National Review in ’72

One of many delightful surprises at National Review’s 50th anniversary celebration was a marvelous new book by Priscilla Buckley, “Living It Up at National Review.” Living it up? Aren’t conservatives supposed to be deadly dull?

One story I remember well. William F. Buckley’s puckish sisters Priscilla and Carole conspired with the impish senior editors Jeff Hart and James Burnham to put together a bogus issue of the magazine while Bill was out of the country. The editorials were to contain every element of bad writing and bad taste we could dream up.

I contributed an awful melange of economic gobbledygook, alluding to “stochastic magnitudes” and nonsensical estimates carried out to three decimal points. It had plenty of exclamation points!! Bill just (SET ITAL) despises (END ITAL) exclamation points.

He was totally taken in by our hoax. This is the first time I’ve seen his pained reaction to how poorly we all did without supervision. Like the rest of the book, it was a lot of mischievous fun.

On the more serious side, Bill Buckley has always been a terrific talent scout. While I worked there from 1972 to 1976, George Will was soon snatched away by Newsweek and I was later recruited first by a Wall Street firm, then a Chicago Bank. NR’s legal genius Dan Oliver stayed on to be executive editor. He went on to become general counsel at the departments of Education and Agriculture in the Reagan years, then chairman of the Federal Trade Commission. Tony Dolan, another former NR staffer, was President Reagan’s chief speechwriter.

Younger National Review alumni include Paul Gigot, editor of The Wall Street Journal, New York Times columnist David Brooks, syndicated columnist Mona Charen and many others. You have to wonder if such talented writers would ever have had a chance were it not for National Review.

My personal debt is shared with the late James Burnham, a senior editor from the beginning. At a recent editorial dinner at his home, Bill reminded me it was Burnham who was most enthusiastic about an article I sent them in July 1971, “The Case Against Wage and Price Controls.” President Nixon did me the huge favor of imposing wage and price controls on Aug. 15. So my article became an NR cover story.

I was managing the main floor of a JCPenney store in Sacramento, Calif., and going to grad school at night. Several weeks after my article appeared, Bill invited me to lunch in his San Francisco hotel suite, where there were red and white wines with different courses, one of which he described as “generically sound.” I’d have followed him anywhere at that point, even if he hadn’t rescued me from a four-figure income. As Priscilla notes, he hired me on the spot.

I became the economics editor for four years and also helped with Bill’s mail. When he first asked me to “vet” pseudo-scientific letters about the evils of marijuana, I ran to the dictionary to find out what “vet” means. When he later took a huge risk by coming out for decriminalization of marijuana, I suspected that I might have contributed some useful vetting.

In the ’60s and early ’70s, National Review was about the only significant publication willing to print economic commentary that was noticeably critical of the socialist and Keynesian nostrums of that era.

As a sample of the intellectual climate at that time, Robert Heilbroner’s 1959 book, “The Future as History,” proclaimed that: “Today and over the foreseeable future, traditional capitalism throughout most of the world has been thrown on a defensive from which it is doubtful than it can ever recover. …The trend of all industrial nations, ourselves included, (is) toward some form of collectivism.”

For aspiring economic writers like me, who harbored politically incorrect thoughts about Marx and Keynes, major newspapers and magazines were off limits. Some brave souls were saying kind words about free markets in 1971, notably intellectual giants Friedrich Hayek and Milton Friedman. But very few free market supporters had been successful writing for a wide audience. My role model Henry Hazlitt was one, John Chamberlain was another. They were both much too humble.

Later, Gary Becker, Robert Barro, Bruce Bartlett, Richard Rahn and others began publishing in popular journals. In the early ’70s, however, the right-wing dissidents were mainly confined to small-circulation journals such as Reason, Human Events, The Freeman and The Alternative (now The American Spectator). I recall giving a few of today’s best economic writers, notably David Henderson and Paul Craig Roberts, some tips on how and where to get published. It wasn’t easy, but we did it.

Many early writers at National Review were disenchanted former communists. Elsie Meyer, the widow of NR founding editor Frank Meyer, once told me that Frank had gone to “The Party” (by which she did not mean a social event) and told them they just had to answer Hayek’s “Road to Serfdom.” But they never did. So Frank became one of the most Hayekian of the early NR crew, promoting his unique “fusion” of Burkean respect for traditions, norms and institutions with libertarian insistence on a tightly limited central government.

In the early ’30s, my mentor James Burnham wrote under the pseudonym John West as a highly influential Marxist philosopher. He was a leader of the Socialist Workers Party, a 1938 Trotskyist spin-off from the U.S. Communists. To be called a “Trotskyite,” he once explained to me, was an insult.

Burnham’s 1941 book “The Managerial Revolution” heavily influenced George Orwell’s “1984.” By the time I knew him, Burnham was angry about Big Brother checking his luggage at airports. In “The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America,” George Nash writes, “More than any other single person, Burnham supplied the conservative intellectual movement with the theoretical formulation for victory in the Cold War.” In 1983, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. I miss him.

I have had the privilege of spending memorable moments with most members of the Buckley family — the most gracious, charming and witty group of people I have had the pleasure to meet. You, too, can get to know them by spending some quality time with a glass of generically sound wine and Priscilla Buckley’s wonderful memoir.

Mr. Reynolds is a senior fellow with the Cato Institute.