EDITOR’S NOTE: This is chapter 15 of Priscilla Buckley’s recently released Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir.
On the door between Bill’s office and Gertrude Vogt’s was pinned a large black-and-white photograph, its edges curling as the years progressed. At the center of the picture was a small donkey with a sign around the neck indicating his name was ADA (for Americans for Democratic Action). Standing to his right were Suzanne La Follette, Bill, and me, and to his left, Jim Burnham and Willmoore Kendall. The year was 1960, shortly after the Kennedy-Nixon presidential elections, and the occasion was the awarding of a booby prize.
We had run a contest to spot our truly sophisticated readers that spring and summer, inviting their estimates on how the major candidates would do in the primaries, and finally, in the Electoral College. Since the contest required a number of entries over several months we had announced that we would have not one, but ten big prizes, the winner to be announced in a late November issue. What filled us with unholy joy when the designated youngest editorial assistant finally came up with the results was that the contestant who placed just out of the winner’s circle, at number 11, was that prestigious scholar and stalwart liberal Harvard professor Arthur Schlesinger Jr., soon to become a member of the victorious Kennedy brain trust. We hadn’t known until this point that Professor Schlesinger was a subscriber to National Review, but for him to come in just short was too good to be true.
What, oh what, to get him as a prize. And that was when someone–probably Bill Rickenbacker–suggested that a live donkey, representing both the party of his choice, and his position in the contest, would be most appropriate. And so the smallest donkey we could find was bought, smuggled into the building at 150 East 35th Street when Mr. Scholem, the landlord, wasn’t looking, and brought into Bill’s office on a Wednesday afternoon when that particular issue went to bed. What a wonderful nr photo op! After we had toasted ADA, we dispatched him to Cambridge, where sad to say, his reception was cool.
Professor Schlesinger was not amused, and poor ADA came back by return mail. He presented less of a problem than one might have imagined because my brother Jim, who had several small children, had recently built a house on a farm the family owned near Sharon, which was equipped with barns and suitable pastures. There ADA ended up, to the great enjoyment of Peter, Jay, and little Priscilla Buckley.
The billboard in Bill’s ofice over the years became the repository of salacious events in NR’s history. There Bill would post infuriated letters from readers, particularly insulting newspaper comments on nr and its editors, a stray Committee to Save Katanga newspaper ad, plus numerous editorial paragraphs by Bill Rickenbacker which even in our most irresponsible moods we didn’t dare publish. (Bill Rickenbacker was a blithe spirit who worked for National Review off and on for nearly thirty years. He was hired after he sent Bill Buckley a copy of a nineteen-page letter to the editor of the magazine Modern Age, commenting on one of its issues. Bill figured that any one with that much time on his hands might be most useful to National Review, and a deal was struck. Rickenbacker was the adopted son of the World War I ace, Captain Eddie Rickenbacker, and was immensely talented. He spoke a number of languages, was a first-rate pianist, a par golfer, an Air Force pilot who had fought in the Korean War, a perfectly splendid writer, and a great provider of merriment wherever he was, whatever he was doing. )
Also on the door was an ancient and tattered Shirley Temple fan someone had found at a tag sale. The fan was pinned to the door by a button for “The National Committee to Horsewhip Drew Pearson,” a committee we created after Drew Pearson wrote something ugly about Shirley. Our Drew Pearson buttons were particularly popular with our readers and we sold hundreds of them before his death forced a cancellation of the campaign. We announced this in the magazine in an obituary which read: “The National Committee to Horsewhip Drew Pearson is dissolved, its subject having become the responsibility of a higher authority.”
It was around the table in Bill’s office, at the Wednesday evening cocktail hour, that we occasionally got into mischief. On this particular evening Bill Rusher had left early to pack since he was departing the following day for a lengthy trip to the Far East. We were expatiating on the orderliness of Bill Rusher’s world when Bill Rickenbacker came up with a brilliant idea–RRR, he called it–for the Rearrangement of Rusher’s Room.
Rusher, you have to understand, was everything that everyone else at nr was not, the epitome of order, of tidiness, of organization, of structure, and it got on our nerves. The only thing unstructured about the war department was his inability to hang on to a secretary, although at this particular moment he was the happy employer of Miss Ann Turner, an attractive and, needless to say, efficient young Brit whom we all adored. (Prior to hiring Ann, Bill had once told me that when looking for a secretary he felt “a little like the Roman impresario who calls a talent scout and tells him, ‘One of my Christians just died. Do you know anyone who would like a big night in the Colosseum–one night only!’”)
RRR was a splendid idea, we all thought, and we trooped into Rusher’s office. The idea was to change everything in it, but just a little bit. We reversed the order of his stacked magazines so that January 1 was on top, and September 12 at the bottom. Bill Rickenbacker himself rethreaded Rusher’s desk calendar so that when he would return on September 28 and turn the page, September 27 would come up, followed by September 26. The pile of manila folders that lived at the left of his desk was left there, but the order of the folders changed. Every picture on the wall was moved a notch to the right. The master stroke–this was the inspiration of Chris Simonds–was that the buzzer that summoned the people Rusher dealt with most frequently (Associate Publisher Jim McFadden, Treasurer Rose Flynn, and Ann Turner) to his office was tampered with, rearranged so that when Rusher rang for Mac, Rose would appear, and when he rang for Rose, Ann Turner would come in.
RRR proved more successful than in our wildest dreams. Unknown to us, Bill Rusher had arranged to have his apartment painted in his absence and his cleaning woman had promised to come in after the painters left and put everything back in order for his return. But something had gone wrong, so a tired Bill Rusher, after the long flight home from Taiwan, unlocked the door of his apartment to find a scene of desolation: most of it was under dust sheets. He gave a cry of dismay, dropped his bag, and rushed to the security of his office, where not only was everything out of whack, but we had persuaded Ann Turner at the last moment to leave a note on his desk: “Dear Mr. Rusher. I find I am a Democrat so I must resign. Sincerely, Ann Turner.” Mortally wounded, the war department staggered out to the street, hailed a taxi, and ordered the driver to take him to the University Club, from which he phoned Ann Turner and told her to call him as soon as every single thing in his office had been restored to order, and not before.
Ann did her best, but she overlooked one small detail. On one wall Bill Rusher had hung a framed cartoon by John Kreuttner about the Senate subcommittee on subversive activities hearings, depicting a woman with hat pulled down low over her forehead, greatcoat buttoned to the collar, and arms hugging her sides, only her two furtive eyes visible. The caption read: “I am Amelia Thwarp, and I have nothing to conceal.” We had persuaded a delighted John Kreuttner to replace this with the picture of a rosy-cheeked damsel, her arms outstretched in a gesture of welcome, whose caption read: “I am Amelia Thwarp, and I have everything to disclose.” Amelia Thwarp missed Ann’s sweep and hung on Bill’s wall for a number of months to our secret delight. By the time this was discovered NR’s publisher had regained his sunny good humor and he laughed along with the rest of us.
Rusher’s rapid turnover of secretaries proved a treasure trove to the conservative community since it was universally agreed that anyone who had worked for Bill Rusher, however briefly, must be a crackerjack performer. Ann Turner left National Review to become secretary to Brent Bozell in Washington, where he and my sister Patricia were putting out a conservative Catholic magazine, Triumph, which they founded to counter the malign effects on Catholics of Commonweal and America, the left-leaning Catholic journals of the day. Liz Doyle quit Bill Rusher just in time to join my brother Jim’s successful Senate campaign in 1970, and she ran his New York office during his six years in the Senate.
Mary Lynch, who lasted only a brief six weeks with the war department, did us the biggest favor of all. She called one spring to recommend to us her brother Kevin who had just graduated from college. Kevin arrived, was hired on the spot, and was, and is, a dreamboat. He worked like a top-of-the line very quiet vacuum cleaner. What Kevin gobbled up quietly and efficiently were jobs that were being handled haphazardly, or not at all. Within weeks of his arrival he had relieved the overburdened Mabel Wood of production chores for the fortnightly National Review Bulletin, an eight page newsletter that we published on alternate weeks. Soon he was operating as managing editor of the Bulletin, relieving me of dealings with recalcitrant and often dilatory columnists. Kevin was quiet, never made waves, and saw everything. He would alert me to awkward situations that were developing and help handle them. He was bright and witty, kind, soft-spoken, and efficient. He became articles editor and managed our most difficult contributors with both tact and firmness. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s wife, who handled all her husband’s business arrangements, would deal with no one at nr but Kevin.
He was a joy to have around, and he stuck around for a good many years before he was made an offer by Voice of America that he simply couldn’t refuse. It meant he could move his wife, Josephine Gallagher Lynch, Jim McFadden’s longtime girl Friday, and their three small children from a cramped Riverdale apartment to a house in Arlington, Virginia, with a yard that would in due course include a bouncing Labrador puppy. Both Kevin and Jo were sorely missed.
Jokes beget jokes. It was at another of the Wednesday evening drink sessions that the Swiss edition of National Review was born. Bill Buckley had departed a fortnight earlier for his annual six weeks in Switzerland to write that year’s book, Four Reforms. We missed the precision he demonstrated in editing our copy, and, in discussing his particular editorial likes and dislikes, my sister Carol, who was our editorial assistant that year, suggested that it would be fun to produce an entire page of editorial paragraphs, each carefully crafted to contain some element that would make Bill, the editor, curl up inside: a grammatical error, a stylistic aberration, too many exclamation points, a vulgarism, an overworked cliché, an inept foreign reference, a tinge of kookery, a mention of himself. What a splendid idea.
Elsie Meyer, who was now working at nr as copy editor following Frank’s death, turned out a paragraph, one of the best, that managed to include three exclamation points !!! and the felicitous phrase, “before Britain, France and the U.S. saw the oil painting on the wall, as it were.” There were mentions of Justice William O. Douglas’s “motorized old ticker,” of John-John’s pondering that his uncle never “seemed to have swim trunks when he needed them.” “Quod licet Joves, non licent boves, as Bill Buckley likes to say,” was the Wnal sentence of a paragraph about Bill (“let it grow”) Proxmire. (Proxmire had recently undergone a hair transplant.) The bogus paragraphs, which were chosen from entries by every member of the editorial staff by the judges (Bill Rickenbacker, Elsie Meyer, and me), a montage of awfulness, were pasted into two copies of the issue of March 15, 1974, by Jimmy O’Bryan, and dispatched to Switzerland. It arrived there after I did on my annual vacation in Gstaad.
Back in New York the staff was on tenterhooks. What would be Peerless Leader’s reaction–would he be taken in for even a moment? Or were our examples too crass to be believable? The reaction was: Nothing. Bill, it seems, had broken his Swiss vacation to tape various segments of Firing Line, his weekly TV show, in a number of African capitals. So it took his memo on the Swiss edition two weeks to reach New York. Frances Bronson, Bill’s secretary, called me in a state of shock. Better brace yourself, she told me, a memorandum had come in from Bill like nothing she had ever seen. It was addressed to me and to Jim Burnham, who edited the editorial section in Bill’s absence, but had not been informed of the Swiss edition substitution of editorial paragraphs lest he veto the idea.
It was a cri de coeur. “I was terribly distressed on reading the editorial paragraphs in the March 15 issue,” Bill wrote:
The paragraphs, or a lot of them, are truly appalling. . . . How coarse to refer to Proxmire’s operation. The concluding sentence is a rhetorical disaster. . . . Why on earth make fun of Douglas’s artificial heart?. . . . I have implored every one at nr not to use a Buckley joke or make a Buckley reference. . . . Is there a joke that escapes me in changing the nouns from dative to nominative?. . . . I wish I could destroy every copy of this issue. To bring Chappaquiddick into a comment on John’s little boy excitement over a prize fight would I should think be blue-penciled in American Opinion [the John Birch magazine]. . . . How is one supposed to know his name not having been mentioned earlier, who is Yurii Arkadyevich Shikhanovich?. . . . And why, oh why “CFR-er David Rockefeller”? In a stroke we abolish the distinctions we have always made between us and the Dan Smoots [a right-wing demagogue] of this world. . . . The seizure of coyness in this section is quite impossible to understand . . .the parenthetical remark is on a level of “Governor Malcolm Wilson (no relative to Harold!),” and makes me weep. . . .Why the exclamation point? By the way, the cumulative count on this page is now 5. . . . “the oil painting on the wall, as it were!” Oh no. . . . Henry makes it 6. . . . I am very sad. We should see on those weeks when two of the senior editors are away [in this case WFB and PLB] if other arrangements can be made, like having the paragraphs completed by noon Tuesday, or, judging from this batch, noon Sunday.
We had succeeded beyond all expectations, but we were not altogether pleased with ourselves. The hurt had been too deep even though Bill was assured that he, and only he, had seen those particular paragraphs. But Bill himself was not above organizing a massive deception: National Review’s very own Pentagon Papers.
Richard Nixon didn’t know it at the time, but his world started to unravel that day in 1971 when Daniel Ellsberg gave Neil Sheehan of the New York Times the Pentagon Papers, and the Times and Washington Post decided to publish them. Unwilling at any time to be outdone by the New York Times, National Review came up with its very own Pentagon Papers, ex nihilo, as the editor told a thoroughly outraged press corps a week or so later, after NR’s phony papers had made front page news in America and been sent out over the air waves by Voice of America in “Armenian, Burmese, Korean, Lao, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Ukrainian, and Vietnamese.”*
The day the story broke, WFB was in British Columbia, war in London, Jeff Hart in Austria, and James Burnham wandering about Rhode Island. Unable to reach any nr spokesman–I was hiding under my desk–the press checked with the vips mentioned as authors of NR’s Papers. NR’s phony papers had been so thoroughly crafted that Secretary of State Dean Rusk said he was not sure that he had written a particular note but that “it was quite possible that I did.” Frank Trager and Douglas Pike couldn’t deny they had penned a memorandum attributed to them, although Trager didn’t specifically remember writing it. Young Jim Burnham, who had recently been discharged after two years in naval intelligence, had provided nr with information on how naval intelligence was transmitted, which tended to authenticate those documents. It fooled almost every expert except one coony former U.S. ambassador, who phoned nr, delighted by the prank, to ask what we would like him to say when the press got to him.
Harry Elmlark, Bill’s irascible, lovable, and frequently puzzled syndicate agent, got through to me. I assured him that National Review had violated no security laws in that we had made up every single word of Our Pentagon Papers. “It’s a hoax,” I told him. “Harry, it’s a joke–j-o-k-e.” There was silence at the other end of the phone, then a prolonged sputter. “Well, I don’t think it’s very funny to get every single editor in America mad at you. Now, Priscilla, admit it. That’s not very funny.” Nor did Bill Rusher, who arrived back from London that very day, think it funny. He was (1) horrified at the thought that his irresponsible colleagues might have committed treason in his absence by publishing classified government documents, and (2) far from mollified when he found that they had not.
Sometimes the joke was on us.
“Notes & Asides,” November 17, 1975 carried the following notice: “The editors of National Review are bringing to New York to deliver a special lecture composed for the occasion [NR’s 20th Anniversary], Professor Michael Oakeshott of the London School of Economics. He is, roughly speaking, the most eloquent man in the world. Don’t–whatever you do–miss this one [Oakeshott’s Hunter College lecture]. In the years to come, it would be as sinful as having missed a public lecture by Thoreau or Emerson.”
Well, not quite.
The senior editors had been suitably impressed when Bill reported that he had actually secured the services of the brilliant philosopher of political history as a highlight to our twentieth anniversary festivities. Not only would Professor Oakeshott speak briefly at the anniversary dinner but he would write a special piece which we would publish in the following issue of the magazine, and he would read it that afternoon at a Hunter College auditorium. Several hundred of our readers would have come from far places for the celebration, and the Oakeshott lecture would make the trip even more worthwhile.
A panel of the senior editors would sit on the platform while Oakeshott spoke and be his interlocutors at a brief question-and-answer session to follow the talk.
The great day came. Michael Oakeshott walked out on the platform and was introduced by Bill to great applause. He placed his article, a rather massive document, it seemed to me, on the lectern and started the lecture. After first greeting the audience with a gentle smile, Professor Oakeshott never again looked up at them, but stolidly read on, and on. His British accent presented some difficulty, as did his speaking style, which could be described as low mumble. In addition, the acoustics in the auditorium were not particularly good. Nevertheless, after a few minutes the ear sorted out the difficulties in hearing what he was saying.
The problem that filled me, as I sat on the platform, with growing apprehension, wasn’t that I didn’t hear his words, it was that I didn’t understand a thing he was saying. How, oh how, when that awful moment came, would I ask him a question when he might as well have been speaking Amharic. But as I glanced around at my fellow panelists–and I knew them all very, very well–I could tell that they were equally baffled: Frank Meyer didn’t know what the great Michael Oakeshott was talking about, and neither did Jim Burnham, Jeff Hart, Bill Rusher, or Bill Buckley. On and on he droned. And when, at long last, he was through, Bill thanked him, and won the eternal gratitude of the panel by pronouncing that since the brilliant reading had taken a little longer than planned we would, alas, be forced to forego the question-and-answer period.
Jim McFadden later told me that he overheard a woman in the audience comment. “That was Buckley’s greatest hoax. That was an actor playing the philosopher.” To which her companion replied, “and it was never going to end!”