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OpinionColumnistsWilliam F. B. O'Reilly

The many lessons of ‘Skirmishes’

Neal Freeman's book.

Neal Freeman's book. Credit: National Review Store

Children are keenly attuned to kinesic broadcasts from their parents.

They notice who and what we value through our every intonation and mannerism, even, I can personally attest, while Houdini-ing liver into a napkin or flipping peas across a table with a dessert spoon. They’re uncanny in that way.

So it was with we O’Reillys growing up. There were, and thankfully remain, six of us, and beginning in the 1970s, when we had reached a certain age, we O’Reilly children, who took meals at a kitchen table Mondays through Fridays, began dining with our parents on the weekends in a semi-formal setting.

It was a jacket-and-tie affair for the boys; skirts or slacks for the girls — never, ever jeans. In the dancing candlelight of our dining room we were expected to behave as properly poised and postured young ladies and gentlemen.

And we pretty much did, joyfully. Pretty much.

Conversations around the table were of a more adult nature than we had previously known. My father, especially, would talk about his business, the health and beauty industry, and we could instantly tell who among his colleagues was noble by how he said his or her name.

Occasionally, he would touch upon our late mother’s family business — ridding the planet of communists and spreading economic freedom worldwide. (My mother was a Buckley Family sibling.) There, too, we immediately knew through my father’s tone and body language who in the conservative world he most respected.

Chief among them was a man named Neal Freeman, and that’s saying something. Those were heady years for the emergent American conservative movement; our Uncle Jim was in the U.S. Senate and our Uncle Bill’s National Review involved many of the leading American intellectuals of the 20th Century, people such as James Burnham, John Chamberlain, Whittaker Chambers and Russell Kirk, to name a few.

Neal Freeman’s name stood out among the giants in our minds. And when it was uttered, it was always with reverence and mirth; a devilish twinkle would come into my father’s eye at his mentioning, suggesting some story that could never be told (it still hasn’t been).

I didn’t get to meet Neal Freeman until I was pushing 50, but I saw it right away when I did. Freeman is a physical and intellectual presence. He has a lightning-quick wit and a manshake that could end wars.

But it wasn’t until Neal B. Freeman released, “Skirmishes” this month, a collection of his writings spanning 40 years, that I began to fully realize just how influential he has been in American politics, and will continue to be.

Freeman, 77, has been prolific in the extreme — as a writer, businessman and public servant — and his book offers a peek behind the curtain for today’s young conservatives who could learn from “Skirmishes”: a.) how they got to be where they are; b.) why well-parsed ideas matter, and c.) that logical arguments coupled with humor — not base rage — is the most effective way to advance a political movement.

His adamant and reasoned opposition to the Iraq War offers a lesson in courage to young politicos of all ideological persuasions. Freeman’s principled stand cost him 50-year friendships.

Freeman, an accomplished businessman and “serial entrepreneur,” who in his spare time founded and produced “Firing Line,” the longest running public affairs TV show with a single host in American history; edited Bill Buckley’s thrice weekly syndicated column for years; served as Washingtoncorrespondent for National Review, and ran the Corporation for Public Broadcasting under President Ronald Reagan, has a rapier pen.

Some of my favorite column ledes:

“In this absorbing account of his long stewardship of The Nation, Victor Navasky provides unimpeachable testimony that in matters of national consequence he and his magazine have been — what’s the word we’re looking for here? — wrong.” (National Review, June 6, 2005.)

You don’t get much of that in Breitbart.

“There will be no problem with money in politics this year. Such problems arise only when Republicans have more money than Democrats.” (American Spectator, May 4, 2015)

“I love old people and you love old people, but let’s face it, they’re killing us.” (National Review, December 9, 1988.

Just when I was about to give up on American political discourse once-and-for-all, “Skirmishes” comes along and offers up a hopeful road map for, yes, kids today.

If I had to do it all over ago, I wouldn’t have flipped that pea at my sister. I would have sat up straight and learned more about my elders. We stand on their shoulders.

William F. B. O’Reilly is a consultant for Republicans.