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Goodbye to Most of That

On the road in a changing in America.

By From the November 2008 issue

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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.

John McCain is a voracious if undisciplined reader, and he insists on sharing his literary enthusiasms. For reasons that escape me, he tells everybody who will listen that his favorite fictional character is Robert Jordan from the Hemingway novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. For those of you some years removed from high school English, Jordan is the American volunteer in the Spanish Civil War who opts for death in a hopeless and effectively pro- Communist cause. We’ll give McCain the benefit of the doubt and presume that he likes the dying part better than the Commie part. Don’t cry for McCain. If he wins, he’s president. If he doesn’t, perhaps he can find satisfaction in having taken a beating for his party.

Sorry, but whenever I get anywhere near Chicago I’m reminded of Richard Jeni’s explanation of how the city got started: “a bunch of people in new York said, ‘Gee, I’m enjoying the crime and the poverty, but it just isn’t cold enough. Let’s go west.’”

Carly Fiorina, the senior McCain aide and former Hewlett-Packard executive, blurted out the gaffish truth that John McCain is not fit to be a corporate CEO. She said the same thing, with more accuracy, about Barack Obama. He’s never run anything bigger than a law review, and the questions about him, your correspondent can confirm, still swirl across the fruited plain. Even the people who embrace his “message” of hope and change add a “but,” such as: but the only old friends we seem to know about are the convict, the terrorist, and that hate-pretzel of a preacher. Or: but when he’s untethered from the teleprompter, he seems to float in rhetorical space, a man of no fixed intellectual address. Or: but there seems to be more change here than a Bolshevik could stand today, more hope than a red-mopped urchin could contemplate tomorrow. Or: but about this family thing— what’s up with that brother who lives in the hut in exurban Nairobi? These are not the usual concerns lingering in the final weeks of a presidential campaign.

Another entry for your must-do list! Spearfish Canyon, located near the old Homestake gold strike in western South Dakota. The word for it is awesome, in the pure, pre-valley Girl sense. Limestone cliffs, crashing falls, bird- and fish-stuffed wetlands, an area so pristine as to justify the local poet’s judgment that it is soul-nourishing to “get out into the silent places.” If you’ve never been a tree hugger, I recommend that you start with the Ponderosa pine. The bark smells like butterscotch. and you don’t have to take my word for any of this. a previous visitor, Frank Lloyd Wright, said of Spearfish, “How is it that I’ve heard so much about the Grand Canyon, when this is even more miraculous.”

Over the past 20 years, Obama has held a series of brief, small-beer jobs, all of them in the nonprofit sector, which is another way of saying that he has made a living out of the economic value created by somebody else. The only real money came when he found the literary subject of a lifetime: himself. At age 46, he has already published two autobiographies, both of them commercially successful. What, you might reasonably ask, would a man who hasn’t accomplished anything write about in two autobiographies? Feelings. What Barack felt about this, what he felt about that, what he almost felt about this, what he should have felt about that. After 500 pages of this picaresque monologue, the reader is moved to scream at the page, “Barack, we know how you feel. Do something!”

You’ve heard the marketing motto, “What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas”? If only, my friends. If only.

It is the universal temptation to divide the human tribe into two neat categories. Some people see the fundamental division as that between men and women. Others see it as between blacks and whites. Or rich and poor, gay and straight, straight and addicted, night people and day people. The late Herman Kahn used to tell me that the critical distinction, the one that really matters in public life, is the one between those who care what the New York Times says about them and those who don’t. Myself, I’ve always been an O’Hara man. The novelist John O’Hara saw the world around him separating itself cleanly into two groups—people who do things and people who describe things.

Barack Obama is a describer. He’s not running to accomplish great things. He’s running to be president, and he’ll get a helluva book out of it. The rest of us will get a describer in chief.

There comes that moment in road life when you can either starve or pick a logo from the billboard misleadingly labeled, “Food.” Hidden in that list of cholesterol palaces is a gem. Go with Chili’s. The Southwestern Cobb is reliably good.

And thus the choice you face on November 4, a choice between Too New and Too Old, a choice between a TR Republican and (I guess) a Kennedy Democrat, an election between two career legislators face to face at last with those “tough choices” they pretend to relish, both of whom seem likely to yield to inflation (and mete out the concomitant punishment to savers and investors) rather than swallowing a stiff dose of fiscal medicine. Maybe Buckley, that master of political theatre, knew just when to tap-dance off stage.

No better time than the end of a trip to slip into the apodictic mode. I have seen the future and I’m pretty sure it’s not California. not so long ago, whatever happened in America tended to happen first in California. now, I strongly suspect, only the bad things will happen there first. The state can no longer afford the politics of social impulse, the politics of ideological whim. Those are the indulgences of youth and wealth and California is past its prime with the bills of boom now coming due. no, I think it’s more likely that the future will unfold first, both the good and the bad, in its neighbor to the east, Colorado. With a layered economy, built on the sedimental foundation of successive booms in energy, telecommunications, and finance, with the spirit of the trailblazer and the grit of the cowboy, Colorado has shown early promise in its efforts to balance past and future, city and town, techie and farmer, and the varied interests of the whites and browns and blacks among its citizenry. My advice is to go west, young man, but not all the way.

And then, and then…and then along came Sarah Palin. I should disclose that I know her a little and like her a lot. I lobbied persistently for her selection as VP. Whatever I write now will sound like time-capsule stuff by the time you read it, but here was my thinking way back in the summer of 2008. Point One: The suits—Pawlenty, Romney, Lieberman—are all fine fellows but will be unable to help McCain move off 42–45 percent of the vote. Point Two: Sarah will reshuffle the deck by stunning the media, caffeinating the base, arresting (at least momentarily) the migration of Hillary voters, and intriguing that huge swath of the country that doesn’t give a damn about politics 10 months of the year. Point Three: Should McCain somehow manage to win, Sarah will embolden his best instincts and inspire his inner reformer. She’d be a great vice president  I didn’t bother to make Point Four. With all of her upside, Sarah also brings great risk. Everybody has a tough first lap around the national political track. Biden did, pratfalling twice. Bill Clinton did, with that apparently career-killing keynote address to the 1988 convention. Hillary did, losing most of the caucus states (!) this year to a no-name, no-account junior senator. If form holds, Sarah will be stumbling and crumbling by October. Maybe she won’t. But even if she does, we have been reminded— as have the media and the powerbrokers—that there is a latent conservative constituency out there, waiting for the spark of leadership, listening expectantly for the sound of the trumpet.

Neal B. Freeman is Chairman of The Blackwell Corporation and can be reached at nealfreeman@blackwellcorp.com.

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About the Author
Neal B. Freeman is chairman of the Blackwell Corporation.