The year was 1964. I was 13 years old. Sitting in the family room of my parents’ home in Yorktown Heights, New York, with the TV on, I picked up the envelope that had arrived in the mail that day. I had sent away for information to all sorts of political parties and organizations in a very conscious process of determining what my political views would be. Materials poured in from the Communist Party, the Socialist Labor Party, Technocracy, Inc., and a number of conservative groups as well. I opened the envelope, and out fell a copy of Young Socialist, the Socialist Workers Party’s youth newspaper. As I sat there reading it, with the television on low volume, I heard a phrase that made me look up at the figure on the screen: “individual freedom.”
I put down the Young Socialist—already bored by the simplistic writing and the garish graphics designed to appeal to “young people”—and turned up the volume. Who was this guy on the idiot box talking about “individual freedom”?
It was Barry Goldwater, who was running for the GOP’s presidential nomination. As I listened to him talk about the rapidly expanding powers of the federal government, the erosion of our constitutionally guaranteed liberties, and the depredations of a tyrannical IRS, I realized I didn’t need to read the Socialist Labor Party’s explanation of why we needed to organize society into a human version of an anthill; I didn’t need to consider the arguments of the Communist Party’s youth group, the W.E.B. DuBois Clubs, that the Soviet Union was a paradise; and I really had no use for Technocracy’s plan to turn the United States into a dictatorship run by scientists.
I was converted to Goldwaterism on the spot.
The junior-high school I attended had a great library, with a huge variety of political magazines on display: The New Republic, The Nation, The Progressive, Saturday Review, and The Reporter, and also a wide range of conservative material, including Human Events and National Review. They even had American Opinion, the monthly magazine of the John Birch Society, and The Dan Smoot Report!
I became a big National Review fan, and I was especially enamored of William F. Buckley, Jr., the then-young iconoclast who founded the magazine and became a pole of attraction for an entire generation of budding right-wingers.
While today National Review merely reiterates neoconservative talking points and generally serves as a mouthpiece for the Republican Establishment, back then it was a very different creature. It published actual debates between the various writers, who represented different tendencies and factions within the conservative movement.
There was the mannered traditionalism of Russell Kirk, which held zero appeal for me. Worship of tradition for its own sake is not something that appeals to young people, but Kirk didn’t seem to care much about building a movement: He seemed to me to wallow in the pessimism that so many conservatives were imbued with, the idea that they were a beleaguered remnant fighting a hopeless battle, and that the triumph of modernity—which was portrayed as being identical to collectivism—was practically inevitable.
There was James Burnham, the philosophy professor and former Trotskyist, whose obsession with the supposedly inevitable advance of Soviet communism I found rather tiresome. Oh, I was an anticommunist, but I didn’t like Burnham. His column, entitled The Third World War, was a bit off-putting. To me it seemed as if he wanted a Third World War! This was the 1960’s, when, in school, we had frequent air-raid drills in anticipation of a Soviet strike; and then there were all those science-fiction movies about a nuclear apocalypse. I imagined a world of mutants emerging from Burnham’s Manichean monomania. Worse, Burnham disdained Goldwater and insisted that the only viable Republican presidential candidate was the odious Nelson Rockefeller.
The NR writer who appealed to me the most, aside from Buckley himself, was Frank Meyer, a former top communist theoretician who preached what he called “fusionism”—that is, a fusion of libertarianism with a respect for tradition and (of course) support for the interventionist foreign policy that was supposedly aimed at “rolling back” the Soviet Empire. I was too dumb to question the foreign-policy nonsense, but once again, it was the use of certain signals that won me over: Meyer used the word liberty a lot.
My political evolution is characteristic of Baby Boomer libertarians. Most of us came up from conservatism, so to speak. It was a necessary education, but today I wonder if it’s at all possible to emerge from the inanities of Limbaugh, Levin, and the leaden pages of today’s National Review without permanent damage to the frontal lobes.