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Saving My Soul at the Plaza

To my surprise, “The Committee for the Free World, Midge Decter Executive Secretary,” invited me to attend its conference on “Our Country and Our Culture,” February 12-13, at the Plaza Hotel in New York. Admission, $50. I confess that whenever I see a piece of print reading “The Committee for the Free World, Midge Decter Executive Secretary,” I laugh. I’m reminded of a young reporter, who was granted an interview in the Oval Office with President Lyndon Johnson, and so exasperated Johnson by his bumbling questions that the great man, rising to his full 6 feet 3 1/2 inches, sputtered in indignation: “How can you ask a chicken-shit question like that of the Head of the Free World?”

For all the contemptuousness and rigidity of the views I first observed years ago at a Dalton School PTA meeting, Midge Decter’s easy laughter still persuades me that in this “neoconservative” there is a cynic waiting to be let out. Although she surprised me by going public to excoriate homosexuality, liberated women, and protestant clergymen foolish enough to worry over Lebanese children without a roof over their heads, I confess to affection for Midge. I cannot resist her smile of worldly experience. When I called her to accept the invitation, admitting that I was surprised to be asked, she cheerfully said: “It’s not too late to save your soul.”

The Committee for the Free World is not exactly a committee, though I am sure it is run like one by the local presidium, drawn largely from Commentary‘s staff and writers, whose struggle against international communism earned the Committee a grant (in 1981) of $100,000 in Mellon money from the Carthage Foundation in Pittsburgh. The Committee is the latest and most aggressive of those bodies of former leftist intellectuals, in the tradition of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, which, concentrating on the danger of communism abroad and at home, still consider themselves an avant-garde of sorts. Unlike the American Committee for Cultural Freedom, however, which fell apart in dissension over McCarthyism because many members still considered themselves liberals, radicals, democratic socialists, and would not wish to become fellow travelers of Senator Taft, James Burnham, William F. Buckley, Jr., and tutti quanti, the Committee for the Free World is a straightforward rightist organization—for former liberals and former leftists.

This avant-garde has personal and political ties with the Reagan administration, can always be depended upon to support Begin and to ignore much of what goes on in South Africa. It is part of that astonishingly wide “conservative” network in America represented by Social Democrats USA, Freedom House, the current United States delegation to the United Nations, the magazines Commentary, The National Review, The American Spectator, The New Criterion, Mainstream, The American Scholar, and The Public Interest, the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution, and Peace, Georgetown University’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, the evangelists behind the Moral Majority, the defense contractors behind the American Security Council, libertarians opposed to gun control, the groups in favor of capital punishment and opposed to abortion, the “Right to Work” lobby—and, of course, Senator Jesse Helms’s Congressional Club. This last was described by The Wall Street Journal as “a unique political conglomerate, the best-known and possibly the largest political fundraiser on the national scale”; it has such offshoots as the American Family Institute, the Institute on Money and Inflation, the Institution on Religion and Democracy.

We live in a time of many reversals; it is undoubtedly true, as Henry Steele Commager suggested long before Reagan became president, that if the Bill of Rights were submitted to Congress today it would not pass. The twentieth century may yet be remembered for uniting, right to left, in hatred of the Enlightenment. As always, political intellectuals and cultural bureaucrats think they are moving history when they are only changing “positions.” You are old, you ex-hopefuls, and your hair has become very white; and yet you incessantly stand on your head—Do you think, at your age, it is right? Still, the “conservative consensus” that so excited William Safire and Norman Podhoretz at Reagan’s election, though its vision of America resembles that of a defense contractor, seems more powerful than it really is partly because of the idiocy of the extreme left, the general disenchantment with radicalism, the weakness of the labor movement.

Some far-right foundations oiled with Texas money will not support organizations in which Jews are prominent, no matter how “anticommunist” they are. Good relations between conservatives and the Reagan administration are not always predictable, in any event. A recent Heritage Foundation report attacking affirmative action was mostly written by government employees. Helping to found the Committee on the Present Danger, a former incarnation of the Committee for the Free World, did not save Eugene V. Rostow from being fired as head of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency. Norman Podhoretz, who evidently believed that Commentary had provided the intellectual momentum for Reagan’s victory in 1980, was not made head of the International Communications Agency, a post he had reportedly been given reason to expect.

Still, “neoconservativism” itself is so successful an employment agency for right thinkers that one becomes quickly accustomed to the news that Commentary‘s contributors are associated with the Georgetown Center for Strategic and International Studies, the Hoover Institution, the American Enterprise Institute, etc., etc. And it was no surprise that Dr. William Bennett, director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, was scheduled as the guest speaker for the Committee’s lunch, although the snowstorm that weekend prevented his appearance. Dr. Bennett, a Harvard Law School graduate who prefers academic administration to the law, was assistant to President John Silber of Boston University and assistant director to the late Charles Frankel at the National Humanities Center. Despite his association with such an old-fashioned liberal as Frankel, Dr. Bennett is undoubtedly a genuine conservative and not a convert. But he has appointed to the Advisory Board of the NEH a genuine neoconservative, Professor Gertrude Himmelfarb. One of the favorite theses of this distinguished specialist in nineteenth-century England, so comforting to those who have recently made it in the US, is that poverty, even in Victorian England (and despite the wealth of its documentation), was the delusion of upper-class types who were getting sensitive.

Before Dr. Bennett was finally named to head the endowment, Reagan nominated a Texas university expert on William Faulkner whose decisive contribution to our period was the disclosure that Abraham Lincoln had violated due process when he drew up the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free slaves still in Confederate hands. We must be grateful to Irving Kristol for helping to stop that particular appointment, which would have made for some strange political bedfellows indeed. But how far Irving kristol, the “godfather” of the neoconservatives, as he was acclaimed at the Plaza conference, has traveled from the streets of Williamsburg, a Trotskyist alcove at City College, and a job on Commentary (when its editors and contributors still could contradict one another) that he should know well enough the views of a Confederate zealot to relieve the administration of embarrassment.

Kristol, until very recently Henry Luce Professor of Urban Values at New York University, now the university’s professor of social theory in the economics department, is also the editor of The Public Interest, an adviser to conservative congressmen, a recent guest at the White House, and a board member of several American corporations. Unlike novelists, poets, and ordinary scholars, whose work does not easily lend itself to support by an ideological pressure group, the intellectuals who depend on the cold war for their careers find not only safety in numbers but the assurance of worldly progress. The solidarity they display on every question of opinion! The last time I wrote for Commentary an assistant keeper of the flame struggled for an hour on the long-distance line to Notre Dame, where I was then teaching, to persuade me to take out a derisive description of Richard Nixon.

The blizzard made it impossible for me to get to the Plaza in time to hear the main “presentation on Politics and the Arts” by Hilton Kramer. Kramer was also absent, but in the discussion period the meeting heard from Joseph Epstein, the editor of The American Scholar, the organ of the Phi Beta Kappa associations and a journal never known for any political position, until Epstein started publishing views resembling those of Kramer, his old colleague on the New Leader, once the official organ of the American Socialist Party. Indeed, Epstein’s observations at the conference, summarized by The New York Times of February 14, might have been written by Kramer himself:

Something odd has happened to American literary culture in recent years. Suddenly American literature, contemporary American literature, seems rather lackluster, a bit beside the point, less than first rate, even though American political power is still great. Why?

To think the worst of our society—against a superabundance of evidence to the contrary—gives the self-dramatizing American literary imagination a background against which to dramatize itself. And the contemporary literary scene is rife with writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a fairly crude sort of anti-Americanism.

This formula—“writers whose chief stock in the trade of ideas is a fairly crude sort of anti-Americanism”—led, I was told, to discussion of strategy at the Plaza. How are right-thinking people to turn the American novel around? Of course, to raise the question suggests Zhdanovism, agitprop, or what soviet literary orthodoxy constantly demands of the “shock troops of literature”: “Bring our literature into line with Soviet progress!” But there were no novelists, poets, critics, or philosophers at the conference to provide the media communicators present with elementary distinctions between the realms of art and “American political power.” Being at the Plaza, Scott Fitzgerald’s favorite oasis in his favorite city, I remembered an observation in his notebooks. “Art inevitably grows out of a period when, in general, the artist admires his own nation and wants to win its approval. This fact is not altered by the circumstance that his work may take the form of satire….” Satire was a closed subject to the Plaza patriots so aggrieved by what only intellectual thugs used to denounce as “anti-Americanism.” When I mentioned the Plaza scene in The Great Gatsby to one middle-aged “discussant,” he looked at me suspiciously and said, “What’s a Gatsby?”

As art critic of the Times Hilton Kramer was a heavy stylist who seemed to be keeping his opinions under tight restraint, while outside the Times’s art columns he became more interesting as he became politically more shrill, deploring, for example, the sinister connection between homosexuality and radicalism. He made a point of this in reviewing Martin Green’s Children of the Sun. Evidently a new outlet was needed, The New Criterion, and for this Kramer and his publisher managed to obtain half a million dollars (in all) from the John M. Olin Foundation, the Smith Richardson Foundation, the Scaife Family Charitable Trust, and the Carthage Foundation (also mainly supported by Richard Mellon Scaife).

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