A Half-Century of Battles
Larry Thornberry
by

Skirmishes
By Neal B. Freeman
(National Review Books, 322 pages, $25)

Neal Freeman’s byline is one that more conservatives should be acquainted with. Happily, those not familiar with this ever-faithful conservative warrior, both a combatant and a clear and able chronicler of the ideological battles, can catch up with him through this collection of columns, articles, and speeches. They cover significant events, trends, and personalities in the conservative movement from the days of Goldwater to the age of Trump. The previously published pieces in Skirmishes appeared in such as National Review, the Wall Street Journal, and, happy to say, The American Spectator. 

As a writer and editor for National Review from 1963 and a life-long confidant of conservative Godfather William F. Buckley Jr., Freeman was well positioned not only to observe but participate in the engagements that helped establish conservatism as a respected body of thought and to help give America an alternative to the unchallenged liberalism of the 1950s. Freeman not only wrote for NR when it was the lonely voice of conservatism in an America awash in a sea of vapid liberalism, but he managed Buckley’s 1965 campaign for mayor of New York City and then produced Buckley’s long-running TV interview show Firing Line. Not content to work for one conservative big foot, Freeman later produced Ronald Reagan’s TV appearances while The Gipper was president. Along the way he found time to found his own advisory firm, the Blackwell Corporation, and to fetch in various journalism awards.

Freeman is a clear and graceful writer, able to capture the essence of the important events he enjoyed a ringside seat for. He not only shares with readers the importance of the events, but their essential humor as well. He can be very funny, especially about Buckley’s mayoral race in 1965, which was at once intellectually serious and hilarious. The humorous quote that most remember from that one came from when a reporter asked Buckley what he would do if he won. “Demand a recount,” came the reply.

There were plenty of other memorable quotes in the race that Buckley lost badly in the final vote count, but managed by Election Day to win respect, however grudging, for conservative ideas and for himself. As for who ultimately lost the most, consider how many people are concerned now with the wit and wisdom of Abe Beame or John Lindsey. These two are there in the Wikipedia list of mayors of New York City. They’re otherwise lucky to be answers to Trivial Pursuit questions. But Bill Buckley…

Reporters of the day had never heard conservative ideas with such clarity and coherence, or from a spokesman as charismatic and charming as Buckley. Here Freeman describes how reporters “stayed for the bons mots that Bill sprinkled around promiscuously, as if they were bead necklaces tossed from a Mardi Gras float. Bill was good copy. And it didn’t hurt that he was running against (Abe) Beame, five-feet-five inches of banality, and (John) Lindsey, six-feet-three-inches of vapidity. Beame and Lindsey seemed to be quotable only when quoting Bill, usually in high, theatrical dudgeon.”

In Skirmishes Freeman observes that WFB, Jr. “clears his throat polysyllabically.” We all noticed that. Of one-time NR editor John O’Sullivan, we’re told he “was, like so many Brits, born glib.” Spot on. Of the post-Reagan ideological drift of the Republican Party, Freeman writes, “With George W. Bush, conservatives voted for Reagan and got Nixon.” Of the utter cluelessness about flyover America on the part of mainsteam media types, “There are certain political stories that only political reporters are perfectly equipped to misunderstand.”  One’s political memory has to go back to 1964 and the Goldwater campaign to get the one about “Bill Miller time.” On the cultural contempt elites had for Ronald Reagan, Freeman nails it with, “The smarties never seemed to figure out that he was one of us, and had no secret ambition to be one of them.

A signal Freeman talent is the ability to capsulize historical figures, events, and institutions colorfully, pithily, and dead accurately. Just a couple of examples. First, on Tricky Dick:

Nixon was a close student of political architecture. In his political life, he was a full-spectrum fusionist — Social conservative, free-market man, national-security hawk. In choosing his speech-writing staff he cued up the perfect singers for every number on the conservative jukebox, from the Irish tenor Pat Buchanan to the Ivy League crooner Ray Price to the New York saloon singer Bill Safire. But that was Nixon’s political profile — all fusionist, all the time. His policy profile was altogether different. His uncontained enthusiasm ran from EPA and OSHA to arms control and welfare to — and, after all these years I still find this hard to believe — wage and price controls. Unfortunately for Nixon, Lincoln proved to be correct in the matter of fooling people. Conservatives turned sullen and then mutinous and at the end refused to save Nixon when his campaign people got into the breaking-and-entering business.

I particularly enjoyed his sendup of the contemporary American university, written on the occasion of his daughter’s graduation from the University of Southern California, a different matter from his own university experience as a Yalie (1962):

Where I come from universities are at least 200 years old, covered with mortar-fed Ivy, and dominated by a sociology department from hell. It’s a place of high learning and higher pretension, a place where action is no substitute for words, a place where a boy feels no unseemly pressure to grow into a man. A proper university, Eastern and effete, is a wondrous thing. Dodgers of drafts can become leaders of men, they tell me.

I’ve chosen some of the more amusing examples of Freeman’s work. But there is plenty of serious and thought-provoking work here by one of conservatism’s real deals. Skirmishes is essential for the conservative’s library. It offers readers hours of insights and amusement under the lamp. I’ve alerted Santa and he’s on board.

Larry Thornberry
Larry Thornberry
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Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.
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