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A Brighter Shade of Paleo

Paul Gottfried's engaging memoir of friends from the past.

By 10.9.09

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Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers
By Paul E. Gottfried
(ISI Books, 275 pages, $28)

It was an October 1992 dinner at Richard Nixon's home in Saddle River, New Jersey, and the room was spinning. The conservative writer and academic Paul Gottfried was over a half hour late to the gathering, due to heavy traffic on the Jersey Turnpike and his own perennial tardiness. The 37th president of the United States was unperturbed and graciously mixed his guest a cocktail he said was a favorite of world leaders.

After swallowing nearly half the drink "in one great gulp," Gottfried recalls, "[u]ntil the time we were called to dinner about twenty minutes later, I could barely rise from my chair." Only hours later, he continues, "did I feel sufficiently confident to handle my car." Richard Nixon had gotten Paul Gottfried drunk.

Paul Gottfried has been at the center of some of the most bitter and contentious battles within the conservative movement, often on the losing side. Not that he considers those who have beaten him winners in any meaningful sense -- in his caustic assessments of modern American conservatism, he has questioned whether the mainstream movement has ever accomplished, much less conserved, anything at all.

Yet for all his literary pugilism, Gottfried is a pleasant and charming dinner companion very much at odds with the dour stereotype of a "paleoconservative," a term he coined himself. While most of the standard paleocon versus neocon grudge matches -- Mel Bradford being passed over for a job at the National Endowment of the Humanities, the Beltway right's lack of enthusiasm for Pat Buchanan's presidential campaigns, Sam Francis' firing from the Washington Times -- make an appearance, this is the Paul Gottfried on display in his latest book.

Encounters is partly a memoir, affectionately recalling Gottfried's upbringing and early life, and partly a remembrance of the major intellectual and political figures with whom the author was acquainted. Thus we read of Gottfried's father, an assimilated German-speaking Jewish furrier who was born in Budapest and immigrated to the United States to escape the Nazis in the 1930s. An FDR Democrat who "would have given his shirt away in a fit of generosity," the elder Gottfried "had nothing in common with today's feminized and media-acceptable males."

"Needless to say," Gottfried writes of his father, "he suffered in no way from the politics of guilt. He refused to work with the Fire Commission when he learned that it had established lower standards for black applicants." The father may have voted for Roosevelt while the son preferred Robert Taft, but in this regard the apple did not fall far from the tree.

Gottfried also profiles a remarkably diverse set of intellectuals he has known: the social critic Christopher Lasch, the historian John Lukacs, the radical libertarian economist Murray Rothbard, and the conservative godfather Russell Kirk. Some of them are not just friends but, despite disagreements, ideological comrades-in-arms: Lukacs, Rothbard, and Kirk fit into this category. Others were friends across a vast political and philosophical divide: Herbert Marcuse of the infamous Frankfurt School and Eugene Genovese, the self-described Marxist-turned-Catholic neoconservative.

Marcuse was a professor of Gottfried's at Yale and the author acknowledges, with caveats, certain intellectual debts. "In provocative reviews of my last two books the analytic philosopher David Gordon has portrayed me as a right-wing exponent of the Frankfurt School," Gottfried writes. "I am what Adorno or Marcuse would have been if they had been bourgeois conservatives, applying their critical method to leftist targets."

But Gottfried has practically nothing in common with the Marcuse's politics. Of left-wing academics he writes, "I found their denials or whitewashing of the most gruesome tyranny in modern history, equaled only by the crimes of the Third Reich, to be inexplicably repulsive."

In the chapter "Two Pugnacious Republicans," we meet Gottfried's two most famous subjects: Nixon and his former speechwriter Patrick Buchanan. He recalls his correspondence with the former president and his aides:

At Nixon's home, a lovely young lady then studying at Columbia, Monica Crowley, and a writing assistant, John Taylor, were usually on hand. Both corresponded with me, and Monica was particularly kind in indicating how much she had learned from my books and articles. Fortunately for her future career as a Fox News commentator, Monica seems to have been unaffected by anything I sent her boss.

Was Crowley's boss a conservative? Gottfried answers yes and no: "It was Nixon who started the ball rolling for affirmative action... the size and reach of the American welfare state grew more than it would under any of his presidential successors... Nixon opened the door to relations with Maoist China, a monstrous tyranny led by a mass murderer."

Gottfried nevertheless detected in Nixon a conservative understanding of human nature. In Gottfried's telling, Nixon "belonged to a tradition of pessimistic realism" that made him "more conservative than the global democratic crusaders, whom the anticommunist wing of his party happily embraced and often misunderstood." But in due course Nixon's pupil Buchanan would understand the liberalism of those crusaders, becoming a serious "presidential candidate of the Old Right."

Despite his obvious admiration for the wordsmith-turned-candidate, Gottfried takes polite exception to Buchanan's position on Israel and some of his chosen controversies. Gottfried gently describes "Pat's tendency to move from boldness into rashness, a quality of character that is one of Aristotle's vices." And while an admirer of paleo fellow travelers Kirk, Rothbard, and even Francis, he acknowledges they may not have been an ideal set of advisers for Buchanan. What was instead required, Gottfried writes, "was advice from someone who would be able to get Pat lots of votes on Election Day."

None of this is to say that Paul Gottfried is mellowing out. His political advice isn't likely to win lots of votes on Election Day either. But Encounters is a valuable introduction to the first self-described paleoconservative even for readers with little interest in paleoconservatism.

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About the Author

W. James Antle III, author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?, is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and a senior editor of The American Spectator. You can follow him on Twitter @jimantle.