William F. Buckley Jr., Mentor

by Neal B. Freeman
Journalist, novelist, TV personality, debater — WFB wore many hats. But chief among them was mentor.

William F. Buckley Jr.: Most of you knew him as an opinion journalist. Many of you knew him as a novelist. Some — not necessarily the most fortunate among you — knew him as a harpsichordist. And a few, we happy few, knew him as a mentor.

If the term were not usefully employed elsewhere, I would describe Bill’s mentoring technique as the Heimlich maneuver. He pushed, he pulled, he cajoled, he exhorted — until he got your best work out of you. And when he did, he was boyishly delighted and promoted you to his well-connected friends. I should say that he promoted you . . . shamelessly. I will confess that one of the genuinely lascivious pleasures of the last century was to read your blind copy of a letter of recommendation from Bill Buckley. You got the same feeling you get when you read one of those big trend stories in the New York Times. “Wow! What if that’s true?”

I have been told that every Republican White House from early Nixon to late Bush employed on its speechwriting staff at least one alumnus of National Review. We all know how those staffers had been hired. Bill Buckley had written a letter so persuasive, so seductive, that the Leader of the Free World had no recourse but to bark at his assistant, “Quick. Hire that guy before Governor Smith does.” Every one of those staffers had been mentored by Bill Buckley. Which may explain the disparity over the years between Republican rhetoric and Republican governance.

Being mentored by Bill Buckley was not always the easy path. I remember the first time I failed to clear the bar. In 1964, NR sent a four-man team to cover the Republican convention in San Francisco. Bill Buckley, editor-in-chief of the magazine and de facto commander-in-chief of the Goldwater forces, a conflation of roles that would probably not be encouraged at the Columbia School of Journalism. Bill Rusher, publisher of the magazine and head of NR’s provisional wing. (William A. Rusher signed incendiary memos with his initials, giving them the appearance of having been issued by the War Department.) Me, the fuzzy-cheeked editor, by then schooled rigorously in the NR stylebook. And a freelance reporter who was to be our eyes and ears around the convention floor.

That first night, I presented Bill with the file for our daily edition. I watched as he worked his way through the stack of yellow copy paper, pleased that he was making only a few changes with that deadly red ballpoint. All of a sudden, he stood up, snatched a few sheets from the stack, marched across our tiny newsroom, and — holding the offending copy in his extended fingers, as if they were industrial tongs disposing of some particularly toxic substance — said, “Uhhh, Neal. Dos is allowed to roll his own.” I had converted into bland, standard-issue NR style a piece by our freelance reporter, John Dos Passos, one of the most celebrated prose stylists of the 20th century. I spent the next half-hour restoring syntactical eccentricities — and learning for a lifetime the elusive concept known as the exception to the rule.

I have been asked to adduce lessons from the Buckley style of mentoring. I am happy to do so — bypassing, if I may, those that seem less than universally applicable, such as Bill’s dictum that the American household, to be fully productive, should be stocked with a full complement of downstairs maids. I agreed in principle, of course . . . But for those of you seeking to make a revolution, here are three operational lessons from WFB.

The first lesson: There is no such thing as a fulltime job.

For Bill Buckley, the work day, the work week, and the work year were all infinitely expandable. He had a prodigious capacity for work. You have all heard the remarkable datum that Bill published 55 books over the course of his career. What is even more remarkable is that every one of those books was written while he was fully engaged in some other project.

Yogi Berra would no doubt say it more memorably than I, but it’s amazing what you can accomplish if you work hard every single day for 60 years.

Two vignettes.

In the early days — long before the right-wing conspiracy became vast — the hard core would gather a couple of nights a week at the old Sun Luck restaurant in New York City. The kitchen would close at 11 o’clock. For everybody but Bill Buckley. The owners, immigrant Chinese and ferocious anti-Communists, would set us up at a table in the back — four, six, eight of us. We would review the long day just completed and preview the long day just ahead. These occasions tended to be beer-and-wine-soaked, and we would stumble home to bed in the small hours. Not Bill. He would walk down the street to his townhouse, go up to his study, and go back to work. He was older than the rest of us by ten, 15, 20 years, but, unlike the rest of us, he was inexhaustible.

Second vignette. After we launched Firing Line and polished it and sold it city to city across the country — after it was clear that the show was a hit and that Bill was a star — I went to him and said that it was time to recruit my successor as producer. Bill was shocked. Why would I leave? Didn’t I like the show? I reminded him that I was running a division of a multinational corporation, that I was producing a regular column, that I was ghosting a book for a presidential hopeful, and that my wife had just brought our first child home from the hospital. Bill’s response was, “And?”

You can always pick out the Buckley protégés. They work like dogs. Or, as Bill would have put it, they work like Stakhanovites. Bill did more for old Stakhanov than the Soviets ever did.

The second lesson, and corollary to the first: There is no useful distinction to be made between work and play.

I was lucky over the course of a half-century to dine with Bill on hundreds of occasions. You always enjoyed a good meal and sparkling conversation, but you were — always — part of a networking opportunity, a talent-scouting expedition, an information-gathering exercise — or, when Bill was on his game, a combination of all three. Since he worked all the time, and assumed that his associates would do likewise, he went to great lengths to make work fun, and to make friends of his colleagues. For his inner circle, the hours were long, the pay was low, and the psychic benefits were out of this world. Lubricated by copious amounts of Buckley charm, the machine worked at high efficiency.

Those of you with management experience, however, will discern the flaw in Bill’s system. There would be those moments, inevitably, when one of the cherished friends became an unsatisfactory colleague. Those were moments of agony for Bill. Despite his public image as a hard-edged, let-them-eat-cake conservative, he was, in management terms, a pussycat. He couldn’t bear to fire anybody. Instead, he would contrive elaborate schemes to have his now-unsatisfactory colleague hired away by somebody else.

I received a few of those calls over the years. Bill would be in full sales mode. If his friend and soon-to-be-former colleague was an advertising man, Bill would project his career as likely to make Madison Avenue forget David Ogilvy. If Bill’s man was a financial executive, his acumen began roughly where Warren Buffett’s left off. And if Bill’s man happened to be a writer, well, he had somehow managed to combine the best qualities of Marcel Proust and Seamus Heaney.

Those of you who dealt with Bill over the years will recall that it was imprudent to allow him to gain rhetorical momentum. You could find yourself quickly ensnarled in polysyllablism. In fact, when you received one of those outplacement calls, your only chance was to break his rhythm, interjecting in a firm but worldly tone, “He’s just not working out, is he?” Bill would pause a half-beat and say, “Uhhh, not comprehensively.”

There are people who, to this very day, don’t know that they were fired by Bill Buckley. I may be one of them.

The third lesson, and much the most important of the three: Mentoring is not an optional activity. It is one of the central functions of leadership.

For Bill Buckley, mentoring was serious business. It was, on his part, neither noblesse oblige nor, in the Catholic idiom, charitable gesture. He saw it, rather, as his core responsibility to the conservative enterprise. I remember one late night at the New York Yacht Club — one of his favorite haunts for a time. He was uncharacteristically gloomy. Our proximate challenge, as he saw it, was not so much political or intellectual as organizational. We had 200 absolutely essential jobs to be performed and only 20 competent people to perform them. We were in better shape, manifestly, than the Obama administration, but we were facing a severe shortage of management talent.

If our conservative enterprise was to be a truly national force, in Bill’s view, we couldn’t be a platoon of second-raters, a pick-up team of part-timers. If we wanted to pull off something big, we needed good people, and lots of them.

My sense was that, until that night, Bill had always thought of himself as a protégé — as the beneficiary of guidance from his mentors, people like John Chamberlain and Willmoore Kendall and James Burnham and Frank Meyer. But at about that time — he was then in his early 40s — Bill took stock of his fledgling movement and accepted the most important role of his career. He became a mentor — and for the rest of his life dedicated much of his time to identifying and inspiring wave after wave of promising young conservatives. This is critically important work that, I am proud to report, goes forward here today at the William F. Buckley Jr. Program at Yale.

Neal BFreeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation. This speech was delivered at a conference put on last month by Yale’s Buckley Program.