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Creating Conservatism Inc.

National Review founder William F. Buckley Jr.
National Review Institute helps preserve Bill Buckley’s legacy and sustain the movement he created.

This article is the first of a two-part piece by John O’Sullivan.

Like me, you probably come across occasional media attacks, sometimes from self-described conservatives, on something called Conservatism Inc. I am flattered to say that I’m sometimes alleged to be a member of this sinister outfit. It is apparently an organization — at least it seems to be organized if you’re looking at it through binoculars from five miles away — that has been standing athwart history yelling Stop since 1955.

Okay, that’s Bill Buckley’s original description of National Review magazine, which is only one part of Conservatism Inc. these days. The larger body (“a vast right-wing conspiracy,” © Hillary Rodham Clinton) has since expanded to include a range of magazines, websites, think tanks, and colleges with a far greater social reach and intellectual depth than our original little title with its modest number of pages and its 5,000 charter subscribers could reasonably claim. This, of course, includes National Review Institute (NRI), the nonprofit 501(c)(3) journalistic think tank founded in 1991 that preserves WFB’s legacy by complementing the NR mission and supporting and promoting the magazine’s top talent. Bill Buckley knew, even in those early years, that National Review needed other ways to effectively communicate the conservative message to a wider audience. That is what NRI does, and this important work — which I hope you will support — is needed more so today than ever before.

Now, I don’t mean to diss the modest start-up that challenged with such absurd optimism the seemingly all-powerful soporific Liberaldom that then blanketed America. Not at all. NR’s first feisty little issue still serves me as an antidote to depression whenever I run up against an atonal musical composition or a Le Corbusier building or a Hillary Clinton speech by accident. That early National Review is a terrific and — better — a surprising read.

Notice among the more conventional conservative names on the cover that of Morrie Ryskind, the author, with George S. Kauffman and Ira Gershwin, of George Gershwin’s great musical satire on presidential politics, Of Thee I Sing, as well as a scriptwriter for the Marx Brothers’ movies, and much else. Ryskind and his collaborators had the unusual distinction of winning a Pulitzer prize for the book and lyrics of Of Thee I Sing because of the accuracy of its political satire. The musical is frequently revived in this country and abroad, and when it is, its sharpness and topicality always astound critics, even today.

In that first NR issue Ryskind wrote two pieces, one of them a witty review of the season on Broadway. Ryskind’s presence on the cover was WFB signaling that this new magazine would be serious but not solemn — the very opposite of the then-dominant liberalism — and that it would deploy the best and most imaginative writing he could get on American culture. Let me explain why I write “get” rather than “afford.” For most of Bill’s life, NR depended on the kindness of friends. Ryskind was among those early friends who contributed money to get the magazine off the ground. He was an “angel” as well as a writer when Bill needed both.

Well, we still need both, but more of both. National Review itself has expanded since those early vulnerable days from a paper magazine to a news and opinion conglomerate that includes the vibrant NationalReview.com, with its cornucopia of fresh copy spilling out onto your laptop through the day. Then there is National Review Institute, which has enjoyed incredible growth over the past several years, developing a range of programs and events designed to strengthen the movement Bill Buckley founded. The Institute takes conservative ideas, NR’s history, and the Buckley legacy on the road across America; the NRI fellows who represent and spread conservative ideas in every part of the country.

NRI is absolutely vital to sustaining the NR mission, and it is a responsibility that the Institute’s leadership takes very seriously. That is why I hope you will consider making a generous tax-deductible contribution to support NRI’s End-of-Year Fund Appeal. The Institute has raised over $150,000 toward its online fundraising goal of $200,000 by December 31. It would require quite a good deal of space if I were to list all the activities worthy of support that NRI now performs. As such, I recommend you visit our website, where you can put our names and faces to all the things NRI does. To sum up, though, the NRI family does a great deal more than ever before.

And we need to do so.

First, we face — and welcome — a great deal more friendly competition in the world of conservative institutions that has mushroomed since 1955. There were a few existing conservative institutions doing valuable work in that year — notably the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, founded in 1953 — but they all saw the potential of having a conservative magazine of general ideas that would cover all their different specialisms and set them in a context of philosophical sympathy (albeit accompanied by occasional criticisms). For his part, Bill always saw National Review as offering a forum for all reasonable conservatisms. And this was reflected in the writers whom Bill recruited either as staff members or as outside contributors. They reflected almost the entire spectrum of right-wing opinion, with a handful of notorious exceptions such as Ayn Rand and Murray Rothbard, with whom the NR took serious issue on philosophy and policy.

Most of Bill’s battles were with anti-conservatives — both the vast soggy liberal center and the resurgent aggressive Left, especially after 1968. It’s an interesting but complicated story. Bill was notorious among more puritan right-wingers for his easy friendships with prominent liberals such as J. K. Galbraith which, they tut-tutted, also involved the shameless consumption of “fine wines.” But liberals were the people in possession of the stage. If conservatives were to be heard — a first step to winning — they had first to take on liberals and liberalism in debate and on all the social occasions that went along with debate. Bill and Pat were a brilliant young couple who enjoyed New York’s social life anyway. They brought conservatism into all the liberal salons and created their own conservative salon, to which the liberals desperately sought invitations.

That was a victory in itself, and it led to other victories. Bill created a political and cultural space in American life where conservatives met liberals and leftists on equal grounds. He debated with liberals, friends or otherwise, in NR, in his thrice-weekly column, in public debates, and on Firing Line for about 30 years, mostly winning but always making an intelligent, effective, and sometimes paradoxical case against them. Other factors and other people came into it, notably Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter, but over time conservatism edged out liberalism as the nation’s common sense.

As for the Left, even today left-wingers will tell you that Firing Line was one of the very few major public forums on which they could get a serious and sustained examination of their arguments. Of course, they had to take the risk of being speared both by a suddenly acute question from an apparently wool-gathering inquisitor and by the threatening pencil with which he drove home points. But the result was spectacularly entertaining television on serious public policy which, if it opened opportunities for the Left, also elevated the profile of Bill and the Right enormously. I will venture the claim, 20 years after Bill handed on Firing Line to the Hoover Institution, which now carries its torch, that there is no better political education for sharp minds of every age than to sit through a season of the Bill’s program for any one year.

All this was happening while Bill was managing the practical difficulties and philosophical disputes roiling the magazine with its extraordinarily talented (and disputatious) editors and contributors. They included the author of the anti-Communist classic memoir Witness, Whittaker Chambers; NR’s book-review editor Frank Meyer, who fashioned the “fusionist” theory of conservatism that is always criticized as either inadequate or contradictory but that somehow always proves unavoidable in practice; Russell Kirk, the romantic Tory author of The Conservative Mind and of innumerable Gothic ghost stories, who wrote a fortnightly column on education from the first issue until the 1970s; Willmoore Kendall, Bill’s mentor at Yale, a brilliant political theorist who had the rare distinction of being paid by the university to surrender his tenure (i.e., go away — so you know he must have been a truly impressive mind) and whose work foreshadows the revival of nationalist thought in our time; and James Burnham, whom Bill himself described as the strongest intellectual influence on National Review among that first generation.

Burnham must serve here as a representative example of the extraordinary intellectual vitality and distinction that marked the whole of NR’s founding generation. The son of a wealthy railroad executive, Burnham began his professional life as a philosopher and literary scholar, converted to Trotskyism in his twenties, became Trotsky’s favorite pupil; broke with him when he realized that events were tending not to socialism but to rule by managerial elites; wrote The Managerial Revolution (which became the basis for Orwell’s 1984); provoked Orwell to write two major criticisms of his thought; wrote, in The Struggle for the World, an analysis of the Soviet world threat and a strategic program to defeat it that is so close to Churchill’s prophetic Fulton speech that either man might have written either work; broke with American liberalism over the Cold War; was accordingly pronounced “a dead duck” by Partisan Review editor Philip Rahv, but was given a home by Bill at National Review, where for the next 30 years he wrote a uniquely insightful column on foreign affairs and usually acted as Bill’s deputy during his absence. His books are republished and widely read today. It is one of the disappointments of my own life that I never met him, but NRI fellow Rick Brookhiser tells me he was reserved, courteous, precise in his manners and writing, a fine editor of other people’s works, and a firm but kindly mentor to younger members of staff.

One result of Burnham’s recruitment was that National Review provided readers with the single best coverage of the Cold War of any American journal of opinion. And when Bill led a delegation of conservatives to Russia and Eastern Europe in 1990, NR’s secret readers — released from prison and lowly jobs to enter government a few weeks before — turned out to greet him.

I could recite equally heartwarming events and impressive biographies of all the early National Reviewers. And that tradition has continued. Later writers who have had a major influence on National Review have included such ringing names — and here I apologize to the hundreds going undeservedly unmentioned — as Milton Friedman, Richard John Neuhaus, Michael Novak, Jeffrey Hart, Ralph de Toledano, William McGurn . . . and more recently Rick Brookhiser (now a distinguished presidential historian), and other NRI fellows such as Jonah Goldberg, Andrew C. McCarthy, Ramesh Ponnuru, the present editor of NR (naturally), Kevin D. Williamson, Victor Davis Hanson, Kathryn Jean Lopez, and many, many more. Today, these NRI fellows assume the NR mantle; they advance conservative ideas, preserving and promoting the Buckley legacy by yelling Stop through their writing and various intellectual projects. I hope you will stand with them and support their efforts with a generous gift to NRI’s End-of-Year Fund Appeal.

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