Friday, February 29, 2008

Remembering WFB

There’s been a tidal wave of eloquent retrospectives on the passing of William F. Buckley, Jr. Bill McGurn, Peggy Noonan, George Will, Rick Brookhiser, Rich Lowry – folks who knew WFB as a person and as a gargantuan ideological force. Most of what's written about Buckley mentions his massive intellect, his reach, his transformative ideological power. Everything written about him notes the sheer number of lives and people he touched. Count me in as one.

I’d read “God and Man at Yale” while a freshman at UC Berkeley, a highly incongruous spot to read such a book. In fact, Cal could easily have been viewed as the cultural endgame of what WFB glimpsed at his alma mater in the late 1940s. No precocious intellectual I, I didn't get all of the book. But planted on the parade ground of liberalism extremis, I sure as heck understood enough.

I transferred to Williams College as a junior, figuring on a different milieu in traditional, staid New England. I was soon a bit surprised to see around campus and inculcated in many kids nearly the same Berkeley ethos I’d just left – the apartheid “shanty towns,” the rants about multinational corporations and and baby grey whale seals and pesticides and greed and pollution and "workers" and yes, a militant vegetarianism -- the whole liberal shopping cart. Compleing the farce was a political science department chairman who was a proud Communist, an Austrian who wore leggings and a mustache like Hindenburg's. It was All Too Much and the logical refuge was National Review and WFB.

Spring 1983 -- I was living at home with my affectionate but dangerously liberal parents. I was interviewing with the CIA, freelancing for Surfing and Surfer magazines, and playing in a band. On a whim, I wrote him WFB a letter, enclosing my clippings, including some articles I'd written for National Review, and noted that while I wasn't a supercharged intellect, I was a muscular Christian, a true believer, and oh yeah, I got things done. One May day, the phone rang and Pink Lady mother answered. It was WFB. He told me he had a small project that needed sheparding along and he asked if I'd like to take the post. Fully aware of the reigning ethos at my alma mater, WFB said, in that unique lilt, "Of course, you can ascertain I'm taking a chance on a Williams man."

He took the chance, I did the project, which later became a book -- "Right Minds: A Sourcebook of American Conservative Thought," polished and completed by a much abler mind than mine belonging to Gregory Wolfe. In one of the WFB reflections, Bill McGurn, presidential speechwriter, chief editorial writer of the Wall Street Journal, noted that he had been edited by both WFB and George Bush. That got me thinking – hey, your’s truly, a political lifer, many miles removed from a talent like McGurn, can say that I was one of the lucky ones to have my work edited by WFB. The fact is, I’ve saved every piece of copy of mine he commented upon in the margins.

Following the project, WFB's ensuing letter of recommendation was solid gold in my gaining two newspaper jobs as an editorial writer at daily newspapers (at the young age of 26, no less), and later when I sought work on Capitol Hill. In fact, the imprimatur of NR and of WFB has never left my career -- it is the post of which I am most proud, and which entertains the most interest from my fellow drones.

As then as now: I didn't have the guns to succeed in the literary arena, unlike the battalions of superb conservative writers that emerged from National Review. Instead of being a thought leader in the conservative movement, I became a sort of shop foreman: A journeyman journalist at two conservative papers and NR, a political appointee in two Republican administrations, and aide to two senior, conservative Republicans in Congress. Hey, the mountaintop thought leaders like the Buckleys and George Wills and Peggy Noonans and Bill McGurns of the world need mechanics like me to run the machinery.

Many people have recounted their memories of the man -- I was lucky to see him a lot the year I worked at the magazine -- I even dined along with him once as he discussed ideas about the Young Americans for Freedom.

And everyone talks about his kindness. As a junior magazine staffer, I was invited and went to his very tony Christmas party. A man brought his mentally disabled son to the event, a son who was mad about Bill. Standing close by in a living room (and I recall this all vividly), I saw the son come to the side of WFB, touch his sleeve, and interrupt a conversation WFB was having with a collection of men and women. WFB turned, instantly recognized the boy’s condition, smiled, said “Ah, hello, my friend,” and proceeded to talk to the boy for about 10 minutes, a very difficult conversation given the boys earnest, stumbling speech. I gazed at this in utter awe. I was only 24 at the time and kind of a rough-and-tumble guy, but the scene was so touching that then as now, I start to choke up.

The soaring testimonials are rolling in from people of huge stature and deal with WFB's monumental mind, deeds, power, and impact. Beyond those, I like to think that WFB’s life was all those and something a lot simpler -- a testament to a graciousness and kindness granted to everyone he met – which is, as McGurn wrote, “all in all, not a bad ticket to carry into eternity.”

Friday, February 22, 2008

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Going, Going....Arrived

“A week is a year in politics.” It’s a trite catch phrase often uttered condescendingly by smarmy, insincere political types to anyone who’ll listen. I know. I say it all the time.

Well, 24 years is a couple lifetimes then, and the time in which I’ve known David Carmen, once a young, cheery organizer, now Washington uber-lobbyist. And, one of my oldest political friends.

I met Carmen in New York in the fall of ’83 – I was a young staff assistant at National Review Magazine, he was younger guy already in politics as an organizer. We had mutual friends at the magazine and he bought me breakfast in a New York deli on a quiet Sunday morning, at which we talked politics and journalism and Where We Were Going. To this day, as perhaps goofy as it sounds, it remains one of the key conversations I have had about the career I set out on.

Flash forward more than two decades and you have a dang good sense of where I was going and where I ended up – the cubicle farm in the Office of Whatever, Department of Redundancy. David? Well, I saw him recently at a monster blowout in downtown DC. This mega-bash was held in a former public library turned party mansion, the building awash in ghostly green lights on all sides, valet parking, a Beatles cover band, lavish trinkets, imported food served by fashion models, and 600 beautiful people.

It was David’s party – for his lobbying firm.

Carmen's rise is emblematic of how fortunes occur in politics. Now, ours is not a friendship where we’re slapping backs or chatting on about this and that seeing each other every two weeks. Rather, it’s two guys who’ve stayed in touch over a long, long time, never losing sight of one another.

Carmen’s made it in town the old-fashioned way -- on dint of personality, connections, good fortune, and oh yeah, innate talent. Navigating and hustling, sure. But what's most important? Producing. Getting clients what they want. It's as simple as that.

In New York, Carmen was an aide-de-camp for a guy named Lew Lehrman, who never won a political office, but who got attention galore, mainly because of Carmen. Lehrman ran against Mario Cuomo for governor of New York and lost, but he managed to stay in the GOP limelight and ran a grassroots group, Citizens for America, that continued to get him ink long after he should have.

Carmen left Lehrman and came to DC, armed with a self-described “nuclear rolodex” to build a government affairs business. At least that’s what he told the Washington Post Magazine, which put him on the cover as a as a guy who, yes, “came to town with a nuclear rolodex to build a government affairs business.”

Conversely, I leave New York, go to work on the Hill, go to Bush 41, go back to the Hill, come back to Bush 43 – I’m just marking time. Carmen, however, with this crazy ‘dex, is building a behemoth. Today, his firm has dozens and dozens of large clients in every field imaginable.

We meet for lunch occasionally – just to check in – and goodness knows we’ve changed since the deli in New York. It’s light conversation – sometimes I ask advice on stuff, sometimes he does the same. We could be Rotarians in Toledo, given our banter.

Then in the mail one day comes this invite from ole Carmen – whom I might add, has included me every year, in every party he’s had, even when I’ve been unemployed, or have not caught up with him in a while.

But life reaches these neat culminations in this town of towns, and so there I am on a Thursday night, outside this old marble library, the massive “Carmen Group” logo in eerie green searchlights, reflecting off the entire surrounding neighborhood.

Like all folks here, I’ve known hundreds of people in politics in Washington at various stages of ascent, stasis, and descent -- a week is a year is a life, remember? Rarely, however, do you get to see one individual go from the starting line and then break out of the pack. Carmen’s not at the finish line, either. But as to our conversation 24 years ago on where we were going, it’s obvious he knew where he was going – and has arrived.