It is my privilege tonight to serve as a kind of Aaron Copland, composing a fanfare for an uncommon woman: Priscilla Buckley, who is ending more than a quarter of a century as NATIONAL REVIEW’S managing editor.
When considering how best to salute this woman of comprehensive interests, I turned for advice to someone whom the President himself consults daily. I sought advice on how to do justice to the political sophistication of this woman. And Donald Regan said to me: Whatever else you say, say she is interested in throw-weight. Well, of course she is, but that is not the point.The point is that Priscilla has shown us all how to combine such serious interests with an undiminished and irrepressible flair for fun. Priscilla is the flute in our conservative orchestra—subtle,complex, yet, always on the verge of merriment. Exactly thirty years ago, as the first issue of NATIONAL REVIEW appeared, Secretary of State Dulles gave a speech asking: Is the spirit of Geneva dead? NR’s answer was: “We certainly hope so.” Obviously, diplomacy has not changed, but conservatism has, and for the better, thanks in large part to Priscilla. She has taught, by example, the compatibility of political commitment and generosity of spirit.She has, in equal measure, passionate conservatism and overflowing good humor.
I collect oxymorons, those internally contradictory phrases such as “married bachelor,” or “Lebanese government,” or “Jack Kemp Deficit Reduction Plan.” Here is a phrase that may sound contradictory, but is not. The phrase is “healthy infection.” That is a plain description of Priscilla’s gift to conservatism: the gift of infectious laughter.
For thirty years, NATIONAL REVIEW has not been known for its lackadaisical approach to orthodoxies. But neither has it been merely like the Catholic bishop of Little Rock who, a generation ago, was asked his opinion of the ecumenical movement. He replied: “My opinion is that we’re right and they’re wrong and they’ve got to admit it.”
For thirty years, NATIONAL REVIEW has kept the faith, but has also kept its sense of humor. To Priscilla goes much of the credit for that fact, and hence the fact that many of those who were wrong, thirty years ago, now know in their hearts that NATIONAL REVIEW was right from the start. They have come to right reason, through the allure of conservatism with a smiling face. Indeed, conservatism has sometimes advanced less by logic than by laughter—by the ability to laugh away the kind of extravagant politics practiced by the candidate in Maryland a few years ago who said, “If I am elected, the schools will begin to produce Beethovens and Einsteins.” We in Maryland would be pleased if, upon leaving school, our children had heard of Beethoven and Einstein.
It was an architect who said that God is in the details. It could have been Priscilla. If an architect gets the details wrong, only a building collapses. If a writer gets the details wrong, a sentence or even an argument comes tumbling down. And we graduates of the Priscilla Buckley School of Journalistic Craftsmanship believe that a poorly constructed sentence is as unforgivable — even as dangerous — as a poorly constructed building.
Some conservatives, I among them, have stained-glass minds. We have a certain sympathy for medieval notions.We are therefore pleased that Priscilla’s philosophy rests on the concept of the divine right of editors. When exercising that right over a rabble of writers, she reminds me of Benjamin Jowett, of nineteenth-century Oxford. He was the head of an Oxford college, and would only occasionally call his dons in to get their opinion. And when ending a meeting with turbulent dons, Jowett would loftily announce: “The vote is twenty to one. I see we are deadlocked.” As I understand it, Mr.President, that’s called Cabinet government.
Furthermore, a managing editor lives with iron deadlines and plastic writers.She must have unshakable composure in the recurring crises of publishing.Priscilla’s composure earns her the John Jacob Astor trophy for composure. It is so named, by me, because Astor was on the Titanic, having a drink in the lounge, when the ship hit the iceberg. He turned to the steward and said, “I sent for ice, but this is ridiculous.” Among Priscilla’s many graces is a similar grace under pressure. The idea of NATIONAL REVIEW without Priscilla Buckley as managing editor induces in many of us a certain vertigo. I have an acquaintance who says his idea of immortality is to live until the Washington subway is finished. My idea of immortality is to live until we quit complying with SALT II. Forgive me, Mr. President, an editorialist is never off duty.
But for many of us, our idea of immortality was to live just as long as Priscilla was doing what she does so well. But she is not leaving NATIONAL REVIEW. She will still be a guiding spirit within the NR family. In recent years, my association with the NR family has been intermittent. For example, in the late 1970s I assisted Bill Buckley in a debate about the Panama Canal Treaties. We were on the wrong side — we supported the treaties. But we so decisively defeated our opponent — a former governor of California — that he has not been heard of since. However, I, like everyone else who has had the inestimable joy of learning from Priscilla Buckley, have never left, will never leave the NR family. She is a teacher, and as Henry Adams said, a teacher has a kind of immortality, because one never knows when a teacher’s influence stops. Priscilla’s influence radiates through American journalism.I am but one of many lucky writers who have the elevating duty of trying daily to live up to my teacher, Priscilla Buckley. And all of us who have warmed ourselves at the hearth of her friendship are thankful for the pleasure of her company. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Priscilla Buckley.