When Bill Buckley died last week, the assistant to a famous New York editor phoned. ”I’m so sorry,” she said softly. ”I know it must be very sad and chaotic over there.” I was a bit befuddled by her description of the office, which didn’t seem any less ebullient than usual. ”Yes, it’s quite chaotic,” I fumbled. Apparently misinterpreting my confusion for sorrow, she asked, ”Can you help my boss get into the memorial service?”
She had, of course, committed a common opinion-journalism faux pas, the same one that the Boston Herald repeated with its obituary headline, WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY, NEW REPUBLIC FOUNDER, 82. (Buckley was an undeniable wunderkind, but that would have been quite a feat given the 94-year history of TNR.) While we at TNR mourn the passing of a great man, we were prepared for the confusion that his death produced. Over the years, we’ve fielded many calls from novice TV bookers and Buckley fans who’ve reached the wrong magazine. Some of these admirers were quite adamant that Buckley worked in our office, as if our demurrals were simply a way of protecting the privacy of our eminence: Well, I know that he isn’t quite as hands-on with the editing these days, but I’d still greatly appreciate a moment of his time.
I, for one, have never gone out of my way to compound this misapprehension by posing as a writer for the National Review. But I haven’t always disabused the impression that I work for the other TNR, either. It can be a great boon while reporting. When interviewing the grassroots of the conservative moment at, say, a Christian Coalition Road to Victory conference or a gathering of the College Republicans, I’ve found myself occasionally swept into the sweet embrace of comradeship. ”Oh, what’s David Frum really like?” When I reply that I consider him to be a gentleman, the filters that might normally preclude honest conversation with representatives of the mainstream media are lifted.
APPRECIATIONS OF BUCKLEY TYPICALLY MENTION his polemical skills, his adoration of language, and his ideological contribution. But he’s never given much credit as an editor. The rap on Buckley’s magazine was that it served as a self-promotional vehicle on the road to television, a quixotic mayoral bid, and the creation of a persona, or, to put it less charitably, a personality cult. But anyone who has journeyed into the stacks to read the first decade of the magazine knows that this is a profoundly unfair assault. You can quibble with the man’s politics--or even abhor them--and still admire the magazine he produced.
When National Review arrived on the scene, opinion journalism was in the dumps. The so-called ”little magazines”--Commentary, Partisan Review--sprouted morally serious, intellectually heavy essays. But The Nation and The New Republic were the dreary ”fellow traveler of the fellow traveler,” as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. put it. During the early ’50s, The Nation and The New Republic seriously considered merging, there was so little space between them. The new magazine would have been ponderously and unpromisingly called The Nation and New Republic.
Buckley immediately livened up this grim field. There are several memoirs of the early days at NR. My favorite is Garry Wills’s Confessions of a Conservative. The book opens with Wills, a young ex-seminarian, lying in the bottom bunk of a scorching dorm at Xavier University. Wills had never published before, but he sent a parody of Time magazine to Buckley on a whim. When the phone rings, it is Buckley raving about his submission and inviting Wills to New York. What follows is an intoxicating daylong tour of the NR offices, where he meets some of the most eminent conservative intellectuals of the day--James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and John Chamberlain. With his typical nonchalance, Buckley thrusts Wills into this milieu. ”To me, after the enforced somnolence of seminary days, he seemed a one-man version of Front Page,” Wills writes. And, by the time he leaves to have dinner with Buckley, he has been installed as the magazine’s drama critic.
Wills wasn’t Buckley’s only impulsive hire. And he wasn’t NR’s only writer to bolt the ghetto of conservative journalism for literary celebrity: Joan Didion, Renata Adler, Guy Davenport, Arlene Croce, and John Leonard all passed through NR’s pages in its early days. And, in retrospect, that’s not terribly shocking. As my colleague John B. Judis has noted in his terrific biography of Buckley, ecumenicism and, to some degree, cosmopolitanism defined the early NR. Stylistically, Buckley borrowed heavily from the London Spectator, as well as Mencken’s old American Mercury. (There was a reason that Wills thought he could publish his parody there and that Morrie Ryskind, who wrote for the Marx Brothers, was a contributor.) And, although NR self-consciously set out to create a movement, it didn’t tamp down internal debate. Indeed, those intramural spats--Burnham arguing with Frank Meyer arguing with Kendall--provided the magazine with the intellectual tension that keeps readers coming back.
It takes a remarkable temperament to make a magazine from scratch and then surrender its pages to the creative destruction of real intellectual work. Here’s how Wills describes Buckley’s role in this firmament:
Though the most forceful person in NR’s office, he seemed to have less desire for egotistical display than all the others, not competing with editorial prima donnas; rather, flattering them all; baffling with kindness. I could see a man truly serving something outside himself when he did not (often) need to.
As I reread Wills’s book alongside Buckley’s obituaries, I felt like Buckley’s acumen as a magazine man had been given short shrift.
LIKE MANY MAGAZINE EDITORS, I dreamed of corresponding with Buckley. And, when an e-mail from him surprisingly appeared in my inbox, I felt the rush of flattery that Wills experienced back in Cincinnati. Several years earlier, I had written an article on Skull and Bones, the Yale secret society to which he belonged. And, now, Buckley seemed to recall that piece, forwarding an article on Bones plucked from an obscure website that he had encountered.
In his subsequent e-mails, this Bones motif recurred. Several months later, he wrote, ”Have you eer looked in Internet under S and B???????VERY interesting!” Well, he had a patrician disregard for spelling. But, following his suggestion, I spent a pleasant afternoon chasing his secret society across Google and falling into a warren of conspiracy sites.
I was thoroughly enjoying Buckley’s missives until I received the following: ”This is an invitation by Bill and Pat Buckley to the single party-event for their season. We are inviting l5 people. If you do not come, you will ruin Chmas for us.” As our epistolary relationship unfolded, I had begun to suspect that he had mistaken me for someone else. When he said that I might ruin his Christmas, I was sure that was the case. I was tormented by the embarrassment this created. How do you tell a member of a secret society, not to mention one of the giants of American political history, that he has unwittingly spilled the beans to you? Aren’t Bonesmen supposed to leave the room when confronted with their membership in the conclave? He must have considered my note declining his kind invitation extraordinarily strange. I never heard from him again.
Franklin Foer is the editor of The New Republic. This article appeared in the March 26, 2008 issue of the magazine.