The great pro-life congressman Henry Hyde died on Nov. 29, 2007. Little did we know how many monumentally significant conservatives would follow in the next two years. We’ve lost too many of our best since then. It’s time for the rest of us to do a better job carrying their causes.
William F. Buckley, Jr. died three months after Hyde. Another three and a half months after that, we lost Tony Snow. Then it was Jesse Helms. Then Patricia Buckley Bozell. We’ve lost Paul Weyrich, Jack Kemp, Bob Novak, Karen (Mrs. Michael) Laub-Novak, Peter Rodman, Rose Friedman, and Father Richard John Neuhaus. These people weren’t just stars in the conservative firmament; they were giants. Each was a pathfinder, sui generis in each’s respective spheres. And now, just in the past two weeks, we’ve also lost the irreplaceable Irving Kristol — and the brilliant William Safire, who infiltrated the enemy territory of the New York Times to great effect.
(And if you want to go back another 14 months before Hyde’s death, you’ll mourn the passing of Milton Friedman, Jeane Kirkpatrick, and perhaps Jerry Falwell too.)
We’ve also lost some of the lesser known but important rising stars of the new media of blogging, among them Dean Barnett and Mark Kilmer, both way too young. We lost a valiant and kind battler for the English language, Jim Boulet, also way too young. A couple of weeks ago I lost my friend Beth Rickey, a longtime Reaganite activist who became the absolute heroine of the movement against neo-Nazi David Duke. Beth was only 53.
And I’m sure I’ve left out some important conservatives who have passed to their greater rewards in the past two years — Ambassador Anne Armstrong should fit in there somewhere, as should Ernest Lefever, founder of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, along with my dear colleague, Mary Lou Forbes, who headed the Commentary pages of the Washington Times for a quarter century. And if you broaden the horizon a little, to include those who weren’t politically active but whose work advanced conservative themes, you’d lament the loss of novelist Michael Crichton, actor Karl Malden, broadcaster Paul Harvey, author John Updike (not a conservative, but a patriot, a man of faith, and a critic of political correctness), and heart surgeon Michael DeBakey.
This is a lot of loss in a very short time. Yes, of course, people die all the time. In any two-year period, a broad movement will lose some of its iconic figures. But not this many, and not quite so iconic and so absolutely essential to the movement’s very existence in its current form. You don’t lose a Buckley and a Kemp and a Novak and a Kristol, not to mention a Weyrich and a Safire and a universally beloved Snow, all in less than 20 months, without feeling a terribly empty feeling in your gut and an ache in your marrow. These were people with a life force that so exceeded the normal, such an unmistakable commitment to principle and to putting principle into action, that they inspired awe and not a little devotion.
The most recent two, Safire and especially Kristol, broadened the reach of conservatism in ways that may still be too little appreciated. No, Safire wasn’t a “movement conservative,” but he was fearless. He wouldn’t back down, and he had credibility that did conservatives a great deal of good when he called the bluffs of the lying Clintons of the world. And Kristol was an unparalleled force. For conservatives not to recognize just how much he added to the intellectual case against Communism and against liberal lenient-on-crime nostrums (and against other liberal cultural ills) is for us to turn our back on our heritage. Before there was a Christian right, there was a growing intellectual “cultural right” that owes much of its provenance to Irving Kristol.
Somehow, with as much talent as there is in conservative ranks today, there still aren’t leaders with the influence, or the reach, of Kristol or Buckley or Kemp. Meaning… what exactly?
Well, it means we need to step up our games. We face a domestic political adversary more radical, and at least as ruthless, as any we’ve ever faced. The left has the numbers in the Senate and the House. It has a White House so caught up in its own ideology that it forsakes friends in Honduras on behalf of an American-hating scofflaw, stabs our allies in Poland and Czechoslovakia in the back, insults the British, and even tacitly supports the ayatollahs in Iran over the more freedom-loving aspirations of the Iranian people. It has control of law enforcement in the person of a corrupt attorney general on a race-based crusade. And it of course enjoys the fawning, determined support of the establishment news media, academia, and the arts.
Against these challenges, the broad middle of the American public is finding its energy and a rough-hewn voice. Public approval for the Obamites of the world is falling fast. But the Obamites still control the levers of power, and they are ruthless enough to continually try to change the very rules of the game. To keep the public’s opposition to the Obamites focused and productive, conservatives need some leaders, some recognizable spokesmen, to earn their stripes and command attention.
Bill Buckley and Bob Novak and Jack Kemp didn’t achieve as much as they did, and build as much as they did, and bequeath to us as much as they did, for us to let it fritter away.
Sure, carrying a cause is easier said than done. Leading a movement is a matter of grit as much as of brilliance. And it’s harder to stand out as a conservative leader when there are so many more conservatives with public fora now than there were when only Buckley and James Kilpatrick had conservative columns to which many Americans could find access.
But that means that the rest of us need to work harder, too, to promote would-be leaders. U.S. Rep. Mike Pence, for instance, has substance and media-savvy, and he’s out there working non-stop for the cause. Conservatives should help promote him rather than waiting for him to promote himself. Likewise for Rep. Paul Ryan, a heady policy leader, and for U.S. Sen. Jim DeMint, a stalwart conservative seemingly impervious to Washington group-think.
We’ve lost so much in these past two years. Let’s do honor to our late pathfinders by keeping their causes healthy and strong.