National Review celebrates our 50th anniversary today in Washington, D.C. NR is most known for, well, standing athwart history yelling stop! But that doesn’t mean we have ever taken ourselves too seriously. There has always been room for fun in magazine making. Priscilla Buckley, former longtime managing editor of NR makes that clear with terrific story after story from the early days at National Review in her recently released book Living It Up with National Review: A Memoir. National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez recently talked to Priscilla about the revelry, the influence, and more.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Did National Review feel like the Buckley family business? It had to be fun to be working for your brother.
Priscilla Buckley:Working with Bill was easy, and fun. In many ways the early NR with the deep involvement of my sister Maureen, as the editorial assistant for the first five years, and my sister Aloise, as a valued contributor, did make it seem like a family business.
Lopez: They called you managing editor. But were you actually running “Miss Buckley’s finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion”?
Buckley: “Miss Buckley’s finishing school for young men and women of conservative persuasion” was what Jim Burnham, who shared my office on go-to-press days, called it. He was amused to see me deal not only with the college-age summer assistants but quite often with parents worried about their children’s survival in the big, bad pre-Giuliani city.
Lopez: How would one graduate from the finishing school? Was there a final exam?
Buckley: The honor graduates of Miss Buckley’s school tended to stick around for a number of years: Kevin Lynch, as articles editor; Rick Brookhiser as in-house reporter and star editorialist, and of course, the indispensable Linda Bridges, who can do anything.
Lopez: Was NR the Vast-Right Wing Conspiracy before the Vast-Right Wing Conspiracy was cool?
Buckley: Back then, in the late Fifties and early Sixties, conservatism (the movement) was pretty much in the cocoon stage, and not a “vast” anything. The only thing cool about the early NR was its reception by the Establishment press.
Lopez: More seriously, would there be a conservative moment without National Review?
Buckley: I’m biased, of course, but I doubt the conservative movement as we see it today would be where it is absent NR. As the magazine grew its editors became involved more directly in politics, in matter such as the founding of the Conservative Party of New York, the founding of Young Americans for Freedom, and the direct intervention of Publisher Bill Rusher and some of his Young Republican associates in the Draft Goldwater movement that culminated in wresting control of the GOP from the Rockefeller wing of the party.
Lopez: Would there have been a President Ronald Reagan without National Review?
Buckley: Ronald Reagan was a pretty resourceful man and might have been president without NR, but NR sure helped him on his way, and he remained to it and to Bill. Did you know that he served for several years as a director of National Review?
Lopez: He knew a good thing when he saw it!
Cooperative quality writers are a blessing. Who stands out among the ones you worked with? The kind who if you could have had an article from him every issue you would have just for the pure joy of dealing with him.
Buckley: John Chamberlain, a prince among men, a brilliant writer, and so unassuming that when he arrived once a week to write the lead book review he would sit at any empty desk, causing one young staffer to complain that the typewriter repairman (which is to say JC) never cleaned her standard Royal.
Lopez: Is there an author you’re proudest of NR having published under your watch?
Buckley: James Burnham whose strategic analysis of Cold War dips and turns was extraordinary. I find myself wishing he were still alive to analyze what is going on in Iraq, and what we should do about it.
Lopez: What’s the biggest mistake ever made on your watch?
Buckley: Deciding with Bill that the great Jeff MacNelly, then the cartoonist for the Richman News-Leader was not sophisticated enough for National Review. Five years later, when we inaugurated our cartoon spread (Help), we implored Jeff to let us published at least one of his cartoons in every issue.
Lopez: The funniest mistake?
Buckley: An issue, early fall 1964 which asked, on the cover: “Did LBJ Peak Too Soon?”
Lopez: Anything you wrote during your tenure that you regret?
Buckley: I had belated second thoughts about the wisdom of republishing a quip of Garry Wills’s in my “For the Record” column. It was the phrase: “Mater si, Magistra no,” in response to a papal encyclical that got us into lots and lots of trouble with the liberal Catholic press over lots and lots of years.
Lopez: About “Willmoore Kendall memorial couch”–Couldn’t you have kept some secrets–like that one, specifically?
Buckley: No way could I not have reported the Willmoore Kendall Memorial Couch story. To this day I chortle when I remember the formidable Suzanna La Follette, with her basso profundo voice, marching into Bill’s office to proclaim: “There shall be no fornication on my couch.”
Lopez: Is there an issue of NR you are especially proud of?
Buckley: The issue we slapped together in a handful of hours on the Wednesday that Robert Kennedy died, suppressing all invidious references to Bobby, and at the last moment filling the ten pages that James Jackson Kilpatrick’s devastatingly critical article on Bobby would have occupied with other (relatively) relevant material. That was a good day’s work.
Lopez: You had “real” news and glossy magazine experience prior to NR. Were there more similiarities among the gigs than the outsider might think?
Buckley: The kind of real news that I reported as a radio rewriteman at United Press in New York, and as a reporter in Paris in the Forties and Fifties gave me a grounding in news reporting that would prove valuable at National Review, particularly in the writing of editorials for the “The Week” section, and in assembling data for my “For the Record” column.
Lopez: Why is the existence of National Review an important thing?
Buckley: Because it made conservatism respectable.
Lopez: Are you on the Internet a lot? Were you surprised when NR started to make more of a mark in that world?
Buckley: I’m on the Internet, but not a lot. As an old-time print journalist I’m happier reading on paper than on a computer monitor. But I’m not surprised at the success of NRO because like it or not, that’s where our future lies.
Lopez: Can someone be taught how to write? Or is it something you either have or you don’t?
Buckley: Writing competently can be taught, but not writing brilliantly, that’s a God-given gift.
Lopez: How do you imagine NR 50 years from now?
Buckley: I find it hard to imagine NR 50 years from now because of rapid technological advances that my generation already finds hard to comprehend. But I don’t doubt the service it provides will still be needed.
Lopez: Is there anything you’d like us to know about your brother Bill that we don’t?
Buckley: What you don’t know about Bill is what fun he was to work with, and for. There was a popular show back when I was young called Hell’s ‘a popping, and that was what being in Bill’s orbit was like. (The things you youngsters have missed!)