• Email
  • Print

Conservatives: The Tanenhaus Taxonomy

Much of Sam Tanenhaus’s book is given over to the rating of recent presidents. We are told, for instance: “Of the last six Republican presidents, three (Nixon, Reagan, and George W. Bush) had strong ties to movement conservatism, while three (Eisenhower, Ford, George H.W. Bush) did not.” He counts the last three superior to the first three. That was not the popular judgment of those men. After all, Nixon and Reagan were reelected, while Ford and Bush I were not. Furthermore, in the latest survey of historians ranking the presidents, Reagan is rated tenth while Bush I one is eighteenth, and Ford is twenty-second.1 Clearly Tanenhaus is using his own measure of good and bad presidents, different from either electoral success or historical reputation. What is it? He notes that the first three, in line with “movement conservatism,” broke the law (Watergate, Iran-contra, Geneva Conventions), while the latter three “respected the established boundaries of constitutional precedent.”

This is a matter of more than sheer law-abidingness with him. He sees two types of what is called conservatism at work. “Movement conservatism” is revanchist—issuing, for example, an “urgent call ‘to take back the culture’”—and revolutionary (or counterrevolutionary), in wanting untrammeled executive power when its candidates are in office. It prizes ideological purity above accommodation, even when that means fighting the government from within the government. This movement is mislabeled conservative. It does not preserve the given order, changing it to make it work better. That is the work of “true conservatives” like Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli, who actually conserve instead of overthrowing.

As his exemplars of modern Burkeans, Tanenhaus comes up with another unusual ranking, pairing Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton: “They are the modern era’s two true conservative presidents—and the two best.” Why? “Both Eisenhower and Clinton struggled to neutralize [conservative] movement forces in Congress. Both succeeded.”

It is clear that Tanenhaus has an original way with history. He can write, for instance: “Nixon’s gifts were prodigious. No modern president surpassed him in sheer ability.” He was, in fact, “one of the most accomplished vote-getters in history.” Though Nixon came into office as a movement conservative, he too turned Burkean as president—not only by his foreign policy (détente, the opening to China), but by his administration’s domestic poverty and family programs inspired by Disraeli’s disciple, Daniel Patrick Moynihan. It was only when Nixon’s private demons brought him down that movement conservatives wrenched from him his achievements:

Watergate secured the ascendancy of movement revanchism. In the twenty-year period from 1968 to 1988, the Republicans captured four of the five presidential elections.

Did revanchism in fact ride triumphant after Watergate? Not really, since Tanenhaus discovers an inner Burke even in Reagan, another man brought in by movement conservatism only to betray it in the eyes of purists on the right. Reagan raised taxes, did not reduce the size of government, engaged in arms control talks (“friendly tête-à-têtes with Mikhail Gorbachev”), and conducted a flexible ending to the cold war. But Reagan remained revanchist in ways Tanenhaus conveniently ignores—for instance in his Justice Department under Edwin Meese, which invented and used the concept of the unitary executive, the founding doctrine of the Federalist Society.

It seems that revanchists vs. Burkeans is a rather messier schema than Tanenhaus first made it seem. He further complicates it by imposing a different polarity on it—Samuel Lubell’s theory that we do not have a two-party competitive system but a “solar system” in which one party (the sun) dominates for a period, while the other party (the moon) is constantly subordinate. Tanenhaus says that the Democrats were the sun until the welfare-warfare state, dictated from above (LBJ’s Great Society), lost the middle class in 1968. Then the Republicans became the sun (despite the Carter and Clinton interludes) until 2008, when the cold-war-type Manichaeanism and religious fundamentalism of the Bush years let the Democrats become the new sun. This is the “death of conservatism” of the title (though, confusingly, he does not think movement Republicans real conservatives).

Tanenhaus is a deep student of modern conservatives. He wrote a biography of Whittaker Chambers, a self-professed Beaconsfieldian (Disraeli was the Earl of Beaconsfield), and he has been working for some time on a biography of William F. Buckley Jr. This short book is a kind of bridge between his two great projects, and it fits his revanchist–Burkean paradigm. Chambers and Buckley, though friends, began at opposite ends of the “conservative” spectrum. Buckley, who admired Chambers’s witness against communism, tried with all his lures and charms to recruit him as an editor of National Review when it began in 1955. But Chambers thought Senator Joseph McCarthy, whom the magazine championed, would doom Republicans. Besides, he was loyal to his ally in the Hiss case, Richard Nixon, and to Nixon’s meal ticket Dwight Eisenhower, while the magazine opposed them both as impure compromisers. (In 1956, only one National Review editor, James Burnham, endorsed Eisenhower for reelection.)

But Buckley finally wore Chambers down—in 1957, with great misgivings, Chambers joined the magazine. Murray Kempton wrote that Chambers finally went to work for a boss he could respect—which was not saying too much, since “Chambers’s former employers happened to be Colonel Bykov of the Soviet Secret Police, the late Henry Luce, and John F.X. McGohey, ‘then United States Attorney’ for the Southern District of New York.”2 Chambers soon had to withdraw from the magazine for health reasons, but he and Buckley stayed in constant communication, Chambers advising, Buckley deferential. Tanenhaus makes the case that Chambers finally converted Buckley from a revanchist to a Burkean. Kempton, who studied both men closely, doubts that Chambers’s advice ever really took: “Buckley worshiped and did not listen: the Chambers of his vision is a saint whose icon stands in a Church where his message is never read.”3

Tanenhaus traces an inverse symmetry in the progression of Irving Kristol from Burkean to revanchist, and the development of Buckley in the opposite direction.4 Certainly as late as 1962 Buckley was as extreme as any of those people Tanenhaus condemns as movement conservatives. In that year, Buckley wrote a column saying that if defeating communism entailed nuclear annihilation, the achievement would be worth the price: “If it is right that a single man be prepared to die for a just cause, it is right that an entire civilization be prepared to die for a just cause.”5 But Tanenhaus thinks that Buckley began to be more realistic during his theatrical campaign for mayor of New York in 1965, after which his views converged more and more with those of Chambers. In an interview with Buckley in 2007, Tanenhaus found him dubious about the “conservatism” of the Bush era—for instance, he was highly critical of the Iraq war.6

It is true that Buckley worked for a long time to keep National Review free of the most extreme voices on the right—the anti-Semitism of the Liberty Lobby, the Objectivism of Ayn Rand, the nuttiness of the John Birchers, the racism of George Wallace. If the magazine still voiced hard-right opinions, Tanenhaus justifies this as a Burkean effort to hold conservatives together. Buckley took that view himself. When I wrote him in 1970 that the magazine was strident and careless of the truth, he wrote back: “You are right about Jeff [Jeffrey Hart]…. I am grateful to you for pointing out that NR seems now and again to be teetering over the brink.” Yet it is hard to believe in Buckley the Burkean when the very policies of Nixon and Reagan that Tanenhaus praises for that quality—détente and the China opening under Nixon, arms talks under Reagan—Buckley repudiated, well after the late-Sixties conversion to Chambers’s views that Tanenhaus has charted.

For full disclosure, I should add here that Tanenhaus says some nice things about me in this book, principally because when I was twenty-six years old I wrote an essay that Buckley included in an anthology of conservative writings.7 Tanenhaus predictably finds my effort Burkean, which may be just, though I draw mainly on Saint Augustine and John Henry Newman. I never saw the essay have any influence on Buckley, in part because he knew little of Augustine or Newman—which is a shame. What I quote from Newman is his series of antiwar public letters during the Crimean conflict. He said that the British constitution is good for muddling along, as it should be, since—here is the Burkean note—what is to be conserved is “a certain assemblage of beliefs, convictions, rules, usages, traditions, proverbs, and principles.”8

But muddling along is not enough in war—as was proved in the Crimean War by the Balaclava “Charge of the Light Brigade,” or in Vietnam by My Lai, or in Iraq by Fallujah. War is at odds with constitutional government, Newman said, because “a despotic government is the best for war, and a popular government the best for peace.”9 Buckley stuck by the Vietnam War to the bitter end, and though he did at last see the folly of Iraq, he did not need Burke’s help to do that—most Americans discovered it on their own.

Tanenhaus has studied Buckley very closely, and he must know more about him than I do, so perhaps his biography will validate the judgments just sketchily indicated in this brief book. Meanwhile we have his very original take on the last few decades of American politics, prickly, revisionist, and provocative. He makes us look at everything through a different lens. And whatever Buckley’s final views, Tanenhaus makes a scathing and convincing case against what George W. Bush tried to present as a legitimate conservatism:

And then there was Iraq, the event that shaped Bush’s presidency and, by most accounts, brought both him and the movement to ruin….The Iraq war was the event most at odds with classical conservative thinking. So indifferent to the actual requirements of civil society at home, Bush’s war planners gave no serious thought to how difficult it might be to create such a society in a distant land with a vastly different history. Those within the administration who tried to make this case were marginalized or removed from power.

At least there was no whiff of Burke in that.

  1. 1

    C-Span survey of sixty-five presidential scholars, February 2009.

  2. 2

    Murray Kempton, “A Narodnik from Lynbrook,” in Rebellions, Perversities, and Main Events (Times Books, 1994), p. 86. McGohey directed the prosecution of Alger Hiss.

  3. 3

    Kempton, Rebellions, p. 98.

  4. 4

    For Kristol, he writes, “Parties are accountable to movement purists, while purists incur no reciprocal obligation to the party, despite its institutional authority.”

  5. 5

    William F. Buckley, Jr., “On Dead-Red,” syndicated column of November 10, 1962.

  6. 6

    Sam Tanenhaus, “How William F. Buckley Turned Against the War— and His Own Movement,” TheNew Republic, March 19, 2007.

  7. 7

    Garry Wills, “The Convenient State,” in Did You Ever See a Dream Walking?: American Conservative Thought in the Twentieth Century, edited by William F. Buckley Jr. (Bobbs-Merrill, 1970).

  8. 8

    John Henry Newman, “Who’s to Blame?” (1855), in Discussions and Arguments on Various Subjects (Longmans, Green, 1891), p. 315.

  9. 9

    Newman, “Who’s To Blame?,” p. 326.

  • Email
  • Print