Tuesday, September 1, 2009

By Sam Tanenhaus
Random House, $17, 144 pages

“Today’s conservatives resemble the exhumed figures of Pompeii, trapped in postures of frozen flight, clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology,” Sam Tanenhaus writes in “The Death of Conservatism.”

A bit overwritten. However, as the book-review editor of the New York Times and editor of “The Week in Review” (featuring the entertaining columns by Frank Rich, in nearly every way the liberal equivalent of Rush Limbaugh) as well as the author of a splendid biography of Whittaker Chambers and a much-anticipated biography of William F. Buckley Jr., Mr. Tanenhaus has earned his literary spurs. And as the thematic sentence in the opening chapter of an ideological funeral oration, it does the job and no doubt accurately describes the view of the political landscape as seen from the New York Times Building, where Mr. Tanenhaus sits.

This current exercise, with 132 pages of text and plenty of white space, is largely a padded-out version of an extended essay that appeared in the New Republic in February, “Conservatism Is Dead.” Since then, however, the last rites apparently haven’t been administered. Hence the slightly less emphatic title.

Also, fortunately for Mr. Tanenhaus, the subtitle of the earlier effort — “An Intellectual Autopsy of the Movement” — has been dropped. Either the corpse has been showing signs of life or the term “intellectual autopsy” set off faint echoes of Spiro Agnew’s famous put-down of intellectuals as an “effete corps of impudent snobs.”

Nevertheless, although much of Mr. Tanenhaus’ autopsy will stick in conservative craws, his sections on the early days of the conservative ascendancy are strong, entertaining and self-assured; his National Review character sketches alone are worth the price of the book. The sketch of James Burnham, the magazine’s intellectual guide and writing teacher, is especially well done, as is the one for Garry Wills.

Mr. Buckley is given the respect and deference he is owed. And although there is a slightly disturbing tendency to conflate him with Benjamin Disraeli (everyone Mr. Tanenhaus admires becomes a Burkean or Disraelian) those conservatives awaiting his biography of Mr. Buckley with great apprehension can breathe easier. Much of what appears here should appear in the biography, and it more than passes muster.

Mr. Tanenhaus’ heroes tend to be “realist” (Dwight D. Eisenhower) and his villains “revanchist” (Joseph McCarthy), down to the heavyweight champion of revanchism, George W. Bush. All predictable enough, but along the way, he pauses on Richard M. Nixon, who despite certain shortcomings, is singled out for high praise — a strange detour, indeed, for a New York Times editor. But in Mr. Nixon, whom he admired for his stalwart defense of Mr. Chambers, Mr. Tanenhaus sees both Disraeli and Burke: “Nixon’s gifts were prodigious,” the author writes. “No modern president surpassed him in sheer ability defense — intellectual or political.”

In the end, it’s Mr. Tanenhaus’ thesis that with the election of Mr. Bush, the revanchists defeated the realists for control of the Republican Party. The result is the “movement conservatism” of today, an ideology that he sees as “profoundly and defiantly unconservative — in its arguments and ideas, its tactics and strategies, above all its vision.”

That vision, he thinks, requires that conservatives make common cause with liberals (on whose terms he is less than specific) to preserve “the politics of stability.” In the process, he chastises organized “revanchists” for raucous demonstrations but pays no attention to equivalent activities by Obamaites — the Service Employees International Union, for instance, which routinely sends hundreds of “labor activists” — the mild New York Times characterization of people once known as “goons” — to discourage the expression of anti-Obama sentiments at town meetings.

One commentator has called Mr. Tanenhaus’ book “essentially an appeal for unilateral disarmament by the right masquerading as a fair-minded report on the state of the battle.” I’d prefer to think of it as an appeal for civility and bipartisanship between two strong and principled political parties. Mr. Tanenhaus writes with high intelligence, strength and clarity — and, of course, as is proper for the chosen biographer of Mr. Buckley, a distinct literary flair. His book might have been given a more appropriate title — the patient, although diminished in size, seems to be alive and kicking, most recently with increasing effectiveness. The condition is still critical, but the patient is out of intensive care.

And if and when the Kool-Aid begins to wear off and Mr. Obama suddenly seems less than Burkean — sometime around next year’s elections, perhaps — Mr. Tanenhaus just may be fair-minded enough to agree.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author with Linda Bridges of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley and the American Conservative Movement,” published by Wiley.

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