Alan Keyes, like the proverbial white knight, has ridden across the country from his castle in Maryland to save the Republican Party of Illinois from itself—at least, that’s the way his supporters would like to portray Keyes’ run for junior U.S. senator from Illinois. More likely, this ridiculous whirlwind campaign—the result of the convergence of Republican desperation in the wake of Democratic senate nominee Barack Obama’s well-received speech at the Democratic National Convention and Keyes’ seemingly limitless personal ambition—will drive the final nail into the coffin of the state party, the only inmate on Death Row whose sentence was not commuted by corrupt former Republican governor George Ryan. (In Illinois, “corrupt Republican governor” is just short of redundant. So, for that matter, is “corrupt Republican.”)
The story begins in the party faithful’s decision to nominate “conservative” Jack Ryan in the spring primary. In 1999, Ryan went through a bitter divorce from Star Trek: Voyager star Jeri Ryan. During the primary campaign, he repeatedly claimed that there was nothing in the sealed divorce proceedings that would embarrass the party, but, after he won the nomination, the Chicago Tribune successfully petitioned to have the documents unsealed. Inside was a sordid tale of Ryan’s obsession with performing public sex acts with his wife. Within two days, his support among the party leadership had dissolved, and Ryan—demonstrating the failure of his Catholic schooling by maintaining that nothing in the documents showed that he had broken any of the Ten Commandments—gave up the nomination.
In any other state, the nomination would probably have fallen to the man who placed second in the primary—in this case, dairy magnate Jim Oberweis. But Oberweis’s strong showing in the primary was the result of a series of campaign ads criticizing President Bush’s amnesty plan for illegal aliens. Accused by U.S. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert (R-IL) of “demagoging” the issue, Oberweis was not even considered to fill Jack Ryan’s shoes.
Still, in a state of 12.5 million people, fairly evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats, the party should have been able to find a resident of Illinois to answer the call. But when Democratic state senator Obama, the son of a Kenyan father and a white mother from Kansas, received national accolades for his DNC speech, the race was on to find a black candidate, preferably one “blacker” than the “half-white” Obama (as Republican hacks began referring to him privately, and websites such as FrontPageMag.com began calling him publicly). In the Land of Lincoln, however, black Republicans remain in short supply.
And so Rockford’s own state senator, Dave Syverson, rode to the rescue, floating Keyes’ name. Asked about the possibility, Keyes responded, “I do not take it for granted that it’s a good idea to parachute into a state and go into a Senate race. As a matter of principle, I don’t think it’s a good idea.” Within days, however, the party offered the nomination to Keyes, and a few days later, Keyes—still a resident of Maryland—accepted it.
A man with any pride might have been embarrassed when clips surfaced of Keyes, on Fox News in 2000, criticizing Hillary Clinton as a carpetbagger for moving to New York to pursue her senatorial ambitions. “I deeply resent,” Keyes had said, “the destruction of federalism represented by Hillary Clinton’s willingness to go into a state she doesn’t even live in and pretend to represent people there. So, I certainly wouldn’t imitate it.” Questioned by Fox’s Alan Colmes after accepting the Illinois nomination, Keyes—a former student of Straussian gurus Allan Bloom (his favorite teacher at Columbia, with whom he studied privately for a year in Paris) and Harvey Mansfield, Jr. (Keyes was Bill Kristol’s roommate when he studied under Mansfield at Harvard)—responded in true Straussian fashion, revealing the esoteric meaning behind his exoteric remarks: “Well, I was criticizing Hillary for not having proper respect for state sovereignty, for the principle of the integrity of representation in the states . . . Second, there’s a deep issue of principle that divides me from Barack Obama. The great principles of our national integrity are at stake, and even Lincoln, the great statesman from Illinois, made it clear: when those principles are threatened, state sovereignty has to give way to our defense of the principles of our national union.”
In other words, the destruction of federalism is just fine—indeed, necessary—when questions of “principle” are at stake. And what are those principles? Simply put, what Professor Claes G. Ryn of the Catholic University of America has called the “new Jacobinism”—warmed-over Enlightenment universalism, the very opposite of conservatism, usually couched in the rhetoric of the Declaration of Independence. (Indeed, since his last failed run for the Republican presidential nomination, Keyes has been chairman of the non-profit Declaration Foundation, based in Washington, D.C.) In this case, the particular principle is the “right to life”—Obama is a proponent not simply of abortion but of “live-birth” abortion, in which parents and doctor could choose to allow a child “accidentally” born during an abortion to die. Keyes, predictably, compared Obama’s support for this heinous act to support for slavery, not so subtly emphasizing his own darker pigmentation.
While claiming that race is a “non-issue” in the campaign, Keyes has repeatedly brought the topic up, as he did in previous Senate runs in Maryland (during his second run, he accused the National Republican Senatorial Committee of racism when, a month before the election, party leaders chose not to dump more money into a race that Keyes was losing two to one) and in his last campaign for the Republican presidential nomination, when he chained himself to the door of an auditorium to protest his exclusion from a debate (he was polling in the low single digits at the time). This time around, he’s added a novel reparations scheme to his deck of race cards: Blacks who can prove that they are descendants of slaves (like Keyes, but not Obama) “would be exempt from paying taxes for several generations.”
Praised by commentators who should know better for this “radical” and “free market” scheme, Keyes—with his embrace of reparations, his obsession with race (as we go to press, Chicago’s Channel 5, an NBC affiliate, is reporting that Keyes has thrown a fit about Obama’s silly remark that he “wants to win big to give Keyes a spanking” and has “suggested [the word] might be related to slavery and insulting to African-Americans”), and his generally erratic behavior (in a radio interview at the Republican National Convention, he said that “Christ would not vote for Barack Obama”)—has convinced some sitting Republican officeholders that his presence on the ticket may depress Republican voter turnout in November and put their seats at risk.
That is a risk, however, that Alan Keyes is willing to take. After all, he has no stake in this race other than self-promotion. Indeed, in a recent interview, he seemed to confuse himself with Hillary Clinton: “‘She was imposing herself on the state of Illinois,’ Keyes said, his arm around host Alan Nathan’s chair, his suit jacket buttons undone. Nathan jumped in to quickly [sic] correct him: ‘New York,’ he said.”
An honest mistake.
This article first appeared in the October 2004 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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