Probably the biggest news this season in the world of magazines comes from National Review, which is undergoing some basic and potentially exciting changes. For more than 30 years, NR has been edited by its founder, William F. Buckley, Jr., who helped make conservatism a force to be reckoned with in modem America. Now, in a provocative move, Buckley has kicked himself upstairs as NR's "editor-in-chief," naming British Tory John O'Sullivan as the new editor of the conservative flagship. And therein lies a tale.
During the crucially important years of the 1950s and 1960s when free-market views were making a comeback in the world of ideas, particularly on college campuses, three figures stood out as magnetic: novelist-philosopher Ayn Rand, economist Milton Friedman, and Buckley. Almost alone among advocates of capitalism, these three could fill an auditorium and cause a campus to erupt in controversy and eager debate.
However, while Rand's Atlas Shrugged and Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom were far more important than any of Buckley's books, and reached far more people, the steady, provocative growth of the punchy, irascible biweekly National Review, combined with his PBS series "Firing Line," gave Buckley a highly visible podium.
So it was into the early 1970s, when NR seemed to begin to run out of steam. But it has been an open secret for a long time now that NR has been left to drift. While the opening "This Week" and short editorial sections retained much of the wit and style of the early NR, the rest of the magazine seemed to lurch without passion or direction, shorn of its early self-image that it was leading some sort of crusade.
And while no one wanted to say so openly, Buckley himself was largely at fault. Apparently by at least the mid-1970s, if not before, he became increasingly bored and disengaged from the week-to-week job of running the magazine. As he rushed from task to task, from skiing to sailing to taping "Firing Line" and dictating his thrice-weekly newspaper column, to writing journals of his exploits as a sailor to pounding out a series of well-received spy novels, National Review seemed increasingly remote from his concerns.
It began to show. And many staff members of NR began to grumble about it openly. During the early days, it was only Buckley's personality and family money that managed to hold it together: the founding editors were a strong-willed lot that included the likes of Frank Meyer and James Burnham. The passing of that founding generation meant either that a successive generation had to be found—one that had real power and input into the magazine—or that Buckley assert himself to put it back on some consistent course. And that, sources say, is what he seemed to have no interest in doing.
In other words, for as long a period as 10 years, Buckley has, according to current and past associates of NR who agreed to talk with me anonymously, faced a dilemma: give up the magazine to those who want to run it, or watch it slowly decline in quality. He wasn't willing to do either.
Thus a higher and higher proportion of what NR has been publishing has been unsolicited manuscripts, as demoralized staff members lost the edge against competitors such as Commentary and The American Spectator. Sometimes topical articles rot for months in piles that are forgotten, and then published quickly to get "caught up," regardless of whether an issue's time has passed. Editors and authors have commiserated, and in many cases both have sadly left NR behind in the search for an alternative.
For many years now, younger friends of NR have been aware of the problem and have tried to take some kind of action to rectify things. But to no avail. No one apparently caught Buckley's attention as a potential successor.
Now in a sweeping move, Buckley has announced the appointment of John O'Sullivan as the new editor of National Review effective this July, while simultaneously removing himself to the position of editor-in-chief.
O'Sullivan is a British intellectual and journalist who has worked for the Daily Telegraph in London. A few years ago he moved to the United States to take over and revamp the conservative Heritage Foundation's Policy Review. Within a few short months, O'Sullivan had transformed a frog into a prince.
Following a subsequent stint at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, O'Sullivan took on the position of editorial page editor of the New York Post during its transition under Rupert Murdoch, subsequently returned to Britain as speechwriter for Margaret Thatcher's smashing reelection campaign, and remained as a member of her think tank for domestic affairs.
A superior editor, filled with ideas and energy, O'Sullivan has a combative spirit and the precious mix of qualities that enables an editor to produce a publication that is above all else interesting. In terms of his personal values, O'Sullivan seems to lean toward neoconservatism without the foam at the mouth. Nevertheless, he genuinely enjoys the give-and-take of opinion with libertarians and others with whom he might disagree.
What does O'Sullivan's rise to power signify for nonconservatives? For one thing, reflect on the fact that in the heyday of American conservatism, the Reagan '80s, William Buckley apparently could not find a single American conservative worthy of succeeding him at the helm of NR. Are the second and third generations second- and third-rate?
For another, Sullivan's tenure at NR may mean a whole new spirit to the place. Buckley, after all, was there at the founding and instantly found himself in the midst of every bloody ideological and personal fight. He fought to drive the Birchers and the anti-Semites out of the conservative movement, but he also engaged in bitter feuds with Ayn Rand, Austrian School economist and outspoken libertarian Murray Rothbard, and a host of others. O'Sullivan has had no part of this latter sort of feud and may open NR to a wider spectrum of opinion.
In the final analysis, these are likely to be interesting times for NR's fans and detractors alike. We at REASON welcome John O'Sullivan into the fray; may his tenure at NR move it back to the rank it once held, as America's premier conservative journal of opinion. This column will give him a few months' grace and then begin the obligatory nipping at his heels.
Roy A. Childs, Jr., is editor of The Libertarian, a new monthly newsletter, and editorial director of Laissez Faire Books.