An insider recalls how conservatism took root

UPSTREAM: THE ASCENDANCE OF AMERICAN CONSERVATISM

By Alfred S. Regnery

Threshold Editions, $36, 448 pages

REVIEWED BY JOSEPH C. GOULDEN

As publisher, activist and theorist, Alfred S. Regnery played an important insider’s role in the emergence of conservatism as the dominant political force in the last decades of the 20th century. Permit a minor confession. I spent far too many of my formative years sloshing around the mucky bogs of liberalism. Hence, I can appreciate the enormity of the uphill fight that Mr. Regnery and other early conservatives faced; any true liberal wrote them off as noisy cranks.

But now that I have scraped the leftist mud off my boots, it is fascinating to read the inside story of how conservatism ultimately succeeded. It is told in Mr. Regnery’s “Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism.”

“Upstream,” in essence, is a Baedeker guide to the men and ideas behind conservatism. The underlying theme for the movement was a strong belief in individual freedom and personal responsibility. The task was tough. As Mr. Regnery astutely notes in his opening pages, in the early 1950s “few people would admit to being conservatives at all, and those who did were thought to have lost their minds.”

The conventional wisdom, as preached by the media, academia and leftist foundations, was that liberalism, exemplified by central planning and big government, had conquered the Depression and won a war. Why, then, should not liberal social policies continue to be pursued?

Mr. Regnery painstakingly documents how conservatism achieved its goals of less government and more personal freedom. Its latent strength was intellectual firepower, through thinkers such as Friedrich A. Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, James Burnham and Russell Kirk, to name only a few.

Their ideas percolated out through journals such as the Freeman, Human Events and, most importantly, National Review, the creation of William F. Buckley, Jr. (Leftist critic Dwight Macdonald dismissed the latter as one of the “scrambled eggheads” for the “intellectually underprivileged.” Buckley, RIP, enjoyed the cackling last laugh).

Mr. Regnery’s father, Henry, became the de facto house publisher for the movement. After his death, the author ran Regnery Publishing, Inc., producing 22 New York Times bestsellers during his tenure. He now publishes the American Spectator.

Anti-communism was a driving force, and Whittaker Chambers’ “Witness” gave eloquent voice to the notion — disdained by much of the left — that the Soviets were bent on destroying the United States and achieving world domination. Indeed, anti-communism gave jump starts to the careers of both Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

In terms of nuts-and-bolts politics, once conservatism passed through the “idea stage” to seeking elective office, the most fascinating part of “Upstream” deals with fund-raising. Mr. Regnery credits Marvin Liebman, a New York public relations man (and, oddly, a one-time communist) with hitting on the notion of running “cause ads” in major papers (on subjects as admission of Communist China to the UN) and urging readers to send checks to finance future ads.

Over time, he accumulated hundreds of thousands of names on 3-by-5 index cards. A young Liebman acolyte, Richard Viguerie — he first did fund-raising for a Liebman client,Young Americans for Freedom, and eventually ran the group — in due course created his own massive direct-mail operation. What happened thereafter is significant:

Until the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, Mr. Regnery writes, “most money for Republican presidential candidates had come from wealthy contributors and large corporations, usually in large checks.” Realizing early-on that “the big Republican money would not be available to him,” Goldwater resorted to direct mail. More than 500,000 persons sent him checks, and “campaign financing had changed forever.”

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