NEW officers will soon be piped aboard National Review, the flagship magazine of conservative journalism in America. For the first time in the publication's 33-year history, the editor will be someone other than William F. Buckley Jr., the journal's founder. The new editor, John O'Sullivan, will assume his post Aug. 1. Mr. Buckley will take the title editor in chief.
The other new name on the magazine's masthead will be Wick Allison, who takes over as publisher in January. Mr. Allison, currently the publisher of Art & Antiques, will succeed William A. Rusher, who is retiring after 31 years of directing National Review's business affairs.
``John O'Sullivan and Wick Allison will bring a high degree of professionalism to their jobs,'' Mr. Rusher says. ``Both have far more experience than Bill Buckley or I had as young men in the '50s who knew next to nothing about journalism.''
Moving into uncertain waters
The new team will inherit a vessel that is seaworthy but is moving tentatively into uncertain waters. National Review is facing two transitions, both of which will affect its character and direction.
One is the generational change, as the last members of the magazine's early leaders - Buckley, Rusher, and Buckley's sister Priscilla - either leave or assume less central roles. Priscilla Buckley, for many years the managing editor and, according to one observer, ``the glue that held the whole thing together,'' stepped down three years ago to become one of five senior editors. And while sources at National Review emphasize that her brother - a towering figure in American conservatism - is not retiring, his willingness to relinquish the editor's nameplate must be regarded as a watershed development.
The other change ahead is a shift in the political breezes. After eight years of sailing with the generally congenial tradewinds of the Reagan era, National Review will have to contend with a less predictable climate, whoever is elected president in November.
By all accounts, Mr. O'Sullivan will be a dynamic presence in the magazine's offices on East 35th Street in New York. Many observers regard his appointment as a bold stroke by Buckley. For one thing, he is British - though he has had extensive journalism experience on both sides of the Atlantic. For another, he takes the editor's chair as an outsider, not as a longtime member of the ``NR family.''
But O'Sullivan says he ``won't arrive with a blueprint.'' An editor's responsibility, he says, ``should be to respond creatively to events as they happen.''
No stranger to America
O'Sullivan comes to National Review from 10 Downing Street, where he served as a domestic-policy adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Before that, he was editorial-page editor of the Times of London. He is no stranger to American shores, however. For four years - beginning in 1979 - he was editor of Policy Review, a quarterly published by the Heritage Foundation, and later served as editor of the New York Post's editorial page before going to the Times.
But just what is the job?
But if there is consensus that O'Sullivan is the right man for the job, there is rather less consensus on what the job is. As a biweekly, National Review is positioned somewhat awkwardly between weekly opinion magazines able to comment on breaking news, such as The New Republic, and more-scholarly monthly or quarterly publications, such as Commentary and The Public Interest. Its publication schedule has given rise to a debate that, Priscilla Buckley says, ``has gone on since Day 1.''
Some younger editors, includ-ing senior editor Richard Brookhiser and former article editor Richard Vigilante, in recent years have pressed for ``more current coverage of things,'' in Mr. Brookhiser's words.
Yet other observers assert that the magazine is too ``journalistic,'' or at least insufficiently ``serious.'' Dr. Ernest van den Haag, a professor of jurisprudence and public policy at Fordham University, who has written for National Review, argues that the magazine should have longer and more intellectual articles. He says it often resembles, as in its early days, a ``student journal: very witty, but not a lot of depth; better as a counterpuncher than setting out its own agenda.''
O'Sullivan brings with him what the Post's Eric Briendel terms ``a unique dual vantage point ... from encountering the conservative movement in two cultures and contexts.''
That dual vantage point includes contacts with a wide range of potential contributors from the United States and abroad. Edwin Feulner Jr. of the Heritage Foundation says approvingly that when O'Sullivan edited Policy Review, ``He liked to stir up controversy and to bring in writers whom some people regarded as `heretical.'''
One event to which National Review and other conservative publications will have to respond is the end of the Reagan era. President Reagan's two elections marked the political culmination of National Review's quarter-century crusade for conservatism. American conservatives will again find themselves out of power with the election of either Michael Dukakis or (to a lesser extent) George Bush.
Many conservative journalists find the prospect of change bracing. Ironically, the Reagan years have not been altogether good for conservative intellectuals, in part, because they may have become complacent. ``After Reagan's election, we kind of put our feet up,'' Brookhiser concedes, adding that it may have ushered in a ``narcotic phase'' in conservative editorial offices.
As a result, conservatives face the need to rebuild, or at least repair, their intellectual superstructure. ``For 20 years conservatism defined itself too easily as standing for anticommunism and fiscal responsibility,'' columnist George Will says. ``Reagan has changed that, now that he characterizes the Soviet Union as an over-armed Canada and has raised deficit spending to intergalactic levels.''
Yet many conservative intellectuals seem sanguine, even excited about the future. They assert that the conservative movement is in robust health. They note that even if conservatives find themselves in political opposition, they will not be exiled to the intellectual wilderness from which Buckley and National Review were instrumental in leading them.
If conservatism has not necessarily become the establishment in America, it surely has become a counterestablishment to be reckoned with. It's a far cry from the '50s, when the accepted wisdom, according to one conservative writer, was: ``You have thinking people and you have conservatives.''
The editor of The American Spectator, R.Emmett Tyrrell, fairly bubbles at the possibilities for influence open to a new generation of conservative intellectuals in their 30s and 40s - people ``on both sides of the Atlantic who came of age during the protests of the '60s, Vietnam, the dissolution of empire, and the rise of entrepreneurship'' - who are emerging in top editorial positions.
O'Sullivan, who describes conservatism as the ``dominant creative force in American intellectual life,'' says of the invitation to join National Review: ``It was simply too good an opportunity to pass up.''
O'Sullivan as others see him
Conservatives who know John O'Sullivan describe him as though composing dust-jacket blurbs:
Midge Decter, executive director of the Committee for the Free World: ``A brilliant journalist, gifted, experienced, deft ... extremely lively.''
R. Emmett Tyrrell, editor of the American Spectator: ``Very literate, comfortable with ideas ... extremely jolly.''
Eric Briendel, editorial-page editor at the New York Post: ``Very curious and interesting mind ... exemplifies the adage that editors `should always be consistent, never predictable' ... usually interested in one or two issues not on anyone else's agenda.''
Edwin Feulner Jr., president of the Heritage Foundation: ``Like the young Bill Buckley, irreverent, quick-witted ... one of the best writers of political analysis and satire on either side of the Atlantic.''
Columnist George Will: ``A genuine transatlantic figure ... combines a reflective intellectual side with a knowledge of daily journalism.''