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From AJR,   September 1998  issue

In Praise of Mentoring Young Journalists   


By Childs Walker
Childs Walker is a former AJR editorial assistant and a fourth cousin of Buckley’s.     

William F. Buckley Jr. is widely known as a conservative icon, a New England blue-blood whose views run to the right of anything Ronald Reagan ever said. But within the journalistic community, Buckley is known as something else--a generous mentor to young journalists.

Ask Richard Brookhiser, now a senior editor at National Review, the magazine Buckley founded nearly 40 years ago. Brookhiser's writing first appeared in National Review when he was 15--yes, 15. How many grizzled journalists would recognize and nurture the talent of a 15-year-old? Buckley did.

Or ask Weekly Standard senior editor David Brooks, a former Wall Street Journal op-ed editor. Brooks first caught Buckley's attention when, as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, he lampooned the Great Conservative's life in the student paper. Almost two years later, Brooks joined the ranks of the National Review.

Stories of Buckley's interest in young writers abound, and in June, the Livingston Foundation recognized his mentoring skills by presenting him the Richard M. Clurman Award, an annual $5,000 prize that lauds veteran journalists for their work with younger colleagues.

New Yorker media writer Ken Auletta, one of a nine-member panel that hands out the annual Livingston Awards administered by the University of Michigan, says the prize, now in its third year, is meant to honor the late Clurman by distinguishing between editors who merely hire young writers and those who "spend a lot of time" with their protegés.

Buckley and Clurman, former chief of correspondents for Time-Life News Service, were friends, and Clurman's wife, Shirley, gave Auletta the idea of nominating Buckley. Clurman was always impressed by Buckley's generosity with young writers, Auletta says, and research quickly supported Clurman's view.

Buckley says he was surprised to win the award because he had never heard of it. But he says the recognition for him and National Review was deserved for the sheer volume of young talent that has passed through the magazine's doors.

Others say Buckley deserves credit for offering personal friendship to young associates. Brooks, for example, dined at Buckley's house his first week at National Review and later attended a Bach piano concert where he met Buckley's childhood piano teacher. Such personal interaction is rare, says Brooks, whose "emotional attachment to the magazine through [Buckley] remains strong," 13 years after his departure.

The roster of talented writers who worked as young adults for Buckley is striking. In addition to Brookhiser and Brooks, the National Review staff box has boasted George Will, Mona Charen, John Leonard, Gary Wills, Paul Gigot and John Leo.

Buckley recalls he was stunned at Brookhiser's precocity: "No 15-year-old except William Pitt the younger is supposed to be able to write like that." He admits Will was already polished when he got to National Review. And he calls Leonard's writing as a sophomore at Harvard "incandescently brilliant."

Regardless of their varying strengths, Buckley says he has always looked almost exclusively at technical skills when hiring a young writer. Thus, he has hired a number of writers who later leaned left, including Leonard and Wills. "I've always said we're running a graduate study for apostates," Buckley quips.

In fact, says Brooks, Buckley rarely pushed his writers in an ideological direction. "He picked people who seemed to have some sort of talent," he says.

Buckley says his mentoring style has always been fairly loose. His interactions with writers, he says, follow the same pattern as a writing course he taught at Yale, in which he edited stories on a large computer screen in front of the whole class. This watch-and-learn approach has influenced many without producing any Buckley clones.

"We all have our little idiosyncracies," Buckley says. "And, thank God, I've never seen any effort to imitate mine."

Whatever his methods, Buckley's results struck Auletta and the rest of the Livingston Awards committee, which included NBC's Tom Brokaw, CNN's Christiane Amanpour and New York Times Editorial Page Editor Howell Raines.

Thus, a man known for his politics won a decidedly apolitical award. "We're talking about generosity of spirit here, and politics doesn't figure," says Auletta. "Here is a man who has maintained some humility and a feeling of obligation to help people."