquaintance who falls ill. The qualities that Buckley loved about sailing—spontaneity and friendship—are diminished.

Still, “Atlantic High” contains treats that the first book does not possess. Buckley spends one chapter answering his correspondence. He presents his views on the best way to write a rejection letter: “The key is brevity—there is no way to indulge the dilative impulse and get on with the business at hand, not unless you are prepared to be severely discriminatory—i.e., send [hypothetical contributor] Jones a very long letter, and ignore the next twenty.” And he dispenses instruction on how best to turn down various requests. He finds that, despite his reluctance to add to his schedule, he often says yes. “The big enemies are: 1) youths (some of whom you cannot bring yourself to say no to) and, 2) other editors.” Even aboard Sealestial, Buckley found himself drawn into the world of public debate and professional intrigue.

Indeed, he may have enjoyed sailing because it focused his attention, constrained his actions and forced him to be still. “When you are in a harbor,” he wrote in the Atlantic in 2004, “there may be four congenial people around the table, eating and drinking and conversing, listening to music and smoking cigars, the wind and the hail and the temperature outside faced up to and faced down. Here, in your secure little anchorage, is a compound of life’s pleasures in the womb of nature.”

These moments of happiness, stillness and contemplation inspired Buckley. At the end of “Atlantic High,” when the journey is complete, Buckley wanted to be alone on the Sealestial. He made a few observations in his journal but found it difficult to express his feelings of satisfaction. “The dozen words I managed I cannot, at this moment, decipher,” he wrote. “They are illegible. But I know what they say. Know what they express. Gratitude.”

Such gratitude informs Buckley’s writing. He felt gratitude for his faith, his country, his family, his friends, his gifts and his good fortune. And as these books make clear, he gave the rest of us plenty to be thankful for, too.

Matthew Continetti is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of “The Right: The Hundred-Year War for American Conservatism.”

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