Karl Hess—one of the supplest and most creative political thinkers of post-Republic America—died on the same day as Richard Nixon did. His memorial service in Kearneysville, West Virginia, was attended by zero living presidents, which was meet for a man whose conscience impelled him to quit the Power he had once served. Vimful, curious, raucous, Karl Hess belonged to the contumacious American radical tradition of William Leggett and Paul Goodman. He was a journalist with Newsweek and the American Mercury before becoming Barry Goldwater’s chief speechwriter in his 1964 campaign.
As we bogged down in the Big Muddy, Hess reassessed his Republican Party, his hireling status, his personal-parking-space life. “Vietnam,” he said, “should remind all conservatives that whenever you put your faith in big government, for any reason, sooner or later you wind up as an apologist for mass murder.” Reckoning that the attractive qualities of the 1940’s right—its “individualistic, isolationist, decentralist” impulses—had been purged, Hess rushed headlong into the New Left. His best essay, “An Open Letter to Barry Goldwater,” (Ramparts, August 1969), proposed the consanguinity of Senator Robert Taft and the Black Panthers. He wrote, “Anti-communism twisted the direction of the right, which I feel, if left undisturbed, would today be near the New Left on most major issues,” particularly the belief that political power “property exists only in the people and in their communities.”
As a good reckless heedless impetuous American, Karl Hess joined the Wobblies and SDS, grew a beard, donned a workshirt, and picked up an acetylene torch. Looking like a cheerful and gregarious Fidel Castro, the GOP operative took up welding. After a stay in a floating houseboat commune on the Anacostia River, Hess and his wife, Therese, moved to West Virginia, where they lived in a house Karl built largely from scavenged materials. The visionary, the dreamer, the theorist of panideological anti-imperialism spent the last 20 of his 70 years as a concerned neighbor, a loving husband, and the most practical of anarchists.
In a letter to me Karl wrote, “The older I get the more I appreciate the work of being in love as being superior to anything else.” As the world went to hell, Karl Hess zestfully and doggedly marched in the other direction.