Magazine June 8, 2009, Issue

Performance Art and Panache

An editorial conference in 1972 (from left: Priscilla Buckley, WFB, James Burnham)
Remembering editorial conferences with William F. Buckley Jr.

In 1976, when I was 21 years old, I went to work for National Review as a summer intern. In-house, the internships were called Miss Buckley’s Finishing School for Young Ladies and Gentlemen, after Priscilla Buckley, Bill’s sister and the managing editor. Vicki Marani, a Yalie a few years ahead of me, was one of the ladies who had recently passed through it; she told me about the position and urged me to apply for it. I got the nod, and after Memorial Day my parents drove me to the city and installed me at a midtown YMCA.

National Review’s offices were on East 35th Street, on the southeast slope of Murray Hill, a neighborhood that was a staid mix of apartment buildings and brownstones, hotels and clubs. Up the street was a Swedenborgian church with rose of Sharon in its front yard. National Review occupied several floors of a pre-war building mostly converted to offices. The apartment-style layout made its premises crabbed and eccentric (the flattering term was Dickensian). Bill Buckley valued the unusually high number of bathrooms; he said he didn’t want to “cross a proscenium” to relieve himself. My first day was an editorial Monday, the beginning of the end of the biweekly production cycle. The cover was done, all the articles, columns, and reviews set in type. Only “The Week” remained to be assigned and written. I arrived wearing a light-blue polyester summer suit and was given a desk in the main editorial office on the second floor, then followed everyone to the third for the editorial conference.

On the way we passed Bill’s office, a dark den with a red carpet. An enormous illuminated globe sat in one corner. The flat surfaces were stacked with papers and books, the walls covered with plaques he had been awarded and cartoons of which he was the subject. A metal gizmo on his desk waved three small flags when you turned the crank. He typically sat in the window in a swivel chair, in the angle between his desk and a small table that supported his typewriter. When he was on the phone with a friend he stuck his legs up and leaned back happily. There was a dumbwaiter in the corner behind him that went down to Priscilla’s office on the floor below; when she had copy to send up to him, she would ring a bell by pressing the head of a small bronze turtle. Even hurrying past on day one, I registered a few of these details avidly.

The editorial conference was held in the library, lined with built-in shelves and almost filled by a heavy black rectangular table. I sat at the bottom. Some of the people I knew; I had met Bill and William Rusher, the publisher, and corresponded with Priscilla. A few of the others I recognized by name, particularly James Burnham, who sat near the head of the table next to Bill. The names of the rest passed in a blur. The purpose of the conference was to decide what the magazine should cover in its unsigned, corporate voice in “The Week.” Bill Rusher, at Bill’s left, made a few terse suggestions and departed. Then everyone else gave his ideas, starting with Burnham on Bill’s right, and moving counterclockwise. I quickly learned that everyone more or less showed off for Bill, except Burnham and Priscilla, who didn’t have to, and Rusher, who had made a separate peace. When we finished, Bill assigned each topic to a writer, consulting the scratchings — he frequently asked Priscilla what it was that he had written — of his notes. To me he assigned a labor-union matter, items on Chile and Cambodia, and the obituary of a historian I had never heard of. He ended the meeting by lightly slapping the table and saying, “Entonces” (Spanish for “Well, then”). We returned to our desks to start writing.

The editorial staff worked on the second floor. At each desk there was a Royal Standard manual typewriter, gray, serious, and solid, noble Industrial Age artifacts; the patter of the keys striking the cylinder made anything written on them seem urgent, even a thank-you note; you could have thrown one out the second-floor window onto the sidewalk, and it would still have pecked away. I was told I would be getting clips from the research library, a three-man staff in yet another office: articles cut from the major newspapers, the New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal. But before I had set to work, I was asked to lunch.

The writers and editors, led by Bill, walked around the corner to Nicola Paone’s. My notions of fine dining were defined at that point by 19th-century inns in the countryside around Rochester where we drove for Sunday dinners after church. This was a fancy meal in the middle of a workday, an unheard-of extravagance — unheard of by me, at any rate. We were seated at a large round table in the main room by Franco, the gray-suited maître d’ with a gold wrist chain. Mr. Paone, older, courtlier, more ethnic, described his specials as if he were reciting poetry; he described his desserts like lovers. He had given the regular dishes on his menu whimsical names — Nightgown, Boom-boom — which my colleagues all seemed to know. Even in 1976, Paone’s was old-fashioned. All the elements of the meal supported each other like acrobats in a pyramid; the wine lubricated the food, dessert topped it off, coffee cut the dessert and the wine. Bill presided, never letting the conversation flag (a skill, I would discover, that is not common). The process took an hour and a half. I was back at my Royal Standard in mid-afternoon, without having turned to Chile or the late historian.

Then one of my new colleagues, Joe Sobran, strolled into my office and gave me something else to think about. Joe was a dark-haired, bearish young man with a deep voice and a sweet smile; he was probably smoking one of the short cigars he was so fond of. I knew his byline well — he had written the critique of Garry Wills that accompanied the papal Huey Newton cover, and many other pieces besides. He had been assigned to go to Yankee Stadium that night to see if there was anything interesting in a rally of the Unification Church, but couldn’t make it. Would I like to go in his stead? He loaned me his press card and gave me directions.

I had not been on a subway since I had taken the Flushing Line to the 1964 World’s Fair with my parents; happily, Yankee Stadium was a straight shot north from Grand Central. The Unification Church, which was just making a splash in the United States, was a pseudo-Christian religion built around its founder, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon, a Korean evangelist who claimed to be the Messiah (Jesus had failed; Moon would get it right). The Moonies were accused of brainwashing their converts. They wanted a big-deal rally to show how mainstream they were; their enemies seized on the occasion to condemn them. The Moonies had taken over a moribund orchestra, the New York City Symphony, which sat on the infield playing classical repertoire. There were speeches, almost incomprehensible through the sound system and the Korean accent. At one point anti-Moonies broke through security and scuffled with the crowd in the seats. Coming and going, I found myself in a religious Reichstag of protesters — evangelicals insisting that Jesus was Lord, Catholics who believed that the Virgin Mary had appeared in Bayside. I took copious notes, and wrote up the story when I got back to my YMCA cubicle, on my own portable typewriter. I supplied background by reading the leaflets pro and con that had been thrust at me, and the clips supplied by the research library; I wrote the story by opening my eyes. The next day Priscilla told me they could slip the account into the magazine as a one-page article.

I made a hash of the historian; Bill ended up writing the obit himself, since he had actually known the man. But the editorial on Cambodia worked. A French Jesuit, Fr. François Ponchaud, based in Cambodia, had reported the first accounts of refugees fleeing the Khmer Rouge; the victorious Communists, it appeared, had murdered several hundred thousand people. Father Ponchaud’s estimates turned out to be on the low side. All I did was retell the story; the thing spoke for itself. Years later, the soundman on a documentary I was hosting came to a shoot wearing a remarkable T-shirt: It showed the cartoon character Tintin creeping through jungle vines toward a pile of skulls. The caption read: “Tintin’s Adventure in the Cambodian Forest.” I asked where he had gotten such a monstrous thing. In Cambodia itself, he said; sick jokes were the only way the people could deal with what they had been through, and with the presence, even after the fall of the Khmer Rouge, of the perpetrators, living freely among them.

“The Week” went to bed at five o’clock on Wednesday afternoon. Attendance was not mandatory at the closing, but it too was a public occasion, this time a performance by Bill, with some help from his sister. Bill believed in overassigning, so he always had twice as much copy as there was space to fill. That was fine, because it gave him leeway to select and shape. All the editorials were gathered in a sheaf; the paragraphs were spread out, page by page, on the conference-room table and the counters of the bookshelves. Priscilla told him how many lines were available for “The Week.” Bill marked the total on his adding machine, a Swiss contraption that looked like a black pepper shaker. He made a final cut of the editorials, arranging them in order — foreign, domestic, offbeat — and noting the line count. Then he prowled the room, eliminating paragraphs by turning them facedown. Priscilla, who also had the power to kill a paragraph, did the same, calling out the length of each victim. As the losers fell by the wayside, Bill kept a running tally on his pepper shaker of how close he was to the final target. When he was within a line or two, he arranged the surviving paragraphs in the same order as the editorials, asking himself, “Where’s my lead?” as he did so. The lead paragraph had to be funny, sharp, startling; it was often written by Joe. The whole show, maybe 15 minutes long, was performance art, laying mosaic at the speed of hit-and-run. When he was done, he handed the batch to Priscilla and joined us for drinks, which appeared from a cabinet in the corner, or went off to his next gig.

Every magazine and newspaper holds conferences, and all of them edit, but I couldn’t imagine any doing it with such panache.

 – This article is adapted from Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement, forthcoming from Basic Books.

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

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