Two books not to be missed

Posted: Aug 26, 2005 12:00 AM

James Burnham, philosopher and senior editor of National Review for many years, once nudged Bill Buckley, confiding, "Bill, you and I think we are putting out a magazine, but what we actually have is Miss Buckley's finishing school for young ladies and gentlemen of conservative persuasion."
This aside was provoked by Burnham's having overheard Priscilla Buckley shepherding one of the dozens of young editorial assistants who were lucky enough (I was one) to land in the rarefied offices of 150 East 35th Street during her long reign as managing editor. For those who could not be there in the flesh, Miss Buckley has now produced a vivid and enchanting memoir, "Living It Up at National Review," that will take readers very much inside the temple.

 Any magazine of opinion is bound to attract more than its share of eccentrics, misfits and geniuses, and Buckley offers pungent and amusing descriptions of some of those who graced NR's masthead. These are, by and large, gentle sketches, but still highly entertaining. Buckley combines a sharp eye and quick wit with an overarching benevolence. So we learn whose desk was the messiest (Joe Sobran once missed a phone call because after eight rings, he still could not locate the phone "under mounds of paper, six-packs, radios, lives of Dr. Johnson, suitcases, magazines, empty envelopes, and important lost manuscripts that formed a five-foot-high ziggurat on his desk") and whose the most painstakingly orderly (Bill Rusher's). We learn how the "Willmoore Kendall memorial couch" got its name (not fit for a family newspaper) and how the editors tormented Bill Buckley by producing a "dummy" edition of the magazine, bursting with every grammatical, social and literary error he particularly loathed, and mailing it off to Switzerland where Bill was writing his annual book.

 Best of all, readers get the incomparable pleasure of Priscilla Buckley's company as she reminisces about her energetic life outside 35th Street. This 5 foot 2 inch, graceful, refined anchor of NR partook of a quite breathtaking extracurricular life: She played championship-level golf, ballooned, went on Safari (and not armed with a camera), rafted down the most dangerous part of the Colorado River, and visited some of the remotest spots on the globe. Her gifts for description -- and for living -- make this a wonderful read.

 Another essential entry on the "must have" book list is Betsy Hart's "It Takes a Parent." (Women conservatives are so prolific these days!) Syndicated columnist and mother of four, Hart has given us a touching, funny, wise and trenchant analysis of what the modern parenting culture has wrought. Not only do many parents fail at elementary discipline -- and there is plenty of statistical evidence that children are misbehaving more than they once did -- but adults also flounder when it comes to the basic and elementary understanding of the role of the parent.

 A parent's job, Hart argues, is much more profound than merely training a child to behave him or herself (though for many modern parents, this alone would be a miracle). This most sacred of responsibilities involves shaping and shepherding a child's heart. It is not enough to guard kids from the evils of the popular culture, she notes, though that is necessary. A parent must teach a child to face down the selfish, tyrannical, impatient and ungrateful part of his own heart.

 This is the idea with which modernity is at war. Just as Rousseau taught that man was naturally good but merely corrupted by civilization, so the parenting experts advise us that children's essential virtue should be elicited. Parenting magazines (perhaps not aware of their debt to Rousseau) advise "Seven Ways to Avoid Saying No to Your Children," and a leading authority advises that "To help our children make wise decisions in their lives, we have always given them the freedom of choice."

 In fact, as Hart most lovingly attests, children are unbelievably winsome and precious, but we do neither them nor our society any favors by failing to recognize that their characters need molding by their parents who are -- gasp -- older and wiser.