Right Time, Right Place

How it felt to grow up at the National Review – with William F. Buckley Jr., as a mentor.

Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley, Jr. By Richard Brookhiser Basic Books 272 pp., $27.50

Think of a cause you care about deeply. Who’s the figure you most admire in that movement? Now picture that person taking you to lunch, when you’re 23, and declaring that you – you! – will be his successor.

Such was the fantasy that Richard Brookhiser lived as a protégé of National Review editor William F. Buckley Jr., conservatism’s standard-bearer for a half-century. Brookhiser was, to put it mildly, a prodigy. He wrote his first magazine cover story at 14. Steep falls often follow such precocious rises. But when Buckley changed his mind and sought a different heir, Brookhiser didn’t self-destruct; he just rejiggered his career.

Such equanimity means Right Time, Right Place is refreshingly free of spicy score settling and juicy revelations. Instead, readers get tasty morsels of candor caramelized in the searing heat of self-reflection. The result is a psychologically rich personal narrative.

Brookhiser’s impressions, from editorial dinner parties to presidential campaigns, amount to a cathartic tribute to Buckley, who was more than a mere mentor. He was equal parts father figure, hero, benefactor, and cool older brother. We all yearn to please our fathers, and Brookhiser longed for Buckley’s approval. More often than not, he got it.

But when the elder suddenly withdrew his blessing – he didn’t think junior had the “executive flair” to be editor – Brookhiser was heartbroken. Time has clearly softened the blow, because, like a letter to a long-ago first love, “Right Place, Right Time” features more healing than regret and recrimination.

Snippets of National Review’s cubicle culture are sometimes meandering and trivial but nonetheless fascinating for what they reveal about the magazine’s – and Buckley’s – magnetic appeal to young writers. At a time when American culture extolled sex, new-age spirituality, and rock ’n’ roll, an office that stood for traditional values, Catholic dogma, and Baroque concertos might seem a tad uncool. Yet Buckley, with his mid-Atlantic accent, arched brow, and cerebral wit, was a special class of cool. At which other publication would the editor make an urgent call from his Swiss chalet for the purpose of ... more efficiently tuning his harpsichord to concert A?

Brookhiser writes: “I knew how important National Review was to me – a combination pastime, religion, and secret society. I also believed it might be important to the world.” Leading conservative pundit George Will (a former National Review editor) has made the case that Buckley’s weekly was instrumental in winning the cold war. The modern world history that National Review has observed and tweaked is indeed impressive. Yet Brookhiser devotes precious little space to outlining the principles that inspired National Review’s opinions. As a result, he leaves room for the cynical thought that a main attraction of working there was the symbiotic ego-stroking of a snobbish echo chamber.

Younger readers who associate conservatism today with anti-intellectual blowhards will meet a very different crew who led a movement from obscurity to dominance in a mere generation. A leading reason was the quality of National Review’s writing. While Buckley embodied sesquipedalian polemics, Brookhiser exudes calmer concision. In “Right Place, Right Time,” his writing is wound tighter than a violin’s E string, but the notes are sweet, not shrill. Speaking of veteran Republican official James Baker III’s uncanny ability to be promoted, he notes, “Like carbonation, he rose with every shakeup.”

In a book this crisp, the author doesn’t have much time to explain the scores of characters who make cameo appearances, so readers may feel like they’re at a friend’s office party. Despite those limits, Brookhiser excels at pithy introductions. For example, he shares a memory of a rousing lunch with Buckley and the political philosopher Harry Jaffa. Professor Jaffa is the father of “West Coast Straussianism,” not the easiest school of thought to explain. But in just a few paragraphs, Brookhiser nails the school and the significance of their lunchtime exchange about the American Revolution.

Ultimately, the conservative movement is but the backdrop to the unfolding story between Buckley and Brookhiser. Their interaction is a revealing glimpse into the complexities of mentorship. Buckley was a man of grand, gracious gestures. But when does benefaction become an influence transaction? What hidden psychological needs are gratified by the partnership between talented youth and wise elder? As Brookhiser puts it, “Because he was so powerful, and because I idealized him so, I wrongly assumed that he was invulnerable. Sons misunderstand their fathers as much as fathers misunderstand their sons.”

Josh Burek is the Monitor’s Opinion editor.

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