‘I would be very wary of the French,” Priscilla Buckley tells me one chilly afternoon at Great Elm, her family’s homestead in Sharon, Conn. “They do everything with their own interests in mind.”
She should know. Before her younger brother Bill talked her into joining National Review, Buckley served as a reporter for United Press in Paris. There, she closely observed the country’s politics, which was a font of stories for her to draw on when she jumped aboard NR in 1956. A profile she wrote of French premier Pierre Mendès-France so impressed Whittaker Chambers that he suggested that WFB make her the magazine’s managing editor. He did just that when the original managing editor, Suzanne La Follette, retired in 1959.
Today, Buckley, 89, retains all the intellect she wielded when she entered NR’s offices on East 37th Street 55 years ago — and all the wit. About five feet tall, she wears a crown of wavy, white hair. Her countenance is serene, her laugh sprightly. She never lets a joke slip by her. While discussing the turmoil in Libya, for instance, she issues her warning about our foreign confrères: “I love the French, but I don’t trust them.”
Nor does the unusually pro-American French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, quiet her suspicions. “He started out being extraordinarily exciting for the Right,” she notes. “But then, perhaps because of his marital difficulties, he plunged in French estimation.” Buckley prefers him to former president Jacques Chirac, but concedes that Sarkozy is “eccentric.”
Which is more than she can say for the American commander-in-chief. Asked to grade President Obama, Buckley, with a laugh, gives him a C-minus. “He seems to like to make speeches,” she muses, “but there’s not a lot of follow-through.” If he had more talent, he would have passed more of his legislative agenda with less hoopla, she thinks: “I feel sorry for him. He doesn’t know exactly how to grab that handle.”
“And he irritates me,” she adds. He irritates her because of his “doctrinaire leftism.”
So what does she think of the president’s most vociferous opponent, the Tea Party? “I think it’s the healthiest thing that’s happened to the nation in a long time,” Buckley answers. Sure, the rank and file are a “little inept,” but they’re “making the old leadership take notice.” “Sometimes,” she observes, “you have to be a little ridiculous to get something done.” At this point, the Tea Party is “the only hope we have” of averting a fiscal crisis.
Does that ineptitude extend to the current budget battle? In a nod to the Tea Party, Buckley says, “I think they have to get to the big stuff.” But in defense of the congressional leadership, she adds, “At least they’re cutting something.” Not one to shrink from a challenge, Buckley wants the Republicans to tackle Social Security — definitely raise the retirement age, maybe hike the payroll tax. Yes, former president George W. Bush failed to gain any traction on the issue, but this time “the temperature in the country is different.”
Buckley wants some chutzpah in the next Republican presidential nominee, too. “I think it’s going to have to be one of the young governors,” she says. “We have four or five good men — if only we can elect one of them.” Buckley’s one stipulation is that the candidate “really understands foreign affairs.” Needless to say, she thinks Obama doesn’t.
The former managing editor remains exceedingly well versed in world politics. When she’s not reading the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, she’s making her way through three books on her Kindle: David McCullough’s John Adams and 1776, and Walter Isaacson’s Benjamin Franklin. Her favorite period to study is the American Revolution, especially the Founding Fathers. Of those great men, she says George Washington was “such an admirable human being,” though she admits she “would have preferred Franklin as a person.”
Buckley maintains her sharp intellect and also her warm personality. Her younger brother once wrote of her “quiet benevolence” — a trait she displays readily, even to a new acquaintance. When I fumbled for a question that would elicit some concluding anecdote, she observed my journalistic anxiety before laughing and saying, “Here, I’ll give you a story.”
During the early days of NR, editors James Burnham and Frank Meyer fought constantly at editorial meetings over the length of the book reviews. Meyer, the books editor, liked long pieces, but Burnham wanted 250-word clips like those in The Economist. At one meeting, their argument got so intense that the rest of the staff worried it would sever their friendship. So Ms. Buckley interjected, asking Meyer what he thought about 50-word reviews. Meyer erupted. But he quickly recognized that Buckley was jesting and quipped, “Priscilla, you are the grease in our crankcase.”
Fifty-five years later, Buckley continues putting people at ease and sharing her insight. Not a bad way to spend retirement.
— Brian Bolduc is a William F. Buckley Fellow at the National Review Institute.