Matthew Shaffer was an NRI Buckley Fellow in 2010.
“The William F. Buckley Jr. Fellowship in Political Journalism is the best opportunity for a 22-year old to use intellect for influence. One of the great things about modern online journalism is how we can watch ideas in action. After a piece goes live on National Review Online, one can watch it tweeted and retweeted, clipped on blogs, commented on and passed around on Facebook, and picked up by aggregators and radio and TV shows. With a platform like NRO’s a writer really can shape the debate.
That’s what I’ve loved most. Twice, Sean Hannity read from my pieces on Fox News when I caught a liberal congressman telling a tall tale. A Texas congressman read one of my pieces aloud during testimony.
All of which was pretty cool. It’s also a pretty good feeling — at first, a pretty weird feeling — when Senators return to your phone calls, or gubernatorial candidates leave their donors aside to get a drink with you.
In college, I didn’t follow the news or political commentary. I was conservative because I idolized Bill Buckley, and the conservative canon. But I had astonishing gaps in my knowledge of contemporary American politics.
That all changed, very, very quickly, that sunny morning I arrived at National Review last summer, and Rich Lowry, editor-in-chief, asked me to do a piece about a person I’d never heard of before. I was suddenly thrown in the pack with the sharpest political minds in the country, and expected to keep up. It was a thrill and an honor.
The same thing happened for my writing. Editing the Pulitzer Prize winners we publish on a daily basis, and having my work edited by office higher-ups, is probably the best thing I could do for prose style. It teaches an attentiveness to word choice, grammar, and metaphor that makes for clearer thinking, too.
Journalism is changing very quickly, so the task of a Buckley Fellow does, too. I’ve done some video editing and many midnight shifts of comment moderation — but there’s much to be learned even from those.
The Buckley Fellowship is partly what the Buckley Fellow makes of it. Management here is accommodating. I like abstract ideas more than the political horse race — so I got a cool beat doing extended interviews with public intellectuals. Sometime in the winter I got an itch for foreign affairs — soon, I was running my own Mideast-watch blog.
But my favorite part is being a generalist. I turned down graduate school because I couldn’t tolerate thinking about only one topic all the time. That is — to say the very least — not a hazard of the Buckley Fellowship. One day you might be learning and writing about the Geneva Convention; another, about the structural problems with a federal housing program. I spent a recent afternoon on the phone with nuclear engineers, trying to get up to speed on, well, nuclear fission, radioactive isotopes, the volatility of Cesium, the radioactivity required for statistically significant cancer uptick — you know, basic stuff. A Buckley Fellow becomes both hedgehog and fox, forced to quickly learn practically everything that’s going on in that little section of the world called the Beltway, and a little bit about practically everything else.
It’s a challenging job. I go home at night with strained eyes and a stretched brain. And even then, I do some extra writing for Ricochet.com. At times it all gets a bit overwhelming.
And that — how many 22 years olds can say that about their jobs? — is the best endorsement I can give the Buckley Fellowship.”
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