A Personal Retrospective

by Rich Lowry

NR and its founder.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This appeared in the August 9, 2004, issue of National Review.

What follows is a loose assortment of published and broadcast commentary on the retirement of WFB, who, on June 29, turned his voting stock in National Review, Inc., over to a not-for-profit corporation. Ed Capano is publisher and CEO, Thomas Rhodes is board chairman, and I am editor. I begin this self-imposed (but nevertheless welcome) assignment by reproducing the note from WFB which accompanied the bulky material on the theme of his retirement and of National Review’s history, from which I have put this feature together. It reads, “Rich: If you think this is bad, imagine what you’ll have to go through when I die! Best, Bill.”

I begin by excerpting a few words from my own improvised tribute on June 29 at Paone’s restaurant. Other speakers at the dinner included Priscilla Buckley (who brought down the house with her reminiscences), Ed Capano, Dusty Rhodes, and Dan Oliver.

“I myself,” I said, “discovered NR through Firing Line. I spent a good part of my high school years watching it obsessively and rewinding at certain points to make sure I’d followed the argument. But when I picked up a copy of NR, it was a revelation, as it has been for so many people.

“I knew as soon as I read it that I wanted to work for this magazine, and it has been a great blessing, made possible by Bill Buckley and John O’Sullivan, to be associated with NR.

“As we all know, it is impossible to exaggerate Bill Buckley’s influence in forging a movement that changed the nation. For those of us who had a chance to work closely with him, just as important have been the smaller things, the advice, the good humor, the innumerable acts of kindness that all added up to a model of graciousness and thoughtfulness.

“I, in particular, have benefited from Bill’s patience, especially during the inevitable snafus. As when I had to inform him that I had scheduled an article titled ‘Bomb Canada’ in the same issue Scott Budd, after months of effort, had gotten us an ad from the U.S.-Canada Friendship Council.

“Of course, there is always a sense that Bill is operating on a higher plane. I hate to confess, but sometimes I haven’t known exactly what he was saying, although I always did my best to hide it. He might say that an article was characterized by an ‘unnecessary anfractuosity.’ I would nod sagely and say, ‘You know, I couldn’t agree with you more.’ (Laughter)

“I have worked closely for Bill for going on seven years. I have never lost my sense of awe and I never will. We live in a time of sometimes confusing intra-conservative fights. People ask, ‘Are you a neoconservative, a paleoconservative?’ The appropriate answer for everyone in this room is, ‘I’m a Bill Buckley conservative.’” (Applause)

* *

The lead editorial in the New York Observer was a special surprise. It is an influential left-leaning weekly with a highbrow constituency. The editorial gave considerable biographical background on WFB. We reproduce it here in full.

(New York Observer) — Fifty years ago, William F. Buckley brought the conservative movement in America back to life by founding the National Review; last month, Mr. Buckley turned his controlling shares in the magazine over to a group of trustees, having proven that one man and a magazine can make the world wiser and better. Though the National Review has never earned a profit, it earned the admiration of its allies and the grudging respect of its opponents. Indeed, it could be argued that Bill Buckley has done more to foster serious intellectual debate in this nation than any other person in the past half-century. When compared with the neocons who have dulled the wits of an already witless White House [the Observer is talking about our close friends and allies!] Mr. Buckley’s brand of conservatism has always been suffused with intellectual rigor, common sense, precision and a healthy dose of humor.

To run a magazine for 50 years is no mean feat; it was made possible by Mr. Buckley’s passionate belief in the power of ideas, and his ability to inspire and educate an entire generation of journalists and politicians. In the beginning, he provided controversial scholars with an outlet for ideas when no other publications were open to their work. Though he was only 29 when he started the magazine, he had already served in World War II, worked briefly for the C.I.A., been an editor at The American Mercury and published God and Man at Yale, his irreverent critique of how students at his alma mater and other universities were falling under the sway of overly secularized, left-leaning professors and administrators. The book kicked up a fair bit of controversy and established Mr. Buckley as a writer to whom attention must be paid. In 1965, he ran for mayor of New York as the candidate of the newly formed Conservative Party. Asked what he would do if he were elected, Mr. Buckley replied: “Demand a recount!” The campaign, like the National Review itself, was ahead of its time: The Conservative Party disdained the Republican Party nominee, the charismatic and charming John Lindsay, and by doing so, showed that it was determined to change local and national politics by the force of argument and ideas. While Mr. Buckley’s own campaign was a curiosity, in 1965, within five years his brother James Buckley won election to the U.S. Senate on the Conservative Party line alone.

The following year, Mr. Buckley started the syndicated talk show Firing Line, which he hosted for 34 years until it ended in 1999, and on which he alternately indulged and teased guests such as Richard Nixon, Norman Mailer, Henry Kissinger, Groucho Marx, Hugh Hefner, Jack Kerouac and Mary McCarthy. Meanwhile, his syndicated column expanded to reach over 300 newspapers, and his political beliefs helped lay the groundwork for the Presidency of Ronald Reagan.

Bill Buckley has, against all odds, created a new breed of politician and political discourse in this country, embodying not only what Barry Goldwater once called “the conscience of a conservative,” but also the heart and truly transcendent decency of one.

* * *

A tribute from a special friend was recalled. President Reagan had flown up from the White House to speak at NR’s 30th anniversary dinner. Dan Oliver cited a passage from his speech. “Bill Buckley is perhaps the most influential journalist and intellectual in our era — he changed our country, indeed our century. He was our clipboard-bearing Galahad: ready to take on any challengers in the critical battle of point and counterpoint. And, with grace and humor and passion, to raise a standard to which patriots and lovers of freedom could repair.”

* * *

Having heard from the chief executive, we looked in on Congress and heard from Rep. Joe Wilson (R., S.C.), who made the following warm remarks from the House floor:

–”Since I attended high school, I have read National Review. Through his stewardship of conservatism’s flagship magazine, he was able to direct our visions and coherently communicate our positive philosophy. Indeed, Mr. Buckley defined the conservative movement as one that promotes a strong national defense to defeat Communism and terrorism, and for limited government, lower taxation, personal responsibility, and individual freedom. These principles are still the basis of conservatism today, and National Review after nearly fifty years is still our guidebook. Last week Mr. Buckley turned over his ownership of National Review, and ended a special era in American history. I ask all of my colleagues to join me in thanking William F. Buckley Jr. for National Review.”

* * *

One commentator made good fun of WFB’s apparently surrealistic strengths and accomplishments. Here was Cal Thomas on Fox News.

– “Bill Buckley held the ground until reinforcements arrived. I remember introducing him once. I said, ‘You know, Bill, I didn’t mind that you had the magazine. You wrote the novels. You even led people in around-the-world tours on the old Concorde. But when you built a harpsichord from scratch and played it at Carnegie Hall, don’t you think that was pouring it on a little too much?’”

* * *

A few papers with tough, longstanding liberal leanings were — that day! — generous. The Louisville Courier-Journal even speculated that they might miss Buckley. The San Diego Union-Tribune (not left-leaning) liked especially one thing NR had done. And the Dayton Daily News played with the amusing thesis that neither WFB nor antagonist John Kenneth Galbraith had been, after all, totally convincing.

(The Courier-Journal) — One might not expect an editorial page such as this, with its center-left, New Deal sensibilities, to apotheosize the godfather of American conservatism, or his magazine. However, thanks to Mr. Buckley’s interstitial presence in it, National Review has provided an effective challenge to philosophical opponents.

His magazine has been edgy, witty, stylish, brainy and very savvy. But will it ever be as deliciously infuriating for us, when his influence is less immediate, and perhaps less apparent, in its pages?

(The San Diego Union-Tribune) — For several decades, the irrepressible Buckley spread the free-market gospel with a savoir faire that made him somewhat of a media darling.

His flashing wit and stylistic affectations delighted viewers of contrasting political persuasions. Ditto for his weekly televised encounters with public figures with opposing points of view on the syndicated talk show “Firing Line.” However one may have disagreed with Buckley’s bedrock beliefs, it was difficult to dislike this man whose charm and grace recall a halcyon time when civility mattered.

We are reminded anew of this cultural decline as the 79-year-old [78-year-old!] Buckley bows out, turning the controlling shares of his magazine over to a group of trustees, including his son, Christopher.

WFB, as he’s widely known, has remained a perceptive political pundit throughout his storied career. He had the courage to keelhaul the loopy John Birch Society and its brethren as cranks who lent credence to the nasty stereotype that conservatives were several bricks shy of a load. Buckley’s political passion was rivaled by his abiding love of peanut butter, which he concluded that, were the gooey substance as expensive as caviar, it would be served at Buckingham Palace teas.

(And Martin Gottlieb in the Dayton Daily News) — Buckley didn’t invent conservatism, and certainly not modern conservatism. But a movement that had theretofore been publicly represented by boring or demagogic politicians, stuffy professors, scary evangelists (sometimes anti-Semitic) and assorted racists suddenly had this stylish, amiable young intellectual front and center. His very existence — the very fact that somebody like him could be a conservative — was a revelation to millions.

As for his magazine, it was often funny, which, again, was a profound change. It became the political bible for many, including Ronald Reagan. I thought the problem was not Buckley, but me; there was something I just wasn’t getting. So I kept reading. As I kept reading the conservatives, Buckley, more than anyone, made it fun, if everlastingly confusing.

One way to phrase my problem: Here we had William F. Buckley Jr. and John Kenneth Galbraith (the prominent liberal economist and writer and frequent debater of Buckley). Both were brilliant, breathtakingly erudite, colossally well-read, and unmistakably decent in their motivations. Yet they disagreed on all the great issues of the day. One promoted one collection of policies to make the nation and the world peaceful, free and prosperous. The other promoted a dramatically different collection, with the same goals.

Either that, or Buckley and Galbraith were both half right. That is to say that in their life’s work — the accumulation and dissemination of political and economic insight — they were both mediocre.

* *

Ben Johnson of Frontpage Magazine invoked a parody of the hypothetical conservative of yesteryear.

–Aloise Buckley Heath once reminisced, when her brother set out to establish National Review in the mid-1950s, that our “most deeply buried fear was that Gerald L.K. Smith was the only other conservative in America.” Fifty years later, William F. Buckley Jr.’s weekly journal of opinion (now bi-weekly) reaches more than a quarter-million readers, including the President of the United States, and is recognized as the intellectual fountainhead of modern conservatism. Last Tuesday, Buckley relinquished ownership of National Review. His beloved magazine will now be guided by hands other than his own.

–The move does not come out of the blue. Buckley retired as NR’s Editor-in-Chief in 1990, and strictly curtailed his public speaking schedule at the turn of the millenium. The transfer of leadership marks a heartsick moment for conservatives, whose melancholy is heightened by the accompanying press release’s terse acknowledgement that, “Mr. Buckley, 78, cited concerns about his own mortality as the primary reason for his divestiture.” More than anyone else, William F. Buckley Jr. has come to embody conservatism itself. He made the term “conservative” respectable, realigned the Republican Party to the Right and set in motion a movement that saw two of its members elected President of the United States.

* * *

The Big Timers remarked the day, the Wall Street Journal writing,
– Before Bill Buckley and NR, American conservatism was a loose assortment of isolationists, protectionists, traditionalists, anti-Semites, Southern Agrarians and just plain cranks. What National Review did was drain the fever swamps and infuse U.S. conservatism with a coherence it had never had.

Today National Review is just one year shy of 50, and its success has spawned a host of conservative alternatives that now compete across print, radio, television and the Internet. Yet it remains the largest opinion magazine in America. And far from auguring its demise, the abundance of new rivals only confirms one of National Review’s longtime principles: that competition is among the sincerest forms of conservatism.

(And from Time magazine) — Stepping Down. William F. Buckley Jr., 78, after a round (and orotund) half-century as guiding intellect and controlling shareholder of the immensely influential conservative magazine, National Review. Buckley used the publication as one of several mechanisms for the life support and eventual triumphant revival of an ailing political position, characterized in the first issue as standing “athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’”

* *

Two former colleagues, writing now as syndicated columnists, paid personal tributes. Maggie Gallagher and David Klinghoffer told about their own experiences at NR. Klinghoffer spoke of NR’s respect for religion.

(Maggie Gallagher, Townhall.com) — The influence of his magazine, his name, his style, his ideas on American thought and politics cannot be overestimated. Historians of ideas will debate his influence for decades to come. His PBS television show, “Firing Line,” fed a generation of conservatives starved for any media reflection of their views decades before the age of Rush, Focus on the Family, and Fox News.

His magazine became an idea factory that launched a thousand new faces, or rather voices. For Bill Buckley understood the importance of ideas, and embodied intellectual courage, at a time when expressing conservative thoughts made you at best a radical “extremist.”

And he always understood that ideas weren’t abstractions — they were what men lived by and died for, if necessary. Few celebrities can boast such a record of kindness, concern and courtesy in private as well as public life.

(David Klinghoffer, columnist for the Forward, author of The Discovery of God: Abraham and the Birth of Monotheism) — Fresh out of Brown University in 1987, I started working at National Review. I had never met so many intense — if idiosyncratic — Christians, mostly Catholics like Buckley, as he had assembled there under a dilapidated roof on New York’s East 35th Street. Buckley’s overt Christian commitment, mixing urbanity with great passion, brought many young conservatives, including many who had started out as liberals, to rethink the bland, content-free, secularist pieties we had been brought up on. Having grown up in a secular Jewish home, I knew few people of any serious spiritual orientation whatsoever. Sometimes, envy can be a positive force in a person’s spiritual development. I wanted what Buckley, and others, had.

Example is a more powerful instructional tool than lecturing. This may be the most compact way of expressing what Bill Buckley has contributed to the conservative movement in American political life, as its intellectual, and spiritual, leader. His retirement this past week as owner of NR, where I worked for nine years, most recently as a senior editor, offers an occasion to recall what makes him such an important religious figure.

He provided a personal model of what it means specifically to be a religious conservative; he swept the vestigial anti-Semites from the right-wing scene; and he made us see how little religious, or political, orthodoxy means in the absence of a softer virtue: kindness.

Perhaps this is because liberalism emphasizes the moral obligations of the society rather than of the individual. Buckley, when he still owned NR, was like the beloved liege lord of a medieval castle town — existing in a little bit of a different plane from everyone else, but intensely protective of us all, to the point that in all the time I worked at NR, no one was ever fired.

* *

Buckley had sometimes to take action not only athwart history but athwart his own personal inclinations.

(The Wanderer, Joseph Sobran) — Over a decade ago, a column I wrote in these pages got me fired by National Review as I figured it would, after twenty-one years of working with Bill Buckley. Those years were mostly very happy for me, thanks to Bill’s truly sweet nature. But tensions had arisen between us, first when I criticized the holy state of Israel, and again when I opposed the first Iraq war. When Bill threatened to fire me over the latter, I felt that it was he, not I, who had abandoned the conservative cause. Since my job was hanging by a thread, I decided to cut it myself.

(Dallas Morning News) — Mr. Buckley’s first great achievement was to purge the American right of its kooks. He marginalized the anti-Semites, the John Birchers, the nativists and their sort. He provided a rare forum for serious conservative intellectuals to publish and in time made himself one of the most influential American journalists of the 20th century. Buckley biographer John Judis, a liberal, credited National Review with creating “almost out of nothing, the conservative movement.”

Even if you lament the course our national politics has taken, you cannot deny Mr. Buckley’s paramount role in getting us there. We wish him well in his retirement and sincerely regret that one of his most praiseworthy qualities — the grace and civility with which he treated his ideological opponents and the craft of opinion journalism — seems likely to pass from the scene with him. Bill Buckley is perhaps the last gentleman in American political life.

* *

The Boston Globe has an important conservative voice. We heard from the eloquent Jeff Jacoby, who attempted something both comprehensive and autobiograpical.

– [Buckley] had already published a controversial bestseller, “God and Man at Yale,” served in the US Army, worked for the CIA, and graduated from Yale, where he’d had a dazzling run as chairman of the Yale Daily News. He would go on to write — take a deep breath — 35 nonfiction books, 15 books of fiction, 79 book reviews, 56 introductions or forewords to books written by others, 227 obituary essays, 800-plus editorials or other articles in National Review, 350 articles in periodicals other than National Review, and more than 4,000 newspaper columns.

I was a 17-year-old college sophomore when I discovered National Review. A quarter-century later, I no longer recall where I came across my first issue or what was on its cover. What I do recall, vividly, is the thrill of encountering words and arguments that gave shape and coherence to my own inchoate political beliefs. The importance of individual freedom, the dangers of a too-powerful government, the blessings of a free market, the imperative of fighting communism, the indispensability of faith — these were themes I encountered again and again in the pages of NR.

But it wasn’t only the magazine’s political content that made it so invaluable. No less wonderful was its style. National Review was feisty, smart, playful, elegant — just like its editor, whose contributions were the highlight of nearly every issue.

* * *

Rush Limbaugh has been an ally — and friend — for many years, even serving as master of ceremonies at NR’s 45th birthday. He also knows how to poke fun.

–”I was reading Buckley when I was 15, 16 years old, and I said, ‘Boy, I wish I could be that. I wish I could be this. How does he know all these words?’ I’d sit there with the dictionary looking up words that he used, and points that he made, and in fact it was Buckley, long before Reagan, who oriented me toward the whole concept of lowering marginal tax rates to generate additional income. Buckley was on this moons and moons and moons ago, along with his associates back then. I read Buckley’s columns and I thought Buckley was so exclusive and, I thought, so untouchable.

“If you know what an idol is, multiply it times two or three. I thought him unreachable, untouchable.

“When I met him he was exactly what I wanted him to be, and more so, and he’s remained a close friend and, I might even say a colleague. Without Bill Buckley bucking the odds, alone, back in the ’50s, who knows where all this conservatism would be today?”

* *

Adam Daifallah of Canada’s National Post paid handsome tribute to my predecessor, and I’m certainly not going to argue with him.

– The smooth-talking New Englander built the polemical fortnightly into the most important and consequential journal of conservative opinion in the United States. No other non-elected person has done more to popularize right-wing ideas.

Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential candidacy, acknowledged to be a springboard for the modern conservative movement, would not have been possible without Buckley’s behind-the-scenes organization and his championing of the Arizona Republican’s candidacy in the pages of his magazine. Neither would the ascension of Ronald Reagan. Nor the mainstreaming of ideas like increased military spending, smaller government, tax cuts and total victory over the Soviet Union. It is hard to imagine that a small-circulation magazine could have such a profound impact on the Zeitgeist. But it did.

* *

London’s Financial Times recalled a few of Bill’s good lines.

–Like any good conservative, he expressed strong beliefs on taxation: “I would like to electrocute everyone who uses the word ‘fair’ in connection with income tax policies.” And he was never one to mince words: “I would like to take you seriously, but to do so would affront your intelligence.”

Cutting down famous liberals was, of course, his bread and butter. “Norman Mailer decocts matters of the first philosophical magnitude from an examination of his own ordure, and I am not talking about his books.”

* *

Eric Fettmann, of the New York Post, described the skepticism after National Review was launched, 49 years ago, and emphasized the point that there are now other players on the conservative scene.

–When Buckley, then just 29, began National Review in 1955, the mainstream media saw conservatives as some exotic political dinosaurs, barely relevant to the political issues at hand and obsessed with rabid anti-communism.

“Conservatism in America is rather a force than a political movement,” he wrote, shortly after Barry Goldwater’s landslide defeat in the 1964 election had many liberals delightedly predicting conservatism’s demise.

That it didn’t perish with Goldwater’s loss — indeed, that the conservative movement continued to gather steam — is largely due to the force of Buckley’s arguments. “Truth,” he wrote back then, “is a demure lady, much too ladylike to knock you on the head and drag you to her cave. She is there, but the people must want her and seek her out.”

For National Review has mainly been a journal of ideas; it appeals to the literate and intelligent, devoid of the overwrought emotion that too often dominates today’s political debate. But the ideas and the writers that Buckley nourished inspired a new generation of young conservatives and helped generate a movement that, in 1980, sent another conservative icon, Ronald Reagan, to the White House for two terms.

Buckley has long been described as the intellectual father of modern conservatism, and though it’s become a cliche, it’s certainly true. On the basis of ideas and persuasion, he helped direct that movement into the mainstream and, eventually, to political ascendancy.

He also helped to broaden conservatism’s often-narrow focus; the best testament to that is the fact that National Review today is just one of many influential conservative journals.

Not a bad legacy . . .

* * *

And the Washington Post exactly recorded my own commitment to NR.

– Will the magazine, which has grown to 155,000 in circulation, change? “No,” says editor Rich Lowry, laughing. “That’s my job, to make sure it doesn’t change direction.”