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Conservative Crossfire

By: Claude R. Marx
September 4, 2018

illiam F. Buckley Jr.—intellectual and stylistic patriarch of the modern conservative movement—has been dead for 10 years. His proteges hold prominent positions in journalism and politics, but few have Buckley’s writing ability or his joie de vivre. Too often, many seem annoyed at the world and argue using cheap verbal shots to unnecessarily impugn their adversaries’ motives.

Neal B. Freeman isn’t one of those people. He wrote for Buckley, edited his column, and has had a successful career as an Emmy and Peabody award-winning filmmaker. He has the great man’s literary flair and ideological firmness. As a result, Freeman’s collection of essays, Skirmishes, is a delight, though more details about his film career would have been welcomed.

Freeman’s writings go back to the 1960s and provide a lens through which to view the rise of modern conservativism. Freeman wasn’t present at the creation of Buckley’s pride and joy, National Review, but he wrote and edited for it and sat on its board.

Freeman’s first-person accounts provide an engaging behind-the-scenes look at modern conservatism. He skillfully paints verbal portraits of the movement’s key figures, but Skirmishes regrettably neglects its philosophical evolution. The terrific books that already cover the topic, such as George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, make this oversight forgivable.

Freeman’s personal remembrances of Buckley are the book’s strongest parts. He is grateful for Buckley’s rigorous standards, his uncanny ability to spot and nourish talent, and his intolerance of mediocrity. Freeman admits that initially even his own writing fell short of Buckley’s standards:

We used Royal typewriters in those days to pound out copy on yellow foolscap: Here and there, one of my black words peeks through a blaze of red ballpoint ink; It was his conceit that if you couldn’t write, you couldn’t think; and that if you couldn’t think, you were unlikely to prosper in his friendship.

Freeman does a masterful job of describing Buckley’s sole attempt at seeking elective office, an unsuccessful campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965. Buckley lacked the politician’s instinct to be cautious and avoid saying anything that could hurt him, which deeply unsettled aides like Freeman while delighting certain citizens and reporters. Freeman recalls the long odds that they faced running in a heavily Democratic city as the nominee of the Conservative Party.

Buckley was often the smartest person in the room and wasn’t afraid to remind people of it. That’s one of the reasons he lost. It would take Ronald Reagan, who had a folksier and less threatening style, to really make conservatism successful at the ballot box.

Freeman notes that despite Buckley’s third-place finish, the campaign cemented their belief that “over the course of time and under the weight of experience, ideological abstraction will yield ultimately either the obdurate facts of public finance or the timeless imperatives of the human spirit.” Buckley’s campaign memoir, The Unmaking of a Mayor, one of his most enjoyable books, retells that time in vivid detail.  

Despite his loss, the mayoral campaign increased Buckley’s exposure and helped him land a contract for an interview program that would air on television for 33 years, the longest-running program with a single host in tv history. Freeman was the first producer of Firing Line, an enjoyable and intellectually engaging moderated debate that cemented Buckley’s place in popular culture. Fortunately, Buckley didn’t always take himself seriously. Freeman remembers a moment in particular when he:

started an interview by stating “I should like to begin by asking you to speculate why liberalism languishes these days?”  Buckley rolled his eyes, arched his eyebrows and shot me a bemused smile.

Buckley takes up much of the oxygen in this book, but Freeman would be worth reading even if the two had never met. Freeman’s opinions are strong, yet he never builds himself up by tearing others down. The digs at others are clever, often funny, but not nasty.

Several essays in Skirmishes describe deliberations about key editorial positions at National Review. The magazine was a famously strong supporter of Sen. Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy in 1964, but Freeman discloses that a few weak-kneed editors were tempted to switch NR’s endorsement to then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller when Goldwater slipped in the polls. It didn’t happen, but Goldwater’s massive defeat made him one of history’s most celebrated losers and set the stage for subsequent wins by Republicans Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

Skirmishes best essay outlines the debate over whether NR should support the 2003 war against Iraq. Freeman was the sole opponent. Subsequent events may have proved him correct, but he is honest enough to admit that his arguments unnecessarily antagonized others on the magazine’s board:

I probably pressed too hard against the carefully tended fences of collegiality. In an overwrought phrase I regretted instantly, I characterized the decision to invade Iraq as “stupid, dangerous and hubristic.”

His resistance cost his film-making company considerable business and resulted in his having to shift his entrepreneurial emphasis into other fields. 

Other highlights are moving tributes to many of the modern conservative movement’s leaders. His essay on the late columnist Robert Novak shows how the often-nicknamed “prince of darkness” was really an engaging and sometimes charming man. But Freeman’s otherwise strong piece contained a key omission: no reference to Novak’s longtime column partner Rowland Evans. Evans was a centrist conservative, never an ideologue, and it was he who invited Novak to join him in his column. The two of them were for many years part of a small coterie of conservative opinion writers.

But that’s a minor flaw in an otherwise insightful and engaging collection of essays. Those wanting to trace the rise of the conservative movement and have fun doing it would do well to read Skirmishes.