Sam Tanenhaus

The Death of Conservatism, Part II

VTR Date: May 27, 2009

Biographer and editor Sam Tanenhaus discusses the fate of conservatism in America.


GUEST: Sam Tanenhaus
VTR: 05/27/2009

I’m Richard Heffner your host on The Open Mind.

And today my guest once again is Sam Tanenhaus, Editor of the New York Times Sunday Book Review, the author of an acclaimed biography of Whittaker Chambers who is writing a biography of William F. Buckley, Jr. as well, and who has just published his provocative and wonderfully insightful new Random House volume titled The Death of Conservatism.

Now, my guest writes that “During the two terms of George W. Bush, Conservative ideas were not merely tested but also pursued with dogmatic fixity, though few Conservatives will admit it, just as few seem ready to think honestly about the consequences of a presidency that failed not because it ‘betrayed’ movement ideology, but because it enacted that ideology so rigidly: the aggressively unilateralist foreign policy; the blind faith in a deregulated, Wall Street-centric market; the harshly punitive ‘culture war’ waged against liberal enemies.”

Now Sam Tanenhaus also comments ironically on “the emergence of a president who seems more thoroughly steeped in the Burkean principles of ‘conservatism’ and ‘correction’ than any significant thinker or political figure on the right today.”

And what I ought now to ask my guest is just what he believes his biographer Bill Buckley would have made of this insight. What do you think he would have said?

TANENHAUS: That’s a good question. You know I once asked Bill Buckley, a number of years ago, during George Bush’s first term … what made George Bush a Conservative?

And he thought for a moment and he said, “Why he’s a patriot and he believes in God”. And I said, “Well that makes Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton Conservatives, too.”

Bill Buckley made it clear … he said this publicly … that George Bush was not a serious Conservative in his mind. Now, actually I think that’s untrue. I think Bush was the most dedicated Conservative … Movement Conservative that’s opposed to kind of classical or Burkean Conservative of any modern President.

He was more dedicated to those ideals … Movement ideals than Ronald Reagan was.

HEFFNER: The “movement” ideals being the tear ’em down?

TANENHAUS: Yes. That essentially Conservatives are locked in a war … and there’s, there’s a war for the soul of America. It’s what a very brilliant Conservative thinker Willmore Kendall in his own, what I call “revanchist” phase called the battle line between the Liberals and Conservatives a war to see who would gain and control and amass power in America.

Would it be the America … in most exalted terms … of the Constitution or the America of the Declaration of Independence. That is the republic that’s governed by a kind of elite that doesn’t want change, that wants to put brakes on change. Or one that has a radical egalitarian vision. I mean that, that’s putting the argument in its highest philosophical plane. What it ended up meaning was “Liberals are bad guys”.

Anybody who wants racial equality, anybody who hints that there should be a, a redistribution of wealth (laugh) even though in some … you could argue that George Bush and Ronald Reagan were redistributors of wealth, they just redistributed it upward …

HEFFNER: Upward.

TANENHAUS: That there were a series of touchstones that Movement Conservatives always returned to. And you hear the mantra now … smaller government, lower taxes, strong national defense.

Those are not ideas, those are slogans. Now in that sense George Bush was dedicated to them. But there was another side to Bill Buckley’s Conservatism, which is described in this new book I’ve written.

And that was the Conservatism that believed first of all in preserving the traditions and habits and patrimony … favorite word of Bill Buckley’s … of the culture and the government.

That’s why Bill Buckley emerged as a great Conservative … in my reading … in the mid to late 1960’s when there really did seem to be a spirit of anarchy abroad in the land (laughter) … you know, the, the election of 1968 … classic example. Two assassinations, riots in both of the convention cities Miami and Chicago … and also Buckley quite remarkably almost alone defended (laugh) Lyndon Johnson when he was being assailed from within his own party … the “dump Johnson” movement … that effectively kept Johnson from seeking a second full term.

Now if Buckley were purely instrumental, in political terms, he’d say “Great, the Democratic Party is coming apart, that means our side will win the next election.” Which is what happened.

But that’s not what Buckley said. When Eugene McCarthy went to New Hampshire and didn’t defeat Johnson, as some people … falsely remember, but, but ran a very close second and challenged him enough so that Johnson decided he would not seek re-election. This was in, you know, the spring of 1968. Buckley wrote a very brilliant, wonderful in which he cited Edmund Burke. Said, “this is not how democracy is supposed to work.” Bunch of college students are not supposed to drive over from Massachusetts, half of whom in surveys don’t even know what Eugene McCarthy’s own position on the war in Vietnam is and vote a President out of office, effectively.

That’s not the way our system is supposed to work. That is a true Conservative.

HEFFNER: You know it’s so interesting, when you speak about Buckley … and I realize that I think about your book on Buckley as I think about Bob Caro’s last volume on Johnson … for god’s sake I’m not going to live that much …

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: … longer … hurry up, already.

TANENHAUS: (Laughter)

HEFFNER: I will tell Bob that later today when we do another program, but I say that to you because Buckley was such an intriguing character.

And I remember my own, my own terribly, terribly negative feelings about him. Because I must admit I, I saw him … no I don’t say …shouldn’t say “must admit” … I, I claim that when Buckley used to appear first on television, his snideness, his snottiness so much that went with his defense of Gene … of, of Senator McCarthy … not Gene McCarthy, but Joe McCarthy …

TANENHAUS: Right … the other one!

HEFFNER: … the other one. So many things. And then he seems to have changed.

TANENHAUS: Yes. Well, this is not an unfamiliar story with, with great political figures … is, is they undergo a transformation. Same thing happened with Whittaker Chambers, my other subject … you know, prior subject.

HEFFNER: You like people who change?

TANENHAUS: I am interested in people with extreme views, because I don’t have them. I so sort of drearily moderate that it’s the attraction of “the other” …I’m, I’m interested in intellectuals who become people of action. That really interests me because the clash between ideas and thought and the world of, of action is, is endlessly revealing, I think.

You know you could be really pretentious. You could say it goes all the way back to the mind/body problem in some way. You know the old Judaic problem of thought and spirit versus the body and the flesh.

But the idea that to try to change the world through ideas or writing is interesting to me, maybe because, again, as a writer I’m so much less important a figure. I’m a journalist and, you know, I put the sentences together and I write about what more interesting people have to say and think.

So they … those figures loom large for me. And when intellectuals get pulled in extreme directions that also seems contradictory, to me, because one imagines that the intellectual is someone who’s always arguing with himself, weighing ideas in the very highest sense.

And so unlikely to commit himself to a particular course of action. So the intellectual who commits himself to an ideology or a course of action is, in a way, in conflict with himself and that seems very novelistically rich to me. It makes for large figures.

People like Whittaker Chambers and William Buckley are big, they’re big figures. If, if you met Buckley … he had a surprisingly down-to-earth and normal manner despite the voice and the accent and all the rest.

But still he, he filled the room. There was a sense of, of live history in him. And that’s the other attraction, too. These are people who are more attuned to historical currents than we are.

History’s not an antiquarian or nostalgic pursuit for them, then want to make history. It’s almost like Marx … you know … and Chambers quoted this, “it’s not enough for the philosophers to understand history”. They have to understand the world, they have to change the world. And the idea that you might do that as a thinker, as an orator, as a writer, fascinates me.

HEFFNER: It’s interesting … what you say is, is very much what Lionel Trilling said to me so many, many years ago when I was his student about Chambers and when you talk about Buckley as you do, I, I’m … I have to make my concession to the fact that he changed so and won me over so, that by the time he appeared … I remember Dick Clurman saying, “You have to have Bill Buckley on The Open Mind.”

And I said, “No, no, no, no.” And then when Dick died and Buckley spoke at his memorial service, I knew that Clurman and my old friend Sam Vaughn had been right all along about what an extraordinary fine … extraordinarily fine person Buckley was.

And I invited him here and they were two of the best experiences I ever had.

TANENHAUS: I’m not surprised. He is … was … the kindest and most generous of the great people I’ve met.

HEFFNER: That …that must have irked him so … then at the lack of kindness and gentleness demonstrated by the “Movement Conservatives” …

TANENHAUS: Very much so. I remember him telling me, once at lunch … we, we used to lunch periodically … I mean he lives in Stamford … lived in Stamford … and I live in Tarrytown. He had a mansion, I have a tiny little house. But we would meet near his house at a restaurant he would like to go to. And I asked once … and I would tape record him … and I asked him about Bill O’Reilly and he said “No, he’s a bully, I don’t like him.”

And it’s interesting because you will remember the young Bill Buckley was something of a bully.

HEFFNER: Was a bully, bully, bully.

TANENHAUS: That’s right.

HEFFNER: I, I insist upon that.

TANENHAUS: Absolutely. No, he grew and he was a very passionate defender of Joe McCarthy. And a denouncer of Liberals. He passed through all the phases he later denounced. And it’s one of those frustrating things … ahem, I think we have to accept in people who enact history.

So you say, “Well, why …why should Bill Buckley receive credit in his middle and later years for having repudiated what Liberals knew all along should be repudiated.”

Well, because those forces were there. And even if Bill Buckley had not advocated them … he … Joe McCarthy would still have been a powerful figure. Buckley probably was fulfilling his, you know, historic destiny in some way by being his champion. That someone like him should then change his mind has a greater influence on the public than a Liberal who knows better all along. Because to the person who’s undecided … the Liberal at the time doesn’t necessarily seem right, he’s just upholding a particular point of view. And Buckley was the best ever …the best in our history, I think, at dismantling the arguments of the other side. That was his genius, as a debater and a kind of logician in his columns.

And we need more of that now. The only columnist who does it really well and also an acolyte of sorts of Buckley is, ah, Michael Kinsley … who used to be on, on Buckley’s program … Firing Line … for a number of years.

Kinsley is the best at saying “the President or a Conservative has made this argument. But a year ago, he said the opposite thing. And if you follow the logic of his argument to end, he’s just contradicted himself.”

That is the best way to make the case, not to jump on your own pedestal and shout the other side down. Buckley had a genius for that. He was a great debater in college. Teamed with someone else whom became very important in the Conservative movement … Brent Bozell and Bozell was the orator, he would give the impassioned closing argument.

Buckley was the in-fighter (laugh) who would dismantle the other side. He was really, really good at that.

And one of his contributions to our political dialogue and discourse was his deconstruction of Liberal pieties and hypocrisies. He might be wrong in the views he held, but he made you look more closely at your own. That’s a tremendous public and intellectual service.

HEFFNER: You know, one of the ideas that you do the same thing to is the … in your book … is this matter of the attitude towards government.

You make it quite clear that everyone is in favor of big government doing his thing. Big government when you’re going to lower taxes, or when you’re going to impose upon the privacy of those you consider your enemies. Or big government on the other side.

TANENHAUS: This is … right …you’re absolutely right … this is one of the false arguments, this idea that Conservatives favor small government. No they don’t. They want massive military spending. It was Conservatives who led us into a two front war … Daniel Bell… a very brilliant essay a long time ago … said, “The argument about the size of government is irrelevant. It was created by the Second World War and a massively expanding economy. The government and the economy are intertwined, you can’t take them apart. And the same is true with the idea of big government in our lifetime.

In a quite sharp little book called Dead Right … title not so different from mine … David Frum very loyal Conservative Republican exploded the entire myth of Reagan as a small government President.

He said that government spending rose exponentially under Reagan, more than under any one else. And it was his hapless successor … George Bush … the first … who actually tried to tamp it down, but was blamed for raising taxes. Programs enlarged under Reagan … the only people he ever really cut back on were the very poor … because the poor, as Nathan Glazer said, another brilliant piece had no voice in his administration, but he didn’t do anything to, to reduce government.

Eisenhower didn’t do it. Eisenhower, who I think, was the greatest of the modern Republican Presidents tried to put some restraints on the New Deal, but government grew under him. He invented the term “military industrial” complex.

Every President makes government bigger. What happens is Burke saw early on … Edmund Burke … that government supplies what he called “wants” and he italicized them. The things we need. This was written in the late eighteenth century before the Industrial Revolution had created a, a kind of capitalized society that could provide many wants itself. The marketplace could do more than it could in Burke’s day.

But what happened was … we … that is normal people, citizens of these democratic nations begin to want more and more. And government tries to satisfy all those needs at once. Which means on the one hand it grows too large and it begins to intrude on our sense of privacy. At the same time those needs conflict. So how can the government do these different things at the same time?

You have to satisfy constituents who are at odds with one another. So what the great statesmen and leaders do is try to negotiate those differences. I actually make the case in this, in this book that the one who had the clearest vision of it was Richard Nixon.

HEFFNER: I know.

TANENHAUS: Nixon should have been the greatest of modern Presidents in my view. And I know many will find this odd because they remember Watergate, they remember the, the bombing of Cambodia.

Nixon actually came into office with his model as Benjamin Disraeli. He was going to be the Conservative who actually did more for the general civil society, in Burke’s term, than any Liberal President ever had. And he almost did it.

HEFFNER: Some time I want to go further with you on this matter of Richard Nixon because what you write is so intriguing. But before the program ends, I, I, I want to ask you … and in a sense your own … new position … you not only preside over the fate of books in The New York Times, but you are the editor of the Sunday News In Review as well, and so you command a, a larger frame there.

How do you explain, because you are an historian, an intellectual historian, a cultural historian. How do you explain our inability … the American people … to grapple with these ideas to understand that there is something non-Conservative about Movement Conservatism and these other contradictions?

TANENHAUS: Well, I think …

HEFFNER: Who are we that we, we … we’re so fooled.

TANENHAUS: Well, I don’t know that we always are. I mean look at the outcome of the last election. Obama won a strong plurality. He did not do as well in the Electoral College actually as Bill Clinton.

See, one of the arguments I make … almost tangentially in this book, is that I actually think the Conservative Movement ended in 1992, with Clinton’s election and what we saw was the decadent final stage of it.

HEFFNER: Because he took over so many of their programs?

TANENHAUS: Yes, and because he was a very popular President. And, remember the House Republicans actually lost in the midst of the impeachment of Clinton.

The impeachment of Clinton was one of the real catastrophe’s in modern politics. There were absolutely no grounds for doing this. It was an attempt to de-legitimize … not only an elected, but a popular President.

This is an unheard of thing in our politics. Now, Conservatives justified this as the time … not many remember … through Watergate which the presented the same way.

But Watergate was a series of crimes, of, of Presidential crimes. Clinton’s was not. Clinton’s had to do, you know, with his sexual escapades, had nothing to do with governance.

But at any rate … if you look at the last five Presidential elections … in 1992, 1996, 2000, 2004 and 2008, the Democrats won a plurality in four of the five. The only one they didn’t was in 2004 when … the country was at the outset of a war … and George Bush won with the smallest plurality of any re-elected President since Woodrow Wilson.

No, the country actually rejected his politics a long time ago. What happened was the movement was so well organized and so deeply infiltrated our political system and our structures, including the Supreme Court that they were able to get an extra run. They got an extra run in 2000.

Then with 9/11 they had a blank slate. And that was the moment when we saw what Movement Conservatism is really about because George Bush was able to do almost anything and everything he wanted. And the result was a calamitous presidency.

HEFFNER: And where was that vaunted, much vaunted American institution … the press?

TANENHAUS: Oh, you know … here I am a part of it … and we get hammered all the time. But were we really so bad? I mean The New York Times did break the surveillance story.

WMD … we didn’t do so well, but remember through the Clinton years, this was the belief that Iraq was building weapons of mass destruction. I wrote a story for Vanity Fair which some will remember about Paul Wolfowitz and the Neo-Conservatives, that showed even, within the Administration, the weapons of mass destruction argument was more instrumental than authentic. That article came out in 2003 when the war began.

The press was there. Ah, the press for a long time, and this was a legacy of the Nixon years, is seen as not only adversarial, but ideologically Liberal and so publications like The New York Times … probably go out of their way to prove they’re not. That they will give the benefit of doubt to Conservative and Republican, ah, leaders and states.

I should say that the difference between Republican and Conservative … many Republicans are not ideological Conservatives. Many Conservatives are Democrats.

But, in, in the breakdown between the two parties … newspapers, I think, that have Liberal reputations want to be careful not to overstate the case. That’s not an excuse, but it’s a partial explanation.

HEFFNER: Is that a description? Or an injunction?

TANENHAUS: I think it’s a description. I think there is an awareness. My boss, Bill Keller a great journalist and great newspaperman is very alert to what can be the “echo chamber” quality of a Liberal newsroom. Or any newsroom.

That is to say not that there is an ideology … the idea that the Times is ideologically driven is, as someone who’s been … in my second period … that is simply not true.

What can, sometimes happen is what happens in any institution … is that people start to sound like one another. And sometimes the skeptical voice or dissenting voice doesn’t come through as clearly as it might. But not because of ideological prescriptions for the newsroom. It just, just doesn’t happen.

Institutions, as you know, you’re affiliated with a number … are Conservative, they want to protect themselves, preserve themselves. And in that sense newspapers are very conservative. Our editorial page is, is liberal. But that’s the Times’ history. There is no reason it shouldn’t be. The news coverage is, is quite different. And that’s how we work.

HEFFNER: And I’m getting the signal that we have no more time, which means you’re going to have to come back time and time again, but finish the Buckley book because I want to read it before I go.

TANENHAUS: I’m doing my best.

HEFFNER: Thanks, Sam Tanenhaus.

TANENHAUS: Thank you.

HEFFNER: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you join us again next time. Meanwhile, as an old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

N.B. Every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of this transcript. It may not, however, be a verbatim copy of the program.