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National Review and the State of Conservatism By: George Shadroui
Intellectual Conservative | Thursday, May 18, 2006


The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times
By Jeffrey Hart
Intercollegiate Studies Institute (October 1, 2005)
Hdbk., 380 pgs.

Jeffrey Hart’s book, The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and its Times, is arguably the best history on modern American conservatism to appear since George Nash’s ground-breaking study, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America.
 
As a long-time senior editor of National Review, Hart naturally focuses on the personalities and issues with which the conservative magazine concerned itself over the past fifty years. To paraphrase George Will: without William F. Buckley, Jr., who founded the magazine, there would have been no NR, and without NR, there would have been no modern conservative movement to propel Ronald Reagan to the presidency.
 
Hart covers a lot of ground while wielding a graceful pen. The book includes not only insightful glosses on conservative legends like Buckley, James Burnham, Willimore Kendall, Whittaker Chambers, Frank Meyer and Russell Kirk, it also provides historical context on key issues that animated the conservative movement: the Cold War, civil rights, Vietnam, the Goldwater campaign, the Reagan revolution – right up through George W. Bush.
 
Hart uses National Review as a window through which to view broader philosophical and political issues that shaped not only conservatism but also American political culture generally. One early ideological clash is immediately identified – the division between purists who would rather lose an election than compromise their ideals, and more pragmatic folks who believed that politics is “the art of the possible.” At one point, Buckley – who seems to have floated between these groups for a time — suggested that NR should support the most conservative candidate capable of being elected.
 
There were exceptions to this rule of thumb, as Buckley’s run for mayor of New York City underscores, but even among the magazine’s top editors healthy tensions raged about such political figures as Rockefeller, Nixon, Taft, Knowland, Eisenhower and Bush I.
 
NR sought to preserve conservatism as a viable political force without compromising totally the ideals that engendered the enterprise in the first place. Thus did Buckley drive the Birchers from the conservative fold even as he and NR remained distant from Nixon, whose conservatism often seemed more opportunistic than sincere or informed.
 
Hart clearly sides with the pragmatists, at least to a degree, suggesting that ideology must never be allowed to edit history or a truthful accounting of how things really were or are. He quips that many conservatives enjoy gossip because they celebrate life more than ideology. This explains in part why both he and Richard Brookhiser, long-time NR editors, pursued careers apart from their editorial duties – Hart as a professor of literature at Dartmouth, Brookhiser as a biographer of America’s founding generation and as an occasional contributor to mainstream magazines.
 
As a literary critic and a student of philosophy, Hart is at best a part-time warrior on the battlefields of conservative politics. Like Buckley, he is more interested in conversations than in screaming matches, and his precise use of language serves to elucidate rather than ignite. That is a good thing in these overheated times.
 
And he follows the facts where they lead, even when it isolates him from conservatism narrowly defined. Hart is clearly a fan of President Eisenhower, for example, about whom National Review was at best lukewarm. Hart, something of an expert on the Eisenhower era, does a point/counterpoint on Burnham versus Ike, and Ike wins.
 
He not only celebrates Ike against the objections of many conservatives, he likewise described Reagan’s Iran-Contra policy as a political blunder that made Buckley “furious,” though he and NR covered their disappointment as best they could, Hart reports. (He is still a Reagan fan.) Hart’s conclusions about Bill Clinton, while mixed, will nevertheless cause stomach pains for Rush Limbaugh types: “his overall performance was better for the country than it looked at the time.” He suggests that the jury is still out on President Bush, but raises questions about his conservative instincts, given his evangelical nature, his big spending ways, and his Wilson-like foreign policy; Bush and his team are limping along unconvincingly these days on a number of fronts.
 
Hart also focuses on the evolution of National Review. Though laudatory overall, he is troubled by recent trends. Hart traces one negative transformation to 1990 when Wick Allison took over as NR publisher. Allison complained at the time that the magazine had the feel of a monthly when it should read like a weekly. Hart comments:

This would mean, if pushed too far, topicality to the exclusion of serious reflection and indeed, the exclusion of probing controversy. Yet these features – serious reflection, and probing controversy – had been a major strength of the magazine, making for sustained interest beyond the week’s news, and tending to ensure some philosophical rationale for such policy positions as the magazine might take.

Hart’s fears came to pass. NR began to lose its “independent critical edge.” Under new leadership (the Buckleys and long-time publisher William Rusher having mostly departed the scene) National Review embraced current event coverage at the expense of intellectual and philosophical depth. Hart uses a piece by Norman Podhoretz to illustrate his point:

Podhoretz’s essay was an effort at discerning major political consequences within the flow of discrete events. It was of a sort that had become almost extinct in the pages of National Review, where journalistic topicality now dominated biweekly content. At one time, regular columns had expressed and examined the implications of divergent kinds of conservatism. That had largely disappeared.

In this vein, Hart announces his opposition to "litmus test" conservatism and his support for environmental and cultural values articulated by traditional conservatives, including James Buckley and more recently former NR staffers such as Matthew Scully and Rod Dreher, whose book Crunchycons was recently published. Let me quote Hart:

(James) Buckley observed that a species is much more easily destroyed than replaced. He might have urged stewardship and the collective pleasure involved in even the distant existence of the great wild creatures of plain and forest, the loss of which would be an unimaginable catastrophe: the world a strip mall, plus a zoo or two. William Buckley was sympathetic, but warned against the extremism that would protect every snail darter. Surely that was correct. But free-market dogma ignored what Burke called the `unbought’ grace of life, surely a key dimension of the conservative mind.

This has been a working tension within elements of American conservatism at least as far back as the agrarians of the 1920s, but in recent decades corporate capitalism has gained the upper hand. Despite efforts to hold the line by Kirk, James Buckley and others, George Will in the 1980s would lament the ascendancy of an aggressive capitalism that paid little heed to traditional conservative values such as community, environment, small farms and business, and quality of life. Commerce had become master but commerce unhinged from the “permanent things” risked entrenching conservatives in the very materialist worldview they historically opposed.
 
If anything, the disintegration of the Soviet empire, a victory for which NR conservatism rightly deserves much credit, emboldened the capitalists within modern conservatism — remember "the end of history?" “Crunchy” conservatives – I admit to being sympathetic to their causes – are now strugglnig to regain a seat at the conservative table, even while aligning with independent voices such as Wendell Berry.
 
The Making of the American Conservative Mind is highly recommended to those interested in a mature perspective of conservatism as it has unfolded over the past half century. Hart makes thoughtful and necessary distinctions as he scans the landscape. He provides helpful historical context, though deeper intellectual exploration can be fruitfully sought in Nash’s study on the conservative intellectual movement, in Buckley’s Have You Ever Seen A Dream Walking (a collection of essays from various contributors) and in his speeches, Let Us Talk of Many Things, and finally in John Diggins’ excellent study, Up from Communism.
 
Hart’s book complements Priscilla Buckley’s Living It Up at National Review, also reviewed on this site. Where Ms. Buckley passes over ideological conflicts, Hart explores them with a sharp critical eye that puts in context controversies surrounding Max Eastman, Garry Wills, Kirk vs. Meyer, and Joe Sobran, among others.
 
Readers who find this book as valuable as I have might consider other Hart works, including Acts of Recovery: Essays on Culture and Politics, or Smiling Through the Cultural Catastrophe: Toward the Revival of Higher Education.

The Making of the American Conservative Mind is available on Amazon.com.

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