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Dr. Larry Arnn On The Passing Of The Great Professor Harry Jaffa

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HH: I’m talking today with Dr. Larry Arnn, the president of Hillsdale College. Normally, I speak with him in the last radio hour of the week. The Hillsdale Dialogue is on Fridays. But today, we’re talking on Thursday, because it’s sad duty for Dr. Arnn to travel to California tomorrow at the regular appointed time and to participate in the memorial service for a great American and a great political philosopher, Dr. Harry Jaffa, whom this audience has heard for over a decade on July 4th. I always play the same show – Dr. Jaffa on the Declaration of Independence. Larry Arnn, welcome. I’m sorry to be talking to you on such a sad occasion. You lost your teacher.

LA: It is very sad, isn’t it? He was a very great man, and he’s going to be much missed.

HH: That’s, I want to talk a little bit about why he’s a very great man. John Miller, one of your colleagues at Hillsdale, wrote a terrific, not an obituary, it was really a salute to him a year or so ago at National Review, which I reread and reposted today, because I learned much from it. So why don’t we, why don’t you tell us about Dr. Jaffa.

LA: Well, Professor Jaffa was born in 1919. He was, you know, almost 96 years old, I guess. And he was a Jewish boy born in New York, and he was very smart. And he went to Yale and studied English, and he was told not to go to graduate school, because Jews couldn’t get jobs being teachers. So he worked for the federal government for two and a half years. The first day he did that, he, in Roosevelt’s administration, he was a big New Dealer at the time, and in the Roosevelt administration, and the first day he did that, he met Marjorie Butler, the love of his life. They were married until he died, and she died in 2010. And he proposed to her by saying Marjorie, you have to marry me or you have to shoot me.

HH: (laughing)

LA: (laughing) And lifelong love. He didn’t like the bureaucracy, and he decided heck, he was going to go to graduate school anyway, and so he went to the new school for social research, where they had just built a graduate faculty full of Jews who ran away from Adolf Hitler. And an unknown one of them was a man named Leo Strauss. And Jaffa became his first student at the new school.

HH: Oh, it was his first student? Really?

LA: Yeah.

HH: Oh, I didn’t know that.

LA: For three years or so, Professor Jaffa was pretty much the only one. He has lots of stories about telling about the great Leo Strauss, and how he would help him zip his fly when he had to go to dinner. And Strauss had studied with Martin Heidegger in Germany, a great 20th Century political philosopher, who joined the Nazi Party. And that meant that one of Strauss’ teachers had joined the movement that sought Strauss’ life. And Strauss decided, a very important man, Strauss, he decided we have to start over. Somewhere, philosophy has gone wrong, political philosophy. And so he resolved to go back to the classics and read them anew. And Professor Jaffa was there when he was early in his career doing that, and for a time, he was more or less the only one there. And he regarded Professor Jaffa highly. When he, Robert Hutchins, Robert Maynard Hutchins, hired Strauss at the University of Chicago, a great act, and Strauss invited them to hire Professor Jaffa for a junior professorship, which they did. And now he’s in the academic world.

HH: Yes, he’s got his foothold.

LA: And then they, three years later, I think it was, Professor Jaffa got a job at Ohio State.

HH: I know. This was the revelation to me that The Ohio State University, the national football champions reigning and for the first time ever, the victor of a playoff, had in their employ Harry Jaffa at the same time as Woody Hayes, and that they dined together.

LA: They were friends. Yes, Professor Jaffa loved Woody Hayes.

HH: I didn’t know that.

LA: He gave me, they knew each other very well, and for a long time, you know, so 20 years and more. And Jaffa would kind of help out with the football team. And Jaffa once gave me a biography of Woody Hayes to read.

HH: Did you read it?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: Okay, so you know that Woody Hayes was a great man, and a student of military history.

LA: Oh, yeah. Yeah, yeah, and Professor Jaffa, you know, Professor Jaffa was a very assertive and self-confident man to the place of arrogance. But there were certain things he always had humility about – his wife, his teaches, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, George Washington. And he was always humble before them. And Woody Hayes was actually on that list. He never proclaimed to me the many things he taught Woody Hayes, where he did most everybody else he knew. And I mean, the many things he taught most everybody else he knew, and most everybody else he knew, to Professor Jaffa, had fallen short. And so he was, in 1964, Jaffa had become a conservative by reading the Road To Serfdom by Hayek, the same way, and about the same time as Ronald Reagan did.

HH: Oh, interesting. So was there a moment where he put down the book and said Hayek is right?

LA: So he says, yeah, that’s right. And he has written that. And he had been in the bureaucracy, and he saw what it was like, and saw this ain’t the way to govern. And so he supported Goldwater, eventually wrote The Extremism in Defense of Liberty speech.

HH: Right.

LA: …which has been a founding document for the conservative movement, although it didn’t help Goldwater in ’64. Goldwater later wrote to him, I was privileged to put the letter on the wall at the Claremont Institute back when I used to run it, that that was his greatest utterance in his life, that speech. And Henry Salvatori, a great American that you and I both know, knew very well…

HH: Yes, yes.

LA: He gave some money to Claremont Men’s College, it was then, to bring Jaffa out. And so Jaffa comes to California.

HH: Explain that for a moment. Why would Salvatori do that? Did he think that there was a crisis in the west that particularly needed addressing?

LA: Oh, yeah, he did very much think that. And of course, Salvatori was interested in and frightened by communism. Salvatori was the, one of the inventors of the way we look for oil today, and made a fortune doing that, built a great company, Western Geophysical. And Salvatori is the man who got Reagan into politics.

HH: Yeah.

LA: And the Time For Choosing speech was given first at an event that Salvatori put together. And then Salvatori and three other men heard the speech, loved it. And Salvatori introduced him, and organized for it to be on national television, and made Reagan a national figure.

HH: And you know what’s interesting about this, Dr. Arnn, is I want to point out to people that in individual man who made wealth put that wealth to use in the service of both politics and scholarship. He was not content to work in either business or politics or scholarship, but all three.

LA: And also, by the way, Salvatori made a pledge to Reagan that he wasn’t doing it for anything. And although he would give him advice, he would never ask him for anything of interest to himself, and he would never accept any honors from Reagan, and he turned down several.

HH: Wow.

LA: …really, you know, that kind of political giving is illegal now, because you can’t give him a lot of money. And what we’ve done by that is exclude giving for honor, or you know, made it harder. And Reagan was, you know, Reagan and Salvatori were close…

HH: But Salvatori was benefactor of many institutions. Why Jaffa to Claremont, which has enormous implications which we’ll unfold in the course of this hour, for all of American political thought?

LA: Well, Jaffa was the most prominent thinker who supported Goldwater, and it was becoming apparent by then, we have to talk about two turns in the life of Jaffa. Actually, there are three. And one of them had happened already. Jaffa had discovered America. He discovered it in a used book shop in the 1940s when he didn’t have any money, but he sat, and stood and read a copy of the Lincoln-Douglas debates for an hour or two, and then he went back and did it again. And then he scraped up some money and bought the book. And he, it was just very vivid to him. He could see that this was like the argument in the first book of Plato’s Republic.

HH: And you’re going to have to go back and remind people, though, in the Hillsdale Dialogue, we talked about Thrasymachus and Socrates and their argument. But you’ll have to remind people what they were arguing about.

LA: Well, Thrasymachus was a sophist, and that mean he made his living teaching young men how to give powerful speeches. And young men want to be powerful if they’re any good. And he told them that, he taught, and he argued in The Republic, that justice is whatever the strongest person thinks it is. And Jaffa attributed this opinion to Stephen Douglas.

HH: Isn’t that interesting? It’s so fascinating, Crisis of the House Divided.

LA: He said that each state should be able to decide whether slavery is to be had or not. And Lincoln argued, now I’ll do Socrates, so Socrates destroys Thrasymachus in the first book of The Republic by saying to him, effectively, okay, so let’s assume, Thrasymachus, that you’re the strongest. Now tell me what your interest is? Tell me what is good for you? And by that argument, he demonstrated that power can’t settle the question what you ought to do with it.

— – – – –

HH: Dr. Arnn is his student, and I’m sure will be in attendance tomorrow. Will you be speaking tomorrow, Dr. Arnn?

LA: I will.

HH: And where will that occur? And is it open to the public? And how is he going to be memorialized?

LA: It’s on, it’s in Claremont, California, on Indian Hill Boulevard at the Todd Memorial Chapel. And I’m confident that it’s open to the public. And if you happen to show up and you don’t get in, call out my name, and I’ll come and try to help you get in. But I’m speaking beyond my brief right now, because I’m not a member of Professor Jaffa’s family.

HH: But you are going to be one of his eulogists. That’s a tall order, isn’t it?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: You thinking about that?

LA: Oh, yeah. Well, he’s, Professor Jaffa is the greatest thinker I ever met. And I owe very much to him, and I have known him for forty years and a few months. And I have never failed to learn from him in any conversation, and I’ve had many hundreds of them.

HH: In the, before we return to the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and how he came to write The Crisis Of The House Divided, when did you first meet him? What was the actual first meeting?

LA: Well, a very close friend of mine, one of the founders of the Claremont Institute with me, Peter Schramm, received me. The others are all a little older than I am. That doesn’t make any different now, but in graduate school years, that was light years. And so I arrived in Claremont to study with Professor Jaffa, having studied with a student of his in Arkansas. And Peter took me to pick up Professor Jaffa to take him to the first class, a great honor. And I went in Professor Jaffa’s house, the house where he lived until the day he died, and he couldn’t remember who I was. He had his shirt on, but he was in his boxer shorts. And he asked Peter what the class was about. He was like that. And then we drive, and you know, I’m thinking, you know, I’m not a particularly big deal, huh? And we get to class, and I can tell you, I want to tell you what he said, the first things he said, I ever heard him say in class. The class was on Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics. And that’s one of the greatest books ever written. And Professor Jaffa said the following. He said when men get old like me, and by the way, I am now older than he was then.

HH: At that time, wow.

LA: He said they start making a list of the hundred greatest books. And I believe that life is too short to read a hundred great books. So I have a list of the three greatest books. And what he said is a little mysterious. He said Aristotle’s Politics would have to be interpreted to be fully relevant to the modern day. So it seems he was excluding it. He said Plato’s Republic must be on any such list. The Bible is in a category of its own.

HH: Excluded.

LA: And then he said just the word Shakespeare. (laughing) Those are his loves, by the way, and they’re along with Thomas Aquinas. And then he said in this class, we’re going to read this book. And that was our start. And you know, the point of that, by the way, is the great books, if you can find one, have to be taken with extreme seriousness, read with great care. Another point, he said that Book One of the Ethics is a microcosm of the entire book. And I believe, by the way, that that opening speech is a microcosm of the thought of Harry Jaffa. And we proceeded to read that book so closely that we spent a month on the first paragraph.

HH: Wow.

LA: And in the whole semester, we never got out of Book One (laughing).

HH: Wow.

LA: And we even skipped some parts of Book One, because he said we don’t really have time to deal with them.

HH: Now I’ve got to ask, because in the John Miller profile of Dr. Jaffa, the House of Jaffa, he quotes William F. Buckley as saying if you think Harry Jaffa is hard to argue with, try agreeing with him. And so I’m curious what it’s like to have been a student in those conversations with him.

LA: Well, he, Professor Jaffa was, what was he, well, first of all, he’s, you know, a very great man. But there were two things about him you noticed as a student. He drove some students away, because he was absent-minded and didn’t always have a glorious lecture ready for class. In fact, generally, he did not. And he loved to bring letters that he’d written to people like William F. Buckley, and you know, everybody famous. And he loved it when he got a letter back, because then he could write him another one and point out why they were wrong.

HH: Yes.

LA: And he would read that out and talk about he’d kicked their tail and why they were wrong. And a lot of students were impatient with that. But the ones who studied with him understood that there was something going on there, and we may be too young and stupid to understand it, but we should listen. And all of this was relieved by another phenomenon, and that is Professor Jaffa had incredible command. He knew the story of political philosophy in great detail, and he could remember for fifty years books that he had read, and not read in the interim.

HH: And he was, I want to point this out, he was a thorough-going anti-communist.

LA: Oh, yeah, very much, yeah.

HH: And understood the evil of his day. I am curious on a day where we’re talking about a new evil, and part of the news today is that John Boehner said the NSA helped us foil this plot that would have killed more innocents. Did he have an opinion on the Islamist challenge?

LA: Oh, sure, and remember, Professor Jaffa’s a Jew, and a big supporter of the state of Israel. and Professor Jaffa is a supporter, profound, by the way, in my opinion, the greatest of our age, a supporter of the regime of civil and religious freedom, which I believe among people of our time he’s explained and justified better than anyone. And so these Islamic states, he doesn’t have anything against anybody’s religion unless they, the people practice despotism in its name. And that is common in Islam. And terrorism is common in Islam, and common is not the same thing as ubiquitous, but it’s common. And so he was a great critic of all that, and understood that, he, like Professor Jaffa, here’s the level on which he thought about things. The Jewish religion gives a law. And the law comes from God. And that means that there isn’t really any appeal beyond the rulers who are appointed. But the Jewish religion is not for everyone. It’s for the chosen people. And that turns out to be hard duty to be chosen by God. Life is difficult if that happens to you. The Christian religion does not give a law. And so it doesn’t dictate politics. And one of his turns, Professor Jaffa came to understand the profound importance of that and the goodness of that. And the Islamic religion as it’s read, and I’m not an expert on what it actually says, but as it’s read, gives a law, and the law is universal. And so the poor people of Iran, for example, what are they going to say if the mullahs say this has to be the law? And the answer is not much.

HH: Not much, or it’s going to be the last thing they say.

— – – – –

HH: I am curious, Dr. Arnn, in the show that airs on July 4th on this show, it’s three hours with Harry Jaffa talking about the Declaration of Independence. But I had my only argument with Dr. Jaffa, because I did not presume to argue with him. I brought up Abraham Lincoln’s proclamation appointing a day of national humiliation, fasting and prayer to make a point, and Dr. Jaffa dismissed it as not having been written by him.

LA: (laughing)

HH: Well, how do you argue with that?

LA: Well, there you go.

HH: There you go.

LA: (laughing) And you know, Professor Jaffa parsed those things out with great care, and was a supporter of them, of the kind of thing, and of those ones by Lincoln and Washington. But the point that he made is the language about God conforms to the regime of civil and religious freedom, because no one is to rule another in the name of his religious faith.

HH: Yup.

LA: And so when he does things like that to you, it’s an opportunity for learning.

HH: That…Well I have since learned a lot about that declaration. You’re absolutely right, and that was one of his famous, I just wasn’t going to argue with him on air in front of a million people, because I was going to lose.

LA: Well, he was, Professor Jaffa was very bossy, you know, and so I was running the Claremont Institute for a long time. And that was, you know, he had a lot to do with that institution, its founding, and it’s founded on ideas like his, his ideas, really. And so he would always order me about. And I fancy that I’m not easy to do that to. And I didn’t let him do it to me in some significant cases. And one time, I put the phone down on him, told him I said you’ve just told me that I have to do this thing. And he told me for about forty minutes. And when he stopped, finally, I said, I had him on the speaker phone, and I said have you finished. And he said yeah. And I said well, I will reply. I said you’ve just told me I have to do something, this thing, and I’m not going to do it. And no, and let me reply that I will not, and I put the phone down.

HH: Ooh.

LA: And he called me on the phone, and he said Larry, and you know, to talk with him, you could talk a long time, and it was always beneficial to do. And you know, I raced bicycles just to be around him. And I wasn’t any good at it. But he was a big bicycle rider.

HH: I didn’t know that. Okay.

LA: And I rode, you know, I might have ridden 20,000 miles on a bicycle partly because of him. Well, he said Larry, and said yes, Professor, and I’ve never called him anything but Professor. I’ve never called him Harry in my life, and I never will. And he said it’s the Queen calling.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And I said the Queen? And he said yes. And you’re the prime minister. You can do what you want, but you have to listen to the Queen. And I said what does the Queen have to say tonight? (laughing)

HH: And that’s, that’s actually perfect.

LA: Isn’t it, though? Yeah.

HH: Because, and I think of all the times that Churchill went to see the King, and how that relationship, people have to know the British Constitution to understand just how perfect that is. So Larry, back to, I want to make sure we cover this for people. When he came upon the Lincoln-Douglas debates, and he saw in it Plato’s Republic, he understood the importance for not just 1850s America and eventually the Civil War, but for us today.

LA: And see, Professor Jaffa thought that Douglas’ position divorce right from might. And it went for might alone. And that Lincoln restored the connection, and specifically, by the way, in political terms, he restored the connection between the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. And today, Professor Jaffa believed modern liberalism, a form of historicism, which means that everything changes in a process, and nature itself changes, the dominant fact is history and the events and unfolding of it, what happens in it. Marx is a form of that, but modern America and British modern liberalism are forms of that. And Jaffa believed that those doctrines also sever right from might, that in the end, once we understand this process of history, we should organize ourselves and get control of it and reshape everything however we want. And that’s sort of like Stephen Douglas, Jaffa thought. And so Jaffa was a great enemy of all of that, and a profound enemy, and powerful enemy of it all.

— – — –

HH: I want to make sure in our last segment here, Dr. Arnn, though, we make sure the audience understands what Jaffa did, which was to found a school of thought to change the Republican Party fundamentally, and to restore it as the party of Lincoln, and then to defend that turf and the Declaration of Independence against all comers, including those who thought the Declaration’s somehow apart from and not inspiration tied to the frame of the Constitution.

LA: Some of Professor Jaffa’s friends, and other branches of the conservative movement, have argued that the Constitution is the heart of the United States, and it has no principles outside itself. And so Jaffa read that as a claim that whatever is legal is right, as Lincoln did.

HH: Yup.

LA: And so he got into a fight with a lot of those guys. And one of them was his friend, whom he knew when Professor Jaffa was a junior professor at the University of Chicago, Walter Berns was student of Leo Strauss there, and they had been friends since roughly 1942. And Professor Jaffa went through a change. There are three. He turned to America in the 40s and 50s, and then two more came. And one was he began to read the American Revolution for himself, whereas he started studying America by studying Lincoln. And in Crisis of the House Divided, a very great book, he explains that Lincoln changed the American regime, and saved it from itself, because it had been built on self-interest too much. And Jaffa told me in an interview that you can watch if you want, I’ll send you a link to it, on a video, that he got that idea by other students of Strauss who had been studying early America, and he had not as much, who said that about him. And he believed that Lincoln had elevated and saved the American Union. And then he published Crisis of a House Divided in 1956, and then he started reading more and learning more. And he went into the American Revolution. And he couldn’t find that in it. And then he rethought Lincoln, and said you know, Lincoln never said that. In fact, Lincoln said the opposite all the time. And so he started writing differently about America than some of his friends, including Walter Berns. And when you disagree with Professor Jaffa about an intellectual matter, a principled matter, that’ s a better way to put the point, then you meet someone very fierce and uncompromising.

HH: Formidable.

LA: Oh, very formidable, and also, you know, the charge against him by very serious and good people is that he’s also unfair. And I happened to be there with him during that turn. I was a graduate student. And the summer of 1976, he wrote his first major departure in that, and I would go over and see him. It’s called how to think about the American Revolution. And I would go over and see him four or five days a week. And he would read me parts of this paper for the American Political Science Association that turned into a book. It was like 140 pages long when he took the paper to the APSA. And you know, a lot of the great conservatives were on the panel with him, including some that he was attacking. And I remember it was in San Francisco when there were 400 people there, and I was one of them. And I knew what was going to happen. And gosh, he was vigorous and strong. And that led him on a thing that eventually he had a long war with Walter Berns, and was never reconciled with him. And it should be said Walter Berns was tremendous human being. And if anybody wants to see his greatness, they should go to the American Spectator website and buy for three dollars, I went and got it today and found out how you get it, his 1983 testimony or speech on the UN Human Rights Commission to a bunch of Soviet client states about the meaning of human rights. It’s called How To Talk To The Communists: Call Them Fascists.

HH: (laughing)

LA: And it’s a tour de force. And Walter Berns died the same day Professor Jaffa did.

HH: Isn’t that remarkable?

LA: And he is much to be mourned.

HH: Isn’t that remarkable?

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: It’s like Jefferson and Adams, in many respects. The first thing I thought of is that can’t be. Anyone who knows this deep divide, this deep conversation, this long extended argument, would be amused if not inspired that they both took their leave of this planet on the same day.

LA: Oh, yeah.

HH: So that no one could get a last word in.

LA: And you know, they didn’t reconcile and I thought that was too bad. Some of the others, Professor Jaffa did reconcile with. I used to think, you know, these guys have been friends of yours for so long, so you shouldn’t have a personal breach with them.

HH: Let me ask with two minutes left, Dr. Arnn, what is the two minute summation of Harry Jaffa’s place in the American political theory pantheon, and why?

LA: He and his students, who are many, have turned the conservative movement back toward the true roots of the United States, and back toward the laws of nature and of nature’s God. And he is the father of all that, and it’s a massive and abiding achievement in both political thought and politics.

HH: And when he looks at the young men and women who have taken up governing, and I think of young Senator Cotton or young Mike Pompeo who was on with me earlier today, do you think he took comfort in the idea that there was another generation coming along that would be as attached to the Declaration as he had been?

LA: Professor Jaffa loved his students, all of them, and he corrected them with hard hand, sometimes. But he did, he was finally an academic man who loved to teach. And yeah, sure, of course, then, and he also wanted to rule more than he got to.

HH: Don’t we all?

LA: Yeah, sure. But he’s a great loss, Hugh.

HH: I’m so glad you could join and talk. Good luck tomorrow in giving a eulogy for your great friend and your teacher and your mentor, and everyone will be the better for it. Dr. Harry Jaffa, again, is going to live on in this show as long as there’s this show, because he’ll be on every 4th of July talking about the Declaration of Independence, because there is no better person to turn to in that regard. Dr. Larry Arnn on the Hillsdale Dialogue, thank you., and this and all the other Hillsdale Dialogues will be available at

End of interview.


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