The work of a longtime author on social problems, on the deteriorating relations between blacks and Jews, and on Philadelphia civic life who also served as a Reagan appointee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, Murray Friedman’s history of the neoconservative ascent to power is neither scholarly nor balanced. Nor is it a book I enjoyed reading, or one that reveals its author in a flattering light. Friedman died within weeks of its publication, and soon after his last meeting with this reviewer—at a scholarly gathering of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia that we both attended each month. This last of his many books stands in contradiction to the man I recall, who was gracious in conversation and must have had a better understanding of his subject than this dismal volume suggests.
The Neoconservative Revolution is little more than a boasting brief, puffed out with defamation and exaggeration, for the transformation of the American right by neoconservatism. Although the neoconservatives—including, presumably, Friedman himself—“barely disguised their contempt for older-style conservatives, whom they viewed as philistines,” and while Commentary’s one-time music authority, Samuel Lippman, once observed that “traditional conservatives placed their emphasis on national elections, battling communism, and running business, leaving the culture to the left,” neither censure is valid. From the 50’s onward, National Review, Modern Age, and what there was of a conservative publishing world promoted cultural, aesthetic, and literary studies. It was in conservative magazines that I first encountered the Southern Agrarians, Hugh Kenner’s commentaries on English Modernism, the New Critics, the ethical thinking of Eliseo Vivas, Russell Kirk’s observations on T.S. Eliot, and learned expositions on the humanism of Irving Babbitt. Given the pre-neoconservative resources of the American intellectual right, its interest in culture, far from deficient, was amazingly far-reaching. And that right—the literate part of it anyway—did not focus on electoral battles exclusively. Rather, the older intellectual right was preoccupied with humanistic interests to a greater extent than with public policy and micromanaging elections. This, indeed, was the criticism made by Brigitte Berger (in Commentary, 1987) to explain the lack of a serious policy orientation among paleoconservatives.
In his treatment of the right-wing opposition to the neoconservatives, Friedman can barely restrain himself. Paleo, to him, means Patrick Buchanan, whom he denounces as a “throwback to an old-style anti-Semitic, and extreme form of conservatism.” A synecdoche for the entire right that has refused to accept neocon suzerainty, Buchanan
has questioned aspects of the Holocaust, including the numbers of Jews who were murdered and insisted that Jews wield an unhealthy influence on this country’s policies with regard to Israel.
It might be asked whether it is possible, from Friedman’s perspective, to criticize AIPAC without falling among the damned. And even had Buchanan taken the anti-Jewish positions Friedman ascribes to him—which, to my knowledge, he never did—in the form in which Friedman restates them, can he be taken as speaking for all paleoconservatives, which is the clear implication of Friedman’s slur? My own family, as I explained to Friedman, were Jewish refugees from the Third Reich. Yet I voted for Buchanan for president because I agreed with him on the subject of immigration, while believing that charges of “antisemitism” leveled against him were wildly inaccurate.
Looking beyond Pat Buchanan, is it true that the right as it existed before the neoconservative revolution was composed of boorish gentiles? Friedman’s charges are so sweeping that it astonishes me that anyone above the cognitive level of National Review Online would express them. Moreover, do all the authors whom the neoconservatives have paid to write for their multitudinous journals represent a unified body of thought? This is what Friedman suggests in pasting the neocon label on all those who have published in neoconservative magazines. Several reasons may be advanced to explain why The Neoconservative Revolution is as bad a book as it is.
First, the author, who was well advanced in years as he wrote and closely associated with his heroes, might have felt impelled to dash off this encomium in an uncritical mood. Friedman had available to him relevant works going back as far as the early 80’s, all of which are more balanced than this final product. A number of authors with no pretensions to conservatism—e.g., Peter Steinfels, Gary Dorrien, and Alexander Bloom—have treated neoconservatism in a far more balanced manner than Friedman has done. But then, none of these people maintained a longtime professional and social relation with the neoconservatives.
Second, the now-accepted neoconservative (and movement-conservative) rule in writing about the “conservative wars” is to pretend they were no more than a small exercise in mopping-up. As in Friedman’s work, the official revised historical view—pushed furiously by Charles Krauthammer, Bill Kristol, and Jonah Goldberg—is that the neoconservatives took power by acclamation, save for the grumbling of a few lunatics confined to the fascist-flirting right. These troublemakers, according to this view, threaten to spring loose at any time unless the side of decency, which determines the political conversation, takes steps to isolate them. Whatever the truth of this scenario, it certainly reflects a balance of power that helps to determine our understanding of the past. In the late 80’s, the “conservative wars” were hot news; as late as 1992, during Buchanan’s presidential bid, the prevailing faction seemed to be in for a fight. Works dealing with the right into the late 90’s, including a monograph by neoconservative author Mark Gerson, tried to define the two contending sides in what was portrayed as a raging conservative struggle.
Third, much of what Friedman claims for the neoconservative reconstruction of the right has been happily confirmed by those who went to work for the neoconservatives. The New York-Washington “conservative policy community” marched behind the neoconservatives, who brought money together with control, and thereafter contributed to the revised history of the “movement.” I do not doubt that Bill Buckley said—exactly as Friedman quotes him as saying—that the neoconservatives raised the level of intelligence within his movement. Nor do I question Friedman’s accuracy in quoting the other activists whom Friedman cites in his book. But such behavior speaks more to the character of the people in question than it does to history. It is striking how readily most professional conservatives, in both government and journalism, converted to neoconservatism, in some cases turning on longtime friends who refused to do likewise.
A final observation concerns Friedman’s work as an illustration of what can be learned from the history of historiography. Although the growing availability of research materials and scholarship might lead us to conclude that historians are producing better work now than in the past, historiography does not follow the general course of the applied sciences: Later is by no means always better than earlier in historical literature. Friedman’s study of conservatism is neither more dispassionate nor more informative than its predecessors. Indeed, it pales beside them, despite the author’s good fortune in witnessing developments unknown to writers who have gone before him.
[The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy, by Murray Friedman (New York: Cambridge University Press) 303 pp., $29.00]