I will declare my bias up front: Richard Brookhiser is one of my favorite writers. He hits the sweet spot with me; writing about politics, culture, and history with equal skill and insight. There is a sharpness to his writing but at the same time a calmness; an ability to write about the details of the here and now but also keep history in mind.
So it is not surprising that when his latest book (Right Time, Right Place) came out I cleared the decks and read it. Add in the fact that it is about William F. Buckley, National Review, and the history of the conservative movement, and it was a must read for me. Look for my review later today.
As an added bonus, Brookhiser generously agreed to an email Q&A to discuss the book, his career, and the conservative movement. (Questions in Bold)
Had you always planned to write about your experience at NR, with WFB, and conservatism after Buckley’s passing? How did this book come about?
I knew I wanted to write about my years with WFB. Death was the wake-up call: now you must get this done. I spoke to my agent, Michael Carlisle, who said, write a proposal, and I remember thinking: It’s on.
Was there ever a moment where you thought I shouldn’t write this; or I shouldn’t make it this personal?
I never doubted writing the book, which I owed to WFB, myself, and the history I lived through. If you don’t want to be personal, you should not write memoir (you will also have a lot of trouble living, but that’s another matter).
Were you worried that some would see it as a cheap shot at WFB (as some have done in comparing to Christopher’s book)?
Right Time, Right Place is a book about love—what it is, what it feels like, how it can go wrong, how you save it. Readers who can’t understand that should go back to Dan Brown.
You famously – and perhaps annoyingly by now – had your first cover story at NR at the age of 14. When you first started actually working for the magazine what was the most challenging aspect of the job?
I so liked writing and editing that they felt challenging only as I suppose a horseman feels a good gallop on a fine day is challenging. Handling WFB’s correspondence with the mad and with prisoners was hard—the former because they were pitiable, the latter because they struck me as dishonest and manipulative.
What was it like coming from upstate to New York City? At what point did you feel like NYC was your home?
I came from Irondequoit, a suburb of Rochester, and my parents came from the Mohawk Valley. We in upstate New York perhaps dislike the city more than anyone else in America, since we are cobbled into the same state with it. But in a year I was a convert. I still love upstate, and my wife and I have a weekend house in Ulster County. But the city is the omphalos.
You have been involved in conservative journalism through a number of electoral cycles and presidents (from Carter to Reagan, from Clinton to Bush to Obama). Do you think conservatives do better when out of power or were Reagan’s terms, for example, the golden age?
We do best for the country and for the world when we put good ideas into practice. Reagan brought the economy out of stagflation, and set the Soviet Union on the road to ruin. George W. Bush was much less conservative, but he took the Terror War to the jihadists, and liberated millions of Afghans and Iraqis. Such achievements have to be prepared by work beforehand, including wilderness years.
What do you think was the strength of NR under WFB? Its weakness?
NR under WFB was lively, varied and authoritative. It explored ideas, made you laugh, and laid down the law. One of the ways WFB achieved this was by publishing a stable of columnists—James Burnham, Russell Kirk, Frank Meyer—but as the A team aged or died off, that format begged to be retired, which is what John O’Sullivan did.
You were an English major who wrote about politics and have become a writer of historical biographies. What, if anything, do you feel unifies your career?
It all revolves around language and the world.
I was struck by how many sharp aphorisms are in this book (funny, pointed, illuminating, descriptive, etc.) and your books have none of the denseness of much history. Does this style come from reporting and only having so much space to set the scene or capture a personality?
Journalism certainly gives you a tight turning radius. NR used to have a Bulletin, edited by James Burnham, that appeared in the weeks the magazine didn’t. The iron rule of the NR Bulletin was that editorial paragraphs could not exceed ten printed lines. If the Soviets swarmed through the Fulda Gap, you would have to describe it in ten lines, or JB would trim you back.
You argue that WFB wanted to change “cultural fashions” regarding liberalism and this required someone who was “very cool.” How so? And is this still a problem for conservatism?
Mill called conservatives the “stupid party.” The element of truth in this is that conservatives tend to accept the world as it is. The discontented have to be imaginative, if not more intelligent. Conservatives in the fifties and early sixties were disdained as Babbitts, hicks, Klansmen, or Catholic proles. WFB was a living refutation of these stereotypes. He could go head to head with Arthur Schlesinger Jr.—Harvard, Pulitzer Prize winner, Camelot courtier—and beat him at his own high end game.
You had to deal with building (and re-building) a relationship with someone you idealized. Does the right too often idealize its leaders – from Reagan to WFB – and then struggle to come to grips with their faults?
The right does it, but so does the left. The institution of the presidency encourages leader complexes. I just taped a TV discussion with a smart liberal professor who was complaining, sotto voce, about Obama’s compromises. In time, we will hear it on air.
At some point, at least it seems to me, NR changed from a collection of conservative thinkers/personalities/writers to a magazine of conservative journalism and journalists. Is that fair? How would you describe the changes/evolution?
When NR started out it could not be a magazine of conservative journalists, since there hardly were any such. Success—and I think it was a success to catalyze a conservative commentariat—always brings its own pitfalls.
You famously backed Giuliani for President. Many labeled you one of those squishy urban conservatives; more concerned about cocktail parties than principals, etc. Where do you see yourself on the political spectrum or how would you describe your conservatism?
Yeah, Giuliani was a real cocktail party sort of guy. His critics have not set foot in New York in the last twenty years. Giuliani was simultaneously an extreme conservative and an extreme liberal. His liberalism could be off-putting, even abhorrent. But his conservative qualities—respect for responsibility and the rule of law–transformed a ruined city. No recent American politician, except Reagan, can show a greater achievement. Then to top it all off he was president of the United States for three days after 9/11.
As for me, I am conservative without prefix or suffix.
You were not a fan of much of the conservative reaction to Bill Clinton. How should conservatives approach President Obama?
Fight him on the beaches, fight him in the fields. He is a cool character, who will not make the mistakes that tempted us into making the mistakes we made fighting Clinton.
What’s next for you?
I am finishing a documentary for PBS with Michael Pack about Alexander Hamilton, and beginning a book on James Madison. Publius rides again—or 2/3 of him.