Magazine | January 22, 2018, Issue

A Life in the Arena

Skirmishes, by Neal B. Freeman (National Review, 322 pp., $25)

Neal Freeman’s latest book is one of the most fun and informative reads I have had in recent years. Freeman has been one of the indispensable leaders of the American conservative movement for over half a century: He has had a tremendous impact and really deserves to be better known. Freeman’s erudition is such that he was, while still in his twenties, the editor of William F. Buckley Jr.’s columns. He managed WFB’s landmark New York City mayoral campaign in 1965; was the founding producer of Firing Line, Buckley’s TV interview program, which ran for 33 years; and served as  National Review’s Washington editor and correspondent. During the Reagan years, Freeman was director of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Skirmishes includes many of Freeman’s  National Review columns, as well as op-eds and essays that appeared over the past 40 years in The American Spectator, The Weekly Standard, and other publications. Some of the most appealing entries are his speeches to various opinion-leader audiences, and his incomparable introductions and obituaries of the likes of M. Stanton Evans, Brent Bozell, and Mark Levin.

“It was my good fortune,” writes Freeman, “to be the guy standing next to Bill Buckley when he became Bill Buckley.” A properly large share of the book is devoted to traveling in the stratospheric circles of WFB and his siblings and comrades. William F. Buckley Jr. worked nearly every day of his life, and sometimes it seems that Neal Freeman was around to chronicle as many quips and mots justes as could be put to memory, not to mention the countless persuasive and logically airtight polemics, spoken and written.

Freeman founded the Blackwell Corporation as a venue to produce television documentaries and other programs, but over the years he has diversified the enterprise to offer all sorts of business and personal consulting, including wealth management. One chapter in this book provides a “CliffsNotes” guide on how to buy a National Hockey League team and make it prosper.

There’s a lot of original thinking here, epitomized by Neal’s remarks to the Maine Heritage Policy Center. Maine, like most of its neighbors in the Northeast, has been suffering from a wealth-and-brain drain, as successful residents have moved to other climes, where wealth is taxed less and dollars go farther. Freeman’s solution: “Suppose we invited out-of-towners earning more than $250,000 a year to move to Maine, and, in return, we agreed to exempt them from the state income tax?” He then explains the salutary results to be expected from such a bold policy stroke.

As the tea-party movement gathered steam, Freeman authored his own ten-point platform, including “Cap government employee pay and benefits at private-sector comparables.” Also: “Pick a war and win it. Close down the other one.”

Neal knows an awful lot about a wide spectrum of public-policy issues, but he is perhaps most impressive in his knowledge of the philanthropic world and of what went wrong with it. More than a few entrepreneurs who benefited from America’s relatively free markets parked their wealth in foundations, intending to provide sustenance for mainstream causes, e.g., medical research, education, the capital needs of aspiring entrepreneurs, and other non-controversial missions. Freeman somberly documents how, time and again, succeeding generations of family members managed to turn a patriarch or matriarch’s eleemosynary intentions and dreams on their heads. (The best example might be the Ford Foundation.) “A recent study of U.S. philanthropy reported,” writes Freeman, “that foundations giving mostly to liberal causes held more assets than foundations giving mostly to conservative causes by a ratio of 17-to-1.”

But just as you get immersed in serious policy questions and prescriptions, Freeman induces smiles. He charges former New York “Luv Guv” Eliot L. Spitzer with “conducting interstate commerce,” and we learn that the counties surrounding Washington, D.C., are the wealthiest in the nation because “faux prosperity is generated the old-fashioned way, by state coercion.” A Maine friend is eulogized as a “foppish trustafarian.”  National Review publisher Bill Rusher was “a Goldwaterite down to the tips of his cordovans.”

Skirmishes will send most readers to the thesaurus, to divine the meanings of such Buckleyesque words as “heuristic,” “apodictic,” “lacuna,” and “synecdoche.” But Neal Freeman is no mere sesquipedalian. He demonstrates, with no I-told-you-so hectoring, that he is a man of principle. Serving on the  National Review board of directors for decades with great intellects he respected and admired, he nonetheless dissented from endorsing President George W. Bush’s 2003 war to topple the Saddam Hussein regime, even risking the “unpatriotic” label that is especially stinging to any conservative. Freeman lost friends of long standing, but his reasoning was well developed and enabled him to oppose the emerging consensus that coalesced on the NR board. He even predicted that no weapons of mass destruction would be found.

By being that “guy standing next to Bill Buckley,” Freeman became well versed in how much more effective honey is than vinegar in matters of rhetoric. After assessing a stream of speakers relying on insults at a recent Conservative Political Action Conference, he contrasted this style with that of the departed WFB, who was “obliged to beguile and persuade.” Buckley succeeded in gaining astounding influence during an era of monopoly liberal media; Freeman embraced the same axioms of persuasion.

Skirmishes is a thoroughly entertaining, principled, and enlightening book. To paraphrase Freeman’s own observations regarding Sarah Palin: I know him a little and like him a lot. Now 77, he still has a boyish appearance and manages Blackwell and his other endeavors with impressive energy and aplomb. I suspect he hasn’t reached his peak yet.

– Mr. Stupp was a member of New York City mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s cabinet and served in the administrations of Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

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