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Books and the Buckley Mission

Richard Brookhiser (Mike Cohen Photography)
National Review’s cultural coverage is a vital part of keeping WFB’s vision alive.

I  write to encourage you to support the National Review Institute’s annual December Fund Appeal, a timely way to help the organization that, like National Review, was founded by Bill Buckley. It is also my home: I am an NRI senior fellow.

But what about me when I was not so senior? What did I turn to when National Review came to the house (mine) of a teenager in the waning days of the post-war (WWII that is) liberal ascendancy? I was particularly taken by the political reporting and analysis of James J. Kilpatrick, the unrivaled NR election-year must-read: He had the knowledge that comes from having done it forever, and the skill in evocation that comes only from genius. And then there was James Burnham, the former Trotskyist who preferred to give us the facts as he saw them, with judgments based on his understanding of the way the world worked. Sometimes it was cold as ice. Sometimes we needed an ice bath.

But more fitting for the task at hand — encouraging generosity to NRI — is to note D. Keith Mano and “The Gimlet Eye.” Mano served slices of New York City life with the dexterity of a Japanese chef — sharp-cut, hot-grilled. His curiosity was boundless. What was it like to be a jockey? A waiter in a Chinese restaurant? To have your fortune told by a storefront gypsy? To compete in a beauty contest for men, judged by second-wave feminists? To fire-walk? (His verdict on that one: mucho painful.) He attended a transvestite convention — this was long before gender fluidity was cool — and told Pat Buckley how hard it had been finding size-12 pumps. Keith had his quirks. Besides strippers — that is a strong sentence beginning; Keith himself might approve — he was made very apprehensive by Y2K, so much so that he moved to Nova Scotia, thinking it could handle a plunge back into the pre-electric era better than Gotham. He was relieved when we were all spared. At all times, he was a serious Christian, a convert to Russian Orthodoxy. God watched him, quirks and all.

(Last year NRO republished a number of Keith’s pieces. I recommend them.)

Strong, exceptional writing, the kind to be found in few other places, was the hallmark the “Gimlet Eye” column (Keith passed the baton on to Andy Ferguson and Florence King), and of many of the pages that surrounded it in the magazine’s third act, the Books, Arts, & Manners section — which explains why many people began the custom of reading National Review from the back. BA&M became a destination. It is still the case. Chockablock with remarkable writing, it was and is a fulfillment of NR’s pointed efforts, from the magazine’s inception, to impact America’s culture. Books, Arts, & Manners was home to Ms. King’s “Misanthrope’s Corner” column, its “Happy Warrior” last page, and even my monthly “City Desk” (here’s the latest in the new issue of NR). It is where you find the reviews of America’s best film critics (especially Ross Douthat, now in a role that John Simon held for decades), and where Jay Nordlinger shares wonderful observations on music and opera (old-timers will remember Ralph de Toledano’s regular reflections on the latest jazz albums).

But the section’s first word is Books, and from the 1955 premiere issue, NR has reviewed thousands of important histories, memoirs, and rallying cries, each meeting with due praise or deserved comeuppance. The reviewing has run the gamut — elegant, eloquent, powerful, savage (Buckley took no quarter on Lillian Hellman) — as befits the tome. But never bland. And always meaningful. And often consequential.

As an author, I may hold a prejudice for books, but regardless: The dull aside, what conservative or liberal would not argue their importance to espoused principles? To advancing the cause? To confounding foes? In addition to The Federalist Papers, the modern conservative movement owes its genesis to Chambers’ Witness, WFB’s God and Man at Yale, Kirk’s The Conservative Mind, Hayek’s The Road to Serfdom, and a handful of other works of consequence. National Review’s mission recognized such, and for 63 years has directed that our writers and editors take books, as books, seriously.

And we come full circle, because the magazine’s heralded Books, Arts & Manners section is now sponsored by National Review Institute. When you support NRI, you are supporting BA&M, and the broad Buckley Mission of having a conservative presence, vocal and smart, in an otherwise liberal-dominant culture. Even if your interests are strictly downstream political, you know: That’s upstream, and important, and worthy of generosity to NRI. Which you can exhibit here, knowing that it is appreciated in advance.

Richard Brookhiser — Historian Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review and a senior fellow at the National Review Institute.

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