National Review celebrated its 60th anniversary last November. Its founder, William F. Buckley, Jr., would have been days away from turning 90. He is all over the anniversary issue, in a somewhat exploitive way—many photographs and reminders of his celebrity status, including an image of the brand of peanut butter he endorsed. Indeed, just as Buckley acted practically as Red Wing’s mascot, so he is serving posthumously as NR’s. This is understandable, since the magazine has never come close in the quarter-century since his retirement as editor in 1990 to finding a replacement to fill either his workaday cordovan shoes or his patent-leather opera pumps.
It is Bill Buckley the celebrity whom the present editorial board wishes you to associate with the magazine, not the Buckley (let us say) pre-1968. Anniversary issues typically attempt to recall and commemorate a magazine’s institutional and literary history. Not this one. The founding editors are mentioned, but samples of their work are nowhere reprinted, while the editors and contributors from 1955 to 1989 are ignored completely, save for the few—for example, Richard Brookhiser—who remain on staff. The general impression the issue leaves is that the magazine really began when John O’Sullivan effectively took control in 1989. There is a reason for this—a disingenuous, not to say dishonest, reason. Nowhere in this celebration of six decades of NR will you learn (or be reminded) that in the 1950’s the magazine supported Sen. Joseph McCarthy and strongly opposed the Civil Rights Act while defending the constitutional principle of states’ rights. Nowhere will you learn that National Review did not spring from Buckley’s brain like Athena from the forehead of Zeus but rather had a pedigree in the Old Right, which Jonah Goldberg dismisses as “a pretty motley crew” that included “individualists . . . agrarians . . . traditionalists, and a glorious smattering of brilliant cranks, literary curmudgeons, and cape-wearing misanthropes”; significantly, Goldberg fails to mention isolationists like Robert Taft. Nowhere will you read that from the early 70’s until Buckley’s departure a brave and brilliant essayist named M.J. Sobran was a dominant voice at the magazine before being fired for his politically incorrect writings on U.S. policy in the Middle East. In other words, the editors wish you not to know (or to forget) that National Review has (by today’s standards) a disreputable past, and that indeed its founding editor was himself disreputable, as were many of the magazine’s most brilliantly original personalities—“cape-wearers.” (A principal reason why this celebratory issue is so dull is that none of the contributors displays any personality, or originality of intellect, at all.) The new National Review does not deny or disavow its history, exactly, but it is trying to bury it. Conservatives aren’t supposed to treat the past that way.
The truth is, National Review for the past 25 years has not been conservative; it has been merely Republican. The editors claim in their introduction that “The Republican Party . . . is more conservative than at any time since the 1920s,” and seem to think their magazine can take some credit for this. (In fact, as Clyde Wilson once remarked, the Republican Party has never conserved anything in its history.) Almost to a man, the contributors to this issue are respectable journalists and policy setters endorsing mainstream Republican ideas about the need for an ever stronger military and the continuation of the “War on Terror,” for American “leadership” and sustained intervention abroad; about the evils of government regulation of business, legislation to address climate change and antipollution measures; the sacredness of freedom (in the Republican sense of the word); and so on.
As of April 2015, the magazine’s paid circulation had declined from 154,786 to 137,681 over the previous 12 months. On the one hand, it’s surprising that all literate registered Republicans don’t take National Review. On the other, they can find the same reading matter in a thousand other places, and for no money.