Politics & Policy

NR Is Irreplaceable

Libraries, liberalism, and why there’s nothing quite like National Review.

You wouldn’t think that I’d be steeped in liberalism growing up in Lubbock, Texas, where Mitt Romney and Ted Cruz each took about 70 percent of the vote in 2012, where the Democrats didn’t even bother to put up a candidate against conservative’s conservative Representative Randy Neugebauer in the same election (though he did cede 18 percent of the vote to the Libertarian party candidate) or compete at all in many of the down-ballot elections, and where Republicans’ biggest political challenge of late is satisfying critics on the right rather than dealing with Team Jackass.

But you would be wrong. Even in those few happy places where conservatives can prevail politically, the Left owns the culture. The mighty Lubbock Avalanche-Journal had wall-to-wall coverage of Friday-night lights, but its national and international news came mostly from the Associated Press, as is the case for most U.S. daily newspapers, which means some of the worst economics writing and biased political reporting you can find. At my high school, American history began with the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, reached its apex with the New Deal, and ended with Watergate. Capitalism was unmitigated greed, Reagan was the Antichrist, and what appeared to the unenlightened to be an age of possibility and prosperity was in fact the prelude to environmental apocalypse and the virtual enslavement of the American worker. And if that was the witches’ brew of lies and nonsense I was being dunked in daily in Lubbock, who knows what they were enduring in some comparatively liberal metropolis such as Albuquerque?

But somewhere out there on the barren Llano Estacado was a quiet hero, whose identity still is unknown to me, who changed my life in a profound way — by ensuring that National Review was available at my library. This was in the dark days before the Internet and before National Review Online, when most of the information and insight you needed was still on paper. Woody Allen lampooned National Review in one of his films by placing the magazine in the pornography section of a Manhattan newsstand, but the newsstand, and all of the choices that it offers, would have been a luxury in my part of the world. We were still dependent on the good graces of librarians, who are not, as you may have heard, particularly sympathetic to conservatives. Years later, Rush Limbaugh would capture the experience precisely describing his own first encounter with National Review: It was like stumbling across the in-house newsletter of some sort of secret society dedicated to cultivating the intellectual institutions that support a free, prosperous, and secure society with wit and good cheer and very little inclination to suffer fools gladly. It was like meeting someone for the first time and knowing you were going to be lifelong friends.

I was a National Review reader for 20-odd years before I had the great good fortune of becoming a National Review writer. It was, I should note, a very strange job interview: I felt like I had known Rich, Jay, and Kathryn for years (Jonah wasn’t there; presumably he was engaged in an intense dialogue on the subject of spontaneous orders with The Couch), and William F. Buckley Jr. was one of the main reasons I decided to become a writer. (Lack of useful skills was another important one.) With apologies to the University of Texas, National Review was my real higher education: Every time I came across a name or an idea that was unfamiliar to me — Hayek, Mises, Kirk, public-choice theory, regulatory capture — I had a new assignment. National Review was a gift, and, like many gifts, it carried with it implicit reciprocity, the obligation to live up to the conversation. The fruits of that labor were very sweet: My professors, and, later, my editors at the various newspapers where I worked, all knew what the New York Times had to say about income inequality; I knew what the New York Times had to say about income inequality, too — and I knew why it was wrong.

Things have changed radically since I first encountered National Review. What was a fortnightly journal that reached a couple hundred thousand people is now a 24-hour news service, offering up-to-the-minute commentary, more audio content than most talk-radio shows, video you won’t find anywhere else, newsletters, and everything from books to tweets, reaching millions of people — along with that aforementioned fortnightly journal. As our publisher, Jack Fowler, mentioned earlier, sometimes our readers like to come by and visit NR World HQ, and their reaction is almost always the same: “Good Lord but this place is a dump.” Buckley Towers turns out to be a relatively low-key and low-ceilinged cubicle farm occupying some unused space in a building housing a branch of Yeshiva University. (God knows what it costs, though.) What it most resembles is the offices of my old college newspaper, except that it isn’t in a basement, doesn’t have a printing press, and works on a smaller operating budget. And that is how it should be. My job title here is “roving correspondent,” and I can tell you that if I were to attempt to rove business-class at National Review’s expense, the people whom Jonah calls “the Suits,” who are actually a few no-nonsense ladies who will yell at you in Russian and a few old gangsters Jack knows from growing up in the Bronx, then my WFB-approved vocabulary word of the day would be “defenestration.” National Review roves coach. Jack spends more time dealing with plumbing than any other publisher of a national magazine outside of American Plumber, I guarantee you.

This is, for a nerd such as myself, the best job in the world, the journalistic equivalent of playing for the Yankees, assuming that that is still an appropriate baseball metaphor. (Sorry, Rich.) I get to write about things that interest me for an audience of smart and well-informed people in the company of ladies and gentlemen I admire and respect. Over the past few years, I’ve spent time on the ground learning about everything from Appalachian poverty to Spanish economic decline and Swiss governance, insolvency in California, the depressing business end of the pornography industry, gambling in Atlantic City, why we have so many traffic jams, and the sins of Harry Reid. (And guns. Lots of guns.) National Review’s generosity — which is your generosity — also means that I’ve had the time to write a few books and spend many happy hours yelling at liberals and the occasional feckless Republican on television and radio. All in all, I’d rather be writing a 3,500-word essay than doing two minutes on cable, but National Review is institutionally dedicated to going where the people are. We aren’t just a magazine anymore.

The challenge for us is marrying the intellectual conservatism of WFB to a content machine in which our timeline is measured in minutes rather than weeks; we do it on a shoestring budget, but, even so, the bill for twine, duct tape, and WD-40 is pretty staggering. But we are making a difference. Ask Ted Cruz or Marco Rubio, or the members of the House budget committee who very politely listened to me yell at them about how Washington is destroying the country. Ask Rand Paul, whose celebrated filibuster included a fair amount of content straight off of National Review Online. You might even ask, if you could, some of the men and women languishing in Cuban and Chinese prison cells, who have no more energetic or articulate spokesman than Jay Nordlinger, even as the rest of the media often is inclined to look the other way at the human-rights abuses of leftist regimes.

I am deeply grateful to those of you who have supported me by supporting National Review in the past. It is an honor and a pleasure to contribute as I can to continuing a tradition that includes writers and thinkers as different as George Will and Whittaker Chambers, John Dos Passos, Henry Hazlitt, and Father Richard Neuhaus. Recently, I’ve taken on some new responsibilities with our William F. Buckley journalism fellowship, to help ensure that the future of that tradition lives up to its past. I look forward to Monday mornings, which is one of life’s great luxuries. But even if this weren’t my job, I’d still be imploring you to support National Review. I could get a new job, but National Review is irreplaceable.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.

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