Bill Buckley asked me for a vocabulary word once. I’d been at National Review for only a few weeks, and he had a few of us over for what turned out to be the last of the editors’ dinners at his home, which for some reason always is described as a “maisonette,” probably as a way for writers to communicate that they know what “maisonette” means. Bill was charming and funny and full of stories (it isn’t always a tragedy to meet one’s heroes), and at one point he mentioned that the prose style of a certain writer seemed to him . . . and here he turned to me and asked: “What’s the word? Like it’s engraved in stone?”
I felt pretty good about that. I went home and wrote a note to my high-school English teacher.
I’m glad that it was a language point rather than a political point. I’d first encountered Bill when a librarian recommended National Review to me, and, a little later, through Firing Line. And what first struck me about Bill and his NR colleagues wasn’t the politics (I suppose I assumed everybody was an anti-communist back then, though one of my best friends in the sixth grade had been a Mondale guy in ’84) or the fearsome intellect or the amused dissection of the bullpucky of the time (of which there was and is a great deal) but the vivacity of the language and the obvious pleasure that they, especially Bill, took in the exercise of the faculties. I read the whole magazine, but what I went to first was “Notes & Asides” and the “Books, Arts, & Manners” section at the back. At some point, I decided that I wanted to write that sort of thing, and that maybe I could.
I worked in newspapers for many years, but immediately before I came to National Review I was taking a short break from newspaper editing (which is one of the things you sometimes do when you get fired) and working as the director of a journalism program at a nonprofit foundation in Washington. I liked the job immensely, but there was no question about whether I was going to pass up an offer from National Review when they asked me to join the magazine in 2008. And now I am, in addition to being a writer for the magazine, once again the director of a journalism program at a nonprofit foundation: The William F. Buckley Fellowship in Political Journalism at the National Review Institute. A fellowship named for Bill Buckley at Bill Buckley’s magazine is of course something to be taken seriously by a conservative, especially one who got into journalism in no small part because of Bill’s example. And the program is exactly the sort of thing I wish I had had when I was in college. We find gifted young conservatives with an interest in journalism and then let them do their thing, with great and sometimes spectacular results. You’ll find former Buckley fellows not only at NR and in the conservative world but working everywhere from the Washington Post to the Daily Beast. Don’t like the media? This is how we change it.
They’re a remarkable bunch, and I hope Bill would have been proud of them. When I work with them, I sometimes wonder whether I was half as smart and ambitious and squared-away at their age.
One of Bill’s great talents was bringing conservative ideas into the world, beyond the cloisters of self-aware conservatives and right-leaning institutions. But he was an incandescent talent and personality, one of a kind, and while he was famously generous with his time, he did us all the great disservice of failing to be immortal. We’re always on the hunt for Buckleyesque talents, but we also spend a lot of time in the old-fashioned business of institution-building, in this case developing the National Review Institute into a wide-reaching organization that takes the ideas associated with the magazine and the movement that grew up around it off of the printed page and into the world. It’s a lot of fun. In addition to the Buckley fellowship, I travel the country speaking everywhere from college classrooms to business meetings. My fellow NRI fellow David French and I conducted an enlightening (for me, anyway) conversation about poverty with Hillbilly Elegy author J. D. Vance. I’ll be at one of those fancy Ivy League schools later this week talking about journalism and National Review.
This costs a great deal of money, of course, which is why we are always asking you for it and have been since 1955. We are now engaged in our end-of-year appeal for the National Review Institute, with a goal of raising $250,000. That will ensure, among other things, that the Buckley fellowships are funded for the coming year and that I’ll have plenty of time to tweet about how terrible our airlines are while waiting on the tarmac in Des Moines or Houston or Eugene or Cleveland. You can make your tax-deductible donation here. We are deeply grateful for your support, and I hope that if you happen to see Alexandra DeSanctis take some poor feckless lefty dope’s head off on live television, you’ll smile and appreciate that you helped make that happen.
— Kevin D. Williamson is National Review’s roving correspondent.