Editor’s note: This article is adapted from the book Skirmishes, just published by National Review Books.
Of Thanksgiving blessings, I have a surfeit.
He was also a bit of a hardbottom and was given to apodictic pronouncement. One night at dinner — I must have been 14 or 15 — he announced that there were only two colleges in the country worth the price of admission, Harvard and Yale. If I could get into one of them, he would pay my way. It was the kind of conversation that can concentrate the mind. When a few years later I brought home my acceptance letters, he seemed less excited than I was, but he paid the fare. A deal was a deal.
My Mom was the perfect complement — gentle, literate, even bookish, loving not only to family and friends but indiscriminately so to animals. She held a special attraction for the lame and the halt, and I had to wait until I had a home of my own to get a four-legged dog.
If I chose my parents well, I chose my early bosses brilliantly. My first real boss was a fellow named William F. Buckley Jr. He was an extraordinary man, and in the pages of Skirmishes I record an insider’s account of some of his more extraordinary feats.
I learned much from Bill Buckley, most importantly that I should make a few demands on life. My WASPy parents had neglected to tell me that I could forgive myself for being ambitious and for pursuing my goals without apology.
Soon after I went to work for Bill in 1963, I came to share his opinion that the world was in need of improvement and that, with everybody else either unable or unwilling to do the necessary, he should take up the assignment himself. Over the next 45 years, I made myself available at almost every invitation to play a supporting role in the Buckley Program for World Improvement. Whatever the gentile form of chutzpah may be, we were both well stocked with it.
It was a big job — changing the world, that is — and it required the full attention even of William F. Buckley Jr., who worked seven long days a week for most of his 82 years. Along the way, I was introduced to some of his uptown tastes — good wine, great music, a home at the shore, ocean sailing, and the other accoutrements of the well-upholstered life. When I got married, I followed the advice of my insurance agent and forswore three of life’s most actuarially perilous activities: smoking cigarettes, riding motorcycles, and sailing with Bill Buckley. But it’s probably fair to say that Bill dazzled me with his neon appeals of money, power, and fame. Over time, I learned that I could do without the fame. Of money and power, though, I asked John Kerry’s question about the huntin’ and fishin’ licenses: Where can I get me some?
It was a big job — changing the world, that is — and it required the full attention even of William F. Buckley Jr., who worked seven long days a week for most of his 82 years.
It was no secret that Bill craved fame. One of the happiest moments of his life popped its cork when I reported, courtesy of a well-placed source, that he would soon appear on the cover of Time magazine. He fairly bounced with pleasure and it was impossible not to enjoy his enjoyment. Later, after he became a television host and the celebrated leader of a burgeoning political movement, there would be many occasions for such enjoyment. But I soon got a glimpse of the cost of fame, too.
In the 1970s, Bill published the first of a series of Blackford Oakes spy novels, Saving the Queen. He was traveling abroad on publication date and asked me to collect the first batch of reviews. When he called in for a recap, I read him the first seven or eight, every one of which reviewed the author in fine detail while virtually ignoring the book itself. How remarkable it was, they all said in one formulation or another, to see a right-wing polemicist writing a novel! How clever! How cute!
Bill was crestfallen. He had poured his considerable energies into the book, hoping to pull off a literary coup on the order of a John le Carré, or at least a Constantine Fitzgibbon. Instead, he was in the eyes of the critics no more than a dog walking on its hind legs. Bill had been trapped by a fame from which he would never really escape. Ever the tactician, he plowed ahead with the Oakes books for some years, writing them for diversion and money but with all hopes abandoned for literary acclaim.
My second boss taught me other things. William Randolph Hearst Jr. was the oldest of five sons of “The Chief,” William Randolph Hearst Sr., who had been to the 20th century what Rupert Murdock, multiplied to the fifth power, is to the 21st. The Hearst Corporation published magazines, books, and newspapers, operated radio and television stations, produced television and motion-picture programming, and owned huge tracts of real estate, including a stretch of 100 uninterrupted miles of California coastline. (And that was all before an investment in a little television property called ESPN.) When I was there, the Hearst Corporation was one of the largest privately held companies in the world and there were few cities of consequence that did not host at least one Hearst outpost — a headquarters building, a penthouse apartment, a downtown office, even, here and there, a castle. The Chief had a thing for castles.
Bill Hearst Jr. traveled in imperial style and touched down only rarely on non-Hearst-occupied territory. And he was wondrously well connected. Running into each other one day in the lobby of a Buenos Aires hotel, we found that we would both be speaking at the same conference that afternoon. Bluff and gregarious, Bill pulled me aside and said, “Come up to the suite about seven. I’ll find some interesting people and we’ll make a dinner of it.” That evening I found myself seated between the foreign minister and the publisher of the country’s largest newspaper, and directly across the table from an actress billed not implausibly as “the Elizabeth Taylor of Argentina.”
Bill Hearst taught me most of what I know about how the world works. He allowed me to see up close how doors could be opened and relationships could be built and deals could be cut. With his encouragement, his associates taught me the basics of business development — deal structure, the pace and sequence of negotiation, and the salience of that mother of all investment tools, capital allocation.
About fame, I learned two things from Bill: First, that it was cheap, and second, that it was expensive. The Hearst publicity machine, with its global reach and in-house media power, was a thing of marvel. Over the years Bill and I minted celebrities by the dozen — household names that I will gallantly omit for the reason that we promoted all of them well beyond their abilities. (If we’d known what to do with them afterward, we’d have created our own passel of Kardashians.) As a young man still shaping his career in soft clay, I saw both how easy it was to become famous and how hard it was to reclaim obscurity.
Bill Hearst himself was Example A. He was a bright, innovative executive and a fearless, story-chasing journalist. He won his Pulitzer, basically, by barging into Nikita Khrushchev’s office in the Kremlin at a key moment during the Cold War. There may have been three other reporters in the world, tops, who could have pulled that off. If Bill’s name had been William Randolph, he would likely have carved out a lustrous and satisfying career for himself. But lugging around that megatonic surname was a burden, and it wore him down.
I am deeply indebted to both Bills, Buckley and Hearst. Without them I never would have been able to assemble the resources or find the nerve to chase my own entrepreneurial dreams.
Then there were the publishers of my favorite, blue-bordered magazine, the first five of whom became cherished friends. Michael Mooney may never have carried the title of NR publisher, but he carried most of the responsibilities, the most onerous of which was advertising sales. Selling a right-wing magazine to epicene Madison Avenue types was always a hand-over-hand climb up the sheer face of a wintry mountain. Mike plugged along doggedly, cheerfully, and, now and again, successfully. Then came William A. Rusher, who may not have known much about publishing but knew everything there was to know about politics and most of what was worth knowing about life itself. Bill became one of my closest friends, and I hope the portrait included in Skirmishes captures his Rusherian essence.
Wick Allison then served briefly but brilliantly, importing a badly needed sense of professionalism to our scruffy cast of publishing irregulars. Wick was followed by the legendary Edward Capano. Eddie started early — about the same time I did — and stayed for a lifetime, devoting his entire career to the magazine and the cause it serves. Then came Jack Fowler, who has earned affection from the NR family of writers and editors by demonstrating a generous respect for the people who built the institution. I look forward to working with Garrett Bewkes, named earlier this year as the next man up.
Together, these men have performed an act of prestidigitation. For more than 60 years, they have levitated a journal of opinion. Talk about an extraordinary feat.
Every single time I or anybody else published a piece in NR, Bill Buckley would send a handwritten thank-you note.
I am indebted, as well, to the three editors of National Review, who over the last 54 years have spared me embarrassment, ridicule, physical assault, legal retribution, and public shaming. But nobody’s perfect. Despite their best efforts, I managed to muddy myself in multiple skirmishes.
For writers, talking about your editors is like talking about your old girlfriends. They all had their strong points and they all knew your weak points. Bill Buckley, who had been my editor when I was a kid editorial writer and then a Washington correspondent, hired me in three different decades to write a column for NR (the first time as Cato, the next two under my own name). Each time, I left to do something that seemed more important at the time. Each time, Bill said I was making a mistake; each time, dammit, he was right. I regained some of that lost ground when, years later, I became the editor of his syndicated newspaper column. I will confess that morning coffee never tasted better than when I would catch him misstating a fact or misquoting a source. That was a nice feeling. And on those rare occasions when the famously sesquipedalian columnist would ask me the meaning of an unfamiliar word? That was an even nicer feeling. I think they call it a frisson.
Every single time I or anybody else published a piece in NR, Bill Buckley would send a handwritten thank-you note. An editorial, a column, a feature article, even a book review would elicit a few words of appreciation inscribed on a blue notecard. What an exquisitely gracious gesture! Bill knew what all writers know, namely, that whenever you express your thoughts in a public forum, you’re taking a risk. You’re exposed. You’re vulnerable. Those little blue missives were Bill’s way of saying that he had your back, and by making those gestures he emboldened three generations of tentative scribblers. (I know writers who saved every one of those notecards, as if they were classic collectibles autographed by Honus Wagner or Stan Musial.)
John O’Sullivan had the difficult job of following Buckley and the impossible job of becoming the leading voice of American conservatism while speaking in an unmistakably foreign accent. With wit and wisdom and a bit of British pluck, John pulled it off. As his plummy accent fell more and more gently on the ear, we began to think of him as thoroughly American, hailing perhaps from an anglophiliac enclave somewhere in the upper Midwest.
John’s editorial style differed from Bill’s by approximately 180 degrees. While Bill edited heavily on a line-by-line basis — leaving the occasional writer smoldering over what he deemed to be a “rewriting” — John would involve himself deeply in discussion of the story and then leave point-to-point navigation almost entirely to the writer.
John discontinued the blue notecards, but once or twice a year he would send an elegant letter, suitable for framing, expressing his gratitude for hard work and valued product. All writers need that balm. The letters would arrive just in time, and the honest if unspoken response was frequently, ”Thanks, I needed that.”
NR’s third editor, only 48 years old today but thoroughly blooded in the ideological wars, is Rich Lowry. A child of the digital era, Rich probably works no harder than Bill or John, but he clearly works faster. His style is terse and telegraphic and he tends to force the pace of his analog-bound colleagues. Such as, to pick a random example, me.
Happily for NR and for those who depend on it for ideological sustenance, Rich is tanned, rested, and ready for the challenge ahead. While Bill Buckley helped to design and build the conservative movement and John O’Sullivan helped to maintain it, it falls to Rich Lowry to reassemble and redirect it following the electoral pile-up of 2016.
It was also my good luck to know and befriend most of the “founding fathers” of post-war conservativism. Not just Buckley and Rusher, but Willmoore Kendall, Frank Meyer, Russell Kirk, John Chamberlain, James Burnham, and Brent Bozell. These were the men who made a movement and I am grateful for the privilege of having worked beside them. Here and there in my book, I particularize my gratitude to some of these men. In hindsight, I see that I should have written about all of them. My only excuse is that, at the time, they seemed to be friends and colleagues more than historical figures.
It was also my good luck to know and befriend most of the ‘founding fathers’ of post-war conservativism.
I also wish to salute the “second generation” of conservative leaders, the men and women who came along behind the founding fathers and signed on to our cause with scant prospect of personal gain; indeed, many of them scrambled aboard our rickety ship just about the time it became comprehensively uninsurable. Here are a few of the people I met and admired, either aboard the good ship NR or at one of her customary ports of call: Linda Bridges. Randy Richardson. John Coyne (who, though a hell of a speechwriter, wisely saved the best stuff for himself). Chris Symonds. Les Lenkowsky. Al Regnery. Roger Moore (who should have been chairman of every board, not just NR’s). Geoff Kelly. Keith Mano (who even in WFB’s company stood out as a dazzling writer). Lawry Chickering. Daniel Oliver. Evan Galbraith (I was always torn. Was Van the nicest man in the world? Or was it Jim Buckley? I attempt an adjudication below.). Carol Dawson. William Rickenbacker (whose picture appears in most standard dictionaries next to the word “polymath”). Tom Pauken. Aram Bakshian. Mike Uhlmann. Stanley Goldstein (who, in moments of character-testing, never blinked). George Gilder. Frances Bronson. Neil McCaffrey. Joe Donner (who was on the NR board when I arrived and was still there when I departed 38 years later — our own Cal Ripken). Arlene Croce. Dusty Rhodes. Mike Thompson. Marvin Liebman. Rose Flynn (who paid the bills, some of them on time). John Von Kannon. Kate O’Beirne (whom I hired into the conspiracy, child-labor laws to the contrary notwithstanding). Tom Winter. David Jones (who was one of our more indefatigable plot-hatchers). Jeff Bell. Peter Lawson-Johnston. Jim Piereson. Tony Dolan. Pat Korten (who made my films sound better than they were). Paul Gigot. Emmy Lewis. Christopher Buckley (who could write a little bit himself). Dick Allen. Allan Ryskind. Ross Mackenzie. Dan Peters. Rich Vigilante (who, it was conceded, had the best right-wing byline of all time). Larry Kudlow. Lee Edwards. Dino Pionzio (who was the spy who loved us). Dan Mahoney. Mona Charen. Stan Evans (whose death left an almost WFB-sized hole in our ranks). Morton Blackwell. Irving Kristol (who became my foxhole buddy in the public-broadcasting wars). Jay Parker. Rick Brookhiser (who was, and is, a humongous talent). Agatha Schmidt. Craig Shirley. Diana Bannister. Jim Roberts. Ed Feulner (who made a habit of leaving large footprints). Fred Barnes. Mike Hodin. Jim McFadden (who discovered in the Constitution a right to live. Who knew?). Ron Docksai. Rob Sennott (who could sell space heaters to Costa Ricans). Don Lambro. Richard Viguerie (who became my most faithful correspondent). Bob Tyrrell. Brent Bozell III (who, when he turns 87, will still be “young Brent” to me). Jameson Campaigne. Joe Sobran (who, like Frank, did it his way). Phil Terzian. Priscilla Buckley (who, like Ronnie, kept the peace through strength). Wlady Pleszczynski. Ed Meese (the only man to whom I gave a proxy with no time stamp). And Patsy Buckley, the one and only Mrs. WFB (who was inducted into the Freeman Hall of Fame after saying loudly of Dr. Kissinger’s postprandial remarks at an NR dinner, “Henry, you’re making no sense at all. Thank God we’ve got Neal here to straighten this out.”).
I append to that last paragraph a blanket apology. I have no doubt whatsoever that, the day after this article is posted, I will think of a dozen other must-have names, slap my forehead, and, fumbling for a pertinent Buckley aperçu, blurt out instead, “How could I be so [deleted] stupid?” Sorry.
Penultimately, and con brio, I wish to thank my three sources of ongoing pride, accomplished adults who have in recent years transformed me in their respective pastures into Mac’s Dad, James’s Dad, and Kate’s Dad. I thank them, in turn, for my nine sources of ongoing pleasure — Will, Lily, Neal, James, Denver Jack, Jane, Harry, Jersey Jack and Hank the Deuce. I have seen the future of America and she works.
Lastly, I inscribe here, and with ink serving as a thin substitute for blood, my gratitude to the former Jane Metze, who in a rash moment more than a half-century ago agreed to have me and hold me. After every skirmish, she patched me up and got me back in the game.
Addendum. My live-in editor thinks I should tie up that loose end about fame. I hasten to comply, as always. Reviewing the long record, it seems clear that I made the right choice in opting for obscurity. I’ve been able to move seamlessly from career to career, venture to venture, without the impediment of hard expectation — not to mention being able to move from airport to airport without getting punched in the nose, a luxury that WFB never fully enjoyed.
I align myself with Bishop Wright, who once told his high-flying sons that he had discerned in fame “the emptiness of its trumpet blasts.” (It would appear, alas, that both Orville and Wilbur ignored this sound advice.) The only times I’ve second-guessed my decision were when I thought — rarely, and fleetingly — to run for public office, and the political gatekeepers would ask me, quite reasonably, “Who the hell are you?” Among many more-important questions, perhaps Skirmishes will answer that one, too.
Adjudication. A true story about Evan (Van) Galbraith, who was a college buddy of WFB’s and a longtime director of National Review, Inc. Shortly after he had assumed the post of U.S. ambassador to France, and possibly after a glass or three of champagne, Van uncorked a splenetic anti-Communist rant that won full-throated favor from the rightwardmost fringe of the NR constituency. It was less well received along the fashionable boulevards of Paris and Rome, and even less so along the drab byways of Bonn. The diplomatic world commenced to flutter. Had the new ambassador just gone rogue — or was he in fact speaking for the nuclear cowboy in the White House? (Ronald Reagan may have been asking himself that very same question.)
Sensing both a scoop and a chance to help a friend — and thus for good and sufficient reasons, respectively — I flew to Paris to do a long-form interview with Van for PBS. The embassy was virtually under siege and we agreed to meet at the residence, which was an elegant home in a city full of elegant homes. As we ascended the staircase to the public rooms on the second floor, my production assistant, who had experienced a difficult transoceanic passage, lost her airline breakfast. I’m not suggesting a spot of intestinal distress. I’m talking about a national park-level geyser that splashed across the white marble landing and up the wall reserved for the Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington. The Ambassador, without breaking stride, said to me sotto voce, “Reminds me of our days in New Haven,” even as he directed an aide not to throw his body in front of the Stuart painting, as I would have done, but to attend to my embarrassed assistant, who was soon receiving medical attention that would have been more than adequate for the dinner guest expected later that evening, the prime minister of France.
Excepting always the pockmarked and morally execrable Communists, as Van might have described them in a relaxed moment, America’s genial new envoy won lots of new friends for the mother country. But would Jim Buckley have won even more? The Jim Buckley who had served as best man at five different weddings? The Jim Buckley to whom all nine of his disputatious siblings turned for quiet counsel in times of trouble? The Jim Buckley whom an exhaustive oppo-research investigation revealed to have no — repeat, no — enemies? Well, that, my friends, would be one tough call.
— Neal B. Freeman is a former editor and columnist for National Review and the founding producer of Firing Line.