“A conservative government is an organized hypocrisy.”
—Benjamin Disraeli

It may speak volumes about American conservatives that David Frum’s critique of “big government conservatism” permitted William Buckley—or so Buckley claims on the dust jacket—to enjoy “the most refreshing ideological experience in a generation.” To a conservative movement led by advocates of national uplift allied with the federal bureaucracy, Frum’s book may offer bracing medicine. Indeed he makes statements, as Jack Beatty has pointed out in the Washington Post, that would otherwise be absent from the public discourse, in which paleoconservatives of course are given no standing. Frum makes no secret of the fact that Jack Kemp, William Bennett, and the Heritage Foundation favor a well-funded managerial state, centered in Washington, D.C., and that it is more than the acceptance of the inevitable that makes big government conservatives what they are: some prosper from, and most believe in, the growth of what they now criticize ever more temperately. Apropos Bill Bennett’s sermonic intonations, Frum notes the inescapable irony that “conservatives who have worked so hard to destroy the public’s faith in government could now talk about government exhorting people to virtue.”

Unlike the neoconservatives of the 1980’s, who praised any federal agency they happened to occupy, Frum treats the modern administrative state as an unmitigated evil. Its expansion, he tells us, has been encouraged by both major parties and by the Reagan Revolution, despite its overblown rhetoric about defunding federal agencies. Frum treats the religious right indulgently, believing (correctly) that the media have demonized it. But he also stresses the role that reckless enthusiasts of cultural warfare against the left have played in expanding Leviathan. Though unfair when speculating on the motives of Pat Buchanan, Frum is on target when he treats current talk about “Judeo-Christian values” as often a smoke screen for big government conservatives. It is, after all, easier to criticize the government for its failure to promote values than to recognize the administrative state as a pernicious parasite. Frum underscores the importance of conservatives’ insistence on this hard truth, and the danger of their reliance upon public administrators to instill “family values” in the American citizenry.

In much of this, Frum sounds suspiciously like a paleoconservative, and his borrowings from the enemies of his neoconservative friends and patrons are too obvious to be dismissed. The character assassination to which he resorts in chapter six in describing the nationalist right may even be seen as necessary camouflage. Frum has obtained funding and professional advantage from his neoconservative connections. He was also, for those who may have forgotten, the author of an ugly smear directed against the neocons’ bête noire, Pat Buchanan, which was published predictably in the American Spectator. Having now produced a book that cannot be entirely congenial to his big government sponsors, he offers insidious contrasts between them and their hated opponents. In chapter six he introduces “conservative pessimists” Thomas Fleming, Sam Francis, Murray Rothbard, Lew Rockwell, Pat Buchanan, and Clyde Wilson, after having performed (in chapter four) the same service for “conservative optimists” Jack Kemp, Stuart Butler, and Clinton Bolick. Frum leaves no doubt about which side he prefers. While gently twitting the optimists for their excessive generosity toward minorities, he portrays the pessimists as unreconstructed heavies. Employing a technique perfected in Commentary, Frum smears everyone on his right as a Nazi and dehumanizes such right-wingers by heaping upon them the epithets “demented,” “xenophobic,” “racist,” and “anti-Semitic.”

In these descriptions, Frum plays hard and loose with the facts. How does he know, for example, that Sam Francis’s “bitterness against the neoconservatives was aggravated” when Francis was bypassed for an editorship at the Washington Times? (Francis expressed more interest at the time in being a columnist than he did in the editorial slot that went to John Podhoretz’s former roommate.) In am case, there is no evidence that Francis has castigated neocons more vehemently since that alleged incident than he did before. And what useful information does Frum intend to convey by making Francis into “a huge man with a bright red face, who puffs cigarettes below anachronistic horn-rims”? This purple prose immediately follows the first awkward effort at creative writing: a paragraph earlier, the author describes Thomas Fleming as “a bearded leftover from the 1960’s, an unsuccessful poet, briefly a teacher of Classics at a small Southern college, who drifted into journalism and found himself in Rockford.” Contrary to the snide innuendo, Tom Fleming’s academic credentials are not questionable. Recipient of a doctorate in classics from the University of North Carolina and a faculty member there and at Miami of Ohio, as well as an internationally respected Hellenist, Fleming has far better scholarly claims than any of the neocon authors of fictive or exiguous doctoral dissertations.

On page 148, Frum devotes more invective to misrepresenting a speech by Murray Rothbard, given at a John Randolph Club meeting in January 1992. He maintains that Rothbard, a candidate for the “booby hatch,” delivered an “insane” defense of anti-Semitism, lamenting the expulsion of Jew-haters from the respectable American right. Having been present for that speech, I observed none of the insanity attributed to the speaker. Rothbard merely observed that on the unreformed Old Right, he, a Jew, had rubbed elbows with those suspected of being—and possibly with some who were—anti-Semites. Everyone, he assured us, had got along, but there were no AIPAC or NAACP litmus tests for those who wished to identify themselves as conservatives. While it may be justifiable to scold the Old Right for its excessive tolerance, Rothbard did not defend anti-Semitism, unless he gave another speech at which I was not present. The one I recall, which Frum takes the liberty to decontextualize, targeted the neocon-Buckleyite inquisition; Rothbard complained that this “smearbund” had been unleashed against the resurgent Old Right. And on page 157, Frum introduces the personification of his worst fears, the reactionary xenophobe from “Nordic Sweden,” Claes Ryn, whom Frum accuses of having taught in his polemic The New Jacobinism that “nationalist conservatives must reassert the truth of particularity.” In all likelihood Frum never read this tract, which defends constitutional democracy and has nothing to do with immigration. Not content with fraud, however, Frum moves on to compound insult with injury. He attaches to his misrepresentation of The New Jacobinism a ringing defense of cultural particularity, but one written by Francis, not Ryn.

Even more misleading is Frum’s depiction of the origins of Chronicles, a publication he recently denigrated on C-SPAN. According to his account, the magazine was designed as a vehicle for a cranky Eastern European “who thought America was going to hell.” Chronicles’ founder Leopold Tyrmand, a Polish Jew, was in fact a fervent American patriot who never tired of praising his adopted homeland. What was wrong with America, Tyrmand insisted, was the work of “a few intellectuals” and should not be blamed on the American people. It was only after his death that Chronicles’ critical focus expanded to include American society in general.

We also learn that paleolibertarian Lew Rockwell does not speak kindly of Martin Luther King, Jr. But Frum supplies compelling reasons for Rockwell’s hostility to the civil rights leader, among them King’s plagiarisms, lechery, vulgar Marxist rantings, and forced elevation by the national media to the status of a deity. Most of all, Frum explains, paleos dislike King as an advocate of “forced integration” and of the political empowerment of American blacks. Here he happens to be right, and it behooves me, having dodged this issue when he addressed a question to me at a meeting of the Philadelphia Society, to provide a straight answer. A onetime Taft Republican driven to the politics of cultural despair, I must sadly agree with Rockwell’s judgment of the civil rights movement. In a piece published by the Wall Street Journal last August, Irving Kristol comes perilously close to joining us on this point. Kristol emphasizes the unavoidable connection between the Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. The Board of Education and the forced social reconstruction being pushed by judges and government agencies. Unlike Frum, Kristol, Rockwell, and I have trouble squaring the aims of the civil rights movement with the dual federalism and distributed powers under which Americans once lived. From this historical perspective, there is a seamless web of proliferating mandates, federal agencies, and claims advancing victim groups extending from the landmark civil rights cases of the 50’s to the politically correct present. Paleos, who have underscored these continuities without regard for the price they have had to pay for their candor, believe they should be obvious to anyone but a knave or a fool. Forced busing was mandated by the Supreme Court as early as the Mecklenburg case in 1956; Martin Luther King by the early 60’s advocated both reparations by whites and racial quotas in hiring as soon as it became politically advisable to do so. Contrary to an error in Kristol’s otherwise passable piece, “moderate” civil rights advocate Hubert Humphrey, like super-liberal George McGovern, endorsed hiring quotas for blacks during his last term in the Senate.

Allow me to express further what timidity kept me from telling Frum. Whereas blacks were certainly within their moral and constitutional rights to boycott segregated transportation services in the 50’s, it is equally defensible for Americans today to regret black political empowerment. William Buckley’s ominous warnings about the Voting Rights Act of 1965 turned out to be prophetic. Black voters have become increasingly the foot soldiers of the managerial class, supporting directly and indirectly the growth of unaccountable federal power to deal with “discrimination.” Before the civil rights revolution, as Frum undoubtedly knows, the welfare state was concerned almost entirely with redistributing income and regulating commerce in favor of its clients, particularly organized labor. Since those days, an expanded welfare state has focused on modifying social behavior, sensitizing designated victimizers, and raising—at public expense—the self-esteem of designated minorities. This new agenda is not unrelated to the civil rights cause that Frum sacralizes, even as he rails against the welfare state. In fact, he seems concerned less that “conservative optimist” Stuart Butler has asked the “right” to modify its opposition to minority quotas than that Lew Rockwell does not revere Martin Luther King.

On some points I agree with Frum, in opposition to my paleo friends. Like him, I balk at the paleo appeal to nationalism, though I do respect Southern regionalism as a genuine conservative force. I also share John Lukacs’s perception regarding the necessary conflict between regionalists and patriots on the one side and nationalists on the other. While one group is actuated by filial pietism and reverence for an ancestral home, the other is driven by expansionist ambitions and consuming dislike for a national enemy. Like Frum, I think that Pat Buchanan was inconsistent in calling for American support of besieged Dubrovnik while elevating national interest as the sole criterion of a sound foreign policy.

But unlike Frum, I do welcome the efforts of those lonely few who ask useful and even courageous political questions. And by these few, I do not mean Frum’s patrons and their zombie armies but those he mocks as “conservative pessimists.” It is they who stand defiantly outside of the orchestrated political conversation, make nonprogrammed observations about self-government, liberty, and citizenship, and debate these matters loudly and irreverently, as befits men of honor, without that legacy of democratic centralism that Frum’s circle have taken from their Eastern European leftist past. I do not suggest that paleos are always persuasive in their arguments. What does render them indispensable at this point, however, is the sharpness of their questioning—what the Greeks called erotesis. In this the work of the paleos contrasts vividly with those neutered or belated reformulations of their discourses produced by their neocon detractors. While the neocons were still celebrating “The Reagan Revolution,” the paleos were charting the growth of the managerial state in the Reagan years. It was also the paleos who rejected the neocons’ bogus dichotomy between the moderate and the radical civil rights movements. Paleos have never hesitated to point out the overlaps between the two; they rightly insist, moreover, that all phases of 1960’s liberalism led in the same direction, toward a regime of therapeutic managers operating in defiance of civilized political norms and of constitutionally limited government.

Frum and his patrons are accustomed to pillaging in private those whom they savage in public. Thus Frum seems to have helped himself to the research of Jeff Tucker, done in preparation for an essay on Jack Kemp that appeared in National Review on August 1. Though Tucker treated Kemp more indulgently than he had in exposes written for Chronicles and the Christian Science Monitor, I suspect the worst, having read both men’s work in a single sitting: some borrowing of statistical data and even of phraseology took place. And m studying the welfare state’s war against the family, Frum may have gone to another pariah source, the published works of Allan Carlson of the Rockford Institute, whom he introduces as an eccentric antimilitarist as well as the president of “one of the oldest, if least effective, of conservative think tanks.”

A final unpleasantness is Frum’s portrayal of the authentic political right, whose members he depicts as physically repulsive and generally corpulent. In point of fact, these maligned figures generally have the appearance of middle-aged yuppies, while those who are overweight may only be approximating the condition of David Frum, as is evident from his picture on the dust jacket. Unattractive and out-of-shape neocons would better employ their time in physical, rather than literary, exercise.


[Dead Right, by David Frum (New York: Basic Books) 220 pp., $25.00]