Linda Bridges, a National Review senior editor, is a living, breathing institutional memory — of NR and of everything Buckley. And so it was only natural that she would share her knowledge, experience, and endearing stories with the world as she has, with John Coyne Jr., in the new book Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement . Linda recently took some questions from colleague Kathryn Lopez, NRO editor, on the book and on the man who started it all.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Where would the conservative movement be without William F. Buckley Jr. Is that the goal of your book — answering that question?
Linda Bridges: Well, that’s part of it, and a big part. But an equally important question is: Who is Bill Buckley, and what is he like when he’s not out in the public arena? And, Who are his friends and collaborators, and how has he worked with them, both at National Review and more broadly in the conservative movement?
Lopez: You refer to NR’s 20th anniversary party as “a modest affair at the Plaza.” Not too modest, I assume?
Bridges: No, not too modest. There were six hundred glamorously dressed people crowded into arguably the most beautiful ballroom in New York; those present included Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Clare Boothe Luce (and also folks on the other side of the political spectrum like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor). The buffet, planned by Pat Buckley, was described by several columnists as “Lucullan,” and Bill’s favorite jazz pianist, Dick Wellstood, led a fine little combo.
It was ten years later — at the 30th anniversary party, attended by President and Mrs. Reagan — that Pat had the Plaza prepare her signature chicken pot pie for the guests, who had paid $175 to attend. This freaked out at least one liberal columnist. “How,” Dave Rossie sputtered, “do you explain a $175 chicken pot pie to people who scrounge for food in garbage cans?”
Lopez: What will readers of your book be most surprised to learn about WFB? Was there anything you were surprised to learn?
Bridges: I can’t say there was anything I was surprised to learn by the time John Coyne and I started to write this book. But remember, I’ve worked for and with Bill for more than 35 years. Also, I had done some biographical research in the course of various projects I worked on for him — I prepared the descriptive catalogue that accompanied the Firing Line archive to the Hoover Institution, and I helped him round up the material for his collections Miles Gone By and Let Us Talk of Many Things.
But there were things about him that surprised me when I first learned them many years ago, and that I think will surprise many readers. Most striking, I think, is the fact that while he thrives on public controversy and has a real instinct for the jugular in debate, he hates personal confrontations and unpleasantness. And the obverse of that is his real kindness in situations where many people would have torn a strip off someone who made a dumb and costly mistake.
Lopez: Is there any one piece you’ll forever be proud of having worked on at NR?
Bridges: Oh, far too many to mention. But the ones that I would cite in particular are the piece that I did quoting heavily from the Bukovsky Papers, which detailed the Soviet use of psychiatric hospitals to punish dissidents; and a Solzhenitsyn piece where I handled the complicated negotiations with his translator.