Monday, January 19, 2009

Buckley and Reagan

Ross Douthat reviews The Reagan I Knew -- William F. Buckley's last book -- for the New York Times, and tries to address the arguments that Buckley would abhor contemporary populist conservatism:
Buckley began his writing life . . . as a quasi-apologist for Joe McCarthy and ended his career as a great friend to Rush Limbaugh. And he spent most of the intervening decades championing Reagan, the greatest right-wing populist of all -- more authentically middle-American than Bush, a cannier player of the "jes' folks" card than Palin, and as roundly disliked and disdained by the liberal commentariat as either one of them.
That's about right, except there was nothing "quasi" about Buckley's defense of McCarthy. But why quibble? I've read the book -- it's sitting on my desk right now -- and I heartily recommend it. The witty repartee and occasional disagreements between two giants of 20th-century American conservatism are well worth remembering.

I had to study up on Reagan to write the feature obituary for the Washington Times, and in the years since, I've read several books on various aspects of his career. One thing that seems to get overlooked in the hagiographic retrospective view is the extent to which Reagan was a man of his time. He had been an FDR Democrat, a self-described "bleeding heart" whose liberalism led him to join (unwittingly) two Communist Party "front groups" in the early 1940s. So Reagan very much understood, at a deeply personal level, how humanitarian sympathies and naivete about communism could lead someone to become a "dupe" or a "fellow traveler."

The pivotal moment for Reagan was during the Hollywood labor wars of 1946-47, when communist union organizers tried to shut down the film industry, at a time when Reagan was a leader of the Screen Actors Guild. The dishonest tactics of the communists awoke in Reagan the understanding that communism was a totalitarian menace no less dangerously evil than the Nazi menace.

Over the next 15-20 years, this revelation ripened into a deep and mature insight into the nature of the communist threat. Reagan's job as a GE spokesman gave him the opportunity to hone to perfection a standard speech extolling America's system of democracy and free enterprise, which he would contrast against the stifling forces of government bureaucracy, as well as against the totalitarian threat of communism.

These speeches were given to very diverse audiences -- executives and plant workers, Chamber of Commerce types, etc. -- whose political orientations were mixed and unknown. So Reagan struck patriotic themes in a way that wasn't overtly political, and he aimed his rhetoric directly at the common sense of common people. His speeches weren't a discourse intended for intellectuals, nor were they fire-and-brimstone partisan sermons. Rather, they were decent and respectable and generous, with a general tone of suggesting that all good people should be willing to fight for the basic ideals of American civilization.

American adults of the 1950s and early '60s had been through common experiences -- the Depression and World War II -- and most of all they shared the patriotic sensibilities imparted by the public school system in the decades before historic iconoclasm came into vogue. There was a common cultural understanding about the heroes of Valley Forge, etc., and a near-universal antagonism to Soviet tyranny to which Reagan could appeal without being accused of jingoism or partisanship.

So when you see Reagan in his famous 1964 speech, "A Time for Choosing," you're watching a man who had spent more than a decade striking those same basic themes in dozens of speeches annually. He adapted these themes to the occasion, and the speech he gave was a humdinger. You want some Reagan populism?

This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.
David Brooks would faint dead away, for certainly the advocate of "national greatness" has no faith in the ordinary American's capacity for self-government, consistently siding with that "little intellectual elite" against the common sense of common people. Reagan never saw himself as part of that "elite," and never had a good thing to say about it. And if you study Buckley's early works -- especially God and Man at Yale and Up From Liberalism -- you know that for all his erudition, Buckley saw himself as an opponent of that elite (and vice-versa).

Reagan and Buckley respected and admired one another as equals, each independently seeking a common goal. What has changed in the relationship between conservative politicians and conservative intellectuals in the contemporary era, it seems to me, is that the intellectuals think themselves so infinitely superior to the politicians -- and with good reason, generally, since few Republican politicians today show the kind of curiosity about ideas that Reagan so clearly had.

The real trouble is that this contempt for GOP politicians tends to fester into a contempt for GOP voters. This is where the David Brooks type so grievously goes astray, in smug condescension toward the typical Republican voter in Pennsylvania or Indiana or Ohio. The very fact that your average rank-and-file Republican likes Sarah Palin is, in the eyes of the Brooksian intellectual, reason enough to conclude that Palin is an unworthy idiot. By the same token, the fact that your average Republican likes Rush Limbaugh is sufficient cause to conclude that Limbaugh is harmful to the cause of "meritocratic aspiration" that a Brooksian considers "true conservatism."

Reagan and Buckley were both populists in the sense that they believed that the ordinary American possessed basic common sense, and could do without the meddlesome superintendence of their everyday lives by Washington.

Buckley's brobdingnagian vocabulary and his arch hyperintellectualism was meant as a challenge to the imagined superiority of mid-2oth-century liberalism, conveying to his reader the idea that one could be both intellectually sound and conservative (something the liberals of that era furiously denied). Reagan, on the other hand, spoke to people in a way that was simultaneously down-to-earth and inspirational -- mixing the homey anecdote with the oratorical firepower of a latter-day Patrick Henry. Their methods were different, but their objective was the same.

Of course, it is grossly unfair to Sarah Palin to compare her to Ronald Reagan (though perhaps not as grossly unfair to Bill Buckley as comparing him to David Brooks). Palin has not had the advantages of Reagan's experiences, having been so busy as a mother, a mayor and a governor that she surely has spent little time reading Friedrich Hayek or Whittaker Chambers. Yet she does seem to have a basic belief in the ordinary American's aptitude for self-governance, and that strikes me as the right place to start.

UPDATE: JR at Conservatives4Palin has written two posts about The Reagan I Knew. One refers to this quote from Reagan:
For every problem, there are ten people waiting to volunteer if someone will give them a lead and show them where they can be useful.

Of which JR says:
This quote is great because it applies to the current state of the Republican party. We have a great "base" and grassroots network, from the fiscal conservatives to the defense hawks but we lack a competent leader, we lack what Reagan calls, "someone who can show us where we can be useful."

You could relate this to Reagan's famous maxim that you can accomplish anything, as long as you don't care who gets the credit. The conservative movement today suffers from the "too many chiefs, not enough Indians" problem -- it's very hard to find capable, dependable team players who are content to labor in obscurity, as most political activists inevitably must.

In another post, JR quotes a letter from 1973 in which Buckley passes on advice from a "well-wisher" who says Reagan "refuse[s] to wrap [his] mind around foreign policy." Here you see the vast gap between reality and perception. Reagan was keenly interested in foreign policy, especially the major issues of the Cold War, but because he was at that time busy with being governor of California, it was perceived that he didn't "wrap his mind around" the issues. And here, I think, you see a parallel to Palin -- the Katie Couric "gotcha" of what newspapers she read daily, as if the governor of Alaska should spend her mornings leafing through the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal (are those even available in Anchorage?).


  1. I guess my only quibble is that what is being described here isn't really "populism," especially where you write:

    Reagan and Buckley were both populists in the sense that they believed that the ordinary American possessed basic common sense, and could do without the meddlesome superintendence of their everyday lives by Washington.

    A large part of the Populist program, at least in the 19th century, was a desire for a more meddlesome central government.

    Now, I recognize that terms change meaning over time (like liberal), but in a certain sense David Brooks - a proponent of big government - can be more accurately termed a populist. Sure, he pretty much holds the average person in contempt, but so have a lot of thinkers who seek an over-active state.

    I guess I'm just quibbling over terminology, because the substance of what you wrote is spot on.

  2. great post, I hope you received my email

  3. Ross Douthat is the love child of David Brooks and Kathleen Parker.

  4. S'pose that GE would hire Reagan as their spokesman these days??