- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 5, 2010

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

THE RISE AND FALL OF MODERN AMERICAN CONSERVATISM:

A SHORT HISTORY

By David Farber

Princeton University Press, $29.95,

312 pages

Reviewed by John R. Coyne Jr.

“Conservatism” writes R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. in “After the Hangover,” “is America’s longest dying political movement.” And here’s the latest obituary, penned by another academic out to produce an easy little history, as shallow as it is short, and eager to drag the corpse of conservatism offstage so we can get on with devoting our discussions to the needs of “people of color, feminists, and gay activists.”

David Farber, professor of history at Temple University, offers reviewers an almost irresistible opening: “When I was fifteen years old, I went door to door canvassing for George McGovern. … A good many of my Chicago neighbors took pity on me and tried to explain to me why I was an idiot.”

Tempting. But suffice it to say that things may not have changed markedly. Although Mr. Farber hopes “this book provides a few of the snappy answers I wished I had back in the day,” what it actually provides is a superficial analysis of the conservative movement, presented in the form of sketches of six conservatives - Robert Taft, William F. Buckley Jr., Barry Goldwater, Phyllis Schlafly, Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush.

No matter here that Mr. Bush was never considered by most conservatives to be one of them. Nor did he want to be. He was primarily a Republican - and a Texas Republican at that, a species that defies conventional classification. Nor does Taft belong here. He was always Mr. Republican first and is seldom associated with the modern conservative movement that coalesced around Buckley.

Mr. Farber, says his publisher, “paints vivid portraits” of his conservative subjects. But it’s more like painting by the numbers, with a nearly total reliance on easy secondary sources. Nor are the highlights proportionate. In his treatment of Buckley, for instance, Mr. Farber confines himself to the early years, with irrelevant discussions of race (he speaks, offensively, of “a racist scent”) and of anti-Semitism on the right, to which subject Buckley devoted an entire issue of his National Review magazine and a heartfelt book, “In Search of Anti-Semitism.”

That book is not discussed here. Nor is most of Buckley’s output, although he may have been as prolific a writer as Anthony Trollope. In fact, you might come away from Mr. Farber’s account thinking Buckley was a phenomenon of the 1950s and early 1960s and that he wrote just three books: “God and Man at Yale,” “Up From Liberalism,” and “McCarthy and His Enemies,” co-authored with L. Brent Bozell.

Mr. Farber takes a politically correct swipe atUp From Liberalism” for its title but reserves much of his discussion of Buckley’s writing to flogging, yet again, Joseph McCarthy and perceived anti-communist excesses. (Now that it’s been proved that there were real Russian spies, that’s harder to do.) We’re told that despite the senator’s flaws, Buckley “both liked and admired Joseph McCarthy” - as did, incidentally, the whole Kennedy clan, so much so that Bobby took a job on McCarthy’s staff.

Mr. Farber’s analysis is strained and oddly condescending, as if Buckley were a junior tenure-seeking academic. “Buckley affected an intellectual demeanor,” he writes, pretentiously, “but from young adulthood onward he dedicated himself not to the life of the mind but to the conservative political cause.” Apparently, in academe, the two are mutually exclusive.

Mr. Farber is similarly condescending to Mrs. Schlafly; repeats the predictable cliches about Barry Goldwater; and, like most liberal academics, simply can’t understand Ronald Reagan, who personified, maddeningly, the very best of American values. Mr. Farber’s favorite Reagan biography is the derided semifictional “Dutch,”written by a desperate deadline-challenged liberal writer who also just couldn’t come to grips with Reagan.

In 1980, George F. Will summed up a significant portion of the history of modern conservatism in one sentence: “Before there was Ronald Reagan there was Barry Goldwater, and before there was Barry Goldwater there was National Review, and before there was National Review there was Bill Buckley with a spark in his mind, and the spark in 1980 became a conflagration.”

Mr. Wills’ sentence nicely encapsulates the period and players Mr. Farber attempts to portray. Perhaps, instead of requiring his students to buy his book, he could just read them that sentence. By so doing, he’d not only save them money and misdirected intellectual effort, but also might prove those old Chicago neighbors wrong.

John R. Coyne Jr., a former White House speechwriter, is co-author of “Strictly Right: William F. Buckley Jr. and the American Conservative Movement” (Wiley, 2007).


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