My parents subscribed to two magazines when I was growing up: Reader’s Digest and Newsweek. Why Newsweek instead of Time I don’t know. Perhaps Newsweek was cheaper. In any event, politics was rarely discussed in our home.
We did get one other magazine. It was a gift subscription from my father’s aunt, his mother’s older sister. Her name was Margaret O’Brien, and she lived alone in an apartment at 155th Street and Riverside Drive in Manhattan, an area where the O’Brien family had been living since the nineteenth century. She taught in one of the city’s vocational schools, and family legend has it that the actor John Garfield was one of her students. That must have been in the 1930s. Aunt Margaret was sharp-tongued, legally blind, pious, a daily Mass-goer, and politically conservative. Thanks to her strong political views, we received a copy of National Review every two weeks. As a “white ethnic” Catholic New Yorker, she was a big fan of William F. Buckley Jr., the founder and editor of the magazine. He became popular in New York’s outer boroughs and a national political figure when he ran for mayor of New York in 1965. Asked what he would do if he won, he famously quipped that he “would demand a recount.”
Buckley’s opposition to the Civil Rights Acts of the 1960s and his support for the war in Vietnam made him something of a villain to many young people when I was in high school and college. He was a prominent public figure both for his prolific journalism and the PBS television program Firing Line, where he debated all comers with a waspish wit and a Cheshire cat’s grin. He had a pivotal role in helping create the political and cultural moment that led to the transformational election of Ronald Reagan in 1980.
Buckley died in 2008, and his authorized biography is being written by Sam Tanenhaus, the liberal former editor of the New York Times Book Review and author of a terrific biography of Whittaker Chambers. A former Communist, Chambers became an influential conservative intellectual, an editor at Time, and a mentor to Buckley in the 1950s. Tanenhaus was recently interviewed by Geoffrey Kabaservice, vice president of political studies at the Niskanen Center, a center-right think tank. It is a fascinating conversation, one that paints a nuanced portrait of Buckley as someone who had a genius for friendship, and indeed for living, and a shrewd, pragmatic political sensibility.
Kabaservice and Tanenhaus agree that Buckley, especially in his early career, encouraged some of the worst aspects of the contemporary conservative political movement. Those beliefs and practices undoubtedly played a role in the catastrophic turn taken by the Republican Party with Donald Trump’s ascendency. (Buckley once wrote of Trump that “this is a narcissist we don’t want in politics.”) Yet at the same time, Buckley befriended many of the liberals he vehemently opposed in print, had a unique eye for journalistic talent, and was known for his charm and exceptional generosity. Among the young writers Buckley hired and mentored were Garry Wills, George Will, Joan Didion, John Leonard (future editor of the NYTBR), dance critic Arlene Croce (who also wrote for Commonweal), David Brooks, and Michael Lind. I, too, can vouch for Buckley’s surprising openhandedness. When Commonweal launched an endowment campaign, he sent us $1,000. If memory serves, he wrote that he wanted to support a kindred enterprise. I believe he was alluding to a shared Catholicism. As Tanenhaus notes, he “believed in the Catechism.”
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.