I’m writing to you to ask for a generous end-of-year donation to National Review Institute. There’s no way to wrap that up, and there shouldn’t be. You should know right away that I want you to open your wallet on behalf of NRI and, not even slightly coincidentally, that as a National Review Institute Senior Fellow, I stand to benefit from your donation.
There! I’ve written it.
My frankness and honesty is inspired by the scene in Terence Rattigan’s movie The V.I.P.s, in which Maggie Smith, a humble secretary, approaches billionaire Richard Burton in the VIP lounge of a fog-bound Heathrow Airport and says, “I don’t supposed you’ve ever been approached by a strange woman in an airport and asked for three hundred and fifty-nine thousand pounds.” Richard Burton, shrewdly discerning that she’s seeking the money for her boss (Rod Taylor) in order to save his (creditworthy) company from a cash crunch that will otherwise lead to an immediate bankruptcy, replies: “You must love him very much.” Maggie Smith gets the money too, and after several vicissitudes, she gets Rod Taylor as well, and Burton’s wearily depressed decency is rewarded when wife Elizabeth Taylor stays with him instead of running off with Louis Jordain at the end of the movie when the fog lifts.
If the fog has lifted in your life, you will at once see the relevance of this heartwarming scene and realize what a great deal a simple donation to NRI could mean for us both.
Let’s start with you. I take it that you have a personal but also an idealistic or public interest in the continuance and success of NRI. The personal interest is that you know us and have gotten to trust us over the years.
Now, that’s a cliché. But nine times out of ten, clichés are oft-repeated truths. And I feel the truth of this one whenever I get off a train or a plane and meet NR subscribers or NRI donors in Middle America or in the deep conservative catacombs beneath the two coasts. My hosts of the moment remember along with me some of the great controversies — from the Iron Mountain hoax to Willie Horton to the Great Amnesty Debate — that over the years we in the NR family analyzed, corrected, and occasionally provoked.
Okay, there have been family quarrels lately, and they may well continue for some time. The NR brand has a proud history of some 63 years, and it’s been a bumpy ride for most of that time. How could it be otherwise when spirits as principled and as combative as Russell Kirk, James Burnham, Whittaker Chambers, Willmoore Kendall, Victor Davis Hanson, Andrew McCarthy, Jonah Goldberg, Mark Steyn, Kevin Williamson, and a hundred other maverick talents have confronted massive shifts in the political and economic landscape and, of course, each other? Many conservative magazines now inhabit the field where once only National Review built barricades. Sadly, in recent days there is one less. But it is in our pages that the battle to define post-Trumpian conservatism will be fought with the most insight and the most imagination because conservatives of all stripes will be engaging in it. Rich Lowry will umpire the battles fairly (when he isn’t contributing to them) just as Bill Buckley and I did so in our times. A hat-tip to him. Soothing very clever but indignant people is a taxing job. But a great magazine somehow emerges from the mayhem every two weeks.
So, we’re family. We occasionally sing from the same songbook. We can differ without acrimony too. But when we feel it’s justified, every editor, contributor, and fellow will thump the family table good and hard.
If you want an undeviating party line adhered to by all, visit a mausoleum. If you want to be soothed, stand in an elevator for 15 minutes and listen to Muzak. We’re in the truth and controversy business. And we won’t be changing.
Some things, though, we have changed, and we’ll keep changing. We started, as mentioned above, as a fortnightly magazine (actually, briefly at its outset, as a weekly). Even then we experimented with a shorter bulletin every other week to deal with major news events that didn’t respect our publication dates. As we grew in size and reputation — owing in great part to the emergence of our founder, Bill Buckley, as America’s premier conservative intellectual and the first-ever political celebrity — we saw that with ever-faster news cycles, we needed to appear in new formats that readers could access in real time. With the generous support of conservative foundations, we helped set up the portal TownHall.com which soon became big enough to look after itself — as it does very successfully today. Next we stepped — first cautiously, then forcefully — into the virtual world of webzines with what is now NationalReview.com, one of the biggest and most vibrant news-and-commentary websites on the Internet. And then in the early 1990s we took the longest leap of all. Bill Buckley, Dusty and Gleaves Rhodes, Gay and Stanley Gaines, Wick Allison, Ed Capano, and others (my apologies to those not named here) founded National Review Institute in 1991, and it’s been running hard and fast ever since.
Our first programs in those early years were a series of small conferences — my memory says nine in all — held under the vigorous chairmanship of Margaret Thatcher, each one alternating between the U.S. and Europe, at which leading conservative politicians, academics, and media folk would tackle a single, highly topical matter: nationalism, welfare, NATO, religion and public life, the Hero in today’s world, etc., etc. (Many of the papers ended up in newspapers and journals, including National Review, but there’s a case still for publishing them in a single volume.)
Our first major domestic event was an NRI Washington Conference, held in 1993 at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. on the weekend after the inauguration of Bill Clinton, that boldly announced the Revival of Conservatism. We didn’t just announce it, moreover; we demonstrated it with a conference attendance of 1,100 attendees, for whom the Mayflower had to produce an overflow hall. I remember Newt Gingrich coming up to me as the huge crowd milled about, going to and from its various side events, and saying: “There’s tremendous energy in this room, John. We have to make sure that it becomes the kind of energy that really changes the world as well as opinions.” From there the NRI took conferences on the road to Chicago, to Charleston, to San Diego, all to large and enthusiastic audiences, then back to Washington, and back to other things too.
NRI has since mutated into a multi-function public-affairs foundation, owning National Review, Inc. (which publishes the fortnightly journal and NRO), but also justifying the name Institute by recruiting able new conservative scholars and activists as fellows and making their work better known; by holding major Ideas Summits in Washington, at which senators and cabinet officers match wits with the best conservative minds from the hinterland; by keeping alive the legacy of Bill Buckley and other great NR names, such as Russell Kirk, in the memories of younger Americans; by taking the fight to colleges, where in 15 minutes, speakers such as Andy McCarthy and Victor Davis Hanson deprogram students from years of left-liberal Ivy League indoctrination; and by winning the moral and political battles of the future as we won the Cold War.
That’s where the public-cum-idealistic side of your interest in NRI comes in.
I have a modest but growing reputation as a pessimist. In fact, one of the least popular essays I have written for NRO was a criticism of the optimism recommended by Jack Kemp as a recipe for success in politics. Well, I am not hostile to cheerfulness as such. As practiced by Ronald Reagan, it was a suitable accompaniment to his policies, which promised success but — more significantly — were grounded in realism. Hope is optimism that has taken the obstacles to its success into account. And we must always take the obstacles to our hopes into account if we are to taste success.
Consider now the size and ferocity of the obstacles to the success of post-Reagan conservatism. I won’t bother to list them. They are in plain sight. If you are in any doubt of this, simply open a newspaper or turn on a news program. Now admit to yourself what is really frightening. Half of the items in the paper are proposals that ten years ago you would have dismissed as absurd-cum-evil fantasies in a science-fiction novel or an apocalyptic television series about the end times. Open borders? Abolish ICE? Oh, yes, that would be The Camp of the Saints, by Jean Raspail. Random shootings in the city streets? Oh, yes, Little Murders, by Jules Feiffer (also a prediction of T. S. Eliot’s, by the way). The banning of words in order to make certain thoughts impossible? That would be Orwell in 1984. And we could continue almost indefinitely, seeing the dystopian fantasies of Aldous Huxley, C. S. Lewis, et al. taking shape before our astonished eyes in college sociology departments, left-leaning journals, Democratic policy committees, “thoughtful” speeches by presidential hopefuls, and finally legislation in Congress. As these beliefs gradually become the new common sense, the Republicans are likely to put up only fitful and embarrassed resistance, as is their wont.
So it will be the task of National Review Institute to stand athwart the cultural-studies and sociology departments of the United States shouting, “Don’t be so bloody ridiculous.”
We will be doing that in politics, of course, but also at the coal-face in Ivy League colleges, which seem peculiarly vulnerable to nonsensical infections of this kind. In fighting these battles — which, oddly enough, are hard to fight because many otherwise doughty battlers fear to give certain kinds of offense — we will have the great advantage that one ever-present theme in the NRI symphony is that we embroider serious topics with mockery, ridicule, satire, and irony. These weapons have been wielded by such skilled artificers as D. Keith Mano, Joe Bob Briggs, Florence King, and of course the mighty Rob Long. In the battles of the soul to come, they will be riding alongside Jonathan Swift and G. K. Chesterton.
And, finally, we come to me.
Well, I’m deeply grateful that the support of NRI (that’s you behind the curtain) enables me to take part in these great battles, to write works like The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister; to appear on NRI platforms across America to discuss and sometimes defend the different traditions of Bill Buckley, Russell Kirk, James Burnham, and all the other NR talents. What sets me slightly apart from my NRI colleagues, however, is that one of my tasks — as president of the Danube Institute and international editor of Quadrant, and in other positions over the years — has been to create or strengthen transmission belts of people and ideas between America and its friends abroad, especially its conservative friends, especially in the Anglosphere and Central Europe. For America needs friends; those friends need to understand why America acts as it does; and we need to grasp why we sometimes differ. That seems important to me, but it would not have been possible without the support and encouragement of National Review Institute and all the friends I have made across America and the world since I joined the National Review family in 1988. For that unstinting support and encouragement, I’m deeply grateful.
So, now how about it? Three hundred and fifty-nine thousand pounds — when the pound has tumbled from $2.80 in 1960 to nearly even-stephens — isn’t so much these days. In fact it’s worth about $359,000 on present rates.
Then again, I’m not Maggie Smith.