William F. Buckley's Flip-Flop
Buckley tapped Richard Brookhiser as the editor of National Review before pulling the rug out from under him. In an excerpt from his new book, Brookhiser describes the crushing moment.
One summer day in 1987 I came back to my desk after lunch and found a surprising letter. It was from Bill, and the envelope was marked “Confidential.” “It is by now plain to me [it began] 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 heavy effect on your morale, and therefore I must at once tell you that I have reached conclusion irrevocably…”
Had Bill found his own routine, at cruising speed and in overdrive, asphyxiative?
I have a distinct memory of taking this letter home and tearing it up. I even remember throwing the pieces into the round wooden wastebasket in our living room. Yet as I began writing this book I found it, in a bulging folder of letters, photographs, and birthday cards (my equivalent of a filing system). I know it is the original because it has a correction in Bill’s red ink. Sometimes we repress memories, sometimes we create them.
The letter made three points. The first was my unfitness to be editor. “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 …. You do not have executive habits, you do not have an executive turn of mind, and I would do you no service, nor NR, by imposing it on you.”
The second point was the turn of mind Bill thought I did have. “What you have is a very rare talent, so rare that I found it not only noticeable but striking when you were very young… You will go down in history as a very fine writer, perhaps even a great 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.”
A third point, weaving in an out of the other two, was of less interest to me at the time, though I glimpsed it even then: Bill was using the opportunity of writing to me to write to himself about himself. “Some activities one naturally inclines to, others are diversions, and some of these can become asphyxiative. [It would be wrong to regret] not having executive pizzazz when the alternative is, in your case, so much to be preferred.” Had Bill found his own routine, at cruising speed and in overdrive, asphyxiative? His talents had been striking when he was very young; the world had certainly noticed them. Did he feel they had been misused?
He concluded by asking me to think about all this “for a week of so… There is a lot of time, in your case, a blessed lifetime.”
My first reaction, and my second, third and fourth, was the howl of pain. But who could I talk to for actual advice?
I talked, of course, with Jeanne. “For richer, for poorer,” I said brightly. I shared the news with only one of my conservative friends, Rich Vigilante. He was loyal. His wife, Susan, who is Irish, was equally loyal, with a welcome admixture of aggression. Italians are said to be good at getting even; the Irish say, "The hell with that, let’s get mad."
I could not have spoken to Bill immediately even if I wished because he was out of town. I went instead to see Bill Rusher. He had been told what was coming, and he was familiar with Buckley’s habits when it came to lowering the boom. Buckley typically did these jobs by letter, or passed them on to his publisher. Once, in the early days of his tenure, Rusher had had to fire an accountant at Buckley’s orders. Then too Buckley was out of town; the woman took it rather hard, and said through her tears that “if Mr. Buckley was here,” it wouldn’t have happened. Rusher asked me if I had thought of a response; I hadn’t. He was concerned to play the endgame as best as possible for my benefit. Think of an answer soon, he advised, “before Buckley decides to consult his 50 closest friends.”
I settled on a cover story for myself: Realizing that I did not have enough time to write, I had decided to step down as managing editor and work at the magazine only part-time. I peddled this story to my friends and colleagues. My supposed motive was untrue, but I carried conviction because I was accurately describing what I intended to do.
Despite Rusher’s fears that Bill might be indiscreet, the secret was well kept. Jeff didn’t know; Pat didn’t know. My apologies to everyone, living and dead, for my deceptions. I imagined that my new plans caused some talk in right-world, but I did not want to know about it; that would have been a distraction in my present state of mind.
My state of mind was kept unsettled by one odd, but characteristic, codicil of Bill’s letter. He felt some compunction about luring me from law school in 1978, he wrote, and the earthly paradise of a plump job. He tried to assuage it by proposing to guarantee the salary I had earned as managing editor for five years. His guarantee was not simple, however, because he also proposed to deduct a portion of what I might earn as a freelancer above and beyond the subsidized salary. It was peonage disguised as a payoff, or vice versa.
My eyes glaze over even now as I try to make sense of it. My counteroffer was simpler: You should feel compunction, so give me a lump sum. He wouldn’t do that; I wouldn’t take his tricked-out subsidy. This back-and-forth went on for a week or two, entirely by memo, after he came back to town; I was as leery of confrontation as he was. In the end I simply went part-time and took a pay cut.