- The Washington Times - Monday, June 8, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

RIGHT TIME, RIGHT PLACE: COMING OF AGE WITH WILLIAM F. BUCKLEY JR. AND THE CONSERVATIVE MOVEMENT

By Richard Brookhiser

Basic Books, $27.50, 272 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

George Nash, in his review of a book Linda Bridges and I co-authored, wrote, “In recent years books about National Review have become a cottage industry. … This wave is no effusion of nostalgia. National Review is now regarded as the most influential political magazine of the past half-century. And who knows its history better than those who made it?”

This latest chapter in that history comes from a solid journalist and fine writer who played a central role at the magazine through much of its conservative ascendancy, producing strong articles and editorials and rising rapidly, albeit unconventionally, through the managerial ranks.

When he was 14, Richard Brookhiser wrote an article on antiwar protests at his high school in Irondequoit, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. He sent it to National Review. It was accepted and ran as a cover story in early 1970. After high school came Yale, an internship at National Review and then full-time employment at the magazine in 1977.

In 1978, after Mr. Brookhiser completed a 20,000-word series on the District, William F. Buckley Jr. took him to lunch. “We sat, we ordered. Bill came to the point. He had decided, he said, that I would succeed him as editor in chief of National Review when it came time for him to retire. Bill owned all the stock in the company; that would then become mine. He would roll the news out gradually. I would have to become senior editor, in a year or so; later I would serve as managing editor.” A stunning proposal. “Bill was fifty-two on the day we had lunch … on the early side to start thinking of successors, though not absurdly so. What was incredible was he should think of a twenty-three-year old, ten months out of college.”

In February 1979, in an issue dedicated to nuclear power (it appeared a month before the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor accident), there was this announcement: “The editing of this issue is substantially the diligent and ingenious work of Richard Brookhiser, who wrote his first article for National Review in 1970. He was then 14 years old. … The editors of National Review take great pride and pleasure in announcing his election as a Senior Editor. At age 23, he considers himself a late achiever. - WFB.”

In 1985, with the announced retirement of Priscilla Buckley, by far the best - and prettiest - managing editor in New York, the job was given, as promised, to Mr. Brookhiser (instead of to Linda Bridges, Priscilla Buckley’s able protege). After two years on the job, however, Mr. Brookhiser returned from lunch to find a letter from Mr. Buckley on his desk. It read, in part: “It is by now plain to me that you are not suited to serve as editor-in-chief after my retirement. … You have no executive flair. … You do not have executive habits, you do not have an executive frame of mind, and I would do you no service, nor NR, by imposing it on you.”

The blow, unexpected, hit hard, although Mr. Brookhiser realizes, as he writes, that there had been hints. Less appreciated at the time was Mr. Buckley’s amplification: “What you have is a very rare talent … You will go down in history as a very fine writer. … Nothing would distract you more greatly from realizing that achievable dream than to struggle as executive director of a small, however important, magazine of opinion which you can best continue to serve as a writer.”

That badly wounded his pride, to be sure, but in the end, it was beneficial. At precisely the right moment, when his career could have dead-ended, Mr. Buckley pushed him (not quite gently) out of the nest while leaving him a lifeline to NR as senior editor and contributor. His Bill Buckley/NR association gave him entree into the New York publishing world.

He spread his wings, tentatively at first, and found he could fly; his pieces soon appeared in numerous high-end publications, among them the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times, the New Yorker and Vanity Fair.

In 1996, he published “Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington,” a book that Joseph J. Ellis wrote belonged “on the same shelf with Plutarch.” Other biographies of the Founders followed. He wrote and hosted a PBS documentary on George Washington, served as historian curator of a New York Historical Society Alexander Hamilton exhibit, received an honorary doctorate from Washington College and in 2008 was awarded the National Humanities Medal.

Not bad for a precocious kid from Irondequoit, N.Y. True, he didn’t become editor-in-chief of National Review. But we can’t all be cowboys. Bill Buckley’s push out of the nest enabled him, on balance, to accomplish a great deal more.

Toward the end of this book, discussing “Founding Father,” he agrees: “Bill was right. I could not have written this book while editing National Review. Washington and his world were … far too compelling to be done after hours.”

In all, this is a beautifully written book, rich in character and anecdote, with good political reporting and a dispassionate account of Mr. Brookhiser’s bout with cancer, which he handled bravely and with grace. Above all, though, it’s about a young man’s education and his teacher.

On the occasion of Bill Buckley’s retirement, Mr. Brookhiser writes that at a dinner given by Henry Kissinger and attended by Bill’s “younger colleagues,” R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. proposed a toast, and Mr. Brookhiser rose to deliver it. Among his remarks: “Bill, you are the father of the conservative movement, and so in a way of everyone in this room.”

Perhaps, at times, father does know best.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.

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