- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 8, 2006



By Jeffrey Hart

ISI , $28, 394 pages


Unlike Dean Acheson, Jeffrey Hart was not “present” at this “creation.” But he came close. Of course the fellow who was both the reason for and present at the founding of National Review could tell this story himself. And perhaps one day William F. Buckley will do just that. But until then Mr. Hart’s version will more than suffice, for this is a very lively history of a still lively institution that continues to teach conservatives “how to think.”

An outsider and an insider, a man of learning and a confessed gossip, Jeffrey Hart, emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth College, brings to his task a unique perspective, not to mention an arsenal of intellectual fire power and a wealth of wonderful stories. And the gossip? Here Mr. Hart manages to confine his juiciest tidbits to in-house intellectual joustings among NR editors.

In that regard, the book is mistitled. This is less a story of the “making of the American conservative mind” than it is the telling of various stories of conservative intellectuals who have had to make up their minds about every president from Ike to GWB and every issue from Hungary and Suez in 1956 to Kosovo and Iraq a half century later.

The National Review has been home to a great variety of conservatives, including some who have changed their minds. Among them are libertarians and traditionalists, pro-McCarthyites and anti-McCarthyites, religious and secular conservatives, free market and big government conservatives, populist and establishment conservatives (not to mention the marginalized paleocons and the dreaded neocons).

Just as there has been more than one conservative mind, so there is more than one conservative disposition. Initially, Mr. Buckley had to decide whether NR was out to destroy or displace the eastern establishment. In time, the young Bill Buckley standing “athwart history yelling stop” gave way to a middle-aged Bill Buckley, who was quite at home within the establishment that was a Reagan presidency that made more history than it stopped, even if it didn’t always please some conservatives.

And then there were a few young conservatives, whose political odysseys were anything but Buckley-like. One was Garry Wills, who willingly left NR for the left.

Another was Joe Sobran, who continues to be a conservative voice, but who was asked to leave NR because he “stood in an unacceptable relation to anti-Semitism, if not actually shown to be anti-Semitic.”Having waffled here, Hart unwaffles long enough to declare that, even though the post-NR Joe Sobran has “effectively become a part of the American pacifist movement,” his departure was a “tremendous loss” to the magazine.

And then there is Jeffrey Hart himself. When Mr. Hart is not giving us snippets of the best of NR he is giving us his best take on the give-and-take within NR, as well as his version of recent American history. (So maybe the book might have been titled “the making up of a certain American conservative’s mind.”)

If Mr. Hart has a favorite among the NR inner circle, it would be either the “indispensable” James Burnham or the mercurial Willmoore Kendall. In the early years no one provided a more steadying influence than Burnham, the ex-Trotskyite turned Cold Warrior, who wanted the magazine to be “less conspicuously right wing,” albeit conspicuously conservative. Mr. Hart’s affection for Burnham notwithstanding, he concludes that NR “would not likely have succeeded” had Burnham fully gotten his way.

When it came to the need for steadying, no one was needier (and less aware of this need), than the brilliant Kendall, whose personal behavior could be as reckless as his public philosophy was wise. It was Kendall’s chief insight that American politics tended to be about liberalism, because America’s “basic inertia” is conservative. That very inertia is much appreciated by Burkeans Kendall and Mr. Hart, even as it is disdained by liberals and their “distinctive dislike for the American way of life.”

It is probably no accident that atop Mr. Hart’s very short list of favored NR-era presidents is an individual with a distinct liking for his country. It’s Reagan by a landslide with Ike a distant second. A man of principle, Reagan also wins Mr. Hart’s vote because of what he wasn’t. The left’s myopic misjudgments notwithstanding, Mr. Hart’s Reagan was a conservative, but not an ideologue.

Running through this book is Mr. Hart’s running commentary on the dangers of ideologically driven thinking. The ongoing struggle within the conservative movement generally and NR in particular has always been a struggle between “Idea” and “Actuality.” In Mr. Hart’s view whenever ideas are “divorced from Actuality, the result is fanaticism.” That’s “is” and not “can be.”

This stance leads Mr. Hart to a surprising conclusion about the presidency of Bill Clinton. Paying Mr. Clinton the ultimate in left-handed compliments, Mr. Hart concludes that only an unprincipled non-ideologue could set about “de-McGovernizing” his party. Had Mr. Clinton been a man of principle he “would have been incapable of betraying the very Democrats he was supposed to represent.” The Clinton presidency, in sum, was “better than it looked,” if only because Mr.Clinton’s “worst qualities enabled him to accomplish something good.”

Bush I draws Mr. Hart’s faint praise for being a better man than he was a president.

And Bush II leads Mr. Hart to wonder about the president’s conservatism just as past NR conservatives wondered the same thing about Eisenhower. Despite NR’s refusal to endorse Ike in 1956, Mr. Hart deems Eisenhower to have been both a conservative and deserving of a second term.

Fast forward to 2004 and NR’s endorsement of GWB (albeit “not without reservations”).

And Jeffrey Hart? Worried that GWB is what Reagan wasn’t, namely a man of principle and an ideologue, Mr. Hart labels Bush II a “transformative president,” even if he isn’t completely sure what the party is transforming into or whether Bush’s victories have been conservative victories.

Until this is all sorted out, this conservative can only fret about an “evangelical conservative” whose “hard Wilsonian” foreign policy has been “ramped up with religious fervor.” Jeffrey Hart may have steered clear of pacifism and the paleocons, but he is clearly uncomfortable with what passes for conservatism in this Bush White House.

Mr. Hart is also at odds with fellow conservatives on the subject of abortion. He dismisses as utopian any notion that a total ban on abortion is going to happen—or should happen. On his Idea vs. Actuality scale, the right-to-lifers are the dangerous ideologues. Why unlimited pro-choicers are given a pass here is both troubling and mystifying. After all, aren’t they utopians of sorts as well?

That quibble/question aside, Mr. Hart has given us a marvelous history of a magazine that continues to teach conservatives how to think about the threat that “hard” and “soft” utopianism presents to the future of constitutional government and free institutions. And as Mr. Hart himself can testify, such an emphasis can only guarantee that conservatives will think the same way and treasure the same things, not that they will always come to the same conclusion.

John C. Chalberg teaches American history at a Minnesota community college and can be reached at www.historyonstage.com

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