When a man dies, he takes with him his unique combination of knowledge and understanding of that knowledge. Many facts are, of course, commonly known and stay among the living, as is much understanding. Still, no two people have ever known the exact same sets of facts (unless they knew absolutely nothing), just as no two human minds work in exactly the same way; which is what makes our study of mankind and its history so fascinating.
I feel this especially with the passing of my father last week, at the age of 88, having lived a full and happy life all the way to the end. Dad was not cheated by life, and our family feels very fortunate especially when considering those whose lives have been cut short or limited in some way. I do miss him, and not the least because of his extraordinary mind and the things he knew. What I hope will be of particular interest and significance to readers of the Spectator is his perspective, drawn on deep personal involvement culminating in twenty-four years chairing the judicial selection committees of Senators James L. Buckley and Alfonse D’Amato, on the Conservative Movement.
Dad’s first campaign involvement came in 1952, when, as a young lawyer and a World War II combat veteran, he was a convention page for Senator Robert A. Taft. His most memorable task was to escort John Wayne through a tsunami of admirers to Taft’s hotel room and back. Dad’s father was in the room with Taft when Henry Cabot Lodge started the outrageous “Thou shalt not steal” chant at Taft just as Thomas E. Dewey was closing his fateful deal with Richard Nixon and Earl Warren to swing California’s support to the Eisenhower ticket. His father reported that Taft slapped his knee and said, “That does it” — effectively signing Lodge’s political death warrant. It was no coincidence that John F. Kennedy (who defeated Lodge in 1952) was one of the first Senators to eulogize Taft when he died, that Taft rated a chapter in Profiles in Courage, or that Kennedy chaired the Senate committee that declared Taft one of the five greatest Senators ever.
As Dad saw it, the deeply personal and bitter feud between Taft and Dewey gave birth to the movement. This is in no way to slight his dear friend and client William F. Buckley, whose wit, energy, and astounding creativity brought renewed force to the movement after Taft’s death and gave it a flair that Taft did not have. On the other hand, Taft had built a formidable political organization, based on fundamental political principles of limited government, nationwide in scope, and ready, willing, and able to march forward singing Bill Buckley’s tune. Much of the Goldwater organization in 1964 were Taft alumni; again, it was no coincidence that Sen. Everett McKinley Dirksen, who had vehemently denounced Dewey from the podium at the 1952 convention, nominated Goldwater in 1964. By contrast, the Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford Administrations drew heavily on Dewey alumni and largely froze out anyone who had any connection with Taft.
Dad was heavily involved in the founding of the New York Conservative Party with J. Daniel Mahoney, who later became his law partner, and chaired New Yorkers for Goldwater in 1964. The Conservative Party essentially comprised old Taft supporters, who had no use for the Dewey machine in New York, especially as Nelson Rockefeller took it even further to the left. A vivid memory from the Goldwater campaign was the traditional Republican rally at Madison Square Garden. Thanks heavily to Marvin Liebman, the Garden was packed despite a total lack of support from the Rockefeller organization. Dad always greeted Marvin thereafter as “the man who saved my life at Madison Square Garden.”
Dad had close involvement in Bill Buckley’s 1965 Mayoral campaign and in Jim Buckley’s 1968 and 1970 Senatorial campaigns. While Bill Buckley’s mayoral campaign is justifiably recognized for permanently setting the Conservative Party on the New York political map, Jim Buckley’s showing that a conservative could draw significant statewide support in liberal New York to the point of winning an election deserves its share of recognition as well, as does his performance in the Senate. It was Jim Buckley who introduced tuition tax relief legislation, across the board tax cuts, indexation of income tax brackets, and crackdowns on entitlement fraud — all declared dead on arrival by the very liberal Senate but all enacted into law or very seriously debated in subsequent years. And many of the fine staffers Jim Buckley hired themselves served the movement with distinction in Republican administrations, on Capitol Hill, and at think tanks.
In 1975, the New York Conservative Party came out as one of the first supporters of Ronald Reagan. Having islands of support even in the liberal Northeast unquestionably helped persuade Reagan to challenge President Ford in one of the most successful yet least studied campaigns in modern political history. Dan Mahoney may have been the first person to break the ice when he introduced Reagan at a Conservative dinner in the fall of 1975 as “the next President of the United States,” something no Republican politician would have dared to do at the time. Obviously without 1976, 1980 would not have happened. Again, however, the Republican Party remained split along almost the same lines as the old Dewey-Taft feud. It took Ronald Reagan himself, by offering the Vice Presidency to George Bush in 1980 and by including Republicans from both wings of the Party in his administration, to bury that feud for good.
A number of Dad’s views, while not reflecting the mainstream of conservative thought today, speak to a far deeper conservatism. A firm believer in limited government, for example, Dad thought that government should do a first-class job anywhere it is involved. While some might find this self-contradictory, directing a government’s energy towards excellence simultaneously checks it from sprawling into a behemoth of mediocrity.
Contrary to many apostles of the “free market,” Dad firmly believed that fraud was the number one enemy of free enterprise capitalism. In a letter to the Wall Street Journal, he wrote, “As to our status as the world’s leading financial market, in the long run this will be determined by the strength of our currency… [and] the cleanliness and objectivity of our marketplace.” He was no fan of over-regulation, however. He preferred the rigorous enforcement of the laws that already existed, so that the market could function with the knowledge of what was expected from it but would also remain wary about approaching, much less crossing, the line.
Finally, clean and honorable government was a central pillar of his conservatism. This was not just a truism to be mouthed while defending the conduct of perjurers and bagmen, and I think it derived from his father who, as Corporation Counsel to Mayor LaGuardia, recovered hundreds of millions of dollars for New York City by prosecuting corrupt Tammany Hall transactions. Dad knew in advance of, probably advised, and greatly admired Jim Buckley’s call for President Nixon’s resignation in March 1974, long before the roof finally caved in, and he always liked to point out that it was Barry Goldwater who convinced the President that he had to resign. On a practical level too, he thought it a terrible political mistake to allow the quality of the opposition to become the lowest common denominator for our own side. As conservatives try to regroup from the debacles of 2006 and 2008, they should ponder over this thought and look again for leaders of the stature of Taft, Goldwater, Buckley, and Reagan.