June 29, 2004
National Review Founder Says It's Time to Leave Stage
n 1954, when Ronald Reagan was still a registered Democrat and host of "General Electric Theater," the 28-year-old William Frank Buckley Jr. decided to start a magazine as a standard-bearer for the fledgling conservative movement. In the 50-year ascent of the American right since then, his publication, National Review, has been its most influential journal and Mr. Buckley has been the magazine's guiding spirit and, until today, controlling shareholder.
Tonight, however, Mr. Buckley, 78, is giving up control. In an interview, he said he planned to relinquish his shares today to a board of trustees he had selected. Among them are his son, the humorist Christopher Buckley; the magazine's president, Thomas L. Rhodes; and Austin Bramwell, a 2000 graduate of Yale and one of the magazine's youngest current contributors.
Mr. Buckley's "divestiture," as he calls it, represents the exit of one of the forefathers of modern conservatism. It is also the latest step in the gradual quieting of one of the most distinctive voices in the business of cultural and political commentary, the writer and editor who founded his magazine on a promise to stand "athwart history, yelling 'Stop,' at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who urge it."
In explaining his decision, Mr. Buckley said he had taken some satisfaction in the triumph of conservatism since then, though he expressed some complaints about President Bush's unconservative spending and some retrospective doubts about the wisdom of invading Iraq. But his decision, Mr. Buckley said, had more to do with his own mortality.
"The question is choose some point to quit or die onstage, and there wouldn't be any point in that," Mr. Buckley said, recalling his retirement from his television program "Firing Line" a few years ago. "Thought was given and plans were made to proceed with divestiture."
With characteristic playfulness, Mr. Buckley said that he had not disclosed the timing of the hand-over. He plans to give the trustees his shares at a private party tonight at an Italian restaurant near the magazine's East 34th Street office. "It is kind of a big event in my life," he said, sipping a glass of wine over lunch at the same restaurant last week. "I thought I might as well put a little bit of theater in it. When I leave this building a week from now, I will probably feel a little bit different."
Mr. Buckley, whose syndicated column will continue to appear in the magazine, said he did not expect changes in the contents of the magazine. Richard Lowry, the editor, will continue in that job. Mr. Rhodes, president of National Review, will become chairman of the newly formed board of trustees. The trustees will include Evan Galbraith, an executive of Morgan Stanley who was ambassador to France under Mr. Reagan, and Daniel Oliver, who was chairman of the Federal Trade Commission under Mr. Reagan and whose son, Drew Oliver, was an assistant editor at the magazine.
By virtue of his relative youth, Mr. Bramwell is the most notable of the five trustees. "I wanted somebody who is very young and very talented," Mr. Buckley said. "One likes to think in the long term."
A former officer of the Conservative Party of the Yale Political Union, Mr. Bramwell began writing for National Review two years ago as a Harvard law student. At a recent ceremony at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, he presented Mr. Buckley an award for contributions to the conservative movement along with an admiring, perhaps even Buckleyesque, appraisal of Mr. Buckley's literary style.
"By ironic periphrasis, arch understatement and surprising deployment of familiar and of course unfamiliar words, Buckley convinced his opponents that he knew something they did not, and what's more, that he intended to keep the secret from them," Mr. Bramwell said as he presented the award. "Thus did he waken their minds to the possibility that liberalism is not the philosophia ultima but just another item in the baleful catalogue of modern ideologies."
Not everyone shares this assessment of Mr. Buckley's work. Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, called Mr. Buckley's sometimes baroque style "genially ridiculous."
Mr. Wieseltier added: "It is a kind of antimodern pretense, but of course he is in fact a completely modern man. His thinking and his writing have all the disadvantages of a happy man. The troubling thing about Bill Buckley's work is how singularly untroubled it is by things."
But Mr. Buckley's voice has always been singular. He was not much older than Mr. Bramwell when he founded National Review. The son of an oilman, Mr. Buckley was already famous for his first book, "God and Man at Yale" (1951). Conservatism in the United States was close to its 20th-century nadir, marked by Dwight D. Eisenhower's defeat of the conservative Robert Taft for the 1952 Republican nomination.
The first issue of National Review appeared in 1955. As Mr. Buckley tells it, he became chief editor in part because deferring to a young man was unthreatening to many venerable contributors. "It was easier to allow them to accept a 29-year-old than to select among themselves who will be boss," he said.
William J. Casey, who later became director of central intelligence under Mr. Reagan, incorporated the magazine. Mr. Buckley retained ownership of all the voting stock. National Review has never made a profit, Mr. Buckley said. It makes up any shortfalls each year with contributions from about 1,000 to 1,500 donors, and every other year it sends a solicitation to its subscribers in an effort to add names to the "A list" of regular donors. Mr. Buckley will continue to write the fund-raising letters, he said.
As for conservatism today, Mr. Buckley said there was a growing debate on the right about how the war in Iraq squared with the traditional conservative conviction that American foreign policy should seek only to protect its vital interests.
"With the benefit of minute hindsight, Saddam Hussein wasn't the kind of extra-territorial menace that was assumed by the administration one year ago," Mr. Buckley said. "If I knew then what I know now about what kind of situation we would be in, I would have opposed the war."
Asked whether the growth of the federal government over the last four years diminished his enthusiasm for Mr. Bush, he reluctantly acknowledged that it did. "It bothers me enormously," he said. "Should I growl?"
Still, he professed more than a little pride at the country's rightward drift during his years in control of National Review. "We thought to influence conservative thought, which we succeeded in doing," he said.