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On the road in a changing in America.
York, Maine— I’ve been down this road before. I first made the drive from York to San Francisco back in the proto-conservative era, running political errands along the way for one William F. Buckley Jr. All of us young conservatives, one way or another, were making our way to the Goldwater convention. As the junior member of that yet-to-be-vast conspiracy, I drew the short straw and the long route. Our coalition needed a nip here and a tuck there, and I became the designated nipper-tucker. It was part of Buckley’s genius to see among the shards of a broken post-Eisenhower politics the makings of a new conservative majority. With the indispensable help of his National Review colleagues Frank Meyer, Brent Bozell, and William Rusher, Buckley had stitched together an assemblage of social, traditional, and national defense conservatives and then grandly pronounced them a “movement.”
Such was the force of Buckley’s personal charisma and rhetorical thrust that many right-leaning citizens suspended their disbelief and declared themselves our co-conspirators. More sober political observers, including those now known as the mainstream media but then known simply as The Media, were dismissive. To them, serious political personalities on the right were ontologically inconceivable. But even other, less tendentious observers were skeptical as to whether Buckley, as the infamous NR office memo put it, could make the “Holy Rollers lie down with the high rollers.”
Courtly James Burnham, the oldest and wisest of the Buckleyites, could be heard muttering that a cause depending simultaneously on social conservatives and free-marketeers smacked of an “unprincipled coalition,” which in Burnham’s lexicon was the least promising form of political life. It was not until the New York Times began referring to us as a “movement” that we knew we had arrived. (Times change. Today, of course, the appropriate response to a New York Times story would be, “Wow! What if that’s true?”)
When I say that the coalition was stitched together, I don’t mean that it was tied snugly with rawhide strips. I mean that it was tacked up with a basting stitch. The fusionist movement relied from the outset on the force of moral commitment generated by religious conservatives, while neither of the other coalition partners, foreign policy hard-liners and free-market absolutists, were consistently adherent to traditional values. It was also clear from the earliest days that the traditionalists’ moral commitment never ran unreservedly to support of the free market. For them, economic concerns were subordinate to social concerns. And it was equally clear that the foreign policy hard-liners, then as now, were smart and vocal but a bit thin on the ground and never likely to be a player in organizational politics. The coalition was, if not unprincipled, at least fragile and susceptible to fracture. But the tactical imperatives of the day, especially the need to resist Soviet expansionism, prevailed. The Buckley coalition, cemented by the anti-Communist cause, worked as a unified political force until the fall of the Soviet Union and for some years beyond.
Valuable travel tips, unavailable elsewhere at any price. The nicest town in the U.S., hands down, is Elkhart, Indiana. a single vignette, drawn from a stuffed folder in the mental file. The missus and I are enjoying a late supper (that would be 7:45 elkhart time) in a deserted applebee’s when a second party saunters in— four biker dudes comprehensively pierced and inked, trailed timidly by a forty-fivish woman. Hmmm, is she a hostage? A combination love slave and short-order cook? Is she, Lord help her, counting on me to rescue her from the four all-beef patties in the dungaree buns? The Applebee’s staff crowds in and breaks into song and it becomes clear that Mom is treating Biker Boy and his friends to a gala dinner. at the end of a notably high-carb meal, Biker Boy drifts out to the parking lot, kisses Mom, ties his birthday swag neatly to the back of his hog and chuffs off into the Indiana night.
Looking back over the last eight years, it seems obvious that George W. Bush has been a vastly underrated politician. Not just in one election, but in two, he persuaded the entire conservative movement to stand with him—even as he took a series of Great Leaps Forward. First, he nationalized education, a constitutional stretch by any reckoning and the realization of a liberal dream running back almost half a century. Then he nationalized prescription drugs for senior citizens, which represented a monumental achievement for liberal ideology. (I won’t drown you in numbers but consider this: The unfunded liability in the Social Security system, about which we have been perspiring heavily for 30 years, now stands at $13.6 trillion. The unfunded liability of the Bush drug benefit—and that’s after premiums, co-pays, and all projectable revenues—is already at $17.2 trillion.)
Tooling through Scranton, we scan the sidewalks for the ghost of Joe Biden’s dad. Sen. Biden, now celebrated for rising magnificently from his blue-collar roots, once described his dad as the best dressed sales manager in town. Perhaps that collar was something in a nice oxford blue with French cuffs.
As I write these words Bush has just nationalized the residential real estate market through the takeover of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac. (When did it become part of the American Dream to live in government housing?) Forget his “discretionary” war and the incalculable costs, both strategic and economic, it will incur. How did Bush do it? How did he manage to keep all the partners inside the coalition, sullen but not quite mutinous? The answer is brilliant campaigns, textbook brilliant, followed by governance that destroyed the base.
You know that list of the hundred things you must do before you die? Good luck. But on your list of, say, ten things, you must include a Notre Dame football game. As a delegate from WASP nation I have observer status only, but, I tell you, it’s a near-spiritual experience. I now understand why head coach Charlie Weis has never returned to the pros. at the pep rally before the home opener against San Diego State, twenty thousand fans bow metronomically, forming a “W” with their fingers and thumbs. The fans are worshipping the coach! Where I come from, they threaten the wife and kids. By the time the Fighting Irish band shakes down the thunder from the sky, I’m ready to hit a San Diego doofus myself.
Which leaves you, the reader, in a unique situation: for the first time in your life you have no conservative candidate for whom to vote. John McCain? I got to know him a bit in Washington and he’s a guy’s guy, full of wit and vinegar. He’s fun to be around and his word is good. His only conceit is that he thinks he’s a principled politician, which is not quite right. He’s an honorable politician, clearly, but he has more attitudes than principles, the difference being that a politician with attitudes can be ideologically scammed. And he has been. I sometimes think that David Brooks cooked up that “national greatness” nonsense with a consumer market of one in mind. Whatever the marketing strategy may have been, though, Brooks made himself one big sale. John McCain seems fully engaged only when going abroad in search of monsters to destroy.
Cleveland won’t be trapping many tourists anytime soon, but if you find yourself in the area, check out the rock & roll Hall of Fame. It’s all there—stuff from Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis, Janis Joplin’s Porsche, Jimi Hendrix’s axe, Mick Jagger’s costumes—the full panoply of your misspent youth. one glaring omission: there’s no mention of the great late- Fifties band, The Zebras. I use “great” here in the sense that it paid enough to buy my first car, an aquamarine, chick-magnet Ford convertible. And if you’re wondering about the name of the band, yes, I was the white guy.
Not to belabor the point, but another example of McCain’s confusion of attitude with principle is his signature campaign against congressional earmarks. A principled conservatism would oppose the earmark and return the money to the taxpayer. An attitudinal conservatism would oppose the earmark and send the money to the executive branch. The planted axiom in McCain’s campaign is that, while Sen. Stevens may waste the money on a bridge to nowhere, a nameless Transportation Department bureaucrat will spend it wisely in the public interest. Experience would not seem to support McCain’s confidence on this point, but he labors on, not seeking to limit the scope of government but rather seeking to clarify exactly which government office will allocate the funds. A popular attitude by most evidence, but not a principle.
Ever wonder how far a couple married long enough to have eight grandchildren can stand being cooped up in a small automobile? I speak with authority. We encounter a bit of turbulence just outside Webster City, Iowa. nothing serious. By the time we reach Clear Lake, that toddlin’ town, domestic tranquility has been restored. It was Kingsley Amis who first noted the similarity between women and Russians—“if you did exactly what they wanted all the time you were being realistic and constructive and promoting the cause of peace.”
McCain’s problem, from the conservative perspective, is that he has no framework, ideological or philosophical, into which he can feed experience and from which he can adduce policy. He is all moral sensibility, without system, without intellectual base. It’s useful to remember that Ronald Reagan, the professional actor, was rarely emotive. As the world now knows from his writings, he was relentlessly analytical.
I had never thought of Pennsylvania and Ohio as one end of the farm belt, but for the better part of two hundred miles it’s corn, corn, and more corn. (Who says that ethanol scam isn’t working?) South Dakota, where one man’s mesa is another man’s butte, is the real deal. Big-time grain operations, hour after hour, both sides of the road, with soybeans and sunflowers and other specialty crops mixed in. By the time you hit Wyoming, the farming has turned to ranching, with one Dances with Wolves set eliding into the next. Everywhere you see signs of mines reopened, wells uncapped, and the commodities boom in full swing. If a recession can be detected with the naked eye, sorry NBC, but there’s not much bad news to report and none at all for the folks who dig things and drill things and grow things.
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
In Britain, defending your property can get you life.
The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
The American Christmas, like the songs that celebrate it, makes room for everybody under the rainbow. Is that why so many people seem to be hostile to it?
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?