Skirmishes by Neal B. Freeman, National Review Books, September 2017, 344 pages.

Neal B. Freeman, chairman of the Blackwell Corporation, is an entrepreneur and businessman with clients in the communications, defense, and wealth management industries. As a communicator, he’s produced more than a thousand programs for national broadcast, worked for four presidents, and won a number of prestigious awards, among them the George Foster Peabody Award and an Emmy. He’s been a columnist and commentator, and at one time performed the formidable task of editing Bill Buckley’s columns, establishing his credentials as an expert practitioner of the English language. As Buckley himself once put it, “Neal Freeman’s writing, which I have celebrated for many years, is superb.”

Freeman’s superb writing is on full display here, with quick and poignant portraits, appreciations, and obits for people such as Priscilla Buckley, the wonderful managing editor of National Review; Bill Rusher, its indomitable and combative publisher; Robert Novak, M. Stanton Evans, Lyn Nofziger, L. Brent Bozell. There’s a piece on Ronald Reagan, for whom he expected to do some work; and Nancy Reagan, who believed that Freeman, as editor of the Hearst-owned King Features, had promoted material encouraging readers to believe her husband dyed his hair. That required an extensive effort at rehabilitation. “I had to fix things with the missus,” he explains. “In a series of calls, letters, and groveling that will one day win me at least a footnote in the history of sycophancy, we finally secured Mrs. Reagan’s forgiveness.” As a result, he was hired to produce the president’s video messages. 

This article appears in the January/February 2018 issue of The American Conservative.

There are pieces on philanthropy, economics, politics, social issues, books, travel, and essays, along with reviews—all extending over half a century. “By a wide margin,” however, “the bulk of this book is devoted to skirmishes involving and frequently instigated by William F. Buckley Jr., who was at first my intimidating boss and then my professional colleague and then my treasured friend.”

Freeman’s portraits of Buckley bring the man to life in these pages. He was, writes the author, “both a serial-fight picker and a tireless combatant. He liked to mix it up….One skirmish seemed to flare up just as its predecessor was flickering out: we junior officers came to think of life with Bill as a permanent campaign.” But he was also “hands down, the best platoon leader ever. He had the heart of a lion-in-the-wild. He had the patch-up skills of a combat medic.” His attitude “was that juiced up, let’s roll, real American strain of joie de vivre. He never had to conscript us. We raced to volunteer.”

Freeman first volunteered in 1963, still fresh from Yale (not surprisingly, also Buckley’s alma mater) and newly hired at Doubleday. Invited to a function at the Buckleys, he was immediately smitten with “the luminiferous Mrs. Buckley, six feet of young womanhood so astonishing as to make your lungs walk off the job”; and awed by Bill’s range of knowledge and his extraordinary abilities as a conversationalist. Bill was impressed with the young man sufficiently to offer Freeman, on the spot, a job at National Review as an all-purpose right-hand man. “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.”

He asked two people for advice about accepting the offer. One was his father, who “had invested heavily in my white-shoe education,” and who was less than positive about leaving “one of the world’s great publishing houses” for what he called “an Irish Catholic rag.” The other person was Jim McFadden, esteemed by all of us who were ever part of National Review, who had left a job in mainstream publishing to become its business-side executive. As McFadden put it, “Bill says he’s going to change the world. I think he might do it and I’d like to help.”

That was enough. Freeman signed on with Buckley’s conservative irregulars as his aide de camp—that and then much more, playing a key role in changing the political and ideological climate of the country. It began in an America in which the primacy of liberalism was presumed, a view generously infused at the time with a strong air of smugness. As Lionel Trilling would famously put it in The Liberal Imagination in 1950, “In the United States at this time liberalism is not only the dominant but the sole intellectual tradition. For it is the plain fact that nowadays there are no conservative or reactionary ideas in general circulation.”

In 1955 Bill Buckley challenged that premise by gathering an eclectic group of thinkers and activists around him at his new magazine—James Burnham, former spokesman for Leon Trotsky in North America, whose book The Managerial Revolution remains a classic today; Frank Meyer, an ex-communist who lived with his family in Woodstock, New York, slept during the day and worked through the night, frequently calling some of us at 2 or 3 a.m. to discuss book reviews and political happenings; Whittaker Chambers, suffused with pessimism and a haunting sense of tragedy; Russell Kirk, living in a manse in Mecosta, Michigan, author of the magisterial The Conservative Mind (1953), published by Henry Regnery. Regnery, incidentally, the publisher of Buckley’s God and Man at Yale, nearly single-handedly kept conservative literature alive through the 1940s and ’50s, much in the manner of a medieval abbot preserving Christian manuscripts.

There were also Willmore Kendall, Bill Rickenbaker, John Chamberlain, and others. “In hindsight I see I should have written about all of them. My only excuse is that at the time, they seemed to be friends and colleagues more than historical figures.” He does include Linda Bridges and me in what he calls the “second wave,” which might also include Kevin Lynch. Freeman praises the editors who succeeded Buckley, John O’Sullivan and Rich Lowry, and pays tribute to Bob Tyrrell and Wlady Pleszczynski of The American Spectator, which he calls one of his “favorite magazines,” and material from which is included here.

Freeman’s jobs at NR were varied: “Some of this, some of that, all of it in the Buckley style aimed at high purpose and pursued in high spirit.” Ultimately he became an NR political reporter and Washington correspondent, and he functioned for a time as NR’s pseudonymous columnist “Cato,” a job I also held for a time.

But there were two huge undertakings that would go a long way toward realizing Jim McFadden’s stated goal of changing the world. One was managing Bill Buckley’s campaign for mayor of New York City, a brilliantly quixotic political undertaking designed to define conservatism for ordinary Americans awash in liberalism. He did this with his penetrating intellect and rigorous polemics, but of course there was also plenty of humor, as when Buckley famously suggested that if he were somehow elected he would “demand a recount.” Through that tumultuous effort he became a national figure with a strong constituency.

He also earned the respect of black political activists for his willingness to talk with them at length about race and crime. Indeed, he gained the esteem of blue-collar workers across the ethnic spectrum. As Freeman tells it, “in the summer of 1965 the NYPD fell in love with Bill Buckley. I don’t mean just the Irish and Italians, either, but the black, Hispanic and Asian cops, too. Bill was stating their case with eloquence and verve and doing so at a time when (not unlike today) few other people would stand with them.”

Freeman believes the support of the city’s cops, “which soon spread to the firemen, and to some of the building trades,” had profound implications. “[T]he long term effect of the NYPD-WFB alliance ran in an almost unbroken psephological line through the blue-collar support for Johnson and Nixon during the Vietnam war, thence to the Reagan Democrats in the early Eighties and, ultimately to the ‘values voters’ of today—the people who vote not with their class or race or gender but with their patriotic hearts.”

Due in part to his two opponents, now both largely forgotten—John Lindsay, “six-feet-three-inches of vapidity,” (a smoother version of the current mayor), and Abe Beame, “five-feet-five inches of banality”—the press corps increasingly focused on Buckley. The reporters arrived initially to find fault, but then “stayed for the bon mots that Bill sprinkled around promiscuously, as if they were bead necklaces tossed from a Mardi Gras float….The press couldn’t help themselves. They liked Bill.” (As Freeman is well aware, but perhaps too modest to observe, a candidate’s image nearly always has something to do also with the efforts of the campaign manager.)

Also, they began to take him seriously as a candidate, reflected in a decision by the New York Times to invite him to appear at a full-bore editorial meeting (like passing through the Berlin Wall, Buckley would observe) to be quizzed by “contemporary liberalism’s A team.” It may well have been, Freeman writes, “the first time in their lives that most of the Timesmen had faced an articulate and informed conservative in close encounter.”

Buckley certainly didn’t win any Times endorsement, says Freeman. “But he won the argument. And everybody in the room knew it.”

♦♦♦

After the election, there was talk about starting what some of his associates believed would be “the Big Book that would make Bill’s bones as a heavyweight intellectual.” The book would be “a rebuttal to and extension of Ortega y Gasset’s classic work, The Revolt of the Masses,” and he and Freeman discussed it at the New York Yacht Club over drinks. Buckley held onto this idea for years, as I learned some time later when he visited San Francisco and hired me as an NR writer. Over numerous Navy Grogs at Trader Vic’s, this was one of the subjects we discussed at some length.

However, the immediate interest focused on two projects of major consequence—a book with a handsome advance about the campaign; and a television interview program for national television. Bill went off to Switzerland to write the book, The Unmaking of a Mayor, while Freeman, needing a break from all thoughts of campaigning, stayed behind to work on developing the TV show.

Unmaking turned out to be a classic of American urbanology, sociology, history, and political science, still assigned in graduate curricula on those subjects. As Freeman puts it, “Unmaking became, quite inadvertently, Bill’s Big Book and cemented his reputation as a public intellectual of the first rank.”

The television project “worked out, too,” notes Freeman. “The series debuted in the spring of 1966 as Firing Line, hosted by William F. Buckley Jr., and it ran for more than 30 years”—in fact, for 33 years and 1,504 episodes, the longest-running public-affairs TV show ever with a single host. Freeman includes an NR review he wrote of Open to Debate: How William F. Buckley Put Liberal America on the Firing Line, by Heather Hendershot (reviewed by this writer in last year’s January/February issue of TAC), for the most part a thorough, deeply researched, and intelligent discussion of the program’s history, high points, and the changes in the political climate it engendered. She saw it as the capstone of Buckley’s career and credits it with contributing to the election of Ronald Reagan some 14 years after the program’s debut.

In later years at NR there would be a rough patch, when the editors endorsed the Wolfowitz/Perle/Frum party line on the invasion, occupation, and attempted reconstruction of Iraq. When Buckley also lent his support to the pro-invasion arguments, there was a rare and uncomfortable falling out.

From the beginning, Freeman viewed the 2003 Iraq invasion as “butt stupid,” and Buckley eventually joined him in that view. “I received a draft of his syndicated column walking back his support for the Iraq invasion. Across the top he had scribbled, ‘This one’s for you, pal.’ Peace, praise the Lord, had returned to the fever swamps.”

Another difference with NR after Bill had left the scene involved an impulsive editorial decision in 2016 to declare the magazine “Never Trump.” Ultimately, it would waste political and ideological capital, serve in effect as an endorsement of the other side, and show just how out of touch one of the great centers of conservatism seemed to be with the people it presumed to speak for.

Freeman, whose service to the magazine and its principles included nearly four decades as an NR director, discussed the matter in a post-election NR column, written in the form of a Firing Line interview. In answer to a question about what’s ahead for the conservative movement, he says there are two options: “withdraw to the castle, pull up the drawbridge, and labor to defend share in what has become a tax-privileged and well-upholstered Conservatism, Inc.” The other option: “to recognize that the game has changed, thanks in large part to the inadvertent contribution of Donald J. Trump. He has identified and at least semi-organized a large constituency previously unreachable by Conservatism, Inc….The only common denominator among these disparate groups is their values. They’re pro-family, pro-enterprise, and pro-America—pretty much the kinds of people our movement has claimed to represent these many years.”

Finally, an unfair question: would Buckley have supported Trump? Here’s Freeman’s answer: “WFB, like Trump, was on the ‘charismatic’ side, over against the ‘bureaucratic’ side, of what Max Weber identified as the central tension in the modern world. I can thus say without fear of contradiction that WFB might have supported Trump.”

A perfect answer from a perfect Buckleyite, as Richard Nixon used to call us. But there are new ideological battles to be fought now, new political wars to be waged. And perhaps there are lessons in how Buckley won his own battles leading eventually to the 1980 Reagan election. At NR’s 25th anniversary party, one month after Ronald Reagan was elected president, George Will put it this way: “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 has become a conflagration.”

And helping ignite that conflagration was a kid still wet behind the ears, with a white-shoe education, who became a key member of the Buckley brigades, taking on impossible missions and against all odds executing them with brilliance and élan, and in the process helping to change the world.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement.