This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of The American Spectator. To subscribe, click here.
IT EVOLVED INTO a useful mechanism, the National Review Board of Directors.
We knew early on that there would be no such thing as a free dinner. After the meeting and the reception, after the Beef Wellington and the souffle, even after the good cigars of suspect provenance, the evening would still be young and dangerous. At any moment the host might ring his goblet and call on one of us to declaim on some obscure issue that then engaged him. Over time we got used to it, but you never really forgot your first turn in the barrel at Wm. F. Buckley’s dinner table. In my own case, I was asked to assess the “recent events at NATO headquarters.” It being the closing weeks of the NFL season those events, whatever they were, had escaped notice. My remarks were brief, pointless, and canted sharply downhill. Think of Bode Miller, windmilling off course, and you have a sense of it.
Now and then, we got the night off. A special guest would appear, drawn from Bill’s wildly eclectic circle of friends. Henry Kissinger, the great columnist Murray Kempton, liberal activist Allard Lowenstein, convicted killer Edgar Smith. You never knew who might show up. The evening that lives in memory featured Sir James Goldsmith who was at the time (roughly speaking) the richest man in the world and (not so roughly speaking) the most pontifical man this side of Rome. Asked by Bill to suggest how the fraying Anglo-American alliance might be repaired, he bounced to his feet and declared, “It’s really quite simple,” by which he appeared to mean that we were unlikely to grasp its complexity without benefit of his navigational services. “It depends on whether or not we attend to twelve straightforward axioms.” He then proceeded to describe each axiom at impressive length.
I had flown in on the redeye and, after a long day of back-to-back meetings, had consumed at least my share of Bill’s nice Bordeaux. As Sir James’s presentation rolled on I found it less and less compelling. Along about axiom #3, I nodded off. Not face down, gurgling-in-the-finger-bowl but chin-bouncing-off-the-chest, in the manner of the toy dog in the back window of the car in front of you. I caught a few winks. Sometime later I was shaken awake by a burst of applause. A relieved audience seemed to be congratulating Sir James on his march across the dry plains of axiom. He acknowledged the applause with a Windsorian wave and sat down, his face a rictus of frozen satisfaction. As the applause died away, WFB, who misses nothing, cleared his throat polysyllabically and announced, “Uhhhhh, responding for the United States… Mr. Neal Freeman.” In that special moment I guess I admired Bill almost as much as I hated myself.
I got to my feet, launched a few dozen words in search of a coherent idea and, finding none, did what we all had learned to do in circumstances of last resort. I pulled an O’Sullivan. (John O’Sullivan, the onetime editor of NR, was, like many Brits, born glib. Roused from deep slumber, he could deliver, between yawns, six chiseled paragraphs on the similarities between Gladstone and Disraeli.) I wrapped up briskly with, “I think we can all agree that Sir James’s axioms speak eloquently for themselves.” I fooled nobody, of course, with the possible exception of Sir James Goldsmith, who at least on the subject of his own magnificence could occasionally be fooled. Bill found it all so hugely amusing that I entertained the idea of hating him, too.
AS WILL BE APPARENT FROM THIS small episode, the Board dinner worked at several levels. At the threshold level, it served to separate the women from the girls. Aspirants who failed the ordeal by rhetorical fire tended to disappear, airbrushed from institutional memory. Those who remained were ushered into Bill’s inner circle, which was always a fun place to be. And where, I might add, people tended to settle in for the long haul. After 38 years on the NR Board, I ranked no higher than third in seniority.
At the operational level, the Board regulars became NR’s ready reserves. Most of the time, to be sure, the NR Board was corporate in name only. Bill as the controlling shareholder would call the shots and the rest of us would say more or less with one voice, “Attaboy, Bill.” He owned the stock and we were all theological capitalists. But when the finances of the magazine took a Dickensian turn, as they did from time to time, the NR Board was there, pre-briefed, bonded to the enterprise, and ready to heave to. (I can remember serving on one of those “special committees” with Joseph Donner, a savvy Wall Streeter who had acquired a Ph.D. in German history in his spare time. In the course of an afternoon, Joe dashed off a turnaround plan for which Booz Allen would have charged six figures.)
By far the greatest benefit of these dinners, however, was the opportunity to calibrate NR’s center of ideological gravity. To even close readers of the magazine, it no doubt seemed that the magazine spoke with the distinctive and authoritative voice of WFB — the one man in our one-man, one-vote editorial regime. But for all his gifts of insight and expression, not to mention his hierarchical dominance, Bill was always factually hungry and intellectually humble. He rarely imposed his view at the outset of discussion, preferring to hear from others before refining and declaring his own position. In the dialectic of the magazine, he rarely advanced thesis or counterposed antithesis. His natural mode was synthesis. That is, while he may have been uncomfortable watching James Burnham and Frank Meyer batter each other — and their showdowns in my own staff days could turn into draining Borg-McEnroe five-setters — he was happy to learn from them.
As the dinners evolved, then, they were rarely the occasion for issuing encyclicals in matters of conservative faith and almost always a convocation of the likeminded in pursuit of fresh doctrine. At the end of most of those evenings, with his thoughts neatly gathered, Bill would say goodnight, go upstairs, and write a column, sometimes spiced with unattributed quotes from his dinner guests. A few days later we would open the newspaper to find Bill’s elegantly synthesized position on the issue of the day. If you want to perceive in this process a right-wing conspiracy resulting in a party line, be my guest. There are worse ways to run a political movement.
AND SO WE CAME TO 9/11. On that unforgettable Tuesday morning, a series of ugly events occurred. Unspeakable death and destruction that produced terror and fear and, soon thereafter, the birth of a pernicious cliche. It was said and then repeated and then echoed and then chanted that “9/11 changed everything.” Never underestimate the power of clichE to sweep all argument before it. In Washington at least, 9/11 did seem to change everything. Less than a year earlier, George Bush had been elected President on a foreign policy platform with three planks: (1) that the U.S. would not act as the world’s policeman; (2) that the U.S. would be humble before the nations of the world; and (3) that the U.S. would not engage in nation-building. Taken together, these three planks added up to a conventionally conservative approach, a platform that had been roundly endorsed by NR. Now, with a 180-degree whiplash, the Bush administration began to rumble about “regime change” and “going it alone,” and “building a democratic Iraq.” Call this 9/12 approach whatever you will — utopian, neoconservative, Wilsonian — it could not fairly be characterized as “conservative.” And thus was set the agenda for every Board discussion from the fall of 2001 through the summer of 2004. We would talk about Iraq.
In the early rounds of the running debate, I would guesstimate that sentiment ran three-to-two in favor of the Iraq invasion. (I should note that the subject of Afghanistan was quickly put to one side. It was a straight-line projection of long-standing NR policy that we should respond to 9/11 with disproportionate force and to disproportionate effect. If there was reservation within the circle about the assault on Afghanistan, it was no more than quiddity.) I was at first opposed to the Iraq invasion based on my skepticism about the presence of weapons of mass destruction. What information I had was not first-hand and dispositive. It was more interstitial and suggestive.
Over the years, I had served on the boards of a number of defense contractors all of which did classified work. Two of them had provided information that, it’s not too much to say, proved vital to U.S. security interests. A third developed technology that, perhaps second only to nuclear weaponry, tipped the balance of terror against the Soviet Union. A fourth was the only private entity I’m aware of whose employees came under attack in all three 9/11 buildings — a clandestine office in one tower, a protective service post in the other tower, civilian contractors at the Pentagon. A fifth company ran supplies to America’s unacknowledged allies in sundry twilight struggles. I spent a lot of seat-miles with these people.
Additionally, as a journalist I had produced for many years the PBS foreign affairs series, American Interests. In the course of an average week, I talked to a score of sources professionally engaged in matters of national security — defense, diplomacy, intelligence. I stayed in touch with these people. Finally, as a resident of northern Virginia’s high-tech corridor for 20 years, I rubbed elbows with members of “the community” all week long — at the gym, at school events, at overpriced coffee bars. If you happen to reside in Kohler, Wisconsin, I suppose that the chat turns to sinks and tubs. In Vienna and Reston you talk shop, too. What struck me was that, over the course of the 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, I never encountered a single professional who knew that the case for WMD had been established.
The editors of NR were unafflicted by such doubts. Along with the rest of the commentariat, right, left, and center, they seemed to take it as a given that Saddam had built a serious WMD arsenal. When I would press them on this point at meetings, their impatience would show: “Oh please, he used them on his own people” or “Come on, why do you think he threw out the arms inspectors” or some other such non-responsive response. I wondered then and wonder still how so many people — all of them bright and journalistically trained people — could have been so trusting of secondary and partisan sources. My best guess is that it was an example of what psychologists call rational herding, which is the modeling of your beliefs on the beliefs of others whom you presume to be better informed. Rational or otherwise, there was much herding. By January of 2003, as we rolled up the ramp to war, I was the only director who spoke against the invasion. Eleven people spoke in favor, with the rest in tacit concurrence.
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