Death Of Conservatism Author Sam Tanenhaus Gets Grilled
HH: Welcome to a special two-hour conversation, one of those that you’ve grown to love, at least most of you have, with someone who’s got a brand new book out that’s making waves. Today, it is Sam Tanenhaus. Sam is the editor of the New York Times Book Review. He is also the author of a critically acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers that came out about a decade ago. He’s been the editor of the New York Times Book Review for the past five years. Before that, he was at Vanity Fair for five years, and he’s been around a long time in the world of letters on the opposite side of the fence from me on most of these things. But we’re pleased to welcome Sam Tanenhaus on the occasion of the publication of his new book, The Death Of Conservatism. Hey, Sam, welcome to the program.
ST: Great to be with you, Hugh.
HH: Now you know, I love your podcast. I listen to your podcast almost every Saturday, so it’s kind of weird talking to you.
ST: Well, it’s kind of weird for me to be the interviewee instead of the interviewer. I like to let the other guy talk.
HH: It’s very interesting. I do appreciate this week, you had E. L. Doctorow the last couple of weeks, but that is, how much time do you put into the podcast?
ST: Well, you know, it’s become a pretty important part of what we do, Hugh, because newspapers now, presenting things on the web, connecting with readers and listeners, as you well know, is a very big deal. So yeah, that’s an important thing. I spend pretty much all of Thursday putting that together. We’ve got a professional engineer. One of the staff people, our web producer, does all the bookings, almost acts as a kind of producer like you might have to line up authors, so it’s a pretty big thing for us.
HH: Yeah, I highly recommend it to the listening audience. You got to NYTimes.com, or actually, I get it from I-Tunes. It’s over at the NYTimes room, and you can get the book review. It comes out in time for a Saturday morning run as well. Sam, congratulations, the book, The Death Of Conservatism just came out. It’s turned a lot of heads, and you’ve obviously gotten some critical review from the right, we’re going to be talking about that, we disagree about a lot. But generally, are you pleased with the reception being accorded the book, which is people are paying attention to it?
ST: Well you know what, Hugh? If you write an argument book, you can’t sit back and complain when people argue back. And what I like is that yeah, people are taking it seriously. They know that I’m not somebody who is kind of standing on Mount Liberalism and saying these are the evils of conservatism. I’m a guy who spent twenty years as a historian of conservatism, not a guy who’s in the movement, but as you mentioned, you know, wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers, I’m working on a biography of William F. Buckley, I was his appointed biographer. And you know, that’s part of what got me into this, was the sense that maybe I spent too much time looking at these giants of modern thought and literature, you know, the great thinkers, the great writers, transformative figures. And I looked at the landscape now, and didn’t see that. Now you know, people have said to me couldn’t you have written a book called The Death Of Liberalism? And I said you know what? I could, but it wouldn’t be as interesting. Liberalism’s not as interesting as conservatism. It’s been the dominant philosophy in America, I think, for half a century. That’s really what the book is about – the rise, the fall, the triumph, and I think, I may be wrong, but I think a falling off that we’ve seen in the past decade or so.
HH: I’m looking forward to going through it in detail. I want to start, though, by asking you a little bit about the environment in which you’re publishing this. A couple of weeks ago on the podcast, you and your colleague, Jennifer, it sounded like you were bemoaning the fact that the New York Times bestseller list is full of Michelle Malkin and Mark Levin and a bunch of other very solid conservative tomes out there. This is not really the environment into which left of center books can essay with great confidence.
ST: Well, that’s a good point. And actually, what you’re talking about, what Jenny and I do, is just a riff, because…and it has nothing to do with these books really being conservative so much, is that you’ll get books that are fixtures on the bestseller list, and it’s so hard to dislodge them. They just keep everybody else down. And these are figures, you know, Michelle Malkin, Mark Levin, they’re all…Glenn Beck is a big book. These are people who have tremendous platforms, and so we think well, here we are at our little book review, and we go out to readers, yes, you know, we’re influential in our way. But what our job really is, is to introduce authors that maybe readers don’t know so much about. And the bestseller list, as it happens, is the most widely read page we’ve got. And here are these very large figures who seem to own it. It happens on the fiction side, too – James Patterson, you know, every new novel, presses everything down. So that’s the riff we’re doing there.
HH: So what do you think about the fact that we’ve got these major tomes…I mean, Levin sold seven figures now, Michelle Malkin will cross over into that land as well, I’m sure Beck will as well.
HH: What do you put that down to?
ST: Well, I think that what’s going on here has actually been happening for a number of years. If you go back, you know, you’ve studied this very closely, if you go back and you look at the 2004 election, we essentially had a nonfiction bestseller list. And by the way, that’s when I started at the Book Review, as you said, five years ago. You essentially had a blue state/red state bestseller list. You had, you know, the Michael Moore’s and the James Carville’s, and then the Ann Coulter’s and the Bill O’Reilly’s. And now I think what’s happened is really quite interesting, is that the conservative movement has kind of migrated from the period, the era of the journal, the very sophisticated, often New York-based, literary intellectual journal into a broader kind of high platform voice. And this isn’t a bad thing, this is just the way the culture changes. So I think what we’ve seen is that figures who come out of television, come out of radio, and operate in a somewhat different way, you know, it’s for a broader audience, they’re more attuned to the news cycles, its waxing and waning, they themselves know how to use different platforms, different media. You’re seeing maybe a different kind of style of argument. It’s not necessarily about the ideology and principles have changed, but a different kind of book, and this is not just a conservative phenomenon. The liberal books are the same way.
HH: I’m talking with Sam Tanenhaus author of The Death Of Conservatism. It is linked at Hughhewitt.com. I recommend you order it. If you’re my regular audience, you’re going to be surprised that I’ve recommended it, but it’s an argument with which I think conservatives have to deal. Before we get to the argument, Sam, a little background.
HH: We are the same age, so we have lived through the same political milieu. I think maybe you’re six months older than I am.
HH: But where are you from originally?
ST: Oh, I’m so boring, politically, Hugh, it puts everybody to sleep. I’ve never belonged to a political party, I’ve never registered with either one. The very idea of registering with a party, I recoil from. So I am not a card-carrying Democrat, not a card-carrying Republican. I really approach all of this, maybe, you know, I’m glorifying myself. I think as a historian, you know, and not necessarily just a political historian like you know, a Bob Carrow, or someone like that, who gives you all the ins and outs of, you know, battles in the Congress, battles in the White House. I’m not a presidential historian, but a historian of ideas. And so I approached conservatism through its great intellectuals. That’s why I say Chambers and Buckley. This book, which is very narrative, because yes, I’m interested in ideas, but I always like to tell them as a story as best I can, also examines figures that everyone has forgotten, or most of us left and right – big thinkers like James Burnham, who know, one time Trotskyist who became really the foremost intellectual at National Review when it was founded, another guy, genius political scientist named Willmoore Kendall.
HH: You know, he was new to me.
HH: I actually thought I knew a great deal about the intellectual movement, the intellectual history of the conservative movement. But he was new to me.
ST: Oh, yeah, Kendall is extraordinary. Well you know, he was the mentor not only both to Bill Buckley and Brent Bozell, you know, Bill’s great collaborator and brother-in-law at Yale. Here’s what’s fascinating about Kendall. He was the mentor to Gary Wills.
HH: That’s what you write, and I’m just amazed I’ve got a blind spot there. But I’m more curious about before you became a historian of intellectualism…
HH: Where are you from physically in the country? Are you a Mid-Westerner? Are you a New Yorker? Where are you from?
ST: Yeah, I’m a combination of the two, Hugh. My father was a college professor back in the days when they were always moving from job to job. You know, they were kind of like minor league managers or something who never stayed in one place. So I was born in New York, but then when I was about, I think it was nine years old, my dad got a job teaching at the University of Iowa. So we lived there for a number of years in Iowa City. Then I went back to college there. I’m a small college guy.
HH: Grinnell, right?
ST: Grinnell College in Iowa.
ST: Then I did some graduate work for one year in English at Yale. You remember, this is the high of all that very faddish, literary criticism and scholarship. And this was not for me, so I went to New York, kicked around in a ton of dead-end publishing jobs. And in those days, you could do it because you didn’t have to be rich to live in New York, and I kind of learned how to write, I think, and then became a journalist, journalist and biographer, surely by accident.
HH: Now there’s got to be, though, a story. Whittaker Chambers is a towering figure to some people who know who he is, and to other people, he’s an obscure, somewhat crazy walk on role in the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.
HH: How did you decide I’m going to throw my life into Whittaker Chambers?
ST: Well, I’ll tell you what happened, is I read an incredible book you probably know called Perjury by Allen Weinstein.
ST: …which was about the Hiss case. That was the book that proved as definitively as any normal person could in a world that still has some nuts out there, that obviously Chambers had told the truth, and Alger Hiss had lied, about whether he, they had been communists together. And we’re not talking about people who just went to a dinner party. We’re talking about spies. Chambers is a brilliant, literary intellectual who like so many people in the 30s, was radicalized, went very far left, actually became an underground spy in Stalin’s secret service, and recruited a number of people in the New Deal. And Chambers had these great literary gifts. He’d become a big star at Time Magazine…
HH: Hold onto that thought, Sam. I’ve got to go take a break.
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HH: When we went to break, Sam, you were telling us about Whittaker Chambers, and what drew you into writing a full length and really quite critically acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers.
ST: Yes, well what happened was, what interested me about him was he was an intellectual, I mean, like in the old fashioned way. He spoke half a dozen languages, he’d been a published poet in his early 20s, his friends at Columbia University were the most brilliant people of the time who thought he was more talented than any of the rest of them. Why does a guy like that become a communist spy? And I think one reason, quite apart from the ideological attractions of communism back in that awful era of the 1930s, was that this was a chance for him, a literary man, to be a man of action. And I realized, because I’m kind of like an unexciting guy, it’s interesting to me to think that you can be basically a bookish, literary type, and also throw yourself into the great political struggles of your time. And this was what made Chambers interesting to me. So the more I researched, the more I saw I needed to uncover, because his life had been kind of a mystery. He was very enigmatic. He wrote, as you and some of your listeners will know, one of the greatest of all American autobiographies called Witness, which is probably the classic anti-communist text of the 20th Century. But still, he didn’t tell everything. So I wanted to know who this guy really was. Also, I thought he was right about the big question of the day, which was the peril presented by communism, not just the Soviet Union in a superpower struggle, but a philosophical argument about different ways of life. And Chambers…their against ours, the West against the East, however you wanted to put it. And Chambers dramatized that in his writing and thinking, and his life experiences in an absolutely quintessential and unique way. No one else had done anything like this. It’s one of the reasons I ended up spending seven years writing this book.
HH: Seven years…one of the reasons I think Death Of Conservatism requires people to respond to it in detail is because in fact you do get Chambers. You get Nixon, by the way. I spent a lot of time with Nixon in my life. I’ve been a ghost writer for him, I opened his library, I know his work, and you get him. But I also wanted…but I think one of the things that amazes me about this book is you do understand the communist threat, the communist peril as it was understood in the 50s, and what happened in the 60s and the 70s. Why did Alger Hiss become a communist spy?
ST: I think in that period, when it really looked as if two totalitarian faiths were going to dominate the world, and listen, you know this, you know your history, this is not just a small group of people who’ve thought this, these were the most advanced, enlightened people of their day, thought the world was going to be split in two. You had the Nazis on the one hand, and the communists on the other. And that’s how it looked to somebody like Alger Hiss. And he thought you know what? America with its staid, democratic system, there he was working in the New Deal, and he was more of an Eleanor Roosevelt than Franklin Roosevelt guy. People may not remember that it was kind of analogous to Bill and Hillary Clinton, that Eleanor Roosevelt was the activist, FDR was the guy who sort of reined things in, moved more slowly. So to a guy like Alger Hiss, things aren’t happening fast enough, you know? He wants to remake the world as soon as he can. And the communists seem to offer this solution. Also, there’s the attraction of serving the great utopian experiment, taking a risk, stealing those papers from your office and handing them over to the communist agents, and they would really end up in Moscow, the great utopia. I know it sounds insane today, but you know, things feel different in their moment, and I think Hiss was really attracted to that. Hey, Chambers had been, too.
HH: When we come back to the discussion of McCarthyism in your book, I want to bring up the fact that perhaps unaccented in The Death Of Conservatism is that while McCarthy was a buffoon and a thug, many of the anti-communists, including Nixon, were right. And this is part of the great divide between left and right that continues to separate the intellectual class in the United States. Not a lot of people, Sam, from your side of the intellectual divide, will confidently step forward and say without any kind of qualification Alger Hiss was a communist spy. You know, that still, it’s very difficult to get that out of the mouths of a lot of people.
ST: Well, it rankles me. You know, people will come up to me, colleagues sometimes in the New York Times, and they’ll say well, was Hiss really guilty? And I’ll say are you kidding? I spent the better part of a decade writing a book that documents it in every detail, you know? But there was a kind of arrogance about it, because the wrong people, right?
ST: …were…favored Chambers instead of Hiss. And you know what? The real intellectuals knew this at the time, including Chambers himself. All the right people with all the right backgrounds, all the right social clubs, and all the right social connections, were pro-Alger Hiss. Well, I’m sorry, that’s got nothing to do with the truth of the matter.
HH: What is it that made it about the left so difficult for them, even after the Soviet archives were thrown open, still you had people fighting rear guard actions. And I think this may come up in our conversation about The Death Of Conservatism later. The left has trouble, Sam Tanenhaus, I think much more than the right, in acknowledging their sins, and not just the sin of fellow traveling, or in the case of Hiss, outright traitor, but the sin of abandoning Vietnam, for example, and watching the Cambodian holocaust sweep away two to three million lives. I’ve always found the left unwilling to deal with the consequences of some of their policies or their fair-haired children. Fair enough on my part?
ST: Yes, I think that’s true. Now I’ll differ with you, Hugh, when we get to it, about the right, because actually, I think this has become a failing of the right. It’s one reason I wrote the book. But yes, historically, I’m afraid, I mean, I shouldn’t say afraid because I really don’t have an ideological dog in the fight, it’s just true. You know, we shouldn’t have any intellectuals in our culture who will not re-examine their own first principles.
HH: Now I always ask my guests…
HH: …and in fact, every one of the New York Times people who’ve been on, I ask them, I ask every reporter, who they have voted for over the years, because I like to put people somewhere on a map that people can identify with. Some people refuse to tell me, others say oh sure, I voted for Carter twice, I voted for Reagan three times. How about you, Sam? Have you ever voted for a Republican presidential candidate?
ST: Presidential candidate? No. I voted for a communist once when I didn’t know any better.
HH: (laughing) Oh, then that’s fine, we can forgive that, but so you came of age in Carter’s years.
HH: Did you vote for Carter twice?
ST: I…let’s see, in 1976…
ST: Yes, I was just old enough, that was my first election.
HH: Mine, too.
ST: Yeah, I did vote for him. Yes, I did. I have voted for Democratic candidates. You know, the great Willmoore Kendall did, too. Yes…
HH: Okay, so what was your thinking on the evening of November, 1980, when Ronald Reagan not only sweeps to a 49 state victory, but takes the Senate with him? Were you in a moment of despair?
ST: No, you know, what I remember, no, I thought that changes come. You know, Reagan’s so interesting, because as you know, during that remarkable period when the Democrats really owned the White House, I wonder if your listeners are aware that the entire decades of the 1930s and 1940s, there was not a single Republicans in the White House, that Ronald Reagan voted, you know, those five times for Democrats, for Roosevelt, and then of course for Harry Truman. No, what I saw with Reagan, and he’s also discussed at some length in this book…
ST: …a small book, you know, you’ve called it a tome, but I do want your listeners to know it’s very short. You can probably read it in about an hour an a half. It’s a distillation of all this work I’ve been doing for a long time. I remember, and I tried to dig it up in an archive and couldn’t, and maybe you’ll remember. Not long after Reagan was elected, the great Senator, Daniel Patrick Moynihan, spoke at Columbia University, I believe. Moynihan’s also a hero in my book. And Moynihan addressed a group of students, and they said well, what are we going to do about this terrible Ronald Reagan in office?
HH: Hold his answer until after the break. Sam Tanenhaus is my guest.
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HH: Sam, you had just gotten to the anecdote, Daniel Patrick Moynihan at Columbia is asked what are you going to do about this Reagan fellow. What does the great sort of Democrat of New York say at that point?
ST: Well, what Moynihan said is I’m not worried about a country that elects Ronald Reagan president. I’m worried about an Ivy League campus that immediately assumes he doesn’t belong as president, belong as our president, and more important, is so detached from where the rest of American society is.
HH: Oh how interesting, because…
ST: Yeah, yeah. It made a huge impression on me.
HH: When I put down The Death Of Conservatism, I’ve read it twice now, I said to myself this is a very good exercise by someone who’s been in Manhattan too long. And so I want to dive in now to see if my conservative world is just…if you travel it at all, because I didn’t recognize a lot of what you had to say, but I want to go over it with you.
ST: Let’s do it.
HH: Let’s start with…
ST: First of all, I live in Westchester County, not in Manhattan, but I work in Manhattan, so go for it.
HH: Okay, at the very beginning of the book, “We stand on the threshold of a new era that has decisively declared the end of an old one. In the shorthand of the moment, this abandoned era is often called the Reagan revolution,” you write. “In fact, it is something larger and of much longer duration. Movement conservatism, the orthodoxy that has been a vital force in our political life for more than half a century, and the dominant one during the past thirty years, vanquishing all other rival political creeds until it was itself vanquished in the election of 2008.” My question is in 1992, and I was broadcasting for PBS at that time, driving home despondent, because I’m a Republican, a conservative, we’d lost everything. We’d lost the presidency to Bill Clinton, we lost the House and the Senate. Wasn’t conservatism vanquished then, Sam Tanenhaus, and then made a comeback which you don’t seem to give it the possibility of doing again?
ST: That is a really strong argument that I have gone back and forth with myself, because it is very possible to say, if you look at the last five presidential elections, Democrats won pluralities in four of them – ’92, ’96, 2000, 2008. The only one they lost, 2004, was a squeaker during a time of war. So yes, you could say that, but here’s what I think was so important, Hugh, and it’s why, bizarre as it will sound, I think Bill Clinton was one of the great conservative in the classical Burkian sense, presidents of the modern era. Yes, Bill Clinton was elected as a Democrat, as a liberal Democrat. But you know what? He discovered before too long that first of all, he had, and Barack Obama is discovering this, too, he had very liberal allies, he thought, in the Congress who are actually going to cause him more trouble than good. Remember, Bill Clinton was happy when he had Republicans to work with in Congress, because he could find middle ground with them. The other thing more important, it gets to the level of ideas, is Clinton realized that these great market forces, the entrepreneurialism that Reagan had fostered and fathered in some ways, you know, Reagan is the most important president since Franklin Roosevelt, no question, that he had brought America to this new place, and Bill Clinton said you know what? The guy is right. So what does Clinton do? He reads Charles Murray’s book, Losing Ground, follows through on his promise to end welfare, collaborates with Newt Gingrich to do that. In Bob Woodward’s book, The Agenda, you’ll see that Clinton studied the Wall Street ticker closer than any president before him. If anything, he’s complicit in the excessive deregulation of Wall Street. But I admired how Clinton readjusted his political course. At the time, he was mocked for it, triangulation and all the rest. But really, in my argument, based on the reading I’ve done, that’s what the classic presidents do. Ronald Reagan did the same thing.
HH: Yeah, but it was that first term. It’s that first term, Sam, that I think so reflects where we are right now, ’93 and ’94, the first two years of his term, because you write just a page later, “Even as the collapse of the nation’s financial system has driven a nation of three hundred million to the brink of the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, conservatives remain strangely apart, trapped in the irrelevant causes of another day, deaf to the actual conversation unfolding across the land in its cities and towns in red and blue states, in the sanctuaries of the privileged and tented Bushvilles.” Well, I know you had to write this six months ago, but you know, given the market recovery, the Fed’s declaration that the recession is over, given Obama’s inability to get unemployment anywhere significantly below 10%, do you think that we might be reliving 1993-94 right now?
ST: It’s a very good question. I’d say, there’s something different with the economy. A fascinating fact about Clinton which is tucked in one of the tables in Robert Samuelson’s book on Reagan and inflation, the great story of how Reagan actually bit the bullet and curbed inflation. You’ll see that every year Clinton was president, unemployment decreased. It’s staggering to think of this. Eight years in a row, unemployment actually got lower? He didn’t face the jobless recovery we do now. Now if we’re going to say that the economy is recovering, then I think we have to give a little credit to the guy in the White House and his advisors, many of them chastened, you know. One thing I like about Obama’s advisors, the czars are another things, I’m with, assume you, on the czars. I don’t like it. I don’t like insurgent presidencies.
HH: We might be agreeing on that. We’re not going to agree on giving him any credit, though, Sam.
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HH: Sam, I want to, I’m hopelessly behind on my outline already, and I’ve only got seven more segments, so I’ve got to pick up the pace here. You’ve got this reference to Bushvilles early on, and you write that on the great issues of the day, conservatives are virtually silent. Where are the Bushvilles in which they are silent? Because in this world that I live in, in broadcast, the conservatives are noisy, they are full of ideas, they’re full of books, and I’m not talking about the bestsellers, I’m talking about the intellectual side of the aisle. Where are the Bushvilles in which a pall has been cast over conservatism, and everyone is, what’s your phrase, I love this phrase, well written, “Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii – trapped in postures of frozen flight, clinched in rigor mortis of a defunct ideology.” I mean, well written if ultimately, in my belief, completely wrong.
ST: Well you know, it is interesting, and of course, time has passed a little bit. But here’s where I would differ a little bit. Actually, I want you to teach me. This way I get to be interviewer now. There’s no question we’re hearing a lot of noise. You said that. But what are the big, compelling ideas we’re hearing come from conservatives now?
HH: I think probably the most important is as to the nature of the war we find ourselves in with radical Islamists, that when…and I assume you’ve read The Looming Tower, I would assume that you’ve read all the books about the threat from abroad. This is the great divide into which much in the way that the Committee on the Present Danger did in ’76-’81. Conservative intellectuals are pouring themselves in an effort to sound the alarm and raise the alert level, Sam, and I notice, by the way, throughout Death Of Conservatism, you nod towards the conservatives’ taking on of the Soviet Union and communism, but I don’t see a similar recognition of the role that we are playing now, vis-à-vis the radical Islamist threat.
ST: Well, probably because I am not quite convinced we’re doing the same thing this time around. I know Norman Podhoretz wrote at one point that George Bush’s policies toward the jihad, the counterterrorism and toward radical Islam, mirrored those of Truman, Harry Truman’s containment policies. Actually, I think they’re a little bit different. What I do say in the book is I think the war in Iraq in particular derived from a different conservative argument, the classic rollback argument that James Burnham devised, and then Barry Goldwater really campaigned on first in 1960. People kind of forget he toyed with running for president, then in 1964. The Bush doctrine, I compare a couple of passages from Goldwater’s great classic, Conscience Of A Conservative, actually written by Brent Bozell, Buckley’s great collaborator…
HH: And some would say Harry Jaffa had quite a lot to do with it as well.
ST: Well, I mean, there was impact, influence from a number of sources. But I have it on pretty good authority, just based on the Buckley research, that Brent actually drafted that manuscript in about six weeks. His sister, Trish, who was…Trish Bozell, who was Bill Buckley’s closest sibling, typed it as he wrote.
HH: I yield to the expertise, but go on.
ST: But at any rate, yeah, so I think there, what I think the mistake, and I do think it was a mistake, was to single out Iraq really as a kind of example, you know, an example to show the radical Islamic world that it didn’t to me seem part of a really broadly conceptualized strategy. And you know who agreed with this, by the way, was Bill Buckley. You know, Bill Buckley and George Will and a few others, even Irving Kristol were very skeptical about Iraq.
HH: I know you note that in the book, but contemporaneous with the invasion, neither Buckley nor will nor any of the conservative intellectuals, and very few people on the left, actually raised an objection in the aftermath of what Tom Ricks would call Fiasco, those of us on the right don’t believe it that way. Some voices of dissent came forward. But I’m not sure I would buy the critique that conservatives are upset with the Iraq invasion at this point.
ST: Oh no, and I don’t think most were, and you’re right. Listen, I supported the invasion of Iraq. I think most people did. My newspaper did because we trusted the president, we trusted his counselors, we trusted the arguments he gave us, and we began to reconsider, many people. You didn’t have to be an employee of the New York Times to wonder, mainly because the strategy that was carried out, you know, you’ll remember, Hugh, there’s a place in the book right near the end of this short book where I quote another one of my conservative heroes, who was Chambers’ conservative hero, the great Benjamin Disraeli, 19th Century British statesman, who really brought British conservatism into the modern age, who I quote a remarkable thing Disraeli wrote when he was practically out of the cradle, I think he was 31 years old, about the dangers of exporting democracy to nations that do not have strong civil institutions.
HH: You know, it’s interesting, I’m going to jump ahead to Disraeli here, because one of my quarrels with you, I’m a great fan of Lord Blake’s Magisterial biography, first book Nixon every gave me, in fact. And the portrait of Disraeli in Death Of Conservatism didn’t ring true with…of course he’s a great reformer. He’s also a great opportunist. But I went back and went to the John Bright quote, the great liberal reformer of Disraeli. He seems unable to comprehend the morality of our political course. So when I read that you thought that Disraeli would approve of the school lunch program, I was more than a little stunned, Sam Tanenhaus. Disraeli was an opportunist.
ST: Well accurately, the one who wrote that was Arthur Schlesinger, I think. I quote him saying Disraeli would have supported all of this. Well listen, in some of the details, there may have been differences. But here is where Disraeli and Nixon connect, and you’re a Nixon guy, so you’ll understand this, too, is when Disraeli came to power, or actually he was out of power most of his political life because the liberals dominated, and of course, conservative and liberals were different characters in England than they are here. The terms almost in some ways don’t quite apply. But what Disraeli was worried about was the revolution of his time, and that was the industrial revolution. And it had created a very powerful, he thought predatory, and not only, he thought, predatory class of great earners who were reducing the really poor and unprotected to a kind of virtual slavery. Now you’ll remember in Russell Kirk’s book, his great book, The Conservative Mind, he says that Disraeli’s analysis of the dangers of industrialism, the disruptions of industrialism, industrial capitalism, was very similar to Marxism in some way, Karl Marx. The difference is that Disraeli thought those changes could be managed, that society could find a way to deal with this disruption, and the disruption, you know, you see it in Dickens’ novels. This is a well known thing, kids going off to the work houses and all of that. And in fact, it was one of the defenses, of course, the slave owners in the South made, that the industrial north was enslaving its white people as literally and graphically as our African-American slaves were.
HH: As Southern slavery.
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HH: Sam, early on in your book, you refer to a Harvard club luncheon.
HH: And there are three speakers there that you do not identify. Who were they?
ST: They were Bill Kristol, John Podhoretz, and Jonah Goldberg, one of whom, Jonah, showed up for my American Enterprise Institute talk the other day.
HH: Well, two books that figure prominently in here is Amity Shlaes’ The Forgotten Man, and Jonah’s Liberal Fascism. I’ve interviewed them both at length. Do you think both of those books have merit?
ST: Yes, and actually, I just mention them in passing. One of the difficulties with writing a short book like this is how quickly you have to handle the material. They do. I think what’s most interesting about Jonah’s book is he does look pretty closely at the roots of progressivism, and how particularly a president like Woodrow Wilson did have, you know, this famous formulation of a literary critic in Lionel Trilling’s many decades later in the 1950s, he did have this impulse to coerce. I don’t think it’s fascism. I think words like that we have to be very careful how we throw around. You know, Franklin Roosevelt’s critics, including Herbert Hoover, were calling him a fascist and socialist as well, the way Obama’s are now. Now Amity Shlaes’ book is I think actually the better of the two, not that this is a competition, because what she does, she makes a couple of very interesting arguments, as you know, one, that Hoover was a more activist president than we realized, which shouldn’t be surprising. Hoover actually wanted Calvin Coolidge to regulate Wall Street when Hoover was his commerce secretary back in the 1920s. Hoover also came out of the progressive tradition himself. He was a Bull Mooser who’d voted for Theodore Roosevelt in 1912. The other thing that Amity does very well is to capture the emerging class or contingent of kind of, the people Nixon later connected with – Midwestern business people, small companies, doing their best to stay afloat in very difficult economic times, and being handed a dictate from Washington about just how many rules and regulations they had to follow. I think she gets a lot of that right. What I wish she hadn’t done is to start pursuing ideological connections between FDR and Stalin and all the rest, because those are very murky areas.
HH: Of course, Alger Hiss is on FDR’s staff.
ST: Yeah, but he was pretty low…it wasn’t really…
HH: Let’s come back after the break…
HH: …because the key question you raise is where is the intellectual ferment on the right? Where is it? And I point to those two books as indications of serious intellectual history going on that parallels the book by my guest, Sam Tanenhaus, The Death Of Conservatism.
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HH: Where is that [Buckley] book, Sam?
ST: Well, you know, once I took this job at the Times, once I got a day job and then a second day job doing the week in review, it’s been hard to get to. Also, Bill Buckley’s life is so enormously documented by Bill himself. At one point in his career, he was writing 600 letters a week. He wrote some hundred books, the archive is enormous. The life itself existed on so many fronts, in a way, a mystery like Chambers is easier to write about, because any time you unearth some little fact, you’ve got news. Buckley’s life was so public, so rich and varied, that it’s just hard to get all of it. But I’m doing my best.
HH: Well, I once asked Richard Norton Smith, an old, old friend of mind from school days…
ST: Great historian.
HH: …why he wouldn’t take on Nixon, and he said he was afraid he would fall in and never be able to climb out.
ST: Very interesting to hear Richard say that. Nixon, I guess you and I agree about this, well actually, I’m like the world’s biggest Nixonophile, so I’ll probably go too far for you. I say in this book I think Nixon was the most gifted political figure of the modern age. I mean, not just…first of all, he was a really skilled campaigner. Everybody used to mock the awkward Nixon. It was really fun to find a New Yorker profile by Richard Rovere that I have in this book, Rovere the great liberal, actually, ex-communist journalist for the New Yorker, who said Nixon’s strength was his personality, because that’ll set a room laughing today, but Rovere was right.
HH: I greatly appreciated your treatment of Nixon. I thought it was very fair. I do however wonder, as you were discussing the Nixon-Moynihan relationship, with which I’m familiar, and he had many people like that around him who he’d looked to…
HH: Has anyone served the role of Moynihan on the staff of Obama, Clinton or Carter, to your knowledge?
ST: You’re beyond my area of expertise. I don’t know how the administrations work that closely. But I’ll tell you what, I’ll be surprised if there was anyone with that kind of intellectual firepower.
HH: You see, one of my arguments is that the right is always much more willing to engage the ideas of the left than the left is to engage the ideas of the right.
ST: No question.
HH: A point I doubt you would be willing to make.
ST: Yup, no, I agree. I agree. That’s why I say you know, the history of conservatism is so much richer than the history of liberalism. You know, just in literary terms, a guy like me who likes to write books and write articles and whatever, it’s just more interesting. Why is it more interesting? Not because conservatives are crazy, you know, which…for the opposite reasons, because it’s just so, so many ideas. And here’s the thing. You made a very interesting kind of clever comment before I just want to pick up on, when you said here’s a guy, me, who’s been in Manhattan too long. And it’s so interesting, when I go to Washington and talk about politics there, that’s where people will often say to me you know, you’re a New York guy, you’re obviously not a Beltway guy, which is true. But here’s an interesting thing, Hugh. Just think about this. I argue in the book that the greatest intellectual period of the modern conservative movement actually came from 1965 to…
HH: To ’75…
ST: 1975, right.
ST: …which I think many people will find strange, but I’m going to try to make that case. But here’s the thing. The three great journals of that period, and I believe they were the three best journals in America. Were National Review, Commentary, and the Public Interest – National Review founded in ’55, Commentary in ’45 as a liberal publication, that then, under Norman Podhoretz, became a self-examining liberal publication, and the Public Interest was formed in 1965. So these three publications, each founded ten years apart, they were all based in New York. And I think that gave them a strength, because what they did was, they stayed outside the Beltway, and not that the Beltway isn’t hugely important, it’s where the power resides. But the ideas take on a different kind of texture when they’re discussed away from New York. Remember, you know, Bob Tyrell’s great magazine, the American Spectator, remember where that began?
ST: It was in Bloomington, Indiana. You know, keep away from the Beltway, keep away from the seductions of power, of…I remember Bill Kristol telling me once when I did a profile of him and some other neocons for Vanity Fair. It was kind of a big piece. I did Bill, I did Richard Perle, and I did Paul Wolfowitz. And Bill said to me, I said well, you know, how close are you, this is in 2003, right at the beginning of the Iraq war, and I said how close you, I asked him, to George Bush? And he said you know what? I had the big job when I worked for Dan Quayle, when I worked for Bill Bennett. I don’t need to get invited to the White House. I’ve done that. I did it as a kid. I’d rather stay apart from it. That is one virtue of being outside Washington.
HH: Sure, there is a virtue. But I also think, especially in your book review this week, there’s a book, a biography of Paul Nitze and George Kennan…
HH: …which, great review by the way, I’m going to buy the book.
ST: Yeah, very interesting book.
HH: And so I thought to myself, you cannot really, however, understand the world, the threats from the world. I live in California. I’m here purposefully to stay away from that stuff. But to understand the threats from the world, you’ve got to be there. And when you, for example, you say on Page 13, “Commentary, National Review, Weekly Standard, once sophisticated publications are now mouthpieces of the GOP.” Sam, I’ve got to challenge you on that. The best work, the very best work, used to come in the New Republic. It’s completely dead now at the New Republic, all domestic politics, no foreign policy worth a note. But people like Reuel Marc Gerecht, people like Helprin, the greatest intellectuals of the threat from Islamist radicalism, are in those three magazines. I didn’t think that was a fair commentary.
ST: Well first of all, I actually don’t agree about that. I have respect for all those guys. I think however, that they continue to see…listen, a guy like Reuel Gerecht knows a ton about the Arab world and the Islamic world. I mean, you know, he was in the bank. He was part of the deal. He’s written for me, and I’ve talked to him. He wrote for me at the op-ed page when I was an editor there. He’s written for me at the book review. He’s a guy I really respect. I do think that they tend to see, and I gather you agree with them, you know, and I admire you, too, but tend to see the Islamic threat as being more centrally organized than it appears to me. But listen, I’m no expert on it.
HH: Lawrence Wright – do you read his stuff after The Looming Tower?
ST: Yes, a great admirer.
HH: Yeah, it’s completely devolved into like a hundred different franchise operations. But the animating ideology is there.
ST: Yeah, no question about that. No question about that.
HH: Let me ask you about Michael Lind.
HH: You quote Michael Lind on Page 108-109 about Rush replacing George Will as the leading conservative spokesman. “The basic concerns of intellectual conservatives in the 80s were foreign policy and economics. By the early 90s, they had become dirty pictures and deviant sex.” That’s absurd. And I’m glad you didn’t say it, because then we’d have a real argument. But it’s absurd for Lind to say that. Originalism is the dominant concern domestically, foreign policy preparedness on the Islamist threat abroad. Last hour, you asked me, you know, where is the energy, where is the vibrancy? And I think to myself, my gosh, on energy, on originalism, on economic history, on health care solutions that aren’t statist, I just don’t think there is credit given to all of this ferment that’s going on out there on the right, right now.
ST: Well, in fairness to Mike Lind, he actually wrote that in 1995. That was an essay that appeared in Dissent Magazine. It was interesting to me, because even at that stage, someone, and you know, Mike Lind is a very intelligent guy who was in the movement himself, you know…
HH: Yes, but…
ST: …and had been a protégé both of Irving Kristol and of Bill Buckley.
HH: Been gone a long time, though.
ST: Yes, he has been gone a long…well, that’s one of the themes I get to, too, and I hope we’ll have time to circle back to that, is the defectors, or the ranks of defectors from the right. But Lind was reacting at that point to the emerging culture war. And I do think that really did become a preoccupation of the right, and to the exclusion of a lot else. One of the patterns I trace in the book is how Irving Kristol, who in my view in the early 1970s, was the most elegant political observer, he was a public, political philosopher, of the period. It’s interesting, just a little side light, once I asked Bill Buckley, and maybe a year or so before he died, if there was a conservative intellectual he really respected, and he said Irving Kristol, the only name he mentioned.
HH: Of course.
ST: Now Bill’s competitive, so he’s not…an Olympian, he’s not going to name a dozen people. But it was interesting that it was Irving he singled out. Well, Irving Kristol, as I describe in the book, in the 1970s, was really looking for a way to transcend the very bitter ideological divides of the period we talked about earlier, the late 60s and early 70s, which you and I know so well. And he thought the answer was to get beyond ideological conservatism and ideological liberalism. Well, by 1995, the same year Mike Lind’s essay appeared, Irving is sort of denouncing city planners, he’s denouncing legal aid lawyers, he’s denouncing universities, he’s denouncing the media. Well, you know what? Those are many of the institutional workers in our society. To me, that began to sound like the new left, began to sound like tear America down. You don’t like anybody who works for the government, you don’t like anybody who teaches in our universities, you don’t like any of our journalists, is a kind of anti-Americanism.
HH: Oh, it’s a kind of anti-elitism. In fact, what I thought resonated most with me in your book is that you identified the conservative critique as being primarily directed at the information elites that exist in their towers much more than academia. We’ll come back and talk about that.
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HH: Sam, talking about the culture wars, one of the things I was happy about the book, I’d gotten all the way to the end, and I said thank goodness, a book from the left that I don’t have to discuss the merits of same sex marriage and Constitutionalism with, and there on Page 118, you spring it on me. “Conservatives should savor the embrace of family values by the nation’s homosexual population who seek the sanctuary and responsibilities of marriage and child rearing, a development unthinkable a generation ago when gays personified the excesses of alternative lifestyle.” Very straightforward question, since you are a fan of Burke, do you think Edmund Burke would be applauding the imposition of same sex marriage by unelected federal courts on large numbers of Americans?
ST: Well, probably not. However, the defense…because you know, he lived in the 18th Century, when what, 2% of the people were even allowed to vote. No, but my defense of gay marriage is still a Burkian one. You know, one of the problems of being a great thinker like Edmund Burke is you become an adjective that outlives your own work. It takes on different iterations. And my argument there is a basic one that at a one time conservative like Andrew Sullivan has made, which is simply that if you look at marriage as an institution, now we’re setting aside the religious issue, because religious issues are different, and I would never assume that one faith or another should include or embrace practices, or beliefs, that are inimical to its own values. I mean, that’s religion. But as far as civil society goes, and that’s Burke’s great term, civil society, marriage is an institution. And it seems to me the only terms in which you would say that it’s wrong for anyone who wishes to be included in that institution, because inclusion is to strengthen it. It’s not as if they’re subversives who want to destroy the institution of marriage. It’s not like a communist cell of gays who want to undo marriage from within. It seems to me the only argument that would be feasible is if you could establish heterosexual people who compose after all, what, 95-98% of the population, were declining, disdaining marriage, because those other people were getting married. In other words, that it was actually weakening the institution. But I think your argument is that it does.
HH: Well, Sam, that is the familiar argument. That’s the familiar argument. The less familiar argument, the one that I think animates a lot of conservative thought here, is not what should be decided, but who should decide it and how. The argument against same sex marriage that is most vigorous and I think most deadly is that the overthrow of Constitutional majoritarianism, and mediated decision making by representative institutions by unelected federal courts is not originalist, could never be conservative, and is quite radical, and it undermines the basis by which we all agree on how we will be governed, and that the left’s embrace of it, the left’s desire to do jam down after jam down through the courts, whether it is on abortion, or on gay marriage, it’s not so much those particular issues, though there is a natural law argument with each of those, it’s the fact that the left is trying to destroy those institutions that every conservative rallies around, mediated, Constitutional representative government. And that, I mean, you don’t deal with that. That’s really the big divide, is that your friends on the left would just as soon have courts declare that they’re the winner on everything. And in fact…
ST: Yeah, go ahead.
HH: …on the filibuster argument that you make, very fascinating your argument with Dole in introducing the filibuster, the real abuse of the filibuster began in 2002 with Patrick Leahy and the Democrats filibustering of all the judges. And this is where the great, great clash of the intellectual movement is occurring now with Scalia and Roberts and Alito on our side, and I don’t actually know who is on your side. Probably Cass Sunstein is one of the best. But it just seems to me that that’s where the divide is right now, and it’s not accounted for in the Death Of Conservatism.
ST: You’re right. There should have been more on that. But, you know, in a bigger book, the Buckley book, maybe we’ll get into that. But let me get for a little bit here, Hugh, because what…there’s a reason, and I quite agree, by the way, that the idea of a sort of jurisprudential solution to political majoritarian problems isn’t good. But every once in a while, there’s no choice, for instance, Jim Crow in the South.
HH: Well, there was a choice. The 14th Amendment was the choice. And that was not, that was just the validation of an amendment agreed to by the country, and given to the judiciary to enforce by Section 5 of the 14th Amendment, and to Congress. I mean, same sex marriage…
ST: But what happens when the states violate that, and those sanctions are made?
HH: The federal judiciary is empowered by the 14th Amendment to act. That’s the difference between same sex marriage and racial discrimination. And the same is true about gender discrimination based upon the Voting Rights Amendment.
ST: Well, that’s a good…you know what? That’s a good argument.
HH: Again, I just…I know it’s a short book, and it’s unfair whenever I do this to people, because you are trying to accomplish an essay in 120 pages, not a definitive critique. But I give that to you to come back to in the future.
ST: I think…no, I think that’s a very good argument. But can I make one other point here, though…
HH: Please, please.
ST: …about we should be…the filibuster is a different issue, too, because there, of course, it was, as Alan Ahrenholtz said in this essay I quoted, it was really the Democrats who historically abused the filibuster, and they did it really to stop, again, civil rights legislation from being passed. What was different about what Bob Dole did, and so therefore, you know, using filibusters to block judges, absolutely wrong, and of course, it was one of John McCain’s great legislative strokes to try to bring an end to that later. But remember what Dole did that was historic was actually as soon as a president took office, repeatedly used the filibuster essentially, essentially, to stymie a president who had been popularly elected. And what we forget about Clinton is that although he did not win a majority owing to the presence, the third party presence of H. Ross Perot, he won definitively. And as I say in the book, he won about as handily as Obama did. And he actually got one or two more, or maybe five or six more electoral votes. Remember George H. W. Bush in 1992 got a smaller percentage of the vote than Herbert Hoover got in 1932.
HH: You made that argument….
HH: …but you neglected to point out that you said you know, Bush got essentially everything he wanted, but when he won his sweeping victory in 2004, the Senate and the House, all he wanted was Social Security reform, and the Democrats absolutely refused to even consider it.
ST: Okay, two point there. Let’s not call that a sweeping victory. That was the narrowest reelection since McKinley, or actually Wilson in 1916, and the closest in which he held onto all the branches, the elective branches since McKinley. We have gotten into the habit, all of us, left, right and center, of seeing very close presidential victories as landslides. Obama’s victory was very close, we forget. We forget that 47% of the people didn’t vote for him. George Bush won a very, very tight election. Point two, this is interesting to me, and this is where I’m going to join you and say shame on the liberal media, which I’m a part of, the Social Security privatization, the addition of private accounts to Social Security. It was really the same demographic constituency that is objecting now to Obamacare that objected to the privatization. They were elderly people in many cases, middle class people who told their Congressmen, don’t take out Social Security away. Now where was the liberal media then saying there must be a conspiracy afloat? Who’s telling these senile old people what to think? No, what my colleagues and I said at the time was George Bush has gone too far, and now the people are standing up to him.
HH: Great candor from Sam Tanenhaus.
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HH: Sam, I was arguing with you before the break that when you made the statement that Democrats made no serious effort to block Bush’s major initiatives, I immediately thought of Social Security reform. But I really want to argue on with you is about Obama at the end of the book where you describe the president this way. “In the end, movement conservatives got the war they wanted, at home and abroad. It was repudiated in the 2008 election with the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in Burkian principles of conservation and correction than any significant thinker or political figure on the right today.” A couple of things – one, I don’t think 2008 was about the war at all. I think it was about the economic collapse and a lot of other things, but not the war. The war had been won in Iraq. But when you look at Obama after the Cambridge police incident, after the Obamacare double down before the Congress, after this astonishing spending, can you really call him a Burkian conservative?
ST: I’ll tell you what, it’s getting to be a stretch.
HH: Candid, honest.
ST: Well, here’s the thing. What we know about Obama, what really impressed me, was I’m in Philadelphia right now on a book tour, and he gave that extraordinary speech on race in this town. And what was great about it, to my mind, and I think a great oration, was not so much what he said about African-Americans. It was the understanding he seemed to have of a large segment of the white population. He said if you are the children of immigrants, as I am, it’s a pretty tough case to tell someone like me that I’m responsible for slavery and Jim Crow segregation. And what struck me was that he had really mastered the Moynihan argument about the complexities of racial and ethnic tension in the country. And so I thought here’s a guy who whether or not he’s anything other than a liberal Democrat, has the capacity to absorb the arguments of the other side, whatever…or what little he may do with them, and that is an essential component of our politics. And here’s where the New York side in me, I guess, is showing. You know, I do believe with the great historian, Richard Hofstadter, that an important aspect of our politics is not just how institutions work, and not just how policies are made, and not just how people are elected, but the idioms and language and vocabulary we use to talk about politics, because politics is there 24/7. We’re talking and thinking about it constantly. And I really still think Obama has elevated that discourse.
HH: Now let me ask you about him, Sam…
HH: Because in his speech last week, we’re taping this the week after the president made his speech to a joint session of Congress for the event when we replay this, in which he denounced pretty much everyone who had disagreed with him. He did use the death panel rhetoric, but he went far beyond that, almost to the point that people like me, who’ve spent a lot of time researching health care, I’ve talked to people at Harvard Business School and other experts across the country that really believe Obamacare is a disaster, and people like the folks who wrote, Clayton Christensen, The Innovator’s Prescription, et cetera, I mean, there’s just a large critique of Obamacare that’s got nothing to do with ideology. It has to do with the efficacy of what he’s proposing. And he refuses to credit those people with any sincerity in their argument about what is ailing American health care. In fact, if you look at cap and trade, if you look at his health care bill, if you look at the people he staffed the administration with, he is not, as you say, governing on the basis of consensus. I think you quote the modern, liberal worldview is premised on consensus. And I look at that after what has happened, and I say to myself, what president is Sam Tanenhaus talking about?
ST: Oh, I disagree there, Hugh. I mean, I look at people like Summers and Geithner, his economic advisors, who were very big, pro-trade, pro-globalization people. Summers is on record, brilliant economist, saying that Milton Friedman was the most important economist of the modern era who’d gotten the big things right. Those don’t sound like liberal ideologues to me.
HH: Well, but it’s not what they say, it’s what they do, and cap and trade is a massive takeover of the economy. Health care would be that way. What do you make, by the way, you’re very critical of Jonah for pointing out Obama’s pals from the Weather Underground.
ST: Yeah, I think that’s just appalling, sorry.
HH: Well, who are Bill Ayers and Bernardine Dohrn?
ST: They’re not his pals from the Weather Undergound. See, this is the kind of thing that will be, I believe, a persistent problem if we’re going to have a serious conservative discourse, because look, we know what the facts were. Obama was in the Hyde Park Chicago in the 1980s and 90s. Bill Ayers was a very, Bill Ayers is a very visible guy there, because he was involved in…
HH: Okay, I’ll buy all that. Let me cut you short. What about Van Jones and ACORN?
ST: Van Jones and ACORN, ACORN I don’t know so much about. The Van Jones thing is really like a serious problem. And I don’t…and it’s also a problem, and my managing editor at the Times, Jill Abramson, said so publicly. The Times should have been on that story, and it wasn’t.
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HH: It’s going to be making a lot of conservatives crazy for a long time. In fact, it’s already gotten my friend, Pete Wehner and John Podhoretz to write long essays, Pete, actually, twice, Sam. Have you read these?
ST: You know, I’ve been touring. I’ve not caught up with all the commentary, but I look forward to reading it.
HH: Yeah, you’ve really stirred up a hornet’s nest here. And on the day that we’re doing this, we’re taping this on September 15th, 2009, Byron York, chief political correspondent for the Washington Examiner, put out a column, Questions About Bush’s Conservative Principles, where he goes through all of the movement conservatives’ arguments with Bush, and has a rather fascinating conversation with the author about Bush rejection of CPAC, and rejection of Gary Bauer, and rejection of the movement. But your theory is, Sam Tanenhaus, that Bush was the movement personified, the most conservative president ever.
ST: Well, the most ideologically conservative, not classically conservative. Well, you know who it comes from, Hugh, because I quote him in the book, it comes from Martin Anderson, Martin Anderson, the Ayn Rand disciple who was the domestic policy guru for Ronald Reagan in 2002 and 2003. He, and people like Grover Norquist, an acquaintance of mine as well, were saying this is the man who is going to complete the Reagan revolution, massive, enormous tax cuts, the very strong defense, and also carrying on. I think the real problem with George Bush, much of it, was the culture war. He couldn’t let it go. We had the faith-based initiative. This was a guy who was big on the main issues, and of course, Social Security, the private accounts, as I mention in the book, that comes right out of movement scripture, Milton Friedman’s got it in Capitalism And Freedom, Bill Buckley had it in Up From Liberalism.
HH: Let me channel paleocons, Sam Tanenhaus. No child left behind, Medicare prescription drug benefit, Harriet Miers, the immigration bill, massive federal assistance for New Orleans, the invasion of Iraq, TARP, I mean, you mentioned TARP on Page 22. I mean, this, whatever W. is, and this article by Byron, he quotes the former White House speechwriter who has got a new book out called Speechless: Tale Of A White House Survivor, that Bush didn’t think of himself as a movement conservative. He thought himself as redefining the Republican Party.
ST: He did initially. The interesting thing about George Bush is there is a kind of empty vessel quality to him, which a lot of great politicians have, and we forget how skilled a politician George Bush was. Remember if you’ve looked at Robert Draper’s book on Bush’s election and presidency, in 1998 and 1999, when Bush was emerging as the frontrunner within the party, the guy who was going to challenge Gore or whoever the Democrats nominated, he went out to the Hoover Institution, he met people like George Schultz, and they were starry-eyed. They thought this was going to be the next Reagan, that this guy was not afraid to make the tough choices. You know, even Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., wrote in the New York Review of Books, talk about a liberal publication, which I confess to having contributed to in my time, he, Arthur Schlesinger said this is a strong leader, this is a strong president, okay? I have a formulation I didn’t get into much in the book of what I call the imperial right, and that was when the conservatives really got hold of the presidency beginning with Nixon, they began to see the office in a different way.
HH: Yes, I’m a card-carrying member of the imperial right. Yes, I’m with you on that.
ST: And I think Bush, yes, ended up moderating. Now Katrina, I’m sorry, but after he essentially dismantled, from what I understand, FEMA, the organization that might have helped a little bit, I think for him to send some money that way is not such a terrible thing.
HH: I didn’t say it was. I would just say that the paleocons would argue that that is a state function completely botched by the mayor and by the governor, and that conservatives would not have rushed in to save, obviously oblivious to the mechanics of modern politics. Sam, I want to get to the heart of our disagreement here.
HH: And I think it’s, you touched on it earlier.
HH: For a lot of conservatives, God matters a great deal, even if they’re not religious right. They believe in natural law, they believe in a God who intends to be listened to, and has made manifest His or Her direction for the world. And it seems to me that the big divide these days in the United States are between those people who take Scripture as something that must be understood and revered and followed, and those who don’t. I mean, everybody believes in God. I mean, you’ll get 95% of people say they believe in God, except Hitchens, who’s on here every other Wednesday or so. But those who believe that there’s really a defined way of going about living versus those who believe it’s an open-ended question in the relativist sort of approach to things, and that’s not touched on much in Death Of Conservatism.
ST: No, it’s not, and I do think that’s one of the real holes in the book, particularly since here I am writing about William F. Buckley, who is about as devout a Catholic as any intellectual of our time.
HH: Right, right.
ST: Yes, I think that’s a very fair point.
HH: Are you religious yourself?
ST: I’m not. But what I would say in answer to that, though, Hugh, is I’m impressed by the argument another great conservative intellectual, who’s no longer a conservative, Mark Lilla, has advanced, that…and I think Gary Wills makes this argument, too, that if you actually look at the foundations of American democracy, at our creedal documents, the founders were really struggling with the idea of how to create a democracy that would not be dominated by religious ideas, in part, and yes they were themselves theists, but to be a theist, you know, to believe in a kind of Divine providence or Divine artificer of the world in those days, that’s fairly close to secularism in a period of intense religious strife, that they wanted to create a society where yes, religion would be present, but where politics and governance would not be dominated by it, where it would be free of it.
HH: Well, clearly they did, and that’s good Constitutional law, but they also intended a vibrant, rich and emphatically meaningful faith-based life, that I think the left often not only denies, but denigrates.
ST: Yeah, I think that’s true. I think that’s true.
HH: And that’s where a lot of the culture war comes from. But I go to your…
ST: Yeah, no, you’re right on that.
HH: You write what will the Hispanics see in the GOP except a plea for their vote? Don’t you think that maybe conservatism goes to the very, very Catholic Latino population as a pro-life, as respect for their Catholic faith and their Catholic schools, and that is an appeal on which conservatism will revive itself with the new demographic?
ST: Well, it will be very interesting to see. It hasn’t worked so far, but that doesn’t mean it can’t. But that will probably be one of the arguments they make, sure. But I think at this moment, what struck me about that, and listen, I don’t pretend this book was not written in and of its moment. No, I don’t think it’s as ephemeral a moment as some may think.
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HH: Sam, you’re always very good in your interviews for the podcast in the New York Times Review of Books to give authors an opportunity to say what they want to say without a question probing in. You did with Doctorow, you know, what were you doing here, that sort of thing. So my question for you is what is it about this book you very rarely get to tell people in the course of the endless interviews that surround a book launch?
ST: That’s a great question. Thank you, Hugh, that it’s a narrative. It’s a story. It is not, although there’s an argument in it, it’s really a quick, narrative tour through the last half century or more of American politics, left and right, told through the principal thinkers and political figures. Reagan is there. Nixon is there. Chambers, Buckley. It’s about people. That’s what I don’t get to say. I end up spending a lot of time debating, you know, Rush Limbaugh or something, when the book is really narrative. The other thing I’d add is that the pivotal chapter in the book which we didn’t touch on in this interview, and almost never comes up, is about the failure of Great Society liberalism. It’s about how it all came apart in the 60s, and conservatives had matured, intellectually and politically, to the point where they came in and rescued American society. And it was done through…and I kind of symbolize that, I narrate it through the bond formed between William F. Buckley, Jr., and Daniel Patrick Moynihan, that they both embraced what Moynihan called the politics of stability, and that the story of our politics has been, whenever one side gets pulled too far away from the center, the other party, if it’s ready, or the other philosophy, if it’s ready, mature and can reach the center of the public, will then take over. And that’s what the story tells.
HH: Do you think then there’s a resurrection of conservatism book in the offing, because it does seem at least from this seat that President Obama and his team have gone very far to the left, and have reawakened the energy of the center-right.
ST: It could happen. It could happen. You know, the question I’ve always had with Obama, I’ve written about this actually in the New York Times, is this a New Deal guy who’s going to help rescue us? Or is this a Great Society guy who is going to turn us into better people, you know, as Buckley said in that great, satirical critique of LBJ? He wanted to improve the quality of our lives. And I have a lot of fun in the book making fun of the liberal journalists, you know, who were starry-eyed about Great Society programs, even as Watts and Detroit and Newark were being burned to the ground. Theodore White, I’m afraid, is the whipping boy there, wonderful journalists, got carried away.
ST: I think if Obama tries to be LBJ during what’s really closer to a Franklin Roosevelt period, in other words, we don’t have the money LBJ did to do all this stuff, I think then conservatism may come back so fast I’m going to have to write a huge epilogue to this book.
HH: Oh, from your lips, Sam Tanenhaus, to the God in which well, we’ll have to disagree on. I appreciate so much the time and the effort and the conversation, Sam Tanenhaus. The brand new book is The Death Of Conservatism, in bookstores everywhere, it’s linked at Hughhewitt.com.
End of interview.