David Brock, scourge of Anita Hill and Bill Clinton, the young man who gave new meaning and currency to the phrase “Arkansas state trooper,” has made a second career of repenting of his years in the conservative movement. He has now retold the story of his disaffection from the movement in Blinded by the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative (Crown Publishing Group). Liberals are glad to publicize his account, but it would be stretching a point to say that they admire him. He has not undergone a genuine conversion, since he had no discernible principles to begin with; he is essentially just a gossip who has switched sides. He naturally describes his change of sides as a change of heart, a seizure of conscience.
Brock has even apologized to Clinton for delving into his private life, though it is hard to see why he should. After all, he revealed what nobody doubts: that as governor of Arkansas, Clinton used those troopers to procure girls and stand sentry over his amours, a clear abuse of office that foreshadowed events that occurred after Brock’s famous article appeared in the American Spectator. It was, in fact, the scoop of the decade. Brock’s remorse seems more opportunistic than the supposed offense.
Still, Brock’s early successes in sexual muckraking illustrate something important about the conservative movement: its descent into triviality. Granted, Clinton was an irresistible target. Before him, the American presidency was the world’s second-most asexual office, right behind the archbishopric of Canterbury. Even now, it is hard to remember how recently this was true, how hilariously shocking it was to see a U.S. president’s horniness mercilessly mocked by Jay Leno, Conan O’Brien, and Saturday Night Live. Yes, we had learned of Jack Kennedy’s White House couplings, but that was posthumous. While they ruled, Jack and Jackie at least maintained an aura, however bogus, of class. Clinton was Dogpatch’s answer to Camelot.
Great fun. But . . . well, is this what conservatism is all about? Setting the vice squad on Bill Clinton? What about Burke, Calhoun, Oakeshott? If these giants of the earth were still with us, would they have devoted their waking hours to exposing the nocturnal adventures of Slick Willie?
But enough about David Brock; let’s talk about me. Not because I am in any way exemplary, but, on the contrary, because I was, I think, very typical of my generation of conservatives. Like Brock, I consider myself an ex-conservative, or at least an ex-movement conservative, and I too possess a conscience, even though it is not necessarily the predominant element in my makeup. (When I have wrestled with my conscience, I have usually won in straight falls.)
My own story begins in 1965, which I began as a college freshman and a passive, tepid liberal. Lyndon Johnson had just crushed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election, and it seemed that the American people had decisively chosen liberalism over conservatism once and for all. As Bill Buckley wryly put it, History had spoken.
I had barely heard of Buckley then, but that was soon to change—and how! Early in the year, I started dating a good-looking girl with a stack of back issues of National Review and the complete works of Ayn Rand; by June, I was reading Buckley, Rand, Russell Kirk, Henry Hazlitt, and Frederic Bastiat, who altered my whole Weltanschauung—an imposing word in 1965—with a single sentence. Soon, I was also reading Whittaker Chambers, Richard Weaver, James Burnham, Willmoore Kendall, and other formative conservative thinkers. Bracing stuff, but, except for Kendall, hardly cheerful.
In 1965, the young conservative movement refused to admit that it was whipped. Its morale was high, in spite of its political fortunes. Buckley adopted an attitude of aesthetic contempt for liberalism—his Up From Liberalism became my Bible—and Rand, though stylistically crude and insistently anticonservative, dealt liberalism some decisive body-blows. I had also fallen in love with Coriolanus, and anyone who sneered at democracy and majority rule, as both Buckley and Rand did, was right up my alley. I decided I would much rather lose with these people than win with those vulgar avatars of progress, Bobby Kennedy and John Lindsay, the pseudo-Kennedy whom Buckley was hilariously deflating in the 1965 New York mayoral election.
Buckley lost badly, but carried the aesthete vote by a landslide. The liberal press hinted that he was a Nazi—a Fischetti cartoon subtly gave him a toothbrush mustache—but one perceptive pundit likened him to the defiant aristocrat Coriolanus. He had the last word on the campaign in his brilliant book The Unmaking of a Mayor.
For my generation, Buckley was conservatism, the living avatar of Burke, Dr. Johnson, Chesterton, Evelyn Waugh, and Oakeshott. I adored him. I daydreamed of meeting him and exchanging thoughts. Little did I know I would work for him for 21 years—until he fired me. Hired and fired by Bill Buckley! My career in a nutshell. And thereby hangs a tale.
If I may say so, dear reader, the proverbial bell does not just toll for Joe Sobran. It also tolls for thee.
In 1965, liberalism appeared politically triumphant. By 1966, it was near collapse. Republicans made sudden gains in the fall elections, most notably Ronald Reagan’s million-vote victory over Pat Brown in California’s gubernatorial election.
In 1968, Buckley supported Richard Nixon for president. Nixon was no conservative, but he was at least less liberal than Hubert Humphrey, and he could win. In fact, Nixon beat Humphrey by a hair, both getting a mere 43 percent of the popular vote, but with George Wallace’s 13 percent, Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 landslide had been virtually reversed. Nixon became the conservative white hope.
When I joined the staff of National Review in September 1972, Nixon was about to wallop the pinko George McGovern, and it seemed imperative to root for him. Of course, he had been a severe disappointment to conservatives, funding instead of cutting the burgeoning Great Society programs, cozying up to Leonid Brezhnev and Mao Tse-tung (as we then spelled it), and imposing wage-and-price controls. Two of Nixon’s Supreme Court appointees also voted to impose legal abortion on all 50 states. But we thought he was our only hope, and we dutifully tried to belittle the growing evidence of his role in the Watergate caper (as we then called it).
The Ford and Carter years were equally dreary. We became so used to laboring in a lost cause that Ronald Reagan’s 1980 victory seemed like a miracle. At last, the Silent Majority had spoken! It had come to its senses and repudiated liberalism. For good measure, the Republicans also won a majority in the U.S. Senate. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive!
Reagan was a National Review subscriber and a close friend of Bill Buckley—“one of us,” as we then said. If we had backed Nixon out of necessity, we supported Reagan with no reservations at all. If his dog had mauled a child, we might not have defended the dog, but we would have taken the editorial position that children can be intolerably vexing to animals.
I was—I blush to say it, but the story would be incomplete if I suppressed it—naive enough to believe that Reagan’s victory marked the beginning of the end for liberalism. I think other conservatives believed so too, except for a few cranky skeptics who had an annoying way of keeping score on Reagan’s actual record. Suddenly, the prescribed tone for conservatives was optimism; happy days were here again! The aloof pessimism of the original movement was forgotten.
But by Reagan’s second term, it became obvious even to me that the “Reagan Revolution”—supposedly the conservative equivalent of the New Deal—was a dud, if not a fraud. The federal government had continued to expand; Reagan had dodged fights with the Democrats on abortion, racial quotas, welfare programs, and other key issues where basic conservative principles were at stake. Yet we—we conservatives, that is, not just we National Review editors—remained unalterably convinced that Reagan was “one of us” and deserved our support. We pretended not to notice his actual pattern of acquiescing to liberal hegemony.
We also pretended not to notice a new development: the deformation of the conservative movement by its new allies, the “neoconservatives.” These were largely Jewish intellectual refugees from liberalism, Zionists who shared our anticommunism but were indifferent to the traditional long-term conservative domestic agenda of repealing legal abortion and the welfare state. They chiefly wanted a more assertive, even aggressive, foreign policy, especially in the Middle East. Most conservatives welcomed them to the movement without foreseeing the consequences.
Throughout the 1980’s, Beltway conservatives kept holding victory parties and assuring themselves that “we” had won. But all this crowing was a way of disguising a huge and horrible fact: The only conservative victories had been superficial and symbolic. Nothing in Washington, or in the country as a whole, had really changed.
In fairness to Reagan, no president could have done what conservatives hoped he would do. The real problem was a centralization of power that had begun with Abraham Lincoln, accelerated under Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt, and become a settled habit under Lyndon Johnson and Nixon. Reagan had the realism to come to terms with what he could not change, while persuading his quixotic supporters that he shared their dreams.
Reagan was a political genius—that is, a brilliant actor. True, his range was limited (we are not talking Olivier here), but within that range, he was convincing. He had friend and foe alike passionately certain that he was dismantling the whole liberal legacy, slashing welfare spending, and earnestly fighting legal abortion. Many conservatives still believe all this and look back on the Reagan era as a golden age, instead of what it was: the moment of a profound conservative failure of nerve.
Reagan, a charming man, showed that it can be more useful to fool your friends than your enemies. To this day, Pat Buchanan, Peggy Noonan, and Rush Limbaugh alike invoke him as a model of conservatism (though Pat knows better). The truth is that, under Reagan, conservatism defined itself downward. It quietly abandoned its residual hope of a return to a free-market economy, a Christian culture, and limited, constitutional government. Instead, it settled for militarism and Republican partisanship.
This became evident when the Cold War ended. By 1989, communism, Soviet or Chinese, posed no serious threat to the West. The enormous U.S. military machine was no longer necessary for what the Constitution quaintly calls “the common defense of the United States.” It should have been reduced accordingly. But conservatives had frozen themselves into habits of belligerency, and they eagerly supported the first President Bush’s war on Manuel Noriega. Then, just as eagerly, they backed his war on Iraq. But Bush, like Nixon, was a disappointment, especially coming on the heels of Reagan.
In their abandonment of principle, conservatives needed a cause to sustain them. They found one in Bill Clinton, a Democrat they insisted on seeing as a liberal despite a nature so unprincipled that most real liberals distrusted him. Destroying Clinton, one way or another, became the new conservative obsession. But on what pretext? He was no Roosevelt or Johnson. But he was rumored to be a flagrant adulterer.
Enter David Brock.
The fury with which “movement” conservatives pursued Clinton and his wife proved only that they could find nothing better to do with their time. With Limbaugh’s daily diatribes setting the tone, they talked as if dethroning the Clintons would by itself restore the Republic to health. They ignored the political and cultural decay that had steadily progressed during several Republican administrations, including Reagan’s.
Against this background, in which “conservatism” was concerned with personalities rather than principles, Brock found his niche. Not that liberalism was much more principled: The confirmation brawls over Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas descended into arguments over whether they had rented videos of which the Christian Right would disapprove. But “movement” conservatives snatched at the bait.
In the ensuing donnybrook, Brock was outed—by the liberal Frank Rich of the New York Times!—as a homosexual, while conservatives retorted that this was irrelevant. By then, the battle lines were getting pretty confused. Bottles and brickbats were flying, and anyone might be conked unconscious at any moment. Brock woke up to find himself on the liberal Democrat side. Nobody is quite sure why. Brock himself ascribes it to his conscience—always the safest explanation for the otherwise inexplicable.
The 1994 off-year elections produced the “Republican Revolution,” led by Newt Gingrich, as the GOP carried both houses of Congress. Touting their new agenda, the (largely unconstitutional, if anyone cared) “Contract with America,” the Republicans were once more sure that their day had come at last. While professing to agree that “the era of Big Government is over,” Clinton ate them alive. Then, fast-talking his way through a campaign-finance scandal, he whipped poor Bob Dole to win reelection in 1996.
Any thought of a return to conservative principle was abandoned with the emergence of Monica Lewinsky. Here was a killer scandal that rendered superfluous any pedantic appeal to the Federalist! Surely, no sitting president could survive the revelation that he had played around with an intern right in the Oval Office—then brazenly lied to the public about it. Add a charge of perjury, and you had a clear case of “high crimes and misdemeanors.” Out of the mothballs, for the nonce, came the U.S. Constitution.
It did not do any good. Clinton lacked Reagan’s warm appeal, but he had his own low political genius for improvisation and could get himself out of any tight spot, including an impeachment. He played Bugs Bunny to the Republicans’ Elmer Fudd, until he finally left office in a climactic blaze of scandal.
Meanwhile, the conservatives in 2000 cast their lot with the latest George Bush, the “compassionate conservative.” They backed him in the Republican primaries, the November election, and the subsequent Great Chad Debate. Conservatism had moved from the Permanent Things to the contention that, in every quotidian dispute, the Republicans are right.
On September 11, 2001, the movement got a sudden boost, suited to its new ad hoc character. The terrorist attacks afforded a welcome new occasion for war and for the sort of tough talk that has come to pass for conservatism. Dropping everything, the young editors of National Review and the Weekly Standard, boasting among them a combined military experience of zero, vied with one another in calling for total war, chiefly against the enemies of Israel.
All these bellicose roars were as hollow as they were strident. They only underscored the truth: that conservatives have nothing left to conserve. The youngsters who now serve as spokesmen for the movement have no sense of history, no forebodings of tragedy, and very little awareness of the tradition of American conservatism itself. The pessimism of men like Chambers, Weaver, and Burnham is lost on them. Most of them have never heard of Albert Jay Nock, Garet Garrett, John Flynn, Frank Chodorov, and other exemplars of the Old Right.
Pat Buchanan, excommunicated from the movement by the neocons, is among the few to see how serious the condition of the country really is. His latest book, The Death of the West, presents stark evidence that what is left of Christendom—which is what conservatism started out, long ago, to conserve—is doomed, not by terrorism but by demographics.
This thesis runs directly counter to today’s prescribed optimism. Reviewing the book in National Review, senior editor Richard Brookhiser sneered that Buchanan is a “timorous intellectual.” An equally petty review appeared in the Weekly Standard. Whether the West is dying does not seem to matter; the important thing is to put Buchanan down.
“Timorous intellectuals” abound in what is left of the conservative movement, but they emphatically do not include Buchanan. He stands almost alone as a public figure willing to face the “cultural and religious war” that is destroying what is left of Christendom.
As for what is left of the American conservative movement, it has quietly abandoned so much of its heritage—religious, constitutional, literary, and economic—that it is now no more than a variant of the liberalism it pretends to oppose.