There’s been a lot of chatter lately about the death of conservatism. And perhaps there is something to it. It may indeed be time to move toward a political philosophy that more accurately reflects the current composition of the Republican Party, captures their vision and expresses their core principles.
But to move forward, one should always look back. Who were the influential players who brought us this conservative movement? How did it come about? Was it all down and dirty or were there good times and friendships mixed in between that tell us more about the personalities and predilections of key players in the movement?
One cannot and should not discuss Conservatism in America without prominently mentioning the name William F. Buckley and of course his legacy – National Review magazine.
Liberty Nation sat down recently with a couple who was at the forefront of Buckley’s conservative movement, who believed in it, who helped fund it and ultimately find themselves a little less than satisfied with where it currently stands.
Joseph W. Donner, Jr. not only served on the board of the National Review almost since its inception, but he also put his money where his mouth was and became part and parcel of that band of conservatives who moved the nation into the modern conservative era and beyond.
Now at age ninety, Mr. Donner and his wife Pamela Cushing Donner sat down with me in their Upper East Side home in New York City to discuss their close association and lifetime of interaction with Bill Buckley, his wife Pat and others.
As a personal disclosure, I’ve known Mr. and Mrs. Donner for the past thirty-seven years, the last thirty-one as their daughter-in-law. From the very early days until now, I have always found these two individuals to be not only honest and passionate conservatives but intelligent and witty as well. Their personal stories published below are fun and captivating. As well, their perspective on the current conservative movement is worth considering, as I hope you will determine from the following interview:
LN: All right. Joe, tell me a little bit about how you first got involved with National Review and maybe when that was.
Joe: National Review’s first issue was in November of 1955. At that time, I was probably cognizant of it but not in any way involved. Over the next year and a half, I received copies of this early, at that time I think, bi-weekly. But it wasn’t until late summer of 1957 that I became involved with National Review. In August of that year, Bill Buckley who was, of course, the whole driving force, originator and almost one-man genius at National Review — after being chairman of the Yale Daily News during his undergraduate years — he sought an investment in Omaha, Nebraska, an investment which turned out to be very unfortunate.
He bought, begged, or borrowed the money, I suppose, to invest in a radio station which was number one in Omaha at that time, August of ’57. What he didn’t know and learned from hard experience was that this number one station would soon lose its prime position and therefore a lot of its ad revenue and would rapidly become a loss leader for the new proud owner of National Review. At that time, myself and Evan Galbraith, a close friend of Bill’s and fellow Bonesman from Yale, and ultimately President Reagan’s Ambassador to France, came aboard National Review. I stayed on the board from that late summer ’57 until about the end of the 20th century.
Thanks to the personal financial fortune which I was given by a very smart grandfather, I was able to be a strong and regular annual contributor to the magazine which I do believe was important to its survival during those early years. I do note that Bill Buckley, presiding genius, had one perceived failing in my humble opinion — he was too aggressively attack prone when it came to legal issues. He wanted to get after those he didn’t care for. He was, therefore, I thought, too litigious.
LN: Joe, who were the early players at National Review with whom you remember working?
Joe: I was very familiar with [William] Rusher. Somewhat familiar with Neal Freeman. He and I were fellow board members. Freeman for a while, I for a long while. These were all supporters and/or contributors in terms of writing articles. I have particularly fond memories of Publisher Bill Rusher as a part of the early National Review Community. He was publisher from 1956 until he retired and moved from New York to San Francisco where he spent his remaining days. I had the privilege of seeing him out there. He became a close personal friend.
LN: Now, you and Pam were good friends with Bill and Pat Buckley.
Joe: We were indeed.
LN: What were they like? Can you talk a little bit about them, Pam?
Pam: Amazing couple. Both the most powerful people in their own way, right Joe?
Pam: I mean, Pat could be very sarcastic. She could be very rough and tough in the things she said, but she was underneath one of the nicest most loyal people you every could meet. We happened to live nearby. We would see quite a bit of them. Bill always had a priest hanging around, so everything was fairly dignified under those circumstances. But she gave the best party you ever would encounter. She was divine. She was tall and so beautifully dressed at all times with I think had a world class sense of humor.
Joe: She was certainly one that didn’t stop for fools.
Pam: No, she didn’t. They had a lovely son called Christopher, their only child. But she was very dogmatic about things. She was very strict on her only child. But we had a lot of fun out in Wallack’s Point [Stamford, CT] together. Bill loved it so much primarily because he loved sailing. It was a tremendous outlet for Bill. When things would get tough or difficult, he would run down to his boat which was not too far down the road from where we all were in Wallack’s Point, get on that boat and go out, with others or alone.
Joe: I would say Bill sought solace in sailing.
Pam: Because Bill was absent with a good deal of traveling and various things, Pat was very social and went to all the big parties in New York. Actually, she did a wonderful thing for me and Memorial Hospital. One of Van Galbraith’s children who Joe mentioned earlier, Bill’s closest friend — one of Van and Bootsie’s children died of cancer at Memorial Hospital. Nan Kempner — a name that’s also very well-known in New York socially and philanthropically — we all talked about what we could to remember this little child who died. I remember writing Pat and saying, “Would you and Nan head this committee for Memorial?” Pat wrote back and said, “Pam, you know I’m involved in many things. That’s out of the question. I can’t do that.”
Usually, I’m not that good at raising money at all. But that was the only time I was successful, I think. I said, “Pat, we’re all talking about what we could do in memory of this child and to help cancer in general. Why can’t you and Nan please start this committee?” Indeed, they did, and it became a most powerful committee here in New York raising money. She didn’t have to do it, but she was a loyal person to many people.
Pam: Pat went to all the parties and so forth in New York at that time. But I always had a feeling that Bill didn’t enjoy those big social dressy occasions as much as he enjoyed more laid back conversation and easy times. Would you agree with that, Joe?
Joe: I think you can definitely say that Bill Buckley was a small group guy, no question.
Joe: One of my most fond memories was of the National Review Board dinners at Bill and Pat’s very nice, slightly grand, 73rd Street home in New York City. Twice a year the meeting of the board would start promptly at, I think, 5:00. When it was over, always at a prompt time, we would stop and have drinks and then go into the dining room with two big round tables. Bill presided at one, and Pat at the other.
Always, there was the comment made by Pat, “Well, Ducky, what about this or that?” Various people would be asked at the table in turn to make a comment about some event of the day, something that might be of interest, directly or indirectly with National Review, of course. Those very elegant dinners and they were quite elegant, were a very pleasant part of the deal of being associated with National Review. It was always more than “just business” with Bill.
Pam: One other thing I was thinking about that is very important to realize about Bill was his Christian faith. It was a very significant part of his life. I remember him talking about the time (when one of his sisters had died), and he went to see the family. She had a lot of young children. — and he arrived there, and his little niece was desperate and crying, and everything and she said, “But Uncle Bill, Uncle Bill, Uncle Bill. Where is mommy? Where is she going? He said, “No question. We have absolutely no question. She is right up there, and you look up there and you talk to her up there, and she will be listening, and you can talk to her about everything.” And this child said, “Oh, Uncle Bill. I feel so much better.” And I love that story because it said so much about Bill and his tenderness. He loved children.
LN: What about Bill and Pat as a couple?
Pam: Even though a lot of people wondered how close they were because they were going in different directions – the reality was that they were always quite close. After Pat had died and we were right there at that time, particularly close, he didn’t want to live anymore after she passed away. She was just a fundamental part of him. Even though he was big as life – and indeed he did live a very big life — he gained a tremendous amount from being married to her.
LN: Do you remember any amusing moments from your times with Pat and Bill?
Pam: In the early days of National Review – I’m thinking it was in the 1960’s we said to Bill, “Come and stay overnight,” while he was visiting Princeton and we were living there. So, he came, and another couple found out he was coming and asked if they could come over as well. They all came for cocktails. I didn’t really know Bill very well at that time. I mean, this was very early. I was kind of intimidated by him, to be honest. I mean, Joe would get materials sent to him, and I would look at it, about politics, and it seemed way over my head. But anyway, so after these people left, Bill said to Joe, “I don’t want you to stay in the room. I need to speak to Pam alone,” and I started to shake in my chair, “Oh my God. What I am going to say… I don’t know anything about politics.” “I started to get almost desperate. ”
Then he said to me, “Whenever I’m having a very serious conversation, I have to have peanut butter.” “Oh, my heavens, I thought — I hope to God we have some in the kitchen.” We went out to the kitchen, and we did. He made himself something, and I didn’t know what this was all about. He came back into the living room, and he began to tell me about a close friend of his who was having major problems, and I happened to know them, and he wanted to know my very honest opinion about what he should, or should not do to help them out. He was that kind of person – concerned about others and concerned about being a good friend.
Joe: It was a peanut butter moment.
Pam: I believe Chris, his son, even put peanut butter in his father’s coffin. Peanut butter was very important to Bill.
LN: Moving forward, so Bill and Pat had both passed on — knowing Bill like you did for thirty some odd years — how do you feel National Review is doing in the 21st Century, considering it was his brain child?
Joe: Well, my comment would be that looking in now entirely from the outside, no longer affiliated with NR, I see them on Fox News Channel and other places: I would say they’re doing quite well from a success standpoint, but I would say that I believe from a content perspective National Review is now pretty good rather than very good. That is a comment that I will stand by. I think that their forecasting of what’s really going on in the world isn’t as sharp as it used to be, isn’t as blunt, maybe. Some might think that’s good, especially RINOs, (Republicans in Name Only). I like to think I’m not one of those, being a pro-Donald Trump person as is my wife, Pam. They certainly haven’t been “for Trump.”
Nevertheless, I think National Review has been a progenitor of other conservative publications like The Weekly Standard, also the American Spectator, which is guided and driven by Bob Tyrrell, a good personal friend of mine. So, from a strictly success standpoint, they are doing quite well.
LN: Let me ask you a final question: knowing Bill and Pat as long as you did, what advice would you give to the current National Review board that you think Bill might suggest?
Joe: This advice certainly might very well not be heeded, but I would say try to do a good mixture of topics as before. Try to be a bit combative but always stay solidly the right of center. Try to make a mark with an occasional, unusual, conservative story or slant, maybe holding the new president’s feet to the fire or by highlighting some place he might have slipped. Do it with a sharp critique but keep it “friendly fire.”
LN: Pam, your thoughts?
Pam: Well, somebody that strikes me as being the kind of person that Bill would have been interested in is a fellow called Tucker Carlson now on FOX News. I think Bill would have really appreciated Tucker. He would have liked his passion. He would have liked his sense of humor. He goes a little too far occasionally. Bill would have liked that too. It just strikes me right off the bat that he’s the kind of young person Bill might have been interested in.
LN: Articulate and bright?
Joe: And not afraid like Bill to be argumentative.
LN: But open to what’s the new president is offering.
Pam: Yes, exactly. Because Bill always got along with everybody. There was only one person that he lost his temper with.
Joe: That was Gore Vidal – in 1968.
Pam: But Bill could be tough. And I think Tucker might have to apologize once in a while for some of the things he says but Bill would like that, too. Don’t you think, Joe:
Joe: In 1969, Bill was in a position to be able to garner I believe it was something like 15% of the vote for mayor of New York in which a famous remark was made by him as a rejoinder to the question that if he won, what would happen, and he said, “I would demand a recount.” Yes, the man who demanded a recount. He was tough, but he was like no other.
Pam: Ah, yes, exactly.
A widely published columnist, Leesa previously worked in the broadcast news industry as a television news anchor, reporter, and producer at NBC, CBS and Fox affiliates in Charlotte, Pittsburgh, and Washington, DC.She is the author of "Free At Last: A Life-Changing Journey through the Gospel of Luke."