The last issue included an interview with Norman Podhoretz, born in 1930, who in 1960, at a phenomenally young age, became editor of the influential magazine Commentary. This issue's interview is with Rich Lowry, born in 1968, who became editor of the influential National Review in 1997: Do the math and his ascent is even more phenomenal. This spring's graduates can learn from Lowry, so here are edited excerpts.
Q: When did you start reading National Review? In high school. I snuck it into class. As you can probably guess, I wasn't a very well-adjusted or popular teenager. Playboy was to most American male teens what National Review was to me. I discovered it through Bill Buckley and Ronald Reagan. I think it's very telling about how political psychology works: I saw Bill Buckley on his famous, long-running television program Firing Line, and was blown away by his persona. It was the same thing with Reagan-before I really knew what Reagan believed, I was attracted to him as a figure. I worked my way backwards: What do these people believe? That's how I discovered National Review and that's how I got a political education, seeing what books were referred to.
Q: Did the television show Family Ties and Alex Keaton [the conservative main character who rebelled against liberal parents] influence you? His parents were the humorless ones who had bought into an outdated conformity and conventional wisdom. His rebel stance was very attractive to me. I don't want to exaggerate the orthodoxy of my high school, but all the teachers were liberals, and when I went to college at the University of Virginia the administration and faculty were liberals. As a young person, there's something inherently attractive about sailing against that wind.
Q: Did you work on your high-school newspaper? I worked on the yearbook. Looking back, what was very valuable was just writing. Every day in high school, I would respond at length to a Washington Post op-ed in my notebook. It doesn't matter where you're writing or for whom you're writing or what you're writing; you don't develop writing muscles without writing. I think just doing that on my own helped develop argumentative skills that I relied on later.
Q: And you hoped to write for National Review? On a career day they had us fill out a form about where we would be in 10 years and what we would be doing. I said, "Living in New York City and working for National Review." So I've been very blessed in that way-it's all I ever wanted to do, and I've been able to do it.
Q: But first came the University of Virginia . . . When I went there I immediately looked for a Dartmouth Review-style alternative publication, and lo and behold one started my first semester. I became very involved and was the editor of that publication. I'll never run for office just because I don't want to release my transcript. It's horrific. I was spending all my time and energy on the publication, called The Virginia Advocate. It was great: It was basically journalism school in a box, because you had to edit, you had to write, you had to sell advertisements.
Q: So you managed to graduate, and later pick up more basic training? I worked for a local newspaper in Virginia. Everyone was desperately overstretched, which turned out to be a great experience. I would write about PTA meetings, I would write about people's dogs having puppies (there's nothing like a puppy story-puppies sell no matter what). The editor was a tremendous journalistic craftsman; I learned a lot from him. Then an opportunity came up at National Review.
Q: How? I had entered a young writer's contest at National Review shortly after graduating from college. I had forgotten about it because it took them so long to judge the thing-apparently it almost shut down the magazine because there were so many applications. I finished tied for second, so they knew who I was, and I kept badgering them to see if there were any job openings. There was a low-level, intern-type editing position, and I got hired for that.
Q: How often did you badger, and how did you keep it from becoming obnoxious? My natural charm and wit. No, I can't remember the details, but I sent letters in the mail and called people up. Non-obnoxious persistence is the way I'd characterize it from my end. Maybe at the receiving end it was different.
Q: So you're in the door at National Review. What was your first job there like? Research mainly, proofreading. . . . I was a little underemployed and was desperate to make myself useful. In the front of National Review we have this section called "The Week," with small items about the news events over the last fortnight. I went out of my way to make college campus and PC [politically correct] issues my beat for the week, so I'd have at least one of those paragraphs in every issue. Our Washington office was a one-man office at the time and that man left, so I began to report about Washington from New York, because there was no one else to do it and it had a market niche.
Q: Getting your writing regularly in the magazine and seizing opportunities . . . when did you go to Washington? Because I was doing those pieces, when they decided they wanted to open a Washington office again, they sent me down there in the summer of '94. This was right before the Republican Revolution, to write about Congress. I covered Washington for National Review from 1994 to 1997.
Q: Probably the most dramatic period in Washington in recent decades until the current one. What went wrong with the "Republican Revolution"? It's always a mistake to think there's a revolution, and it's always a mistake to talk about the revolution in revolutionary terms. It's exactly the same as what we're seeing now: There was a reaction against a Democratic president who governed in a way that was much more left than how he had campaigned.
Q: Radicalism doesn't sell well to the American populace? Correct. It's human nature-hubris is human nature, overreach is human nature. Whenever one side has power they want to believe, they have a will to believe, that the public has validated every jot and tittle of their program, whether it's true or not. This will very likely be Obama's undoing this fall.
Q: Back to the Lowry story. After three years in Washington, how did you become National Review's editor? For unaccountable reasons that he never entirely explained to me, Bill Buckley chose me. I think he appreciated my passion for the magazine and wanted the magazine to have a breath of fresh air; at the same time he didn't want to bring in a total outsider. Picking someone so young was a way to go with a known commodity who could still bring fresh eyes to the situation.
Q: I suspect there were certain jealousies. How did you deal with that? I had only run a publication in college, and I had never really run an enterprise or edited anything. It was a terrifying time. The first six months were probably the worst six months of my life. I was totally stressed out, I had no idea whether I could do this and didn't know necessarily how to do it. But, like most things in life, you learn by doing. So I slowly got my sea legs and became comfortable with it, and it actually became enjoyable. But it wasn't a pleasant process.
Q: Now you've been doing it for 13 years. If you could pick out one lesson you've learned, what comes to mind? Never trust writers. They'll always be late, they'll always write too long, and they'll always come up with the tawdriest, most implausible excuses for why their piece is late and too long. But I write a syndicated column twice a week: That increases my tolerance for the dishonesty and irresponsibility of my writers, because I turn around and do the same thing to my editors.
To hear Marvin Olasky's complete interview with Rich Lowry, click here.