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.”
Mr. Regnery summarizes the significance: “Control of the nominating process had suddenly shifted to the grassroots, which meant to the people, the conservatives. No other factor was as important in purging the liberal Eastern Republican Establishment from the Republican Party than direct-mail fund raising. From 1964 on, the little people, which meant the conservatives, would have their say in the nominating process, in the way the Republican National Committee was run, and ultimately in who would control the party.”
To be sure, there were disappointments. By 1971, Richard Nixon had so infuriated the movement that a manifesto organized by National Review and Human Events threatened to withhold support from his re-election campaign, chiefly because of foreign policy issues.
Nixon’s man Pat Buchanan mused to Mr. Regnery that Nixon’s tenure “brought reaffirmation, rather than repudiation” of LBJ’s Great Society. Mr. Buchanan said, “Johnson laid the foundation of the first floor, and we built the skyscraper.” Theelder Bush also caused heartburn.
Nonetheless, a few years later conservatives could revel in the election of Ronald Reagan — a president guided by ideals, not by polls. As former attorney general Edwin Meese told Mr. Regnery, “The first thing he said to the cabinet … was, ‘I want the decisions to be made on the basis of what is right, and not on what is politically advantageous.’”
The book contains several irksome glitches. John Birch, namesake of the rightist society, was not “an American missionary” when killed by Chinese Communists in 1945, but an OSS officer. The claim that KGB files supported Alger Hiss’ claim of innocence was not made by Soviet President Boris Yeltsin, but by a Red Army general, Dimitri Volgonov, acting on behalf of die-hard Hissites. Informed that Hiss spied for the military GRU, rather than the KGB, the red-faced general quickly retracted his claim.
Oilman H. L. Hunt’s mansion, patterned after Mount Vernon, is not “situated on hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of acres of Texas grassland.” It is inside the Dallas city limits, on acreage measurable in the low two-digits. (As a young reporter for the Dallas News, I rented a shack on an adjacent property, and I enjoyed chats with the reclusive billionaire over our shared fence.)
But let us not quibble over fly specks. “Upstream” should be essential reading for anyone interested in conservatism, and especially in an important election year. It also is a warning signal to Sen. John McCain not to take mainline conservatives for granted come November.
Odds are strong that at least one leftist reviewer will dismiss Mr. Regnery’s book as proof positive that a “vast right-wing conspiracy” indeed exists. Vast and right-wing, to be sure. But the word “conspiracy” implies secrecy. The movement ably described by Mr. Regnery was about as covert as a sunrise. That the left was blind to what was being played out in broad daylight might be attributed to the hard truth that some persons — oh, say it, I mean “liberals” — find it difficult to take seriously anyone but themselves.
Joseph C. Goulden covered politics for the Philadelphia Inquirer during the 1960s. His e-mail is JosephG894@aol.com.