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October 2001


Ur-Conservatives

By Franklin Foer


A Time for Choosing:
The Rise of Modern Conservatism


By Jonathan Schoenwald
Oxford University Press

Click on the title to buy the book
In the early sixties, this country's leading rightist was a candy manufacturer from Cambridge, Mass., named Robert Welch. He followed his wildly successful promotion of the Sugar Daddy with his wildly successful promotion of the John Birch Society. Both a crank and salesman of the highest order, Welch managed to simultaneously place the popular ex-president Dwight Eisenhower at the center of a communist conspiracy and to build an army of suburban supporters. His movement grew large enough to warrant the cover of Time and a denunciation from President Kennedy.

Welch's heyday, however, was fleeting. By the '70s he'd been shoved to the fringe of the political scene, causing him to grow even crankier. In 1979, he published a pamphlet called, "False Leadership: William F. Buckley, Jr. and the New World Order." The National Review editor, he surmised, craved "a place in the Establishment which he professes to oppose, in the expectation of sharing influence with such as [sic] Henry Kissinger and the House of Rockefeller in a New World Order."

There's a lesson to be gleaned. While liberals consider Buckley to be a wing-nut, he's far from the real deal. Yet the conservative confectioner wasn't entirely nutty. He had some rational reasons for despising Buckley. More than anyone, Buckley had discredited the John Birch Society. In the pages of National Review, Buckley denounced Welch for "distorting reality." And in conservative circles, he demanded that the movement marginalize the Birchers.

In a nutshell, the Buckley-Welch feud is the story of conservatism---and the story told in Jonathan Schoenwald's admirable narrative. According to Schoenwald's thesis, American conservatism only succeeded after it banished the conspiratorial extremists like Welch from its ranks. This wasn't such a painless task. For Buckley, disavowing the Birchites meant disavowing thousands of the subscribers to his own magazine. (A month after National Review's first anti-Welch editorial appeared, William Rusher, the magazine's publisher, counted twenty donors who had revoked donations to NR and dozens of canceled subscriptions.) For conservative politicians, dissing the extremists was even more unpleasant. It potentially meant alienating rank-and-file voters and activists with a ferocious appetite for campaign drudgery.

But it was a necessary task. Without creating daylight between the extreme right, conservatism would have relegated itself to the fringe. And in 1964, this looked exactly like what would happen. During his presidential campaign, Barry Goldwater had stubbornly resisted the advice of Buckley and refused to condemn the Birchers. "I am far more concerned, frankly, with the extremists to the left than I am with the extremists to the right," he told Meet the Press host Lawrence Spivak. Accepting the Republican nomination, he even seemed to pipe up on their behalf. "I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice," he famously bellowed. Of course, this was not such a wise line. The moderate wing of the Republican party---Nelson Rockefeller, William Scranton and Mark O. Hatfield---lashed him at his own convention for condoning kooks and segregationists. At every turn, the Johnson campaign suggested that Goldwater himself was an unstable, radical character. The Johnson strategy worked devastatingly well. Goldwater went down, 61 percent to 39 percent, one of the ugliest defeats in American political history.

In conservative lore, Goldwater is remembered as a heroic figure---the romantic warrior who survived the abuse of the liberal elite by clinging to unpopular principles. In reality, he was an object lesson. Ronald Reagan's 1966 campaign for California's governship set the template for future conservative campaigns. The Gipper's key move: to downplay ideologyand translate the tough theory of conservatism---its libertarian harangues and traditionalist asceticism---into accessible anecdotes and sunny sloganeering. He chose the "creative society" as his mantra. In other words, he ran a campaign that prefigured George W. Bush's compassionate conservatism. Although Reagan exploited anxiety over riots and crime, like Bush, he made gaudy appeals to African American voters and blurred his differences with his liberal foes.

Of course, it's possible to exaggerate the conservatives' success. They've never entirely been able to scrub off the tinge of extremism. Bill Clinton, for one, successfully tied Newt Gingrich and the congressional Republicans to Timothy McVeigh and the militia freaks. Republicans usually invited the linking. Unlike Reagan, the congressional Republicans spoke in militant tones and seemed to breathe hatred for government. Still, Schoenwald's thesis holds up pretty well. He seems to have persuasively identified the moment in conservative history---in the mid-Sixties---when the movement shed its heaviest baggage, toned down its ideological ranting, and took over the Republican Party.

More than any American political movement---certainly more than liberalism---conservatism has received lavish scholarly and journalistic attention. The best political histories and biographies of the past two decades have traced the genealogy of the movement. (See Sam Tanenhaus's Whittaker Chambers and John Judis's William F. Buckley, Jr.: Patron Saint of the Conservatives.) This year, Rick Perlstein added to the shelf with Before the Storm, his wonderful history of the Goldwater campaign. Schoenwald's rather academic book doesn't ascend near these heights and even repeats the information in some of these other books. But in this crowded field, he has accomplished a remarkable feat: rooting around the boxes in the conservative attic and recovering some of the more forgotten moments and figures from the movement's past. He's especially strong when describing the far right. There's Raymond Moley, a staunch New Dealer who lost his faith and went on to travel the conservative speaking circuit; and there's General Edwin Walker, a demagogic anti-communist who provided the inspiration for the Burt Lancaster character in the film, Seven Days in May.

Along with the Judis and Perlstein books, A Time for Choosing shares an interesting characteristic: it's written by a man of the left. You can understand the subject's appeal to liberals: it's exotic. Unlike liberalism, conservatism is both a political theory and a political movement. So, conservatives behave like members of other political movements. They purge their ranks and discipline obstreperous dissenters and always feel embattled. But Schoenwald reveals a more troubling fact about the movement---and a reason why the subject would attract so much liberal attention: When conservatives dissociate from their extremist hangers-on and refrain from grand ideological pronouncements, they have an awfully solid record of squashing Democrats.

Franklin Foer is an associate editor of The New Republic.


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