Linda Bridges, a National Review senior editor, is a living, breathing institutional memory — of NR and of everything Buckley. And so it was only natural that she would share her knowledge, experience, and endearing stories with the world as she has, with John Coyne Jr., in the new book Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement . Linda recently took some questions from colleague Kathryn Lopez, NRO editor, on the book and on the man who started it all.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: Where would the conservative movement be without William F. Buckley Jr. Is that the goal of your book — answering that question?
Linda Bridges: Well, that’s part of it, and a big part. But an equally important question is: Who is Bill Buckley, and what is he like when he’s not out in the public arena? And, Who are his friends and collaborators, and how has he worked with them, both at National Review and more broadly in the conservative movement?
Lopez: You refer to NR’s 20th anniversary party as “a modest affair at the Plaza.” Not too modest, I assume?
Bridges: No, not too modest. There were six hundred glamorously dressed people crowded into arguably the most beautiful ballroom in New York; those present included Ronald Reagan, Barry Goldwater, and Clare Boothe Luce (and also folks on the other side of the political spectrum like Walter Cronkite and John Chancellor). The buffet, planned by Pat Buckley, was described by several columnists as “Lucullan,” and Bill’s favorite jazz pianist, Dick Wellstood, led a fine little combo.
It was ten years later — at the 30th anniversary party, attended by President and Mrs. Reagan — that Pat had the Plaza prepare her signature chicken pot pie for the guests, who had paid $175 to attend. This freaked out at least one liberal columnist. “How,” Dave Rossie sputtered, “do you explain a $175 chicken pot pie to people who scrounge for food in garbage cans?”
Lopez: What will readers of your book be most surprised to learn about WFB? Was there anything you were surprised to learn?
Bridges: I can’t say there was anything I was surprised to learn by the time John Coyne and I started to write this book. But remember, I’ve worked for and with Bill for more than 35 years. Also, I had done some biographical research in the course of various projects I worked on for him — I prepared the descriptive catalogue that accompanied the Firing Line archive to the Hoover Institution, and I helped him round up the material for his collections Miles Gone By and Let Us Talk of Many Things.
But there were things about him that surprised me when I first learned them many years ago, and that I think will surprise many readers. Most striking, I think, is the fact that while he thrives on public controversy and has a real instinct for the jugular in debate, he hates personal confrontations and unpleasantness. And the obverse of that is his real kindness in situations where many people would have torn a strip off someone who made a dumb and costly mistake.
Lopez: Is there any one piece you’ll forever be proud of having worked on at NR?
Bridges: Oh, far too many to mention. But the ones that I would cite in particular are the piece that I did quoting heavily from the Bukovsky Papers, which detailed the Soviet use of psychiatric hospitals to punish dissidents; and a Solzhenitsyn piece where I handled the complicated negotiations with his translator.
Lopez: Do you have a favorite WFB piece? Book?
Bridges: Book — I guess I’d have to say Miles Gone By, since that’s a collection of so many favorite pieces. To name just a handful: his Yale 40th reunion; “The Last Years of Whittaker Chambers”; his account of his childhood at Great Elm in Sharon, Connecticut; his first meetings with ten people who would become close friends; his obituary of his mother; and the piece he describes as “my Hamlet, my Gettysburg Address, my Ninth Symphony”: “Why Don’t We Complain?”
But I’d also have to list some of the novels, especially Saving the Queen, Stained Glass, See You Later Alligator, and The Redhunter — this last the story of Joe McCarthy, with a wonderful subplot about the Senator’s fictional sometime assistant, Harry Bontecue.
And The Unmaking of a Mayor, an offbeat gem of a campaign book. And the one he called, while he was writing it, “my Catholic book,” Nearer, My God. And . . . No, I’d better stop there.
Lopez: With so much nonfiction to write, why did he bother with Blackford Oakes?
Bridges: Well, initially because of a challenge posed by Doubleday editor Sam Vaughan — at that time a friendly acquaintance of Bill’s, who has since become a close friend. As John and I recount in the book, Sam asked Bill what he had recently read that was interesting. When he mentioned a popular spy-thriller, Sam said, Why don’t you write a spy novel? And after some back-and-forthing on the terms of the deal, he did.
Why did he keep writing them? Because he had things to say about the Cold War, about the nature of the United States and the Soviet Union, that he found he could say more effectively by illustrating his points through his characters’ actions and reactions.
Lopez: We all know WFB as The Right Wordsmith. But you’ve been editing him for decades. So let us in on a secret: What are his grammar flaws? Flaw?
Bridges: None, really. That is, he sometimes slips — say, on agreement of subject and verb — but those are really just typos; it’s not that he doesn’t understand the grammatical point.
Oh, well, I guess William Shawn, the longtime editor of The New Yorker, would say that Bill’s idiosyncratic punctuation constitutes a grammar flaw. “Mr. Buckley,” Mr. Shawn once told him, “I really do not think that you know the correct use of the comma.”
If you broaden the question a little, then I would say his principal writing flaw is having a tin ear for popular culture. Back in the Seventies, before I inserted the correct version into the NR stylebook, he twice put on the cover of NR the unchantable chant: “Ho ho ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is bound to win.”
Lopez: What story did you have to cut from the book but really wish you didn’t have to?
Bridges: There were no Bill stories that we cut once they were written, but there’s one I wish we had tracked down in time to include. It’s the story of how Bill saved his friend Reggie Stoops from drowning. It was in the Long Island Sound in winter, and their dinghy had capsized half a mile from shore. They had made it nearly all the way when Reggie said he couldn’t go on. Bill wouldn’t accept that. This wasn’t Reagan-as-lifeguard stuff: half frozen himself, Bill didn’t actually pull Reggie the remaining 50 yards. But he sang at him, and prayed at him, and ordered him not to give up.
Lopez: What’s your most fun Mrs. Buckley memory?
Bridges: Well, my favorite Pat story is not a personal memory of mine — I was told it by others who were there (including her husband). But it has to do with the time in Switzerland when the Buckleys’ dear friends (though political opponents) Ken and Kitty Galbraith came to visit them, bringing along a friend of theirs, none other than Ted Kennedy. The Galbraiths lived in Gstaad, the Buckleys in Rougemont, a few miles down the valley. They spent a pleasant afternoon together, and then the Galbraiths had to continue down the valley towards Geneva, while Kennedy stayed on. Finally it was time for him to return to Gstaad, and rather than take the train he asked if he could borrow a car. “You certainly may not,” said Pat. “There are three bridges between here and Gstaad.”
As for personal memories, I don’t have anything that can compete with Rick Brookhiser’s or Van Galbraith’s first encounter with Pat. But there was a brief conversation last summer that gives a window on her relationship with her husband. He and three friends had just set out on a week’s sail in Maine and New Brunswick. Their second morning out, my office phone rang. It was Van telling me that the engine had broken down and giving me the information I would need in case the boatyard called here. Then he said, “Bill asks you to call Patsy and tell her we’re having engine trouble but we’re all perfectly fine.” I rang her and delivered the message. Her voice was sharp: “Why didn’t he call me himself?” Well, I explained, their cell phones weren’t working up there in the wilds, and because of Bill’s emphysema he didn’t want to make the trek to the nearest pay phone. This time she gave a peal of laughter, followed by “Thank you very much for calling.”
Lopez: Who were “Buckley Democrats”? Should Republicans be courting them in 2008?
Bridges: The term refers to WFB’s New York City mayoral race in 1965. “Buckley Democrats” were mostly white ethnics, many of them Catholic, who supported the police when they were accused of brutality, who wanted neighborhood control of the schools, and who resented the burgeoning welfare state. They also (though this wasn’t so much an issue in the mayoral race itself) were patriotic Americans who were angry at the growing anti-Americanism on campuses and in the left wing of the Democratic party.
Fifteen years later many of these Buckley Democrats became Reagan Republicans, and most of them (or their offspring) have remained Republicans ever since. But whatever party these people now belong to, Republican candidates should indeed be courting them — as well as voters in other parts of the country who might not share the Buckley Democrats’ ethnic and religious characteristics but who are hard-working mainstream Americans. The way to do this, we would say, is by running on a platform of smaller government, meaning lower taxes and less regulatory intrusion in our lives; reform of the legal system, in terms both of criminal justice and of tort law; and a strong defense, including continued work on the Strategic Defense Initiative.
Lopez: What was it about Ronald Reagan that made most at NR, as you say, think of him as “our guy”?
Bridges: He said all the right things, and said them in language that resonated with people of all sorts of backgrounds; and his record as governor of California showed that he really believed the things he said. Sure, we at NR might disagree with him on this individual point or that (and in the book John and I recount a few times when Bill and/or National Review took Reagan pretty sharply to task). But unlike Nixon or either of the Bushes, there was no need for the sort of calculation: “He’s good on X — can we put up with Y?” Reagan was one of us.