National Review 50th

Neal B. Freeman
Vienna, VA
published on our site: June 25, 2008

Classmates, don’t forget to post any comments after you read this.

Dinner at the Buckleys

What did I think on meeting Bill Buckley? My first impression, to be candid, was that he must be the guy standing next to Patsy Buckley, the luminiferous Mrs. Buckley, six feet of young womanhood so astonishing as to make your lungs walk off the job. For the balance of that first evening and for some decades thereafter I fixed her with what your tabloid press might call a stalker’s stare. My second impression was that Bill Buckley was speaking a language with which I was familiar but somewhat insecurely so. Things seemed to approach other things only asymptotically. Grammatical barbarians, loosed on the streets, were apparently committing a wave of litotes. Certain things could be properly compared to other things only after checking with someone named Mutatis Mutandis.

My further impression was that Willmoore had been right. (Willmoore Kendall had pounded me into ideological shape at Yale a generation after he had done the same favor for Buckley.) It was Willmoore’s opinion, rendered with the finality of Mosaic proscription, that among Buckley’s many talents one was pre-eminent. He was the world’s finest conversationalist. That’s a heavy reputation to lug to any dinner table but Buckley flipped it around like a poker chip. He knew about art and boats and cities and history and Scripture and music. I was then working at Doubleday and he seemed to know more about the books I was working on than I did. He was plainly supercallifragilistic (okay, not a Buckley word but a gratifying eight syllables, nonetheless) and I soon slipped into full-engagement mode. I don’t know how late I stayed but it quickly became NR lore that Bill had offered the kid a job as the only way to get him out of the house.

I consulted two people on Bill’s offer. The first was Jim MacFadden, who had become NR’s indispensable business-side executive after leaving a job in mainstream publishing. Mac’s words stick with me: “Bill says he’s going to change the world. I think he might do it and I’d like to help.” I know, that sounds like rhetorical bump-and-tickle, just a wee bit of four-beer talk. All I can tell you is that the young Buckley was capable of making words like those sound plausible, almost modulated. The second consultant was my father. He had invested heavily in my white-shoe education and had been left unmoved by the ecumenical spirit of the day. He summed up the career move with a question: “You’re going to leave one of the world’s great publishing houses for an Irish Catholic rag?” Yes, sir!

What did the job entail, being Bill Buckley’s right-hand man? Some of this, some of that, all of it in the Buckley style aimed at high purpose and pursued in high spirit. I was the political reporter and the Washington correspondent. (Now that Mark Felt has talked it can be revealed that, yes, I was Cato). I ran the mayoralty campaign office and started his TV show. (It’s true. Bill never forgave me for calling it Firing Line.) The most fun was selling his newspaper column city to city: for several seasons he was the hot cross bun of the syndicate business. But it was years before I realized that the most important part of the job may have been what I then regarded as a tiresome chore: handling Bill’s correspondence. In those early days, at the dawn of the conservative era, he emboldened and guided and connected them all – from Ronnie and Barry to Phyllis and Brent to Clare and Roger to Dan and Kieran to almost three hundred others. The first generation of the conservative movement can be identified neatly. They were the people who corresponded with Bill Buckley, a committee of correspondence that he built into a national political force. And along the way – it must have been either inter alia orĀ  pari passu or in medias res — he changed the world. Nice going, boss.

Neal B. Freeman is Chairman of The Blackwell Corporation. He served as a Director of National Review, Inc. from 1966 until 2004 when WFB withdrew as proprietor.

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  • Bill Wheeler September 21, 2008 at 1:28 am

    Hi Neal,
    It must have been great fun ‘tho a bit trying at times. I think I remember your doing this, but failed to focus on it. You convey in very few words what it must have been like being close to an extraordinary and powerfully self-centered boss. Sure beats the ordinary world. Best regards, Bill Wheeler, formerly the wine man.