If you want a taste of life with William F. Buckley Jr., read Right Time, Right Place Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement. Rick Brookhiser has been writing for National Review since he was 14 years old. He tells the story of his life with William F. Buckley Jr. in his new book. He talks about that story — and the book — with NRO’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: The book jacket and press releases for your book hook people with a letter from WFB that informed you that “you will no longer be my successor.” Do you expect you might rope people in who are hoping it’s a bitter book?
RICHARD BROOKHISER: They will be disappointed. Bitterness is the shadow of misplaced adoration. One of the stories of my book is going beyond worshipping Bill, then feeling affronted by him, to affection that acknowledges ambivalence.
LOPEZ: What do you miss most about Bill Buckley?
BROOKHISER: His delight. It was like birds in the morning. You felt new in its presence.
LOPEZ: What are the most important writing, political, and personal lessons WFB taught you?
BROOKHISER: Writing: Swing for the fences. Why not? We don’t remember the cautious because we never read them in the first place.
Politics: Do the right thing, even if all liberalism disagrees, or all conservatism. The risk of independence is that you will be wrong, but the only way never to be wrong is never to think or decide.
Personal: Be generous. Bill was a self-oriented, even narcissistic man, but one of the ways he expressed himself was by showering favors on others. This is a hard one for me.
LOPEZ: What’s your funniest WFB memory?
BROOKHISER: I laugh hardest at his response to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., which is in Cancel Your Own Goddam Subscription as well as Right Time, Right Place. Schlesinger made a high and mighty reference to “National Review, or the National Enquirer, or whatever you call your magazine.” Bill wondered, in reply, how Schlesinger would like it if he wrote, “Dear Arthur, or Dear Barfer, or whatever you call yourself.” If you ever need to call a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian on his misbehavior, that’s the way.
LOPEZ: He was so prolific. What was the secret there?
BROOKHISER: Bill was the fastest writer I have ever seen, and the most disciplined. A thousand words here and a thousand words there — pretty soon it adds up.
LOPEZ: Are there specific lessons you might relay to the conservative movement right now?
BROOKHISER: If you think things are bad now, and they are, remember the mid-to-late seventies. Watergate, the fall of Saigon, stagflation, the energy crisis, Cubans in Africa, Soviets in Afghanistan, Ford’s bumbling, Carter’s puniness. It was an awful decade, but it ended in Reagan.
That’s not to say that every debacle has its Reagan.
LOPEZ: In the book, you talk about editing a special issue on nuclear power in 1979, one month before the Three Mile Island accident. You write: “The work National Review did was true and important, but futile.” That happens. What do you do? How do you not lose heart?
BROOKHISER: Clarkson and Wilberforce in Britain, and John Jay and Alexander Hamilton in this country, began lobbying against slavery in the eighteenth century. But the slave trade was not abolished until 1807–8, slavery in the West Indies not until the 1830s and 40s, slavery in this country not until the Civil War, and in Brazil and East Africa not until the 1880s. And, of course, it is reviving around the world today. We work and work, and if we win we will have to work at something else.
LOPEZ: Why did WFB have “reservations” about Reagan running in 1980? What were they and when did he get over them?
BROOKHISER: In 1980 Bill was worried that Reagan was too old. He had lost two previous runs for the nomination, and he would be the oldest president ever if he did win. Plus, Bill liked George H. W. Bush. Reagan’s victory in the New Hampshire primary made these reservations moot.
LOPEZ: You write that “Working for Bill was an endless process of catching up with old acquaintances, who were legion.” Which among them would wind up having the most influence on you?
BROOKHISER: Harry Jaffa’s central point, about the centrality of the ideology of the Declaration to the Revolution, and to this country, is correct. Terry Teachout was not an old friend of Bill’s, but I met him because he was drawn to Bill and to NR. He is a dear friend, always there when you need him, and I dedicated Right Time, Right Place to him. Keith Mano is my hero of writing. I don’t write like him, but I try to write as well.
LOPEZ: Who was your favorite politician in Bill’s orbit? His?
BROOKHISER: I loved Reagan, and always liked Jack Kemp. I think Bill’s favorite was probably Barry Goldwater, whom I never met. There was a no-BS quality to him which Bill found enormously attractive, and which he evoked in Flying High. It limited Goldwater as a politician, though (Bill had a similar quality, which also limited him as a politician).
LOPEZ: “His first priority was fighting communism. He knew it was serious, and he knew it was wrong.” Was that always the case? What about when Communism was defeated?
BROOKHISER: Communism was the big deal. If Communists came to dominate the world, all other bets were off. Now we have the jihad, which as Bill said at his last NR director’s dinner, is the next thing. I think Barack Obama knows this; does he know how to fight it?
LOPEZ: What do you mean when you say that Bill “worshipped language”?
BROOKHISER: The line is Auden’s: Time “Worships language and forgives / Everyone by whom it lives.” Auden wrote it in his elegy for Yeats, who had crackpot fascist views (Auden, for his part, was passing from Communism to pacifism when he wrote the line). But Auden is saying that poetry bridges all gaps. That is not entirely true. Mayakovsky, say, or Céline are beyond the pale, but even they could write worthily in the cracks of their wickedness. For Bill, the right words overcame a lot.
LOPEZ: Why did you want to write about politics so badly? Did you/do you enjoy it as much as you thought you would?
BROOKHISER: It seemed both important and exciting. Presidents emerge from it, as well as a lot of eye-gouging and crapola. What could be better? In the last 15 years, I’ve been following 18th-century politics.
LOPEZ: Are you surprised you would ultimately become a writer of history books?
BROOKHISER: I moved from live politicians to dead ones. But the dead guys are still alive, to the extent their decisions still affect us, or their stories inspire.
LOPEZ: How did you discover WFB wasn’t “invulnerable”? Did the discovery change the way you engaged with others, particularly the legends around him?
BROOKHISER: I only fully realized his vulnerability as I wrote this book, and thought about some of the things he and I did and said. When you idolize a man, you lose sight of his humanity, and this is dangerous, because love is most real only when it is directed to the beloved as he actually is.
LOPEZ: There are a lot of parties and dinners talked about in your book. Why were these social events important to WFB?
BROOKHISER: Bill liked having a good time; he liked holding forth, and he liked even more drawing people out. Dinner parties were the ideal venue.
LOPEZ: What’s the one thing you’d like everyone to know about William F. Buckley Jr.?
BROOKHISER: Three things: Watch the YouTube clip of Firing Line with Allen Ginsberg; read Cruising Speed; listen to Bach’s C-minor partita.
LOPEZ: Was there anything left unsaid? To Bill? In the book?
BROOKHISER:The book is complete. To Bill, as to anyone, there is always more to say. It is the source of our hope for eternity.
LOPEZ: Is it difficult to write a book as honest as yours? Did you feel you owed it to history? To Bill?
BROOKHISER: It’s harder than writing about Charles Francis Adams, that’s for sure. I tried to say everything I needed to evoke Bill and his times, and to tell the story of an older man and a younger man and how they got along.