Richard Brookhiser I and have a lot in common. We both started reading National Review in high school; we both idolized William F. Buckley Jr. (WFB); we both love history (including the now out of fashion “dead white males”); and we both ended up as freelance writers.
Well, to be fair Brookhiser had his first NR cover story at the age of 14; became a senior editor, then managing editor at National Review; was close friends with and, for a time, heir apparent to Buckley; and has written highly successful biographies of the founding fathers. But take away the talent, ambition, and career success and it’s like we’re the same person!
Joking aside, it would be impossible to calculate how many young writers and politicos idealized and were inspired by Buckley and National Review. Particularly in the period leading up to Ronald Regan’s election, WFB and NR were at the center of American conservatism. And Brookhiser’s latest book – Right Time, Right Place – tells the story of what it was like to be at the very inner circle of this fully operational conservative battle station.
As the subtitle – Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement –indicates, RTRP is a blend of history, memoir, and political commentary. I find this type of “creative non-fiction” can lack focus, often jumping between subjects and styles, but Brookhiser’s unique perspective, style and flair for language make this a remarkably focused and powerful read.
It is a very personal and honest look at the man and magazine at the heart of the conservative movement’s rise to power, and eventual return to earth, while at the same time a meditation on the dangers of hero worship and the nature of mature relationships.
The “hook” of much of the publicity behind the book is the revelation that Buckley promised Brookhiser the helm of NR when he retired and nine years later reneged. Still in his twenties Brookhiser is taken out to lunch and promised control of the magazine in stages (contributing, senior, managing, editor in chief and sole stock holder) but the promise is to be a secret. With this in mind, Brookhiser moves up the chain of command at NR.
Then one day he returns to his desk to find an envelope marked confidential. It contains a letter from the out of town Buckley explaining that he no longer feels Brookhiser is suited to succeed him. The letter refuses to document details but states that Brookhiser lacks “executive flair” and would be better off utilizing his clear writings talents in a different way.
Remarkably, Brookhiser builds a career as a freelance writer and successful author, but keeps his connection to National Review where he still contributes to this day.
It is clear why the publicists focus on this aspect of the story as it is clearly a compelling one; particularly to anyone interested in the conservative movement and its journalism. It almost seems a cliche at times: prodigy rises to dizzying heights only to have his hero turn on him; prodigy then must rebuild his career and come to peace with his former mentor/idol. But just because it is a classic story arc doesn’t make it any less interesting.
As any conservative writer interested in politics would, Brookhiser clearly idolized Buckley and NR, but his unique and early relationship with WFB made this a particularly strong connection. For awhile it had to seem as if his dreams were coming true and then, suddenly, all bets were off and he had to rebuild not only his career but a relationship at the center of his life.
Brookhiser himself provides a great summary of this theme:
This is, finally, the story of a relationship. Bill was a generous and devoted man; he was also willful, capricious, impulsive. The former qualities generally prevailed over eruptions of the latter, but the latter could give you a wild ride. I went on a number. One fine day he announced that I would succeed him; another, he announced that I would not (there were other little surprises in store besides those). I was the more susceptible because I was thirty years younger than he was, because I was looking for someone to look up to, because it took me thirty years to realize that friendship is one of the few solid things you can have in this world, and rare enough.
What keeps it from devolving into emotionalism or melodrama is Brookhiser’s style and larger purpose. Brookhiser isn’t interested in writing a sort of conservative kiss-and-tell story where he drops dirt on various conservative luminaries.
Instead he brings his crisp and honest writing style to the history – including his own – of this critical time period. As he learns his craft, he describes the approach he developed as impressionistic:
If I listened and looked hard enough, the story would tell itself, and if I wrote well enough, I could make you see and hear it too.
Brookhiser writes well enough, of that there is no doubt. He tells the story of Buckley and NR at the height of their success with candor and insight because he was there; he saw it happen. And he makes you see it and feel it. Along the way he gives the reader a much fuller picture of Buckley the man then any hagiography could.
This really is a “coming of age” story. Brookhiser literally grows up at NR and under the shadow of Buckley. But he must find his own place. And although the fracture is painful, and changed the relationship permanently, Brookhiser went on to build his own career and “become his own man.”
The reader is also treated to a sharp and perceptive narrated history of the politics of the period and the figures involved. Brookhiser offers wonderful sketches of the writers and personalities that were part of NR; the challenges, scandals, and triumphs they experienced; and the politicians and leaders they covered.
In fact, the one thing that struck me while reading it was the wonderful collection of aphorisms it contains; sharp, insightful, biting, and humorous. A sampling:
On Jimmy Carter:
Jimmy Carter is the worst ex-president in history, but he was also, after an erratic start, a very bad president: small-minded, moralizing, and incompetent.
Describing the way James Baker seemed to pop up everywhere not matter his previous success:
Like carbonation, he rose with every shake-up.
On the role of intellectuals in politics:
Intellectuals are the Kleenex of administrations – used, then discarded.
On Buckley’s particular weakness:
Bill, like time, worshipped language and forgave everyone by whom it lived
On writers selling out for Bill Clinton:
The wizard in The Firebird keeps his sold in an egg. Writers keep their souls, or great parts of them, in their words. If they throw words away, they destroy themselves. And what, after that sacrifice, would he [Sid Blumenthal] and other Clintonites be willing to do for their leader?
On the Adamses as a political dynasty:
The Adamses were hands-on fathers, which was equally bad: John had three sons, two alcoholics and a president; John Quincy had three sons, two alcoholics and a candidate for president. In that family, if you weren’t presidential material, you could tell it to the bartender.
Just as Brookhiser’s biographies get to the heart of their subject without the often dry writing of academic history, his retelling of the conservative movement gives you a lively and interesting broad overview but this time it comes with an insider’s glimpse into the figures involved. For anyone interested in the movement, its history and personalities, this is great stuff.
Here he describes the birth of a new form of television via John McLaughlin (one time Washington correspondent for NR):
The most important thing that McLaughlin accomplished had nothing to do with National Review; he transformed the medium of political talk, incidentally sounding the death knell for Firing Line. The McLaughlin Group invented the political sitcom. Each character was a personality; what they said counted for nothing.
Or here he attempts to explain the break between the first President Bush and conservatives:
Why were conservatives sick of George H. W. Bush as his re-election approached? We pointed to specific mistakes, from raising taxes to his tied tongue, but we also judged hum by the unforgiving standard of nostalgia, comparing him with the man he had replaced. Because Reagan was family, we forgave him many sideslips. Bush had come in as the executor of the estate, and no one forgives an executor even if he only bungles a few bequests.
And here he gets to the difference between father and son:
Both he and his father mangled the language, but George H.W. Bush did so out of awkwardness and deference, as if speaking well would be an unacceptable act of self-assertion. George W. Bush spoke badly out of confidence and indifference, believing that whatever he said was said well enough, and there was no point making the effort to say it better.
The book is full of these wonderful impressions and observations.
For anyone wanting to understand the conservative movement, and its flagship magazine, Right Time, Right Place is a must read. And anyone interested in becoming a journalist/writer would do well to read it. But at its heart is a more humane vision: that being true to your ideals and friends is what’s important.
And that is worth remembering no matter what your politics.