Rightly Said: Remembering Neil McCaffrey

McCaffrey was a Catholic first of all, and next a conservative. Catholicism and conservativism were always his chief concerns as a man, a publisher, and a writer.

Neil McCaffrey was the founder and president of Arlington House and The Conservative Book Club, and did promotion work for National Review in its early years. He was also my father-in-law, though to the best of my memory I met him only once, at a dinner in the late 70s with William Rusher, NR’s publisher. I married his eldest daughter nine years after his death in 1994.

An immensely well-read and consummately literate (and literary) man, he was also a natural writer who deliberately subordinated his writing to his publishing interests. American conservatives since 1945 have always been a fractious and unforgiving lot, constantly at each others’ throats. Owing to their severe disagreements and bitter rivalries, McCaffrey took great care not to make enemies of, or take sides between, the warring camps: the McCarthyites, Taft Republicans, libertarians, free enterprise capitalists, traditional Catholics, southern traditionalists, Southern Democrats, anti-Communists, Cold Warriors, social conservatives, and so forth, lest he antagonize any group and thus forfeit its business.

Brent Bozell—Barry Goldwater’s ghost writer for The Conscience of a Conservative, co-author with William F. Buckley, Jr. of McCarthy and His Enemies, founder and editor of Triumph magazine, and Buckley’s brother-in-law–once suggested to him that in choosing to become a publisher rather than an author he had missed his métier, but McCaffrey was not to be dissuaded from the career he had begun as a copy writer for Doubleday; from whom, however, he was careful to hide his right-wing political philosophy and activities.

Yet Neil McCaffrey was a born writer, and a born writer must write, or burst. Hence the enormous correspondence, all too much of which has been lost in the vicissitudes of corporate life but a great deal of which has fortunately been preserved. The letters range across nearly all conceivable subjects, from his children’s education at various Catholic schools to conservative political strategy to relations with authors and other contemporary writers to the modernizing Church of Rome to the classical jazz clubs of Manhattan. Many of them run to thousands of words, most often dictated to his secretary, edited, and typed above carbon copies. McCaffrey spent many hours on these. Where he found the time for literary composition in addition to his business and managerial responsibilities is a mystery. But then, a real writer always finds time to write.

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Readers unfamiliar with the political landscape and climate of the 1950s and 60s may find themselves at sea while perusing the correspondence from those decades. Doubtless owing to considerations of space, length, and cost, the editor has neglected to provide the political, social, and cultural context sufficient to allow such people to orient themselves satisfactorily within the events of the period, and so fully to appreciate the discussions and debates between McCaffrey, his colleagues, and his friends.

Furthermore, the previously mentioned epistolary gaps do nothing to help matters in this respect. It does not really matter. Neil McCaffrey was a Catholic first of all, and next a conservative. Catholicism and conservativism were always his chief concerns as a man, a publisher, and a writer; it is his engagement with both subjects that will chiefly interest the natural audience for this book. Assuming this to be the case, I imagine that the exchanges most readers, Catholics ones especially, will find most compelling will be those to which I have paid the most careful attention in reading and reviewing the book. These document his early friendship and progressively deteriorating relationships with William F. Buckley, Jr., Brent Bozell, and Father (later Monsignor) Eugene Clark, secretary to Cardinals Spellman and Cooke of the Diocese of New York. It is upon the issues that most preoccupied these four men, those that drew them together and later forced them apart, that most of the secondary interests and concerns in this book center.

Neil McCaffrey never regarded himself politically as being anything other than a conservative, a type he identified as “a realist” first and foremost. By realist, he emphatically did not mean a person who denigrates the intellect—an “anti-intellectual”—let alone a materialist. The modern American right, he noted, is “not blessed with writers….Ideologues more than humanists, much less Christians, most conservatives have absolutized the American system.” This error he attributed to their “lack of a religious sense, more specifically a Biblical sense, most especially an Old Testament sense.”

If ever a country were ripe for God’s judgment, he thought, it is the United States of America. That said, “I never expected much from politics, since I’m not a utopian and man’s important business is elsewhere.” McCaffrey did not believe in the existence of a Christian society anywhere at anytime, nor did he think such a thing possible. “Augustine was concerned (living in an age like our own) but ultimately detached.” Four months before he died on December 8,1994 he wrote: “I now think [modern liberalism] represents a greater danger to souls and to civilization than even Communism [does].” A conservative alliance with neoconservatism (“making common cause with Sidney Hook types”) he thought “not far from grotesque.”

In a memo to the libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, to Lew Rockwell, and to Jeffrey Tucker (the last of the two Roman Catholics) dated 26 October 1989, McCaffrey put these three writers on notice. “One of my three fundamental problems with libertarianism …is that it scants original sin.” (Elsewhere, he is a good deal franker on the subject: “…[T]he growing popularity of libertarianism [in the 90s] is more psychological than intellectual. [Libertarians] are looking for an excuse to do as they please.”) As for equality, democratic or otherwise, McCaffrey thought it worse than a dangerously sentimental myth. He considered it a blasphemy. “Though we are all to have the opportunity to achieve heaven, nobody will occupy the same place there,” he wrote in the same memo. “More is given to some of us; more is expected of some of us; the same is expected of none of us. Does this sound like equality?”

All of these perspectives, opinions, and beliefs—certain of them “prejudices” in the Johnsonian sense—are expressed, maintained, defended, and deployed in these letters; most carefully, thoroughly emphatically, and at last angrily in his exchanges with Mssrs Bozell and Buckley, and Monsignor Clark. They are at once basis of the original friendships, and the cause of their ultimate demise.

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Brent Bozell roomed with Buckley at Yale, married his sister Patricia, and served as one of the original editors of National Review, founded in 1955. As fellow members of the new magazine’s inner circle as well as of the conservative-intellectual set in the Greater New York area, and as traditional Catholics fiercely critical of the Second Vatican Council that sat from 1962 until 1965 and to the Novus Ordo liturgy that issued from it to replace the Tridentine Mass, he and Neil McCaffrey quickly became friends as well as allies. To Garry Wills, also an editor of NR before his conversion to the radical political and ecclesiastical Left, he wrote in 1964: “The trick [of the new liturgy] is to say Amen with your tongue out.” Writing to an anonymous correspondent, he observed, “The new Mass, the attitude it fosters, makes Catholics [who like it] feel comfortable. They receive Communion in roughly the same proportions as they reject Catholic morality….Suddenly, we were told, Catholics could be free. In point of fact, the Catholic world before the Council was a model of ordered freedom. We knew what we could do, we knew what we couldn’t do, we knew what was doubtful; and all of it made sense. So the cant of freedom gave off an odor.”

And to Msgr. Clark: “The hydra of liberalism is the quintessence of man’s rebellion against God”—McCaffrey’s reformulation of Pius X’s description of modernism in his famous encyclical as “the synthesis of all heresies.” Brent Bozell agreed with him on all of this. But Bozell was a hyper-emotional man, an alcoholic, and a sufferer from manic depression who on one occasion emptied the family bank account, flew to Northern Ireland, commandeered an empty bus, and had to be chased down by the police. After his removal to Spain he adopted what he called Spanish Catholicism, which he fancied to be purer, more rigorous, and more orthodox than its Anglo-Saxon equivalent. Triumph, in McCaffrey’s opinion, became increasingly theologically and politically extreme as well as downright anti-American. “Our calling,” Bozell wrote McCaffrey, “is to assent to Christianity, not Americanism.”

That is inarguable, but to McCaffrey’s mind beside the point. “I think you are scorning instruments [readily available to the American polity] that still have their uses, out of a distaste for the human condition and for secondary causes,” he replied. “Do not,” he exhorts Bozell elsewhere, “give up on your country.” But the distance between the two men was ultimately unbridgeable; though when Triumph folded in the mid-70s McCaffrey was sympathetic, even concerned. “I’ll miss [it],” he told Buckley. “An issue never went by that didn’t have something worth reading, after you picked your way through the underbrush. Poor Brent. What is to become of him now?”

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Of most interest to an old National Review hand like myself (1976-89) is the slow deterioration over decades of Neil McCaffrey’s relationship with Bill Buckley. The fundamental cause emerges plainly from the correspondence printed here. In a letter to Murray Rothbard in 1994, McCaffrey put his finger on it. “Bill certainly has not pushed [Joe] McCarthy over the past three decades. I think it is partly that he is weary of [the subject], and even more that he sees no future in it. I think he feels comfortable only as part of the right wing of the Establishment, and this has been true for a long time.”

Indeed, the trajectory of Buckley’s entire career was from “unrespectable” (as a defender of McCarthy) to “respectable” (as an accepted member of the New York intelligentsia that included his friends Norman Podhoretz and Midge Decter). From the early 60s on Buckley was keen to present himself as superior to run-of-the-mill lumpen American conservatives; more sophisticated, more cosmopolitan, more discriminating. “Do I detect,” McCaffrey wrote him in 1963, “that the race question has you a bit uneasy these days? No reason why it should. Even if God made one race measurably and even permanently inferior, it wouldn’t jeopardize their dignity as His sons. God delights in variety.” The issue between them sharpened toward the end of the decade during George Wallace’s campaign for the presidency. McCaffrey thought the Alabama Governor “probably” a moderate, whose supporters were merely voicing genuine social and political grievances. Indeed, he seems to have been sympathetic to Wallace for the same reasons that he would undoubtedly have supported Donald Trump with enthusiasm.

Yet Wallace made Buckley nervous, as McCaffrey recognized. “I sometimes think he worries you more than Bobby Seale.” Referring to Buckley’s friendship with Murray Kempton, the left-wing New York columnist whose work was always welcome in the pages of National Review, he wrote in October, 1968: “Do you really feel more kinship with Kempton than a Birmingham cabbie? What in hell is happening to you?” The ultimate crisis in their relationship, however, did not occur until 1991, when Buckley implied in National Review that Pat Buchanan is an anti-Semite in order to compromise his presidential campaign. “The only effective way to deal with Buckley,” McCaffrey wrote in a memo to his son Roger, the publisher of this book, “is not to deal with him at all.…His aim: to destroy with a smile. In his peculiar code, that is the behavior of a gentleman….The real meaning of his attack could not be clearer: he aims to destroy what he can’t control. He brooks no rivals.”

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Neil McCaffrey first met Eugene Clark when they were both students at Cathedral High School, a minor seminary in Manhattan. They remained close friends (Gene McCaffrey, Roger’s brother, is the namesake of the late Monsignor) for many years, until their progressive and finally violent disagreement over the papacy of Pope Paul VI and Vatican II thrust them apart in a breach that was not to be healed until Monsignor Clark paid a visit to his old friend on his deathbed. Clark accused McCaffrey of harboring “hatred” for the Pope, while McCaffrey condemned what he called Clark’s “apostolate of charm,” noting that his wife Joan had once remarked that she had never heard “Gene” speak of our Lord or of God.

It is probably true that, had Msgr Clark been an Englishman, he would adopted the peculiarly English role, as did Msgr Ronald Knox, of what the English call a “country house priest.” (I myself can testify to the man’s personal charm: As NR’s house chaplain, he was first priest to whom I went for advice in the early 80s when I was beginning to consider a conversion. Our luncheon at Paoni’s Restaurant a block from the magazine had been kindly arranged by Bill, and I recall being especially impressed by the dreamy manner with which the suave, handsome Monsignor dismissed all worldly things. “We don’t pay much attention to what goes on down here.”) And beyond the Council and the new Mass lay a further disagreement on the subject of the Papacy, McCaffrey being an enemy of “papolatry,” a temptation to which he believed conservative American Catholics are subject, and Clark a firm papal loyalist. “I never line up,” he told him, “with enemies of the Papacy: least of all with its worst enemies, bad popes.”

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Reading these letters I was reminded frequently of Raymond Chandler’s, whose elegant style and dry, ironic humor they share. Of “our Festival of Looting [in New York, July 14, 1977],” McCaffrey wrote to Rothbard: “We discovered that our deprived masses were suffering from Desperation. It was a unique sort of desperation; it surfaced 12 minutes after the lights went out. And it was accentuated when some of the looters discovered that they had captured suits that were not their size. This naturally led to a series of bombings, last Wednesday. They were meant to demonstrate for Puerto Rican Independence, the one radical cause I have always cherished. In fact, I have a program: Puerto Rican Independence next Wednesday; Puerto Rican Repatriation next Thursday; war on Puerto Rico next Friday.”

How I wish my acquaintance with Neil McCaffrey had got beyond a handshake more than four decades ago.

And Rightly So: Selected Letters and Articles of Neil McCaffrey
Edited by Peter A. Kwasniewski
Roman Catholic Books, 2020
Paperback, 386 pages


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About Chilton Williamson, Jr. 7 Articles
Chilton Williamson, Jr. is the author of several works of fiction, narrative nonfiction, and “pure” nonfiction, including After Tocqueville: The Promise and Failure of Democracy and Jerusalem, Jerusalem! A Novel. He has also written hundreds of essays, critical reviews, and short stories for publications including Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture, Harper’s, The New Republic, National Review, Commonweal, The New Leader, The American Spectator, among others. You can visit him online at www.chiltonwilliamson.com.

2 Comments

  1. A fascinating presentation of the views of Mr.McCaffrey which give a deeper insight into the minds and viewpoints of some leading US Catholic writers, and others, during the Post World War II period. Mr. Williamson provides a masterful presentation of the sources, ie letters, which come to life in an exciting, vivid biography of Mr.McCaffrey. One can actually see these minds and bodies interacting one with the other.

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