R. Randolph Richardson, World War II veteran, patriot, businessman, sailor, husband and father, who as president of the Smith Richardson Foundation in the 1970s and 1980s directed and sustained research in economics and national security that laid the intellectual underpinnings of what became known as the Reagan Revolution, died at his home in Long Island, N.Y. last Memorial Day following a long illness. His opposition to communist imperialism and statist subversion of the liberties that made America led him to seek out thinkers who could make the case for free men, free markets, national security. His highly original approach to philanthropy was based on the recognition, shared by a small number of individuals in the immediate post-war years, that American conservatives neglected the battle of ideas, preferring to seek ways of accommodating or getting along with the enemies of freedom instead of confronting them. His impact on the shape and quality of the continuing debate on the conditions needed to sustain a free society cannot be overstated.
Of Robert Randolph Richardson, they say that he is one of the individuals responsible for the revival and flourishing of American conservatism during the second half of the last century. They are right to say this.
Randy Richardson’s influence was profound, remains so. It endures. He worked discreetly, unheralded. He preferred it this way. “Go see these birds and listen to what they have to say,” he said, referring to denizens of universities or think tanks. “But don’t have them call me after, all right?” This was not rudeness. He had a tendency to bluntness, because he did not like wasting time, but he was courteous in an old school way. He dressed conservatively, favored bow ties. He would have looked good in most anything, but he was infallibly correct sartorially, preferred old suits to new ones. He was partial to them and also did not like spending money when there was no need.
Leaving his austere office for a meeting in another neighborhood, he chose the subway over the hacks, noted the cost of the tokens used. Government waste struck him as morally reprehensible, and he was well aware of the usefulness to his political enemies of enlarging the reach of the meddlesome state. “Your job,” he used to say to his assistants, “is to create widespread and permanent unemployment in the District of Columbia.”
Mr. Richardson’s severe stance, softened by a twinkle in his eye and a wry humor, was an attitude inherited from the hardworking entrepreneurial Southern family whence he sprang. It was a philosophical, a moral position. Ideas were important to him, crucial. More important still was the bedrock faith he lived by, Presbyterian and patriotic. Love of family, service to country, civic duty were reflexive, unshakeable. A thinking man, he sought out idea men, theoreticians. He knew they were prone to moral failings, including, from his perspective, the inability to earn their own livings in a free and competitive economic system, so he invested in them because he saw what they did was important. Sometimes he even liked them.
In the making of modern American conservatism, Randy Richardson’s influence was felt, and welcomed, in intellectual realms, sometimes a little warily, because the activists no less than the intellectuals learned quickly enough that he was not a hand-out man. “This is not charity,” he said, “even if it is charitable. You have to produce. It may take a long time, that is up to you. But it has to happen. And if it happens, others will pick up your cause, and you will need no further help from me. So don’t come back.” Stern stuff? If it is, we need more of it.
He eschewed credit. Doing the right thing by his lights for his country and his race — the American race — was its own reward. Others could feel entitled to relationships with the busy-bodies that govern us, getting high positions, being named plenipotentiaries — as often as not to simply muck up the eagerly coveted title, or at any rate the republican duties that allegedly came with it. He sought no such favors, which he would correctly identify as ruling class boondoggle. As to larger fame, he wanted no part of it. He invested in ideas, believing they have consequences (the phrase comes from the conservative scholar Richard Weaver), for good and ill.
They said then, they still do, that Mr. Richardson was sharply, shrewdly aware of the importance of ideas in the evolution of modern politics generally and the making of public policy in particular. In some respects, the huge impact he had in marshaling ideas to produce policy initiatives, notably in the economic and national security areas, was paradoxical, for he was no intellectual, knew the dangers posed by idea-wielders.
He was a shrewd judge of men, his interests were broad and extremely varied, he was skeptical, thoughtful: you could be forgiven for asking why a man with a mind such as this should not be described as an intellectual. The reason is that while he possessed many of the qualities that intellectuals flatter themselves into believing they possess, he lacked the ones that are most prevalent among them, vanity, arrogance, contempt for ordinary people, envy. When he said that others of his kind — businessmen — tended toward cluelessness when it came to protecting their own interests in the marketplace of ideas, he said it not with contempt but with sorrow. He deeply respected their success, wished they could transfer their know-how and creativity to the necessary fight in areas not their own. He understood specialization, delegation of responsibility. He took on able assistants, sought out men with sensible ideas, knowing their unfashionability did not disrecommend them, quite the opposite. The defense of freedom, he knew, means thinking against the herd. He passed these lessons on to his children, who continue his work.
His awareness of the foolishness of intellectuals by no means made him anti-intellectual. Rather it made him a better practitioner of the work they failed at repeatedly. The truth is, he expected them to fail in their grandiose aims. You were not, he was quite sure, going to save the world with ideas. He knew humanity goes down the road to perdition repeatedly because of lousy ideas. But as you must stop the barbarian armies with stronger armies, you must fight toxic ideas with sensible ideas, though in the conservative way of thinking, this often means recognizing the importance of the idea that ideas are dangerous. Mr. Richardson took William F. Buckley Jr.’s mission statement description of National Review — “It stand athwart history, yelling Stop” — into the world of idea-brokerage. The magazines he backed, such as this one, and the Public Interest, and others, were intellectual reviews, for sure, but perhaps their most important function was, remains, to show how fatuous, not to say subversive, are the causes taken up by intellectuals and big-think types and how perverse they are in the shaping of public affairs.
If Mr. Richardson’s first rule of dealing with intellectuals was to be wary of them, his second one, the key to his success, was that you had to be open to the possibility they had something to offer. You had to listen to them, read what they produced. He was by no means allergic to their company; on the contrary. Soft spoken, modest in his own declarations, attractive — tall and lean all his life, handsome and projecting, even after an adult lifetime in Manhattan, the moral passions of his forebears, he scarcely required ostentation or a big mouth to make his presence felt.
Be wary of that bird, he would say, he doesn’t have his head screwed on right — but, careful now, pick his brain, there’s apt to be something in it that should be interesting, maybe even useful.
It was not so much a matter of fundamental principles, with Randy Richardson: he knew what these were. The problem was getting ideas into circulation that would increase the chance of fundamental principles being operational principles. This man, whose own tastes and standards may be gauged in his having been among the pioneers of such cultural enterprises as the Conservative Book Club and the television programming that became Masterpiece Theatre, knew that the vulgarity of intellectual arrogance is far, far more toxic in our democratic Republic than the passing inanities of popular fads.
You could make improvements, you could make progress. Randy Richardson saw that you should not gloat over your success in getting things done, because it was likely the doing would be undone before long. They said he was among a handful who changed the way we think about economic policy, liberating entrepreneurial energy and paving the way for a dynamic era of growth and well-being on a global level. They said his support for America’s necessary leadership and armed power reversed a foreign policy of retreat and appeasement that the communist enemy was exploiting on several continents, and it is surely true that, imprecise as international affairs always are, he and others who thought this way opened an opportunity of the kind that might have been seized in 1919, in 1945.
He knew something of this, too, having left high school to enlist in the fight for freedom in Europe. In the horrendous weeks of the battle we remember as the Bulge, his company fought continually, holding its ground at a corner of hell, standing, like another eminent Carolinian, as a stone wall, a stone wall for freedom. Which is what we will say of him when we tell his story, when we tell of Randy Richardson.
Among many, many other causes the Smith Richardson Foundation supported during R. Randolph Richardson’s years as president, often in the critical time of inception, we may list ideas of economists who revived free-market capitalism. Mr. Richardson was an early supporter of the Committee on the Present Danger and the National Strategy Information Center and other defense policy institutes that refused to accept the inevitability of American decline and the permanence of a communist empire. He was partial to “broken windows” policing and “free to choose” education. He pushed the conservative campus journalism movement, helping to keep the press mindful of its true role. In all these and many other endeavors — not least, his passion for sailing — Randy Richardson expressed his faith in America, his optimistic faith steeled by the evidence of human misery, wickedness, and tragedy.
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