Two neocons have put up inadvertently hilarious potted histories of the conservative movement, in particular National Review. They are “The Voice of Principled, Thinking Conservatism Needs Your Support,” by NR roving (around his laptop) correspondent Kevin Williamson, whose vicious attack on the American people themselves I dissected two weeks ago. And “The Coming Conservative Dark Age,” by Matthew Continetti in Commentary.
They both mythologize National Review’s role in its early decades. Continetti:
“Why the transformation? [From Commentary attacking NR at its inception in 1955 and praising it today.] Part of the reason is that Buckley and his editors spent an enormous amount of time and energy during the early years of the magazine disassociating their conservatism from its atavistic and gnostic forebears. National Review is a great example of media gatekeeping theory: By exiling anti-Semites, Birchers, and anti-American reactionaries from its pages, the magazine and its editor determined which conservative arguments were legitimate and which were not. By denying a platform to quacks and haters, they broadened their potential audience.”
Of course, the real reason for that particular “transformation” was that Commentary was a left-liberal publication in 1955 under editor Norman Podhoretz, who later made it a neocon publication; and NR itself became neocon around 1990. So they merged.
But here’s the real problem: Today’s issues are far different from those of 1955. How could one movement possibly encompass them all? The big issue in NR from 1955 to 1989 was the menacing Soviet superpower, bristling with missiles tipped with hydrogen bombs. Then the Berlin Wall fell. Attempts to equate today’s problems with Russia and threats from terrorists to the Soviet Empire are fatuous. And fresh in each mind is NR’s strong support of the Iraq War and its purging of any conservative who opposed it as “Unpatriotic conservatives.” With the war now considered an unmitigated disaster by almost everyone, its supporters long ago should have retired from the policy business instead of lecturing us on who, this time, is and is not a conservative.
In 1955, the country still was in the middle of the immigration pause that lasted to 1965. NR itself opposed the 1965 open-borders bill, as Bill Buckley himself remembered in a 2000 column. Yet today, immigration is the top issue, made so by the man both Commentary and NR demonize, Donald Trump.
?Williamson begins his fundraising appeal:
“We’ve been here before, of course. In 1962, Bill Buckley was called to a meeting in (note the locale) Palm Beach, Fla., with Russell Kirk, the great conservative philosopher, William Baroody, head of the American Enterprise Institute, and Senator Barry Goldwater, whom conservatives very much wanted to run for president. The subject was the John Birch Society, Robert Welch’s influential group of conservative businessmen that had, among other things, denounced Dwight Eisenhower as a Soviet agent. . . .
“The John Birch Society had a great deal going for it: numbers, energy, money—lots of money. Senator Goldwater worried that ‘every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest caste of men of affairs,’ as Bill Buckley quoted him saying. . . . Senator Goldwater asked if any of the men present were [sic] familiar with Frank Cullen Brophy, a prominent Arizona banker and John Birch Society member. Buckley knew him well: He’d been an early supporter of National Review, who had spoken with Buckley at some length about providing a portion of the capital that launched the magazine.
“The problem with the John Birch Society was fairly straightforward: It was dedicated to premises that were insane, and served as the vanity project of a very successful businessman who also happened to be a megalomaniac and a kook.
“Robert Welch did not run for the Republican presidential nomination. Donald Trump is.
“WFB’s eventual excommunication of the John Birch Society is very much applicable in the Trump era, needing only a change in proper nouns:”
We have not been here before. The whole thing misleads, giving the impression that Buckley’s “eventual excommunication”—purge is a better word—of the Birchers came right after that 1962 meeting. In fact, they were kept on board, and provided key campaigners for, Goldwater’s 1964 presidential bid.
The story of the 1965 purge was told last year in an article on the Birchers and Buckley by Jeet Heer in the New Republic. The gist:
“National Review kept open its lines of communication with the Birch Society until 1965, when it broke with the group—not for conspiracy-mongering, but for being insufficiently hawkish. That year, the Birch Society called for America to withdraw from Vietnam (on the logic that the real fight against communism was with domestic foes in Washington). Seeing the Birch position as a threat to the Cold War consensus, the magazine finally read the Birchers out of conservatism. . . .
“If National Review eventually rejected the John Birch Society, it did so only after years of cultivating the organization and trying to keep its critique to a minimum. Moreover, in retrospect, the frothing conspiracy theorists of the John Birch Society were right about the Vietnam War, while the respectable conservatives were wrong.”
“But anyone with the Internet can write a blog or tweet or Facebook post or can Skype or record a podcast. The castle no longer has walls. The gatekeepers are mostly useless.”
But how is that a “Dark Age” for conservatism? Wouldn’t it have been helpful in 1965 to have easily available online not only the Birchers’ perspective on LBJ’s escalation of the Vietnam War, but that of Russell Kirk himself, who opposed the war as a Robert Taft non-interventionist Republican? And maybe the Internet would have revealed much earlier what we now know, as I summarized in Chronicles: That LBJ himself, even from early 1964, never believed the war could be won; so it wasn’t won. And that the 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident that green-lighted the escalation was faked.
Now this from Williamson brings a chuckle:
“the Republican party and, to a lesser extent, the conservative movement must now contend with a demagogue [Donald Trump] who rejects conservatism root and branch, from private property to the sanctity of marriage. Robert Welch spoke a great deal about ‘the Establishment,’ too, when he wasn’t accusing the man who organized the Normandy invasion of being ‘a conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist conspiracy.’”
Of course, as Russell Kirk joked, “Ike isn’t a communist. He’s a golfer.” And as to the “sanctity of marriage,” wasn’t St. Ronald Reagan also divorced, and had a fun time with starlets between marriages? Didn’t someone also once say something about casting the first stone?
And wasn’t NR founded, as we have heard so many times over the years, because, “It stands athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” The phrase meant that, as any history of the magazine will tell you, NR opposed the Establishment, including its leader, Eisenhower, for being moderates. In 1964 it was NR close ally Goldwater who thwarted the Establishment—the Rockefeller Republicans—at the convention in the Cow Palace in San Francisco, leading the two top Establishment candidates, Nelson Rockefeller and George Romney (pa of Mitt) to storm out in protest.
And it was Phyllis Schlafly’s 1964 book, A Choice, Not an Echo, selling in the hundreds of thousands, that pushed Goldwater over top for the nomination that year. It decried the Establishment “kingmakers” who stole the GOP nomination from Bob Taft for Eisenhower in 1962. The book just came out in a new “Updated and Expanded 50th Anniversary Edition,” with an introduction by Ron Paul.
And who is Schlafly supporting in 2016? Donald Trump. The Establishment this time, gathered around the Cruz Crew (although they’ll never crown him president), even has tried to take over Eagle Form, which the Grande Dame of Conservatism founded and still heads, to purge her from it.
Finally, here’s something also that’s funny. If you want to access those NR issues from the glory days of the 1950s and 1960s, you can’t unless you hike to a university library. Neocons have dropped themselves into a hilarious take on Orwell’s apothem, “He who controls the past controls the future. He who controls the present controls the past.” With the Internet, the past is always there if you want it at the click of a few keys. Except maybe for National Review’s archives, which for some reason (supporting the South and segregation?) are not. By contrast, Chronicles' back issues all are online here.