In 1990’s classic The Matrix, the lead character realizes that the world he thought he knew was false, and that the truth about his society was being hidden by a hostile power. Many conservatives have a similarly Matrix-like moment in their intellectual development, that moment when they realize that much of what they had been taught to believe by progressive elites is simply not true.
In Conservative Heroes: Fourteen Leaders Who Shaped America, from Jefferson to Reagan, Garland Tucker attempts an act of recovery and an exit from the liberal matrix. He traces a genealogy of conservative heroes who embody a counter-tradition to the dominant progressive narrative. This book, though different in tone, has strong echoes of Russell Kirk's 1953 tome The Conservative Mind. Kirk’s book too was really a string of loosely connected biographies rather than a formal history of ideas. Conservatism, was not, Kirk insisted, primarily a set of abstractions but was rather a habit of mind. And most learn that habit best from examples, from which general principles can be discerned for both individual and social behavior. Tucker invokes Kirk, among others, to remind us that the progressive narrative deliberately obscures a rich history, in favor of presidential demagogues and speech codes imposed by ideological enforcers.
This book is composed of nine chapters, covering conservative statesmen from Jefferson and Madison through figures like Grover Cleveland, Andrew Mellon, and Robert A. Taft, and ending with the triptych of William F. Buckley, Jr., Ronald Reagan, and Barry Goldwater.
Amity Shlaes, who wrote the introduction and who has herself done much to resurrect the reputation of the forgotten Coolidge as a conservative hero, writes that these “profiles remind us that the country’s history is too subtle to force into the framework of modern progressivism,” and that Tucker makes two important points. “The first is that supporting states’ rights is not equivalent to supporting racism,” and that “[o]ur traditional respect for states’ rights and restrained government run back to the American Revolution” itself. These may seem rather modest points, if one knows anything about American history.
But alas, far too Americans today do not. Educational progressives prefer a narrative of consolidating government power in the service of “rights” granted solely by the state. The hard-won principles of the founding and subsequent generations are mischaracterized and more often, simply consigned to irrelevancy.
Not to mention the founders themselves. As some of them were slaveholders, their arguments about liberty must be only a cover for bondage; as men, they cannot speak for women; and so on through the usual litany. Tucker takes on this view, advocating for a return to a tradition focused on liberty, individual rights, and limited government as one worth preserving for all Americans. The arguments of Jefferson and Madison in the early years of the Republic “serve as foundations for the conservative view that the Constitution carefully restricts the federal government powers,” Tucker argues. That is still a view worth advocating, for which disasters such as Obamacare provide real-time evidence. (Although it should be noted not every conservative would agree with placing Jefferson in this pantheon; Kirk, for example, looked more to Federalists like Fisher Ames or John Adams rather than the philosophe-influenced Jefferson for support for limited government.)
Tucker moves on to the Tertium Quids, and returns politicians like the little-known Nathaniel Macon and John Randolph of Roanoke to their positions as proponents of lasting conservative principles. Randolph’s view of human nature was one rooted in a Christian understanding. Because all men are tainted by sin (or, if one prefers non-religious language, evil), then limiting government is the only sensible course; to do otherwise is to tempt oppression by evil men. Given the massive examples of government-supported evil – starting, of course, with slavery and continuing through today – this conservative argument seems at the very least highly reasonable, even if one does not agree with any specific conservative proposal. But modern politics cannot acknowledge this perspective, because it lays open its pretense that utopia can be achieved here and now with just a little more government planning, intellectual conformity, and tax revenue.
I happened to be meeting with Senator Ted Cruz a few hours after President Obama’s United Nations speech Wednesday. We naturally started by discussing the president’s latest oratorical effort. Cruz’s judgment on the speech as a whole? “Unsurprising, but consistently disappointing.” On Obama on Russia and Ukraine? A nice statement by Obama, but “why isn’t he giving serious military aid to Ukraine, both nonlethal and lethal?” Obama’s paragraph on Iran?
Two emails recently showed up, one right after the other, in my inbox. The first was a mass mailing from Ron Paul (my inbox is a big tent!). Its subject line: “The IRS asked for a fight. How about a revolution?” The second was a review by Peter Berkowitz of the recently reissued book by Roger Scruton, The Meaning of Conservatism.
It's mature to be calm. Republicans are nothing if not mature. It’s chic to be cool. Republicans yearn to be chic. It’s a sign of gravitas to be collected. Republicans have gravitas. And so Republicans, from candidates to consultants to commentators, cultivate a calm, cool, and collected affect. Keep calm and carry on, they say soberly and sagely to each other.
Though raised Catholic, I was educated by Quakers, and from an early age I took my politics from the Society of Friends. They were for the United Nations and against pollution and—this being the late 1970s—terribly concerned about the bomb. We heard a lot about nuclear war at school. Our little library had an illustrated book detailing, for young readers, what it had been like for the poor souls at Hiroshima.
Jerusalem The Israeli debate over Iran’s nuclear program is, perhaps oddly, not yet heated. For now, the action is with the Americans: Israelis watch the negotiations nervously and without confidence, but there is little sense of impending doom—or impending war.
For a brief moment last week, The Scrapbook felt a twinge of compassion for President Obama. The setting was Berlin. Readers will remember the extraordinary (and extraordinarily peculiar) sight in 2008 of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama speaking to a throng of 200,000 worshipful Berliners in the Tiergarten. No American candidate had ever before campaigned in a foreign country—especially one where spectacles of mass enthusiasm revive instructive memories.
Mention Ronald Reagan to an avowed environmentalist, and you’ll generally elicit a groan. In the conventional telling, the Gipper appointed right-wing extremists to key environmental positions and proceeded to give timber companies and energy interests a free hand to despoil nature. Had Congress not stopped him, the tale goes, all of the environmental progress of the 1970s would have been swept away in the 1980s.
No whining. No nagging. No teeth-gnashing. These are our springtime resolutions here at The Weekly Standard, at the beginning of the six-month general election campaign to select the next president of the United States.
I’m not the first president to call for this idea that everybody has got to do their fair share. Some years ago, one of my predecessors traveled across the country pushing for the same concept. He gave a speech where he talked about a letter he had received from a wealthy executive who paid lower tax rates than his secretary, and wanted to come to Washington and tell Congress why that was wrong.
Jack Kemp, the Republican congressman from Buffalo, met with Ronald Reagan at the Airport Marriott in Los Angeles in early January 1980. Kemp, an enthusiastic supporter of supply-side economics, had authored the Kemp-Roth tax cut to reduce income tax rates by 30 percent across the board. He was eager to persuade Reagan, who had expressed sympathy for the tax proposal in radio broadcasts.
My Reaganite heart leapt and skipped when I read this article, “Obama authorizes secret support for Libya rebels,” wherein we learn that “President Barack Obama has signed a secret order authorizing covert U.S. government support for rebel forces seeking to oust Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi...Obama signed the order, known as a presidential 'finding'....”
Covert ops! Presidential findings! What’s next? Ollie North reporting for duty?