EDITOR’S NOTE: This interview appeared in the March 6, 2002, issue of National Review.
April 1 was the 40th anniversary of WFB’s column, On the Right. Our librarian advises that he has written 5,610 columns, which, measured in gross, adds up to 4.5 million words, the equivalent of 45 medium-sized books. We put a couple of questions to our old friend.
Rich Lowry: Whose idea was the column?
William F. Buckley Jr.: It was Harry Elmlark’s, a great character. I didn’t meet him personally during the negotiations (he became a dear friend). He proposed one column per week. I said okay, but I wanted $75. How can I offer you $75? Harry–he was out of Damon Runyon and tightfisted–asked. He explained over the phone that syndicates get 50 percent of the revenue, and he could only pay me $75 if he had $150 of clients. We didn’t make $150 for opening day, so in months ahead he repaid himself his (postponed) claim.
RL: Were there other right-wing columnists at the time?
WFB: George Sokolsky, preeminent, was dead. John Chamberlain (my valued friend and colleague and brilliant literary critic) took over his column for Hearst, but columns weren’t his natural medium. Raymond Moley had a column in addition to his pieces for Newsweek. The great James Jackson Kilpatrick came around a few years later. And the preeminent George Will was 15 years or so down the line.
RL: Why did you switch a few years ago from three times a week to two?
WFB: Because I gradually discovered that editors do not publish three submissions per week. Once upon a time that had been the case. When, after one year, I proposed going to twice a week, Harry said: No! Editors like three times or once, not twice.
WFB: The culture, for many years, bespoke a running and quite intimate relationship between columnists and their readers. When papers bought a three-times-a-week columnist, they tended to run him three times per week. That constancy waned.
RL: Were there peripheral advantages in this?
WFB: Great ones, as far as the columnist was concerned. It meant that he could assume the readers had pretty much in mind antecedent columns that explained and developed the framework of the columnist’s thoughts. It meant, also, that you could from time to time kick up your heels, be frivolous, light, offbeat. That’s harder to do if you publish only once every week and feel that your constituency is sitting there waiting to be told how to avoid a world war.
RL: Do you ever experience direct results from a column, say on airline service?
WFB: Yes, not often, but memorably. I complained in a column that Eastern Airlines was not serving passengers wine on flights to Miami. A couple of weeks later a huge basket of fruit and small wine bottles arrived with the note, “We surrender.” In such situations one really feels the public benefactor.
RL: Does the work of columnists get trimmed?
WFB: Not in National Review . . . The protocol is: No cutting of a column except for space. Whether the rule is followed strictly is hard to oversee, because no one sees all his columns as published elsewhere. George Sokolsky was so fastidious on the subject, he wrote exactly 735 words, assuring editors that they could safely plan on staking out–whatever it comes to, 16 square inches?–reducing any temptation to cut.
RL: When you were launched, did you feel any obligation to follow the conservative line?
WFB: Following the conservative line wasn’t an obligation, it was a congenital compulsion. My views as a columnist were like those of National Review. The column and the magazine followed, pretty generally, the same line. Amazing, the coincidences in life.
RL: Does the column take long to write?
WFB: No, but it takes a long time to assemble in the mind. The execution of it is an aspect of transcription. I write quickly, but I read slowly, a lifetime burden.
RL: Did Elmlark earn back his forfeit?
WFB: Indeed. A year or so after the column began, it was published in every major city in the United States (except Portland. Portland drove Harry mad). The life of a syndicate head who acted also as chief salesman was unusual, and one needs to understand that it is full-time. Four or five times every year Elmlark would drive his car from town to town and do everything he could to sell his clients. He told me once that he might find himself taking an editor out for an expensive meal (Harry hated to shell out money) and end up with a five-dollar sale. But, he said with relish, such editors usually stuck by a purchase for decades. “Five dollars a week, $2.50 for you, Bill, adds up after ten or fifteen years.”
RL:Well, Bill, congratulations on your 40th!
WFB: Thanks, Rich. Maybe on the 50th you can pay me $75 an issue. I’ll pay you half back.