William F. Buckley, Jr., recently deceased conservative intellectual, is the subject of two new books by two different successors: Losing Mum and Pup, by his son Christopher, and Right Time, Right Place by his one-time heir-apparent Richard Brookhiser. The younger Buckley’s book is noted here previously; Brookhiser’s take on the man is largely devoid of Mum and Pup‘s sentiment and humanity, owing perhaps to its author’s eventual fall from grace within W. Buckley’s circle, but it’s a worthwhile read for its insider’s look at Buckley’s magazine, National Review, and for its unsparing portrait of the man himself.
Buckley, who famously declared he would rather be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the faculty of Harvard University, took Brookhiser under his wing as a young man, publishing Brookhiser’s first essay (defending American foreign policy in Vietnam) when its author was only 15 years old. Brookhiser wrote continuously for the magazine for the next decade or so, eventually putting off law school to join the staff of National Review at Buckley’s urging. Brookhiser alleges being offered Buckley’s editor-in-chief desk.
Right Time, Right Place charts Brookhiser’s rise and decline in the magazine, and in Buckley’s inner circle, with both admiration and pragmatism; he notes Buckley, who wrote more than 50 novels and over 4,000 columns, “took so many at-bats that it depressed his average.” But of “Firing Line,” the long-running political talk show Buckley hosted, Brookhiser is more admiring. Describing Buckley’s left-leaning guests, for whom the show was often their only media outlet and who often left eviscerated, Brookhiser writes: “Buckley gave them this opportunity only to try to beat them up. But he did give them the opportunity (honor comes only from victory over worthy opponents).”
Brookhiser’s future at National Review was cut short by a letter marked “confidential” left on his desk one day, in which Buckley had written, “It is now plain to me that you are not suited to serve as editor-in-chief of NR after my retirement. This sentence will no doubt have for a while a heavy effect on your morale, and therefore I must tell you that I have reached this conclusion irrevocably. You have no executive flair. It is not, really, desirable that I should document this, and I have kept no notebooks on the subject; but it simply is not there.”
Given his abrupt short-shrifting, Brookhiser’s book is surprising for its moments of warmth and overall admiration for his mentor. His reflects on moments which might have hurt his relationship with Buckley (a long memorandum critiquing Buckley’s spy novels harshly, and public disdain for Buckley’s brief Presidential aspirations), but then thaws, noting:
“What I did not realize about Bill’s novels, which did not work, or his run for the White House, which never happened, was that he wanted my good opinion almost as much as I wanted his. Because he was so powerful, and because I idealized him so, I wrongly assumed that he was invulnerable. Sons misunderstand their fathers as much as fathers misunderstand their sons.”