EDTIOR’S NOTE: These are the remarks William F. Buckley Jr. delivered on the 35th anniversary of National Review, on October 5, 1990, at which he announced his retirement as editor-in-chief.
I suppose that if there is a single occasion on which a professional will be indulged for speaking personally, it is when he retires. (If that isn’t the case, then National Review will establish yet another precedent.) When my father first saw the offering circular with which in 1954 I traveled about the country attempting to induce American capitalists to invest in our prospective journal, he spotted only a single sentence that disturbed him. I had written in the circular that I pledged to devote ten years of my life to National Review should we succeed in giving it birth. My father, who was very . . . formal about personal commitments, told me he thought this exorbitant. “Ten years is simply too long,” he said. “Suppose you decide you want to do something else with your life?”
Well, the warning became moot, because there never was anything else around seriously to tempt me. For the fun of it I divulge that in 1970 I was approached by a very small delegation of what one is trained to call “serious people” whose proposal was that I should run for governor of New York; I should expect to win the election, I was told, thus positioning myself to run for the presidency. I was nicely situated to say two things, the first that anyone who had run for mayor of New York City and received only 13 percent of the vote shouldn’t be too confident about winning a general election for governor. And I finally silenced my friends by adding that I didn’t see how I could make the time to run for governor, given my obligations to National Review
. My friends couldn’t understand my priorities. But I was very content with them.
Oh yes, I won’t cavil on that point. The magazine has been everything the speakers tonight have so kindly said it was–is. It is preposterous to suppose that this is so because of my chancellorship. How gifted do you need to be to publish Whittaker Chambers and Russell Kirk, James Burnham and Keith Mano? But, yes, the journal needed to function. Somehow the staff and the writers had to be paid–if an editorial note is reserved for me in the encyclopedias, it will appear under the heading “Alchemy.” But the deficits were met, mostly, by our readers: by you. And, yes, we did as much as anybody with the exception of–Himself–to shepherd into the White House the man I am confident will emerge as the principal political figure of the second half of the 20th century, and he will be cherished, in the nursery tales told in future generations, as the American president who showed the same innocent audacity as the little boy who insisted that the emperor wasn’t wearing any clothes, back when he said, at a critical moment in history, that the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was an evil empire. It is my judgment that those words acted as a kind of harmonic resolution to the three frantic volumes of Solzhenitsyn. The Gulag Archipelago told us everything we needed to know about the pathology of Soviet Communism. We were missing only the galvanizing summation; and we got it from President Reagan: and I think that the countdown for Communism began then.
Since you were so kind as to ask about my personal plans, I disclose that I intend to continue to be active on other fronts. Early this week I performed a harpsichord concerto with the North Carolina Symphony and resolved–with the full acquiescence, I am certain, of the orchestra and the audience–that I will not devote my remaining years to performing on the harpsichord. One month from today I will set out, with my companions, on a small sailboat from Lisbon, headed toward Barbados via Madeira, the Canaries, and Cape Verde, forty-four hundred miles of decompression at sea, the cradle of God; inevitably, a book will come out of this. But on reaching the Caribbean, unlike the Flying Dutchman, I will jump ship, to get on with other work. I have not scheduled the discontinuation of my column, or of Firing Line, or of public speaking, or of book writing. But these activities by their nature will terminate whenever the Reaper moves his supernatural, or for that matter democratic, hand, whereas National Review, I like to think, will be here, enlivening right reason, for as long as there is anything left in America to celebrate.
And of course, it will always crowd my own memory. One thousand fourteen issues of National Review. The hour is late, nearing five in the afternoon of press day, and the printer’s messenger is already waiting, so we move into the conference room, the only room at National Review in which more than four people can fit, and Priscilla reads out the editorial lengths, and I enter them on the paleolithic calculator I bought in Switzerland in 1955, and Linda checks to see that I have got the right count. We have twelve hundred fifty-nine lines of editorial copy but space for only seven hundred eighteen. We absolutely need to run something on the subject of Judge Souter’s testimony, but I see we can’t afford the seventy-eight-line editorial I processed earlier in the day. “Rick, would you shorten this?”
“To what?” he asks, as matter-of-factly as a tailor might ask what the new waistline is to be.
The copy is spread about the room, occupying every level surface, and you walk about, counterclockwise, turning face down any editorial that can wait a fortnight to appear, and subtracting on your little calculator its line count from the rogue total. We need to cut five hundred forty-one lines. First your eyes pass by the editorials and paragraphs that deal with domestic issues, Priscilla having grouped them together; then those that deal with foreign countries or foreign policy; then the offbeat material. You look down at the calculator, having made the complete circuit of the room, returning to where you began: it shows eight hundred fifty-four lines, and so you start the second counterclockwise circuit, the killer instinct necessarily aroused: you have got to cut another one hundred thirty-six lines. “Jeff, shrink this one by ten lines, okay?” At National Review the editors always answer “Okay” when a deadline looms.
So it is done, down to length. And then you ask yourself: Which paragraph is just right for the lead? The rule: It has to be funny, or at least piquant; directly or obliquely topical; engaging of the broader imagination. I remember one from years and years ago: “The attempted assassination of Sukarno last week had all the earmarks of a CIA operation. Everyone in the room was killed except Sukarno.” And, during the days when we feuded almost full-time, “Gerald Johnson of The New Republic wonders what a football would think of football if a football could think. Very interesting, but not as interesting as, What would a New Republic reader think of The New Republic if a New Republic reader could think?” Last week there wasn’t anything absolutely, obviously pre-eminent, but ever since it came up on the dumbwaiter at 2 P.M. from Tim Wheeler’s fortnightly package, this one about colors had burrowed in the mind. . . . Time is very short now. Okay, we’ll lead with it. It reads:
“Iraq and the budget are as nothing compared to the firestorm following the retirement of maize, raw umber, lemon yellow, blue grey, violet blue, green blue, orange red, and orange and their replacement by vivid tangerine, wild strawberry, fuchsia, teal blue, cerulean, royal purple, jungle green, and dandelion, by the makers of Crayola crayons.”
Nice, no? Orson Bean used to say that the most beautiful word combinations in the language were “Yucca Flats” and “Fernando Lamas”; though Whittaker Chambers, along with Gertrude Stein, preferred “Toasted Susie is my ice cream.”
And then you need the closing eye-catcher, the end paragraph, traditionally very offbeat; usually nonpolitical, but not necessarily. You knew which would be the end paragraph the moment you laid eyes on it, early in the day–another by Tim Wheeler,
whose reserves of mischief are reliable–and now you find it and designate it as such. It reads:
“This week’s invention is a sort of miniaturized zapper, battery-powered, to be inserted in the cervix for contraception and, the inventor hopes, prophylaxis. If you aren’t shocked by this, you will be.”
The editorials are now in order, and the line count is confirmed.
Another issue of National Review has gone to bed; and you acknowledge–the thought has ever so slowly distilled in your mind–that the time comes for us all to go to bed, and I judge that mine has come, and I leave owing to my staff, my colleagues–my successors–my friends, my muses, my God, an unrequitable debt for having given me so much, for so long. Good night, and thanks.