- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 29, 2000

Every so often, over the past two decades, the prestige press blinked in astonishment at the sight of young people, true believers and ambitious opportunists alike, who came to Washington embracing the various strains of conservatism. The New York Times and The Washington Post would send feature writers out on patrol to try and capture the rare fauna that was the young conservative.

To Nina J. Easton's great credit, in her "Gang of Five" she does not engage in a reprise of this journalistic clich. Instead, the veteran journalist makes a real effort to understand and describe "a hidden history in American politics, the other side of the baby-boom generation."

The author focuses on five "movement conservatives" who first gained notice in the 1980s and are still involved in highly visible political careers: civil rights attorney Clint Bolick, Weekly Standard publisher and editor William Kristol, U.S. representative and Indiana gubernatorial candidate David McIntosh, conservative strategist Grover Norquist and former Christian Coalition director Ralph Reed.

"To understand these five men is to understand the real conservative movement," the writer asserts, and she has a point. The five biographies combine to make a very readable social history of latter-day conservatism. The book reaches inside the D.C. Beltway and emerges with a nuanced look at a complex political movement at a time of often wrenching transition.

The author, whose own political sympathies, one suspects, do not resemble those of her subjects, strives for fairness and by and large succeeds. One gets the feeling that she finds Mr. Bolick, the idealistic attorney who eschews direct political action in favor of litigation meant to help disadvantaged minorities use the market to get out of poverty, the most congenial. At the same time, she seems to find Mr. Kristol and Mr. Norquist the most interesting one a Harvard-educated political philosopher turned government infighter and conservative talking head, and the other a Harvard-educated and self-described "market Leninist" who became in many ways a unifying cog for the current first lady's vast right-wing conspiracy.

At times, the author gets caught up in the often acrid but less-than-world-shattering controversies that helped form the early resumes of her subjects. She provides an intelligent summary of the thought embraced by followers of Leo Strauss, the late University of Chicago philosopher whose anti-modernism and promotion of virtue as the dominant political value became the guiding ethos for many young intellectuals of the right, including Mr. Kristol. She gives blow-by-blow descriptions of the college Republican fratricides in which both Mr. Norquist and Mr. Reed participated.

When all is said and done, both George Wallace and Richard Nixon, neither exemplars of the virtue of the ancients, had far more to do with the ascendancy of conservatism than did Leo the Unreadable. Also, most people who remember how student politics seems to bring out the subhuman on most campuses will be inclined to grant a blanket pardon to scarred veterans of the young conservative wars.

At the same time, it was correct to focus on the Gang's college experiences. The strain of holding heretical views on the viciously intolerant campuses of the 1970s and early '80s did mark young conservatives who headed to Washington and other power-friendly points after their college days were over. The slights and insults young conservatives suffered left them irony-deficient and with a highly sensitized receptivity to grievance.

The 1960s hung like a toxic cloud over their political formation; the decline of academic standards and campus civility, along with such other commodities as patriotism and nonutopianism, drove them to the right. At the same time, they managed in many ways to incorporate some of the worst traits of their rivals on the left arrogance and impatience chief among them into their own political makeup.

The writer correctly points out that her Gang represents the less well known "flip side" of the baby-boom generation, holding different political views from their political peers, while embracing similar personal styles and cultural assumptions. She could, in fact, have gone further. One of the unadvertised truths of today's political culture is how denizens of inside-the-Beltway across the ideological spectrum share the same economic, educational and cultural roots, and therefore although few admit it many of the same general assumptions about those vaguely unreal millions who go through their lives unsullied by economic advantage.

This led to the great wake-up call of the government shutdown of 1995, when many conservatives discovered that the ideological nostrums which sent campus leftists into satisfying frenzies had little appeal to normal Americans. And, unfortunately, once the Cold War was over, the only unifying principle among "movement conservatives" had been the idea that Americans shared their automatic hatred of government.

In a way, conservatives had fallen victim to the hubris that had affected their liberal counterparts a quarter-century earlier. Nina Easton ends her book on an appropriately uncertain note as her Gang of Five and the myriad others they represent grope toward a new and uncertain political culture.

Michael Rust is a writer for Insight.

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