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Choices and echoes

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 17, 2007

At the office, I had a bit of fun with "Landmark Speeches of the American Conservative Movement." I held up the back of the book, told colleagues what it was about and asked them to guess the subjects of the three portraits on the front. Most everyone guessed Ronald Reagan and Barry Goldwater. Nobody got Barbara Bush.

Mrs. Bush's picture, with her white hair, white coat and three strings of pearls, is striking. But the choice to include her 1990 commencement address at Wellesley was an odd one, even according to the criteria laid down by editors Peter Schweizer and Wynton C. Hall.

They write that, to be included, a speech must first have " 'marked' the conservative 'landscape' in some discernible way." Second, it should espouse "conservative principles broadly defined." Third, it should exhibit "rhetorical artistry and style."

The speech satisfies one of those requirements, tops. It is included here to needle liberals. The decision to invite Mrs. Bush was controversial at the time, because a quarter of the graduating class signed a petition objecting because she was a homemaker.

If Mrs. Bush had thoroughly scandalized the audience with a speech that tore into their presuppositions — "In Defense of Housewives," say — then it would have been worth including among landmark conservative speeches. (William F. Buckley Jr.'s 1950 Yale speech "Today We Are Educated Men," in which the young, brash right-winger radiates refined contempt for the trendy radicalism of his alma mater, makes a perfect fit here.)

Instead, the first lady won the audience over by passing along a story first told by Robert "All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" Fulghum about a little girl who insists she's a mermaid.

The editors made a few other surprising choices in pulling this collection together. Phyllis Schlafly is most famous, one, for killing the Equal Rights Amendment dead and, two, for helping Barry Goldwater secure the Republican Party's presidential nomination. The editors' introduction highlights both of these accomplishments, but the speech they chose is a scathing attack on liberalism in public school curricula.

The editors do a pretty good job of showing readers what conservatism was. The opening shot is Whittaker Chambers' famous 1948 testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities, in which he explained his break from the Communist Party and named the State Department's Alger Hiss as a spy. Other landmarks include:

n Civil rights. There is Senate Minority Leader Everett Dirksen's speech calling for cloture to pass the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and Republican Party presidential nominee Goldwater's acceptance speech that same year, in which he warned that equality, "wrongly understood... leads first to conformity and then to despotism."

n The rise of Ronald Reagan. Three of the 13 speeches are by the actor cum activist cum governor cum president, starting with his audacious "A Time for Choosing" speech endorsing Mr. Goldwater's presidential campaign. The reader is forced to give Mr. Reagan and Mr. Goldwater this much: They foresaw the day when communism would crumble.

n The creation of social conservatism. Starting with stateswoman and playwright Clare Boothe Luce's 1978 speech "Is the New Morality Destroying America?" we see how what we know as social or religious conservatism was a reaction against the trends in law and culture that came to fruition in the Me Decade (or, as Luce might have called it, the "I-I-I, Me-Me-Me" decade).

After the Iron Curtain comes down, the book struggles for decent material. The editors include former House Speaker Newt Gingrich's sprawling train wreck of an opening address to the 104th Congress, because, they explain, "much of Gingrich's vision remains central to today's Republican Party. Indeed, Gingrich's call for an opportunity society seemed to presage President George W. Bush's call for 'compassionate conservatism.' "

Which brings us to the book's weakest point, the future of conservatism. The penultimate speech was delivered by President Bush in response to September 11. The address, the editors marvel, was thought so important that "an exhibition professional hockey game had to be stopped when fans demanded that the arena play Bush's address on the video screens overhead." It was a great moment, sure, but it wasn't a great speech.

Jeremy Lott is the Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of "In Defense of Hypocrisy."