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“For one thing, we learned that the modern conservative movement, which dominates the modern Republican Party, has the emotional maturity of a bratty 13-year-old.”
- Paul Krugman, New York Times, Oct. 4, 2009
“The ‘movement’ — that began 50 years ago with the founding of
Bill Buckley’s National Review; that had its coming of age
in the Reagan Years; that reached its zenith with Bush’s victory in
2000 — is falling apart at the seams.”
- Howard Fineman, Newsweek, Oct. 12, 2005
In his recent book, Speech*less, Matt Latimer, one of George W. Bush’s speechwriters, reports a conversation he had with Bush while they were reviewing a speech the president was to give to CPAC, the Conservative Political Action Conference. “What is this movement you keep talking about in the speech?” the president asked him.
“Well, the conservative movement,” Latimer explained. “You know, the one that started back in the sixties, when conservative groups first took root.”
The president leaned forward. “Let me tell you something,” he said, “I whupped Gary Bauer’s ass in 2000.”
Conservatives have had a lot of fun with that remark at President Bush’s expense. But think about it. His father and mother didn’t understand conservatism, even after serving eight years with Ronald Reagan. They distanced themselves from the Gipper as soon as they could, promising to be kinder and gentler, which turned out to be a recipe for failure.
George W. Bush is clearly an intelligent man, but not perhaps a thoughtful man, or at least not a man who thinks about political philosophy. Henry Kissinger wrote that you have to do your thinking before you come to Washington. Once in power, politics is — has to be — about the exercise of power. There isn’t time to think about philosophy. George W. Bush may have become seriously interested in politics at the national level in 1980, when his father became vice president (though he had already run for the House of Representatives in 1978), but probably only in the power part, which at that point was all his father had time for. And by then, the conservative movement had ended. And apparently, among the hundreds of books Bush read in his reading marathon with Karl Rove, he never came across one about the conservative movement — perhaps proving Kissinger’s point.
(Yet…the remarks Bush read when he honored Bill Buckley and National Review on its 50th anniversary seemed to acknowledge, implicitly, the existence of the movement. Bush said Buckley had gathered an “eclectic group of people” to write for the magazine and that it was hard to imagine that there was once a time when the only conservative game in town was Bill Buckley and National Review.)
“Look,” Bush said to Latimer, “I know this probably sounds arrogant to say, but I redefined the Republican Party.” Yes, Mr. President, you did. You redefined it right out of power because you didn’t understand how it had gotten into power, because you didn’t understand conservatism. Or the conservative movement.
When did the conservative movement begin? How do you tell, exactly? And does it really matter? The most plausible date is November 1955, when William F. Buckley Jr. launched National Review. Why then? Because the Conservative Movement — we’ll dignify it now with initial caps — was a small intellectual movement, all of whose exponents could fit into a phone booth. One of its goals, of course, was to win elections. But it was mostly about ideas — ideas that were worth defending even if they did not win elections. No one really expected to win elections right away.
National Review was not the first conservative voice in postwar America. Human Events had been around since 1944. The American Mercury, which had changed hands several times since its founding by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan in the 1920s, had been a conservative political journal since about 1946. And a group of classical libertarians, led by Henry Hazlitt, John Chamberlain, and Suzanne La Follette, revived Albert Jay Nock’s Freeman in 1950. Buckley wrote occasionally for all three of them, and worked briefly as an editor at The American Mercury. But National Review had something the other journals didn’t: a leader.
Bill Buckley was the only articulate, enthusiastic, combative conservative intellectual with national stature, and even that came really only after his campaign for mayor of New York City in 1965. After that race, his nationally syndicated column, “On the Right,” took off, and he started his television program, Firing Line. By then, he had already had a hand in launching conservative organizations like Young Americans for Freedom, the New York State Conservative Party, the Philadelphia Society, the Fund for American Studies, and the American Conservative Union (which, annually, brings us CPAC, Mr. President).
Buckley started making it safe to be a conservative. Before that, it was…not safe. It’s not that it was risqué, as being parlor pink had been (eccentric, but also effete and not dangerous). It was much worse. Being a conservative was not “nice,” not politically acceptable, and not socially acceptable. So conservatives tended to keep their heads down.
Buckley fixed that, with his band of conservative writers, gathered at National Review, sending out the encouraging words, first weekly, then fortnightly, to readers throughout the land. Eventually these writers and their younger successors were to be found at colleges and other institutions throughout the land. Twenty-five years after the launching of National Review, being a conservative was no longer like having the plague, and Ronald Reagan, a professed conservative, a proud devotee of National Review, a personal friend of Bill Buckley’s, was elected president — and running against an incumbent.
Conservatives were everywhere. Conservative organizations were everywhere. Conservatism was everywhere. Not everyone was a conservative, of course. But it was no longer accurate to say that conservatives were not mainstream, not nice, not acceptable. That didn’t stop left-wing ideologues from saying it, of course, but they had lost their power to derogate conservatism. The battle was over. The Movement had won.
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.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
Was the President done in by the economy, or by the politics of the economy?
H/T to National Review Online