A Conservative Upstart Comes of Age

Brookhiser Takes on National Review and William F. Buckley Jr.

Posted June 15, 2009 at 2:18pm

In 1969, when Richard Brookhiser was a high school student in upstate New York, his parents encouraged him to submit an essay to National Review.

In the essay, the 14-year-old Brookhiser expressed his disgust with anti-Vietnam War demonstrators at his school and argued the liberal bloc of his generation failed to understand the conflict.

While he did not fully grasp the conflict himself, he stressed in the piece that his peers were not any smarter.

Back then, the anti-war movement was gaining plenty of traction, and Brookhiser’s essay, when published in National Review later that year, cemented his contrarian political perspective and convinced him to pursue a career with the magazine’s brand of journalism.

Most importantly, the essay, which appeared on the magazine’s cover, won him praise from his idol, William F. Buckley Jr.

National Review’s ethos was Buckley’s, and Brookhiser chronicles his start at the magazine, his meteoric rise in the newsroom and his eventual split from Buckley in “Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement.—

The central question Brookhiser asks in this political biography is: Why did the popular, powerful and fiercely competitive Buckley tutor him and coronate him as his successor, just to renege on his promise to make him editor of the magazine?

Brookhiser explains: “Out of the blue, here came a kid pulling the same stunts he had pulled in college — only he was doing it in high school. Bill may have thought, even then, Maybe I have found another me.’—

Brookhiser theorizes his National Review colleagues and Buckley thought he was too young for the job of editor-in-chief. Brookhiser now realizes the magazine wanted a more veteran editorial director during the Richard Nixon era, driven by Buckley’s desire to keep the editorial content moving in a certain trajectory. And, although he respected Buckley’s literary contributions and admired his trademark debates, Brookhiser admits he still lacks a full understanding of who Buckley was and what kind of legacy the visionary editor wanted to leave behind.

This unresolved feeling worries Brookhiser, who argues that with Buckley gone, conservatism may not recover any time soon.

Aside from the unresolved drama, “Right Time, Right Place— serves as a road map of America’s conservative movement. It provides a compelling account of a three-decade editorial collaboration between pupil and master seen through Brookhiser’s front-seat point of view. The writer also provides an unapologetic take on National Review’s frenetic newsroom vision throughout the post-Vietnam and the Cold War eras, as well as the magazine’s relevance inside the Beltway and beyond.

Brookhiser was nurtured in the atmosphere of committed conservatives and philosophers who challenged Nixon and President Gerald Ford after Vietnam. The author breaks down other political figures and offers insight into many conservative thinkers working today (such as George Will, David Brooks and Christopher Hitchens). He also shares an opinion about nearly every major figure during Buckley’s reign, such as President Jimmy Carter (“the worst ex-president in history—); former Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (“the Communist tyrant had some humanity—); and Arizona GOP Sen. John McCain (“As a junior senator McCain had slid perilously close to crookdom when he took gifts and favors from Charles Keating.—).

An observer of American political life, Brookhiser went on to use the books he wrote on the Founding Fathers to revive the conservative movement before focusing on Buckley’s contributions to the political landscape and the influence he had.

“National Review had helped lead a revolution in American politics and, indirectly, in geopolitics. It was interesting to see how, and by whom, a greater revolution had been made,— Brookhiser notes, referring to Buckley and his editorial vision.

The book is not a biographical masterpiece, but it opens a portal into Buckley’s persona and the magazine he used to inject talking points into the national conversation.