EDITOR’S NOTE: This is chapter 14 of Priscilla Buckley’s recently released Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir.
The spring of 1968 was tragic for the nation, but it was also traumatic for this particular managing editor. March 31 was a Sunday, a beautiful sunny early spring day, so I had an early supper with Jane and her children in Sharon and didn’t get back to my apartment in New York until well after ten. I took a quick bath, poured myself a glass of milk and turned on the TV to catch the 11 o’clock national news. Lyndon Johnson was droning on about something or another–I wasn’t paying much attention–when he cleared his throat, started afresh, and announced that he would not be running for reelection in November.
A hemi-demi-semi-quaver of a second later the phone rang. It was Jim McFadden.
“Pitts. What are we going to do?”
Good question. What we had on the cover for the issue that would start rolling off the presses on the midnight shift on Thursday was a rather fanciful political analysis of discreet recent conversations that were said to have taken place between LBJ and Claude Kirk, the maverick Republican governor of Florida about whom we at National Review and a great many other good folk were worried. Our cover read:
The Plot Between Claude Kirk
and Lyndon Johnson
to Steal the Election
What to do, what to do?
Jim and I arranged to meet at the office at 8:00 the following morning. He would call Art Director Jimmy O’Bryan and get him in as well. Bill was off on a speaking tour, and Jim Burnham, who would run this week’s editorial meeting, was still at his home in Kent, Connecticut. One thing was perfectly clear. We needed a new cover and a new cover story, but this was only Sunday so we had some wiggle room.
What we did have in house was a sound reportorial piece by Phil McCombs on the very recent Poor People’s March on Washington. Phil, a former nr editorial assistant was now working as a reporter for the Washington Post. It had come in the previous Friday and it was scheduled as the cover story for the following issue. Jimmy O’Bryan devised an impressive black and white cover using a poster from the march. The only color on the cover was the blue border and the yellow streamer that appeared on every issue. We sent the new cover to the plant by special messenger, pulled the Claude Kirk-LBJ piece, and put Phil’s article in its place.
Then, three days later, on Thursday morning while Production Editor Dorothy Rea and Copy Editor Pat Carr were at the plant putting the final editorial pages to bed, Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis.
What to do now? After a brief consultation with Jim Burnham, now back at his home in Kent, we splashed a new title in white letters over the poster picture of the masses of black marchers: “The End of Martin Luther King: The Beginning of What?” We phoned the plant and instructed Pat to kill the last two pages of editorials. We would substitute for them, at the beginning of the editorial section, an editorial on Martin Luther King that Jim Burnham was busily writing in Kent to go with our new cover title. He would dictate it, as soon as written, to Pat. It was a close call, too close for comfort, yet a far greater editorial trauma lay just ahead.
A month later, after a very pleasant dinner with Jim Burnham at our favorite Chinese restaurant, Uncle Thai’s, on a go-to-press Tuesday evening, I walked home and flipped on the TV to check on the California Democratic primary. It revealed a jubilant Bobby Kennedy. He had pulled it off, won the California primary and was headed for probable nomination for the presidency. Then came the terrible shots, the stumble and fall, the blissful crowd stunned into silence. It couldn’t be happening, not to another Kennedy! The nation tuned in, mesmerized by the ongoing tragedy, the horror, the waste.
The phone rang. It was Jim McFadden. It rang again. It was Burnham. Bill was again away, this time sailing somewhere in the Aegean and unreachable by us, although he called in most days. Another phone call, this one from James Jackson Kilpatrick, offering to fly in from Washington in the morning to help out. “Do come, Kilpo,” I said. “We’re in big trouble.”
Our cover story, timed to appear the week of the Democratic primary in California featured a ten-page profile of Robert F. Kennedy by Kilpatrick, a slashing attack on the former attorney general and present U.S. senator, a skillful, a wonderfully achieved piece of political mayhem. The magazine’s cover, over 100,000 copies of which had by now been printed, depicted Kennedy as a coiled cobra, ready to strike, venom dripping from his fangs.
We were all in the office by 7:30 the following morning, Jim McFadden, Jim O’Bryan, Jim Burnham, and I. Kilpo would arrive on the 9:00 am shuttle from Washington. Burnham took charge. “We can’t run the piece if he dies. We can’t run the piece if we still don’t know whether the wound is mortal. We can’t run the piece if he has been brain damaged. He was hit in the head.” We all nodded in agreement.
“In short, it’s dead. The piece is dead.”
“Any ideas, Priscilla?”
I’d been pondering the question all night. We had to fill ten pages, we had to write the editorials that would fill out the seven page “The Week” section. And not unimportant so far as I was concerned was that I still had my own “For the Record” column to write.
I threw out a few suggestions, and we came up with a final plan. We would add three pages to the regular editorial section and Kilpo would write a running editorial on the events of the past night and an obituary recounting the story of Robert Kennedy’s achievements in his tragically foreshortened life. By this time we knew that he was dead. We had in hand a splendid article by Arlene Croce who had covered the just concluded trial of the Harrisburg Nine for us. That would be our cover story with a stark simple black headline: “Meanwhile, in a Boston Courtroom. . . .” We also had, in house, a two-page article Jeff Hart had written some weeks earlier on the growing violence in America resulting both from the anti-Vietnam demonstrations and Black Panther agitation. We retitled it, “Violence in America, Before it Happened” and ran that in the streamer. Between them, these additions–the Kilpo obit, Arlene’s and Jeff’s pieces–sopped up nine of the ten pages that had to be replaced, and we slipped in a one-page column by Erik von Kuehnelt-Leddihn to fill it out.
I got Pat Carr, the copy editor, to read every line of copy that we had sent to the plant in the two weeks prior to today’s deadline to see if there were any invidious mentions of Bobby. One turned up in the caption to a cartoon that we had inserted in Russell Kirk’s “From the Academy,” page which had run a few lines short. Not one of us could remember what the cartoon was about, it had gone to the plant a week earlier, but we instructed the printer to pull it and substituted another of exactly the same size.
At about 3:30, the phone rang. It was Bill from a Greek island, on a lousy connection that flickered in and out.
“Pitts, what can you do?”
I told him, briefly, that Kilpo had come in and had written the most beautiful obituary, but I said I had to hang up because I was just too busy to talk to him now. I suggested he call back after six when the printer’s messenger had picked up our final copy.
I had copy-read the new material, and now I had to write my own piece. I hadn’t wanted to do it before Kilpo finished his so that I wouldn’t duplicate any of the material he was using. This was when my early training at United Press in New York and on the Paris desk came in handy. At UP, where there was a deadline every minute, speed was prized, and speed was what I needed now.
If we failed to get our copy into the messenger’s hands tonight, the presses at Wilson and Lee would not be belching out 100,000 or more copies of National Review Thursday night on the overnight shift. Those machines were reserved for nr at those hours, and if we missed the deadline then we would have to stand in line behind the other magazines Wilson and Lee printed and might get into the mail two or three days late.
We made it, we just made it, and over the go-to-press drink that Wednesday afternoon we congratulated ourselves that we had missed nothing.
But, alas, we had. What none of us had thought about was the promotional card that was bound into each magazine. On the upper right-hand corner of the card was a tiny picture of the original cover–the one of a tousled-haired Bobby Kennedy, as a coiled cobra ready to strike.