Fathers and Sons

June 6, 2009

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.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

William F. Buckley, Jr.

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.”

Richard Brookhiser.

Richard Brookhiser.

Robinson, on Hart

May 26, 2009

Peter Mark Robinson, a Stanford University research fellow, author, and television host, is currently a Trustee of Dartmouth College, from which he graduated in 1979. Mr. Robinson studied further at Oxford University before accepting positions as speechwriter to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush. Here is Mr. Robinson’s 2005 essay on Dartmouth professor emeritus of English Jeffrey Hart, himself often re-published here.

While John Steel was attempting a revolution here in Hanover, Ronald Reagan was starting one in Washington, and if you supposed the two had nothing in common, youd need to reconsider. A startling number of people served as firebrands in both. First, they used the pages of The Dartmouth Review to support John Steel’s efforts to turn Dartmouth upside down—or, rather, right side up. Then they used positions in the Reagan administration to help the fortieth chief executive do the same to the world.

At the Reagan White House, I wrote speeches for the President, Will Cattan ’83 wrote speeches for the Vice President, and Dinesh DSouza ’83 helped administer the Office of Domestic Policy. Within a few blocks, Gregory Fossedal ’81 held a senior position at the Department of Education, Benjamin Hart ’81 produced position papers for the Heritage Foundation, Michael Jones ’82 wrote speeches for the Secretary of the Treasury, and Laura Ingraham ’85 served as an assistant to the Secretary of Transportation. So many Dartmouth students went from the Reviewstraight to positions of responsibility in the nation’s capital that Sidney Blumenthal, a reporter for the Washington Post, composed an article about us in which he hinted darkly at some sort of conspiracy. (Blumenthal saw conspiracies everywhere. Known as “Sid Vicious,” in the nineteen-nineties he joined the Clinton staff and quickly earned a reputation as the most paranoid person in the White House. But still.)

How did this happen? How did so many twenty-somethings from an upstart student newspaper at a small college find ourselves working for the leader of the free world? Each of us would answer in the same two words: Jeffrey Hart.

From 1963 until his retirement three decades later, Jeffrey Hart taught English at Dartmouth. He also composed a weekly column that appeared in dozens of newspapers and wrote for the National Review, the conservative magazine founded by William F. Buckley, Jr. (Hart, who now lives in Lyme, continues to serve on the editorial board of National Review.) Generous with all his students, Hart proved a particular friend to conservatives. Often he would invite us to his Vermont farmhouse overlooking the Connecticut, where we would talk late into the night about literature and politics. It was during one of those sessions that Hart first suggested the establishment of an alternative, and conservative, student newspaper. During the Review’s early years, Hart helped the Review staff constantly, suggesting story ideas, writing for the newspaper himself, and helping to find legal assistance, and the money to pay for it, whenever the administration tried to shut the newspaper down.

Because Hart knew so many prominent conservatives—including Ronald Reagan himself, for whom Hart, taking a leave of absence from the College, had written speeches during the then-governor of California’s unsuccessful bid for President in 1968—he was able to help alumni of the Review land jobs in the administration. But none of us would have lasted if Hart hadn’t taught us a few critical lessons. Ill mention three. They helped those of us who went to Washington, but they also informed the founding of The Dartmouth Review—and continue to inform the Review to this day.

Lesson one: Never truckle.

Hart was famous for flouting campus orthodoxies. During the energy crisis of the early nineteen-seventies, for instance, Hart took to driving around Hanover in a second-hand Cadillac limousine; at a time when liberals were giving pious speeches about the need to conserve fossil fuels, Hart was lucky if he got eight miles to the gallon. The first time I set eyes on Hart, during a football game in Alumni Stadium, he was dressed in an ankle-length raccoon coat. After each touchdown he would reach deep into a shaggy pocket, pull out a hip flask, and take a celebratory swig. The austerity of the Carter years? Jeffrey Hart preferred the exuberance of the Jazz Age.

By defying opinion in Hanover, Hart showed those of us who would serve in the Reagan administration how to stick up for ourselves in Washington—and set an example of sweet outrageousness that you’ll still find in every issue of the Review.

Lesson two: Be serious.

This may seem an odd lesson to have learned from a man who was willing to appear in a raccoon coat, but Hart taught his students high seriousness.

I took my first course with Hart, a poetry survey, during freshman spring. Hart would enter the classroom, place a book on the lectern, open it, and begin to talk about a poem. No commentary on world affairs. No campus politics. Just the poem. If during the discussion period a student talked about the way the poem made him feel, Hart would return the attention of the class to the poem’s historical context, rhythm, or rhyme scheme. He wasn’t interested in the ability of 18-year-olds to emote. He was interested in the text. After two or three classes, this approach had its effect. Students began to emulate Hart by devoting concentrated attention to the act of reading.

The text—attend to the text.

For those of us in Washington, the text amounted to tax cuts, rebuilding our defenses, and renewing the nation’s pride in itself. We all did our share of larking at parties in Georgetown, of course. But none of us was cynical about the Reagan agenda. None of us treated politics as a game or saw his time in Washington as a career move. Jeffrey Hart taught us better.

As he taught The Dartmouth Review.

For students at the Review, the text amounts to the fundamental purposes of the College and the competence of the administration to achieve them. A quarter of a century ago, the Review more than any other publication asked searching questions about the College. Today the Review still asks the most searching questions. Just looking at the current issue as I write, the issue of June 2 presents a searing analysis of the College’s “hollow curriculum” and a tightly reasoned and utterly persuasive call for reform. High seriousness.

Lesson three: Have fun.

One of the most productive members of the faculty, Hart somehow always had plenty of leisure time. He would pop up at the tennis courts, watching the team practice while he puffed a pipe. (Hart’s pipe collection included a long-stemmed pipe he might as well have purchased from a leprechaun and an enormous calabash in the style of Sherlock Holmes.) During the summer, Hart would climb into his motorboat each morning, then roar down the Connecticut to town to pick up the New York Times. On the way back, he would cruise over to the Dartmouth dock and holler to the sunbathing students. If any of them wanted to water ski, Hart would toss out skis and a line, then spend an hour towing the students up and down the river.

Fight the political fight, Hart taught those of us who went to Washington, but never let it consume you. The same approach has informed the Review since it was founded. Pointed as its arguments often are, the Review remains catholic. It publishes the best book reviews on campus. It follows Dartmouth sports. It has fun.

As Jeffrey Hart himself used to say, “Life consists of more, thank God, than politics.”

William F. Buckley, Jr.: 1925 – 2008

April 24, 2009

In appreciative, if belated, memory of Mr. Right, William F. Buckley, Jr., for his commentary, writing, and personal example. It was my pleasure to meet him once, briefly, which meeting I took note of much more than he. But we’ve spoken since in his articles and books, and he’s almost always right.