In a span of 252 days, the National Review lost two Buckleys — one to death, another to resignation — and an election.
Now, thanks to the coarsening effect of the Internet on political discourse, the magazine may have lost something else: its reputation as the cradle for conservative intellectuals and home for erudite and well-mannered debate prized by its founder, the late William F. Buckley Jr.
In the general conservative blogosphere and in The Corner, National Review’s popular blog, the tenor of debate — particularly as it related to the fitness of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be vice president — devolved into open nastiness during the campaign season, laying bare debates among conservatives that in a pre-Internet age may have been kept behind closed doors.
National Review, as the most pedigreed voice of conservatives, has often been tainted — unfairly and by association, some argue — by the tone of blogs, reader comments and e-mail messages. “Bill was always very concerned about having a high-minded and thoughtful discourse,” Rich Lowry, the magazine’s editor, said. “If you read the magazine, that’s what it was and that’s what it is.”
In October came the resignation of Mr. Buckley’s son, the writer and satirist Christopher Buckley, after he endorsed Barack Obama for president. He did so on Tina Brown’s blog, The Daily Beast, to avoid any backlash on The Corner.
Now David Frum, a prominent conservative writer who enmeshed himself in a minor dustup during the campaign by turning negative on Governor Palin, is leaving, too. In an interview, he said he planned to leave the magazine, where he writes a popular blog, to strike out on his own on the Web.
“The answers to the Republican dilemma are not obvious and we need a vibrant discussion,” he said. “I think a little more distance can help everybody do a better job of keeping their temper.”
Richard Brookhiser is a senior editor at National Review and probably has a bigger store of institutional knowledge than anyone, having written his first article, in 1970. “I think the tone of what we do, I’m certainly proud of,” he said. “You can’t be responsible for the world.”
The magazine faces the twin challenges of re-energizing the conservative movement while trying to stay relevant itself amid a shifting media landscape that is challenging the authority of all old-line media institutions.
“There’s a lot of thinking to be done,” said Mr. Lowry, in the magazine’s mostly empty New York offices two days after Mr. Obama won the presidency. Nearly all the staff was getting ready to go to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., for a postelection fund-raising cruise in which readers, editors and guest speakers mix for a week of conservative conversation, but Mr. Lowry stayed behind to put out the new issue.
“We’ve always had rigorous internal debates,” he said. “But the advent of the blogosphere and e-mail and the rest of it have made it easier to blast out their impassioned instant reactions.
“It’s discomfiting, but it’s the world we live in, unless someone — Al Gore? — can uninvent the Internet.”
A frequent criticism is that the magazine has become a megaphone for Republican Party orthodoxy — and in these appraisals is a longing for the intellectual firepower of Mr. Buckley, and the surprise twists in his views.
The magazine was founded during the Eisenhower administration, a Republican one, of which it was often critical. Mr. Buckley was also a critic of the war on drugs and supported legalization; in 1969 he said it was time for America to elect a black president. Of course, this came after he opposed the civil rights movement; he later said his position was wrong.
Wick Allison, publisher of the magazine from 1990 to 1993, believes that over the last several years the magazine became “the intellectual defender of the Bush administration” and said it had “run out of ideas.”
Jacob Weisberg, editor in chief of the Slate Group and a longtime observer of and participant in the political magazine sphere, said, “I think Frum is the most interesting writer they have. You can’t assume he’ll come down on the side of the party line.”
“I think the problem of conservative magazines is they often follow the party line more than liberal magazines,” he said.
Mr. Lowry said the magazine had never been a partisan cheerleader, and the role of the magazine during an Obama presidency would be to provide “intelligent, disciplined opposition.”
They will do that, for the first time, without a Buckley on staff. Christopher Buckley declined to comment beyond writing via e-mail that “I have nothing but the warmest feelings for NR and everyone there, and look forward eagerly to its coverage of a new Democratic administration.”
Mr. Frum said deciding to leave was amicable, but distancing himself from the magazine founded by his idol, Mr. Buckley, was not a hard decision. He said the controversy over Governor Palin’s nomination for vice president was “symbolic of a lot of differences” between his views and those of National Review’s.
“I am really and truly frightened by the collapse of support for the Republican Party by the young and the educated,” he said.
Mr. Frum witnessed the upbraiding his fellow conservative, the columnist Kathleen Parker, received when she wrote in her syndicated column on the National Review’s Web site arguing that Governor Palin was unfit to be vice president. Ms. Parker received nearly 11,000 e-mail messages, one of which lamented that her mother did not abort her.
“Who says public discourse hasn’t deteriorated?” she wrote in a followup column that ran on the Web site. (National Review, as Mr. Lowry pointed out, can hardly be held responsible for a reader’s nasty e-mail messages.)
William F. Buckley — and this will probably always be the case — still towers over the magazine. As Mr. Lowry sat down in a conference room to be interviewed, a former assistant to the founder was scouring archives for material for a forthcoming article in Vanity Fair about him and his wife, Pat, also deceased, who was a Manhattan socialite.
“With the bailout, I’ve been wondering what he would have thought, because conservatives were so divided,” he said. “I’ve been wondering what he would have thought about Palin.
“I’m sure he would have admired Obama’s rhetorical ability and his stage presence. But like for all of us, it’s about ideas,” Mr. Lowry said.
Mr. Frum added, “William F. Buckley was an inspiration, not just in how to think but in how to conduct a discussion. He was just a pre-eminently civilized human being.”
The magazine, like some others devoted to ideas and politics, has the luxury of not needing to make money. It is judged by how fervently it can incubate ideas — not as a going business concern. This year, there has been a small increase in circulation. At the start of the year, its circulation was 169,000, which has grown to about 185,000 for its latest postelection issue, which will arrive this week in mailboxes. The magazine’s Web site has also been successful. In October, it had 788,000 unique visitors, up almost 200 percent from the previous year, according to comScore. By comparison, The Weekly Standard had 490,000 unique visitors in October.
It is not that National Review, founded in 1955, has not endured political adversity. There was Barry Goldwater’s thumping in 1964. Then Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. And Bill Clinton was elected in 1992, which helped energize the magazine.
The Republicans took over Congress in 1994, and along the way National Review enjoyed a big uptick in circulation and its first-ever — and still only — profit. As 1992 began, the magazine’s circulation was 150,000; by 1994, it had jumped to 250,000.
After Mr. Clinton was elected, “there was this burst of energy throughout the right,” Mr. Lowry said. “There is a countercyclical nature to this business.”
“I’m excited about going forward,” Mr. Lowry said. “There’s a lot of gallows humor. Every conservative I talk to is saying: ‘This is going to be great for you guys. Circulation is going to go up.’