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Little, Big, and much, much littler

Richard Brookhiser was born in 1955, the same year as William F. Buckley Jr.'s National Review. This memoir wavers back and forth between the story of his own life, Buckley's life, and the whole conservative movement in which they played their respective parts, minor and major. Though blemished by the author's excessive self-regard, it is a fascinating account  -- in its own right, and by contrast, for me personally.

I was born in 1968, the year when Lyndon B. Johnson succumbed to the uncontrollable forces he had conjured up, like the Sorcerer's Apprentice. The American New Right, back then, was a feisty, factious, often febrile new movement, fighting an uphill battle against the liberal establishment. Brookhiser entered the lists at the turn of 1969/70, and his account of engagement in the Right during the last Awakening is evocative and vicariously thrilling.

I especially enjoyed the ambience of NR in its prime -- but you have the read the whole book to soak that up. (For one conversant with the history of SF, it's like Amazing and Astounding put together, with Buckley as an amalgam of Gernsback and Campbell.) Worth quoting at length are his observations of the fauna in the New Right ecosystem, e.g.:

The most popular right-wing conspiracy theory of the early sixties had been promulgated by the John Birch Society: Everyone who counted was a communist....W. Cleon Skousen breathed a more austere atmosphere. Other people's bugaboos -- communists, Jews, Masons -- were epiphenomena to him. The real wire-pullers of history were the insiders: businessmen and their strategists who sponsored revolutions and wars to fatten their wallets. The ur-insider turned out to be an aide to Woodrow Wilson, Col. Edwin House; a novel he had written, Philippe Dru: Administrator, explained all later history. It was funny in its way, except that we would all see Skousenism and its many descendants again. [pp. 48-49]

The Reverend Jerry Falwell, pastor of a megachurch in Lynchburg, Virginia, began to mobilize and politicize evangelicals. Everyone thought they had disappeared after the Scopes trial; Inherit the Wind, that treacly favorite of high school drama departments, said so. But Paul Weyrich appeared to have discovered millions of them. Weyrich feared that the name Moral Majority was too combative for the group that he and Falwell founded, but Falwell liked it just fine.

Bill defended the evangelicals against their cultured despisers, even though they were a new thing in his experience. The religion of the Right, especially his part of it, was Catholicism....The newly politicized evangelicals liked to mix it up, but their whole relation to ideas was different from that of argumentative Catholics, being anchored in biblical exegesis. National Review was discovering whole new tracts of America, even as they [i.e. the "tracts"] were discovering the conservative movement.

At the same time, intellectuals like [Nathan] Glazer who wondered whether the modern welfare state was counterproductive, or who hated the caution and confusion of post-Vietnam foreign policy, began moving right. Neoconservative was originally a term of abuse that, like Whig, Tory, and Methodist, the victims learned to accept. All but a handful of neoconservatives were Jews; they would wheel out Daniel Patrick Moynihan to show their catholicity. Bill respected the neocons for their intelligence, their academic chops, and their lingering aura as former liberals.

I found evangelicals alien but interesting, roots music for white Protestants. Neoconservatives struck me as forbidding, unfunny, and too apt to take credit for thoughts that we at National Review had thought years earlier (long before "I" was one of "us"; but with a group personality comes a group memory).

The new recruits who most engaged my attention were supply-side economists....For all their bumptiousness, I thought the supply-siders were right in principle -- government shouldn't be a vacuum cleaner of taxes -- and right politically, since those who made the first point were bound to benefit at the polls.....

Frank Meyer's fusionist scheme of things was like a pair of lungs: Libertarians took care of economics and political science, while traditionalists taught us how to behave. As the seventies ran out, more and more libertarians became unhappy with this division of labor, especially as abortion, gay rights, and drug use became political issues ... [and] were among other things soft on communism. If the state at war is the worst thing in the world, then the enemies of the state at any given moment can't be so bad, even if they are Nazis, communists, or al-Qaeda. Logically it makes no sense, but emotionally it is a necessity. [pp. 76-69]

Now Straussian is equated with neocon, and both terms mean little more than Jew warmonger. But in the early eighties, the Straussians were an aggressive and persecuted sect of political philosophers. I had encountered them at Yale, in two courses taught by Charles Fairbanks.

Strauss, a German Jewish émigré academic, died in 1973, leaving a cadre of devoted former students. The simplest version of his thought is that we should take political philosophers of the past seriously, since any one of them might be able to tell us the right way to live. The survey begins with Socrates, in Aristophanes' hostile version and Plato's admiring one. Then, after a long flight over many theists, one lands at Machiavelli who, it turns out, is more than a bookish Don Corleone but a thinker of revolutionary importance (but maybe his importance is that he is a bookish Don Corleone). A drumroll of moderns follows: Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Marx, Nietzsche.

Learning all this for the first time was exhilarating stuff, not least because a few of these writers (Nietzsche, Rousseau, Plato when he chose) wrote well. Soon, one noticed that the Straussians read these authors in a particular fashion. Philosophers, they claimed, never really said what they meant. In despotic ages, they had to be careful, and habits of indirection lingered. As an English major, I was fine with close reading, but their readings seemed to follow an agreed-upon script.

Harry Jaffa disagreed with his fellow Straussians, however, for he had formed his own lineage of philosophers -- an American branch line off the main trunk. (Since Jaffa taught at Claremont Graduate School outside Los Angeles, his version came to be known as West Coast Straussianism.) The Jaffa Express ran from Jefferson to Lincoln and back, with no stops in between, like a shuttle. Jaffa believed in the Declaration of Independence, and in the new birth of freedom promised in the Gettysburg Address. [Evidently, then, Jaffa is the missing link between Strauss and the democratic imperialists who now bear the "neocon" label.]

Few conservatives agreed with Jaffa. Russell Kirk was nostalgic for Confederates and Tories. Frank Meyer thought well of the American Revolution, but condemned Lincoln as a statist. Jaffa fought with both of them. One of Jaffa's few converts was Bill -- oddly enough, considering his early support of segregation, but Bill always liked a good debater. [pp. 93-94]

I cannot resist conveying one telling detail Brookhiser gives about the other side, anecdotally, through a debate with Christopher Hitchens.

The topic was South Africa. The noose was tightening around the apartheid state. South Africa had lost its buffer zone of Portuguese colonies and white Rhodesia in the seventies. Its economic prowess kept its African neighbors from menacing it directly, but the Soviets backed the African National Congress, the main revolutionary movement, using them as Reagan used Jonas Savimbi in Angola, while liberals of every hue condemned Afrikanerdom. Eighty years earlier, when Britain was completing its conquest of South Africa, to be pro-Boer was a mark of moral purity; now the reverse was the case. Certainly, apartheid, the racial system on which Afrikaner rule rested, earned the scorn it got....Hitchens on the podium was a triple threat: witty in the British university manner, insulting when it might shut a questioner down, and passionate -- he began by evoking the tide of liberation, flowing irresistibly down the continent to its tip....[Hitchens and his ilk] wanted to overthrow white racism, and would have accepted any competing form of oppression, black or communist. [pp. 129-130]

This, to me, is nihilism painted in the broadest strokes. Seeing how the "winds of change" ca. 1960 brought in only bloody chaos and tyranny, and due skepticism about African "liberation" was only confirmed by the communist revolution in Ethiopia and the descent of the Portuguese colonies, Rhodesia, and Liberia into savagery, rejoicing in the fall of South Africa can be nothing but a maniacal capering in the ruins of civilization.

As for me, I became politically conscious in college. Conservatism had gone mainstream in 1980, and the Reagan Revolution had founded a counter-establishment. Liberalism, though entrenched in academia, was intellectually desolate; only the Right offered any sustenance to an open, hungry young mind. At U.Va., I had my first Brush With Greatness, though I did not know it at the time: I met (once) Rich Lowry, when we were both in our second year. Bright, amiable, and telegenic, his career subsequently ascended to the heights of political journalism.

John [O'Sullivan] thought of holding annual contests to find new talent. He held only one, but it found Rich Lowry and Ramesh Ponnuru, who have been our mainstays ever since. Rich is now also a mainstay of Fox, Ramesh of Time and the Washington Post. Each has written the first of many books. [p. 159]

I was given an honorable mention. I took to heart their advice for aspiring writers: gradually, I curbed my penchant for issuing impetuous and grandiose pronunciamentos, becoming generally subdued -- writing from my worm's-eye view, so to speak, keeping one eye on the big picture and the other on the telling detail. Bookish, quirky, and funny-looking, I went on toiling in obscurity.

Discovered at an even earlier age than Lowry, Brookhiser was groomed by Buckley himself to take over the helm of NR; alas, it was not to be. Instead, he wrote books: The Way of the WASP; biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adams dynasty, and Gouverneur Morris. Now, if you're anything like me, your first thought is: Who the fuck is Gouverneur Morris?

Morris wrote the Preamble to the Constitution, and he wrote incisively about two revolutions, ours and France's (his Paris diary, 1789 to 1794, reads like Alan Furst). More compelling were his generosity and poise. He had a genius for consolation; he soothed Tory friends who were driven into exile, and he saved French friends from the guillotine. After many love affairs, he married a woman who had been accused (falsely, but the dirt still stuck) of adultery and murder. He kept his good humor despite losing one leg and much of one arm in accidents [hence the sobriquet "Stumpy," which I hereby bestow upon him]. He told one correspondent (another hard-luck case) that the cards of life were fairly dealt; our job was to play them, then to sleep. [pp. 212-213]

Now, if you're anything like me, your next thought is: Washington, Hamilton, Adams -- this guy is clearly on my side of the Jeffersonian/Hamiltonian divide.

Alexander Hamilton's story, besides offering an irresistible arc, from the West Indies to the ten-dollar bill to Weehawken, was the story of making a revolution real. For all the brilliance of his generation, only a handful of the founders understood modern finance; if Hamilton had not taken charge of the treasury when he did, America would have become the first banana republic, only the term, in a nod to our climate, would have been maple republic. [Of course, Thomas Jefferson's ideological heirs, most notably John Calhoun and Jefferson Davis, wanted to establish a separate cotton republic.]

John Adams and his descendants were America's first dynasty, though far from our last, as the Kennedys, Clintons [sic; a former Co-President and "White House dog" do not a dynasty make, IMHO], and Bushes show. The self-appointed task of the Adamses was to keep the Revolution true to itself. Being the captious clan they were, their criticisms were often hasty, ill-judged, petulant, egotistical, or frantic. But sometimes, as when John Quincy Adams fought the slave power, they had the beast by the throat. [p. 212]

For years I was like Pluto, the object formerly known as a planet -- an oddball in the outer dark, in an eccentric orbit inclined to the plane of the ecliptic. But I still revolved around the same sun as Brookhiser. I vividly recall that brief interval when

One of Buchanan's issues became one of ours. In the spring of 1992 we would published an immense article by Peter Brimelow, "Time to Rethink Immigration?" The question mark was rhetorical. Peter had thought it through from a half-dozen angles, and argued, with a combination of zeal and detail, that unrestricted immigration had to be cut back. [p. 169].

Of course, for me, it was the first time I seriously thought about it, and realized that there was more to it than the proliferation of exotic babes and cuisines. Brookhiser tagged along with the new line; but in the reign of Lowry and Ponnuru, Brimelow and the cause he had embraced were banished from the NR circle. (Apparently deciding that he might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb, Brimelow ended up keeping company with race-obsessed douchebags like Jared Taylor and Steve Sailer.) The "paleoconservative" faction, however, took their lead from Buchanan's trifecta of protectionism, isolationism, and nativism.

Bill Bennett [was] an academic who had been discovered by Irving Kristol. Bennett's elevation to the National Endowment for the Humanities during Reagan's first term had catalyzed a reaction. The paleoconservatives, as they called themselves, had wanted Mel Bradford, a literary critic and Confederate historian [emphasis added], for the job. They thought Bennett had not paid his dues. Like many fights, it grew to be about principle, but had begun with cheese parings. [pp. 159-160]

As this intimates, the "paleocons" represent the Calhounian strain that had been present in the New Right from the beginning (as already seen in the cases of Russell Kirk and Frank Meyer). Still, on the issues of the day, they could pass for a cogent alternative to the "neocons" -- as long as they weren't ranting about how Abraham Lincoln was an American Hitler, or cheering for tribal warfare, Serb-style.

Then, out of the clear blue sky, our decade-long vacation from History came to an abrupt end -- or seemed to.

That day we hardly knew anything, not even al-Qaeda's name. But we knew we had been hit, and all of us at National Review agreed what the response should be. AT WAR our cover said, followed by the first sentences of the lead edit. "The first great war of the 21st century began September 11." [p. 221]

I (for one) was jolted out of my complacent, post-Cold War isolationism and became an ardent militarist. Buchanan, for whom hating Israel had become a full-time job, and the "paleoconservatives," considering "neocon"-ruled America too far gone to be worth defending, sided with the anti-war Left.

Taki [Theodoracopulos -- for a mnemonic, try "Theodora copulates"] bankrolled the American Conservative, a semiweekly organ for Pat Buchanan, and came to believe that our problems in the Middle East and with radical Islam could be solved by pitching Israel off the sled....Early in 2003 Bill asked David Frum to do a long essay for National Review, titled "Unpatriotic Conservatives." ... The writers and pundits David discussed -- many, though not all of them, antiwar libertarians -- thought America was sunk in imperialism and dysfunction. [pp. 230-232]

Brookhiser does not see how bizarrely (from my point of view, at least) opposition to the war was now linked with opposition to immigration -- never mind that libertarians and liberals are both as fanatically pro-immigration as they are anti-war, and for the same reason: neither believes that America is, can be, or ought to be a nation. To the contrary, he fell in with the Bush party-line supporting both open borders and Wilsonian democratic imperialism. As the war dragged on, vengeance and pre-emption were forgotten, and the war effort came to be

about making Iraq safe for poll watchers....Millions of Africans and Asians had moved to Europe and America [emphasis added]; the millions more who stayed home learned of us, not always inaccurately, from news and entertainment; and it took only a few box cutters to bring down skyscrapers. In such a world we could not play defense, and the offensive would have to be more than military. [pp. 234-235]

The senescent Buckley backed and filled until 2008, when he went up to join the Yacht Club in the Sky.

© 2011 by Karl Jahn