EDITOR’S NOTE: On Thursday, November 17, National Review celebrated William F. Buckley’s 80th birthday at the Pierre in New York City. Among those in attendance, paying WFB tribute, was John O’Sullivan, former editor and current editor-at-large of National Review. Below are his remarks, as prepared.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am speaking to you tonight as an editor–indeed, as a multi-editor. When I last counted, I had edited four magazines, three op-ed pages, and two newspapers. In short I am in excellent standing in the club of editors, editors-in-chief, editors-at-large, and lesser breeds with assistant and deputy prefixes.
We editors are often asked by readers: What do you think of Bill Buckley? Well, the answer is simple:
We hate him.
How can you possibly convince potential employers, girlfriends, mothers even, that the job you do is a difficult, responsible, and demanding one when Bill edited National Review for thirty-five years while writing a thrice weekly column, conducting a weekly television-interview show, producing an annual novel while allegedly on vacation in Switzerland, skiing, playing the harpsichord (in public), sailing the Atlantic and other seas, serving as a U.S. Ambassador, delivering speeches at a Stakhanovite rate, and maintaining a social whirl with Pat that would make Elsa Maxwell dizzy?
We other editors might have cast off our resentments if the magazine Bill edited had been a bust. As you know, however, National Review made a splash with its first printing of 5,000 and has risen steadily to 170,000 today while not simply halting history but positively reversing it–and reversing it positively.
Bill’s achievement is simply unreasonable–and we other editors can’t be expected to match it. So do not be deceived by the announcement that Bill is to receive a lifetime achievement award next January from the magazine editors and publishers of America. There was no way out. We simply had to do it. But we took no pleasure in it.
As well as not matching Bill’s achievements, we other editors can’t be expected to match his generosity.
Ladies and gentlemen, I want you to conduct a small thought-experiment. Imagine that you have created a magazine, run it for thirty-five years, made it a great magazine with vast influence for good. Of course, as its sole parent, you know that the magazine is fragile as well as sturdy. You know the bullets it has dodged and the moments when it almost exploded. Magazines decline and die as well as prosper.
Do you really think that you could appoint successors, step back, hold your breath, promise them full editorial control to run your magazine as they thought fit–and keep your promise?
I’m not at all sure that I could. But that is what Bill did. He was always around to give help and advice if asked–and I think many of you can guess some occasions on which I asked for advice–but he allowed me and later Rich to direct the magazine freely, in line with our own tastes and opinions. I was and remain enormously grateful for that.
It is a great privilege to be one of only three editors of National Review. I could not be in better company. Bill is a great mentor; Rich a brilliant star of conservative journalism in his own right; both are dear and reliable friends. It is great to be here.
Almost for this reason I have one mild and modest complaint to voice. Bill’s recent writings and speeches have sometimes had an elegiac tone, striking an autumnal note of farewell. Well, we are instructed by the highest possible Authority always to keep our minds on such matters. Eighty is indeed a milestone. And though some editors think themselves God, Bill has never been among them.
God Himself, however, is a sort of editor. And when a good editor sets a deadline, he usually gives his contributors the impression that it is a good deal earlier than it really is. So I think we all want to say to Bill: “You have Miles To Go–and at Cruising Speed too. We–the audience–are not bored yet. And I don’t think we ever will be.”
Have a Merry Birthday tonight–and Many Happy Returns.