History

Friday Mini Book Review: Strictly Right

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It's Friday, so time for another of what used to be (and may someday again be) the Wednesday Mini Book Review. A rich history of mini book reviews.

Strictly Right: William F. Buckley and the American Conservative Movement by Linda Bridges and John R. Coyne Jr. (Wiley, 2007). Two old National Review hands come out with a loving insiders' look at the life of the magazine's founder, the magazine, and the American and conservative movement history that the man and the magazine wove through and shaped.

Unfortunately, these two are no D. Keith Mano, Hugh Kenner, Florence King, Digby Anderson, or even W.H. von Dreele–a somewhat random quintet of past NR contributers who could have added, respectively, more scabrous observant wit, deep and complicated thoughtfulness, outsider's mordant comedy, goose fat, and wacky rhyme schemes to the story. (Yes, I know Kenner is dead.)

That is to say, this book is respectful, dutiful, and all-too-plainspoken, hindered most by its attempts to be something bigger than it ought to be while not being enough of what it should be. Way too many pages are dedicated to stepping aside from the tale of Buckley, his magazine, and conservatism to give shallow context about the political history of the times (including way too much attention to the downfall of Spiro Agnew, who Coyne used to work for).

Still, there are plenty of interesting, well-drawn details here about WFB's courtship of young heiress Patricia Taylor, what life was like being raised by oilman Will Frank Buckley, the delicate juggling of eccentric prima donnas such as James Burnham, Willi Schlamm, Brent Bozell, and Whittaker Chambers in the early days of the mag, Buckley's charmingly quixotic 1965 New York mayoral race (he got 25 percent in Staten Island!), his forays as a sailor man all over the seas and a ski bum in Gstaad, his shift into popular novel writing, the magazine's defining conservatism down over the years in the attempt to remain "realistic" (they couldn't abide Nixon in '60, loved 'im in '72) and a few (not enough) good narratives of the crises attendant in publishing political periodicals (like having to rewrite pretty much an entire issue after Bobby Kennedy was shot, since the one going to press had "invidious references" to him "on nearly every page…even in Russell Kirk's column").

The best parts—and the kind of thing you wish had taken up more of the book, certainly in place of the potted political history of the past 50 years of life in these here American states—are Buckley-specific tales, like the time National Review ran straight-faced a set of parody Pentagon Papers, Buckley's recusing himself from Watergate commentary since Howard Hunt was his old CIA mentor and had named WFB as trustee for his children, his unpublished screed against the Securities and Exchange Commission (which he felt was persecuting him for some paperwork errors with a radio broadcasting Buckley chaired, resulting in WFB being banned from directorship of public companies for five years). My very favorite was the tale of his young associates compositing—in the pre-computer days—a prank page of the magazine with every one of WFB's particularly hated errors, taping it into the copy of the issue mailed to him overseas, and waiting for the explosion.

Buckley, National Review, and American conservatism will continue to inspire historians, friendly and angry—he, it, and the movement were that important, and that interesting. I very much look forward to Sam Tanenhaus's long planned Buckley book. This one has earned itself a place in the pile, and certainly anyone writing about Buckley in the future needs to consult it for some of the interesting but too-few personal details. But overall it's deficient in juice, fun, distance, and even the thick anecdotal details that friendly insiders are best suited to provide.

My (non mini) review of a previous NR insider history of the mag and the movement, by Jeffrey Hart.

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  1. I’ve always thought of NR as one of the worst things imaginable as far as political rags go: a sugar-daddyied collection of goofy old cranks trying their darndest to be relevant (and therefore habitually dishonest) in today’s political scene…It was the Foxnews of its day…

    If one must read conservative mags, then I recommend anything from ISI (Modern Age, Intercollegiate Review, etc). It’s pretty principled and interesting stuff.

  2. A young Buckley wouldn’t survive in the movement of today. Socializing with Albert Jay Nock? That puts a person on the fringe.

  3. I read NR faithfully for years, before the current crop of neo-paleo-whatevers. M. Stanton Evans, Ernest van den Haag, Jeffrey Hart, Florence King, D. Keith Mano (“The Gimlet Eye”), Buckley himself (and his sister). It was a great read, always serious but never taking itself or its mission too seriously. I miss those writers and thinkers.

  4. Brian, your book review timing isn’t good. 🙂

  5. Finally a Mini Book Review of something other than comics!

  6. Finally a Mini Book Review of something other than comics!

    Amen to that. Thanks for this excellent review.

  7. Sounds like this book went through the standard publishing promo do over: trying to make a niche book reach a wider audience. Thats too bad, we should learn to let things just be what they are. Thanks for the review, I guess I don’t need to get this one.

  8. So nothing to validate Rothbard’s dark hints that Buckley’s National Review was a CIA-backed attempt to turn the US right wing from isolationism to imperialism? (Betrayal of the Old Right, pp. 161-162). I guess *they* got to Bridges and Coyne, too….

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