In the other direction, away from the red crane and the television camera, the gala and the white tent, was the ranch house. It was on a slight rise in the ground and it was surrounded by trees. It looked a modest house. From this modest-looking house Nelson Bunker Hunt and his wife were now coming, preceded by a television crew and onlookers—perhaps more than gala guests, perhaps political associates, perhaps people admitted to social intimacy. The television team—cameraman, soundman, and reporter walking backward, like crabs—imposed measure and stateliness on the procession. And when the people at the gala saw what was happening there was an involuntary gasp, as at the appearance of a saint or royalty. And really, his family, his wealth, and his adventures made Nelson Bunker Hunt a figure of fable; there was no one else quite like him in our world. And here he was, in his own setting, for a cause he considered good and pious, half our host.
It was hard to hear what he was saying to the television reporter. He was speaking softly; he seemed to be chewing up some of his words; I could only catch the word “conservative” two or three times. He seemed to be expressing his pleasure at the spread of the cause.
In the “Self-Portrait” questionnaire he had answered for the Dallas Morning News that day he had given “overeating” as his worst habit (he adored ice cream, apparently); but he was a good deal less fat than the photographs the London papers had printed of him at the time of his silver “caper.” He had said that blue was his favorite color; and now indeed he was wearing a pale blue shirt, with a leather-thong tie, no thicker than a shoelace, but at the top button, instead of a knot, the leather thong somehow supported a silver dollar—a joking allusion, perhaps, to the silver caper. He was half smiling while he spoke. His wife, very small beside him, was smiling all the time; she seemed to be smiling out of pure pleasure at the occasion—the gala, the guests, the cause. She wore a diamond horseshoe brooch—just the one little touch of extravagance, almost like a little joke (matching her husband’s silver dollar), and it seemed, with her smile, to be an offering to us, her guests.
And so they moved on with their media train, past the Oklahoman Indian warriors in their bright feathers (Chief Blue Hail and his band), past the reproduction stagecoach and the tame longhorn: Mr. and Mrs. Bunker Hunt, benign and public-spirited in this manifestation, standing for money and luck and oil and the land and work and reward and God and the old-fashioned way, incarnating and appearing to make very simple the complex American virtue that the barbecue and gala were intended to exalt and defend.
The call came to dinner. Bells? Whipcracks? I cannot remember: the call was western, unusual, part of the folk theater of the expensive occasion. The enormous tent with nearly two thousand people was—incredibly—air-conditioned (with the help of five hundred tons of equipment specially brought in by Mobile Air of Houston, coolers of oil refineries). The 1700 or so dinners (“designed by Dallas food stylist Dorothy Berry”) were deftly served.
The benediction was spoken by Jerry Falwell, the fundamentalist Baptist preacher, the religious star of the right, who was to speak the benediction next day at the convention itself, after the introduction of Mrs. Reagan. Earlier in the evening Falwell had sat astride the Texas longhorn for the cameras. Now, with the lights playing on him on the platform in the tent, and with the TV cameras working, he, who had entered into the Americanist spirit of the gala, cast his own religious spirit over the occasion. He addressed God directly: “This evening is dedicated to Thee.” Texan whoops followed the “amens.” No sacrilege was intended by those whoops. These men, with true humility (the grand humility of the achiever, rather than the worthless humility of the defeated) were putting themselves on the side of God, and striking a blow at all that was ungodly, at all that threatened occasions like this one.
And virtue was its own reward. When Bunker Hunt was given a hand up to the platform it was to announce that the gala had attracted 1,650 paying guests, and not the four hundred or so he and NCPAC had been hoping for in the beginning. After clearing expenses, more than a million dollars had been raised from that tentful of people that evening for NCPAC’s American Heroes for Reagan project.
It was a staggering figure. A middle-aged photographer at our press table became very excited. He had no friend or colleague with him, and he needed to talk to someone. He said across the dark table, “I got a picture of Jerry Falwell on the longhorn. I never thought I would get a picture like that. Got a picture of Bunker too. Bunker was walking and he saw a fork on the grass. He bent down. He bent down and picked that fork up and put it in his pocket and he said, ‘That’s the way you save money.’ ”
A brush with the great, a story that was already a fable.
And it was in that atmosphere of success and communal self-congratulation that the NCPAC film “Ronald Reagan’s America” was screened. We at our press table saw it back to front. The screen had been put up in front of us, separating us from the million-dollar nobs.
The film opened with shots of John Wayne. It made him a great American figure, a figure of history almost, rather than a mere modern actor. The message was that all Americans who were positive and did jobs and served the land were like Wayne, were heroes. The subliminal message was that Wayne had been reincarnated in Mr. Reagan. The acting career that might have been an embarrassment in Mr. Reagan’s early political days now worked to his advantage. Americanism had become the conservative cause; and Americanism was most easily grasped, most ideal, and most sentimental (sentimentality being important to any cause of the right), in comic books (“The Justice Society of America”) and the lesser cinema.
Such wealth and power; such science and organization, so prodigally used even for the one-night theater of the Texas Gala. Such glitter, on the drive back to Dallas. But the greater the success and the greater the promise, the more painful the idea that it might all somehow go. And it was of this idea of threat—the other side of conservative sentimentality—that Ed Jenkins spoke the next morning in the NCPAC room at the Sheraton-Dallas Hotel.
Andrew and I went together. We spoke to Ed Jenkins because at that early hour he was the only senior person there. He was immediately warm, open, anxious to help. He left his literature-stacked counter and sat with us at a round table. He even, at my nervous request, turned down the sound of “Ronald Reagan’s America”—that film seemed to be running all the time near the front desk, perhaps to draw the crowds in.
Ed Jenkins was thirty-two. He worked full-time for the Conservative Alliance, one of the groups within NCPAC. The NCPAC chairman was also the National Director of the Conservative Alliance. The Conservative Alliance (CALL) had a project, the National Coalition for America’s Survival (NCAS), and this was running a Human Rights and National Survival Program (HRNSP). It was on HRNSP that Ed Jenkins was concentrating; and a press kit gave the “basic concept”: “The United States government must stop giving the Soviets and other Communist governments the technology, credit, money and security to violate human rights and commit other acts against God and mankind.”
Ed Jenkins said of CALL, “Our first aim is to stop communism. And turn it back. We feel it shouldn’t exist. We feel all the world should be as free as we are.” They were particularly concerned about the transfer of high technology to Russia.
And yet the movement had had simpler, even domestic, beginnings. “It was founded seven years ago. It used to be called ‘Conservatives Against Liberal Legislation.’ The name was changed this year. It was founded to fight the ramming-through of liberal legislation.” And by that Ed Jenkins meant busing, mainly. “The people of the United States did not want busing.” Busing brought misery to many families; Ed Jenkins had a sister who—though she had moved an hour-and-a-half’s drive away from the town where her husband worked—was still tormented by busing.
“There was this group in the country who were fleeing from their own government. Unknown to themselves, they were starting this movement. I know that I was going to private school at the time and I can remember the desperation of parents—they were trying to get away from something.”
I don’t think Andrew was a conservative. But as Ed Jenkins spoke about busing—so far from the subject of HRNSP and the Russians, and yet it was possible to see the logic of the political journey, especially to an idealist who might be unwilling to beat a racial drum or even acknowledge racial passions—as Ed Jenkins spoke, I saw that Andrew, for all his writer’s coolness, and even with his academic background, was sympathetic, and responding. Andrew, from New Jersey, understood perfectly what Ed Jenkins was talking about.
It was because of busing that people began sending their children to church schools, Ed Jenkins went on. It was because of busing that religious fundamentalism became respectable.
So here, sixteen years later, was unexpected confirmation of what Eldridge Cleaver had written in Soul on Ice: “A broad national consensus was developed over the civil rights struggle…. The task which the new right has feverishly undertaken is to erode and break up this consensus, something that is a distinct possibility since the precise issues and conditions which gave birth to the consensus no longer exist.”
Ed Jenkins said: “I should say that before this, fundamentalists were not political. The idea people had of them was that they were not an important force in this country. But you must also understand that the New Right is not just a fundamentalist movement. It’s all people. But the fundamentalist movement is a very important part of it. I’m not a fundamentalist, but I have a lot of respect for it.
“I belong to the Episcopalian Church myself. It’s one of the mainline churches in the United States, but I left it. I left it because when I went there I did not hear religion. I heard our priest rail against our government and the injustices of our society and Vietnam. He would tell us that the United States was an imperialist power and that our soldiers were killing women and children. At this point I had three brothers-in-law in Vietnam—two of them didn’t come back.
“The change was so dramatic, so subtle. I think that the liberalism that America embraced in the late Sixties and early Seventies created the power base of the right today.
“I left the church, as I told you, because my priest had decided that religion had to become a social movement. These mainline churches—like the Episcopalians—were actually becoming a part of the government. And to them if a fundamentalist church became involved with something political they were a bunch of nuts. But as long as it was a mainline church sending priests—on our money—down to Selma, Alabama, to be involved in violence, that was a social cause, and not a political cause.”
And now, without any prompting from Andrew or me, Ed Jenkins began to talk about his family history. It was part of his openness. It was also his response to our interest in him.
“My father was very conservative. He grew up in Akron, Ohio. He was the son of a very poor family. Irish and Welsh. On my mother’s side there is some German and Dutch. My father was probably the stereotypical American. He worked his way through high school, college. He usually had three jobs. He graduated in journalism because he couldn’t afford medical school. But he went back and he eventually became a doctor. When he was 27–28–29. He started with nothing. He died at the age of fifty-seven from overwork. But he had done the two things he had set out to do. Not just become a doctor, but the best doctor he could be. And, two, make sure his children would never have to go through what he had to go through. He would tell me stories, with his mother there, how when he was growing up they would have meat maybe once a week—and he was an only child. Because they were poor my father wasn’t—I wouldn’t say malnutritioned—but he didn’t get the vitamins, the food he needed, and because of that he was very frail and very small all his life.”
Ed Jenkins was not frail; but he had inherited something of his father’s small stature.
Andrew, who was partly Russian, asked: “Your grandfather?”
“He was a factory worker. When he could get work. My grandfather played on the first football team in America. He died very poor. Those people on the early teams made no money. My grandmother could remember being so ecstatic—it was very early on—because there was a championship game, and each member of the winning team was going to get five dollars.”
From one point of view, this was a story of deprivation in a land of plenty; in many countries it might have provoked anger. But from another point of view the story was of a rise: grandfather a factory worker, father a doctor. That was how Ed Jenkins looked on it. “It was instilled from birth that anybody could do anything in the world they wished, that if they had the desire and the will there was nothing to stop them. That was the beauty of America. I can remember other neighbors’ kids getting in trouble for different things and getting spanked. The worst thing anyone in our family could do was not doing our best, whether it was cutting the grass or studying at school.”
Andrew said, “You got spanked for that?”
I asked, “When did your father die?”
“In 1967, just before I turned sixteen. My father was opposed to what the government was doing. He felt our government was creating a welfare state, which he said is a mild way of saying ‘socialistic.’ On top of that he felt our government was backing down to the communists. He believed that the communists fully planned to take over the entire world. He was a Goldwater Republican until he went to the convention. I went with him. I was twelve.”
So Ed Jenkins was introduced at an early age not only to formal politics, but also—in the middle of his family’s success—to the idea of threat, instability (new horrors replacing the old), the idea of a world barely mastered being taken away again.
“I felt the government was destroying the fabric of America, destroying what made America great.”
But when was that good time, that secure period?
“People sometimes ask me who was the last great president. Some say Kennedy. I don’t think so. At the risk of appearing narrow-minded, I say Teddy Roosevelt. He was a fighter, he was stubborn. He was almost a salesman for America. America was the greatest country in the world and he was willing to go to any lengths to prove it. And he had the qualities I was brought up on—that you do the best you can, whatever it is—and the one thing you can say about Teddy is that when he took on a job he did it with a gusto, a love of life. He loved life. And he loved America.”
Ed Jenkins had gone to work for the Conservative Alliance for one year, and stayed for four. It was a financial sacrifice, but he considered it good and necessary. “Just as my father was worried about his children, I am worried about mine.”
Andrew, who was more impressed by Ed Jenkins than he thought he would be, said later, “That story of poverty and struggle is something many people of the right tell.”
Andrew was right. Early poverty was the theme of two of the convention speeches that evening. Senator Domenici told of his poor grocer father in New Mexico. Mr. Hill, a black Baptist pastor, told of sleeping in a pigpen in Dallas in 1947. It caused some heartburn that the pigpen speech wasn’t taken by the networks. It would have been politically very powerful.
During the convention one of the publications distributed was the Presidential Biblical Scoreboard. This purported to give (from various sources) the presidential and vice-presidential candidates’ attitudes to a variety of issues—abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, pedophilia, pornography, the nuclear freeze, prayers in schools. Just as all these issues were seen as “Biblical” issues, so they all appeared to be aspects of one big issue of right and wrong, requiring only a particular kind of faith.
Mr. Reagan didn’t come out too badly in the Scoreboard. Once, before he became president, he was asked by a reporter, “Governor, whom are you patterning your life after?” Mr. Reagan said, “Oh, that’s very easy. The man from—” After all the shots of John Wayne in “Ronald Reagan’s America,” and the emphasis on Mr. Reagan’s own film past, one might have expected Mr. Reagan to say, “The man from Laramie.” But what he said was, “The man from Galilee.” And, oddly, during the convention week, the two did not seem dissimilar. The pervading sentimentality—about old America, the old faith, the West (or the western), old films, old stars—had brought the two ideas together, and almost without blasphemy. Mr. Reagan, running together his three roles—actor, politician, old-fashioned Christian—had made himself into a formidable political personality. He answered many needs; many people of the many-featured right could read their fantasies in him. He was an actor: an actor could say very little, and still stand for a lot.
On Wednesday, at the convention center, after the pigpen speech (delivered in a hectoring, Baptist way), there was a film about Mrs. Reagan. She was shown unveiling a plaque to her surgeon father and appearing to sob. There was something about her acting career. Frank Sinatra sang the song about Nancy. Mr. Reagan said with emotion, “I don’t know what I’d do without her.” And in the end they walked off down a slope into a wood.
The lights went on and there was applause. We had a surprise. The film was not a substitute for Mrs. Reagan’s presence. Mrs. Reagan had been brought in during the screening of the film and was now on the podium, in white. We had a further surprise: on the big screen at the back there wasn’t a big picture of Mrs. Reagan, but a live view of Mr. Reagan in his room at Trammell Crow’s Anatole Hotel. Mrs. Reagan waved at the big screen. For a second or so Mr. Reagan seemed bemused, but then he started waving back. It was a great moment of family theater. And it was enough. It was what the delegates needed. All that was required of Mr. Reagan now was his presence. And that was what we got on the last day.
The political part of his speech repeated what had been said by others. The poetical part at the end, about the “springtime of hope,” was less a speech, less a matter of poetry and language, than a scenario for a short documentary about multiracial, many-landscaped America. So that at the climax of the great occasion, as at the center of so many of the speeches, there was nothing. It was as if, in summation, the sentimentality, about religion and Americanism, had betrayed only an intellectual vacancy; as if the computer language of the convention had revealed the imaginative poverty of these political lives. It was “as if”—in spite of the invocations and benedictions (the last benediction to be spoken by Dr. Criswell)—”as if inspiration had ceased, as if no vast hope, no religion, no song of joy, no wisdom, no analogy, existed any more.”
The words are by Emerson; they were written about England. English Traits, published in 1856, was about Emerson’s two visits to England, in 1833 and 1847, when he felt that English power, awesome and supreme as it still was, was on the turn, and that English intellectual life was being choked by the great consciousness of power and money and rightness. “They exert every variety of talent on a lower ground.” Emerson wrote, “and may be said to live and act in a submind.” Something like this I felt in the glitter of Dallas. Power was the theme of the convention, and this power seemed too easy—national power, personal power, the power of the New Right. Like Emerson in England, I seemed in the convention hall of Dallas “to walk on a marble floor, where nothing will grow.”