Of Florid Prose and Low Blows: A Response to Mr. Greenberg

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Most
of us are inclined to let sleeping dogs lie, or (insert here your
own favorite cliché). So imagine my surprise when I opened
the mail this morning to find my late father compared to the biggest
snake (the viper variety) in Arkansas! My eyebrows rose even higher
when I realized the author of this comparison – made in jest, to
be sure, by a professional critic – is one of my favorite columnists.

Yes,
Paul Greenberg was having some good fun with a dose of ponderosity
from a heavy breather at the New York Times. Not satisfied
with having tweaked the addle-minded sap, Mr. Greenberg stretched
the observation to column length, beginning with the old saw that
rural editors print pictures of snakes at their peril, and winding
up with a blast at my late father, his prose, and his position in
American intellectual history.

A
bit of a stretch, to be sure, and padded with a good number of references
to bad writers (professors of education top the list) and to episodes
in the career of our most recent ex-President. But this passing
back-of-the-hand has appeared, for all I know, in a thousand newspapers
and a million web mailboxes (as it appeared in mine).

Mr.
Greenberg claims that my father wrote “the most awkward specimen
of prose in the English language…. For years,” he assures us, “it
was my own personal winner in the Snake Photo competition for literary
creation.”

My
dad would have a hearty laugh with that, and be done with it; and
so will I. If Mr. Greenberg has to go back fifty years to find such
specimen… well, maybe he's only been reading his own columns, which
are uniformly original and appealing.

But
he isn't satisfied with that refined, and appreciated, literary
tweak. He goes on to describe my father, “the late Clarence Manion
of Notre Dame, a minor but memorable pamphleteer whose obscurities
were widely advertised as profound insights.”

As
Mr. Greenberg plaintively wails, “What to do”?

This
is my response. Permit me to introduce my father, and his work,
and his impact, without his prose.

Clarence
Manion was born in the nineteenth century in a rural Kentucky town
on the Ohio River. The youngest of nine children, three of his siblings
had already died when he was born. First in his high school class,
he was awarded a scholarship to a college his family could not have
afforded. From there, after a stint in the Army during the Great
War, he earned several graduate degrees, and became professor, then
Dean, of the law school at Notre Dame. He wrote many books.

Columns
must be short. Mr. Greenberg has not the space even to mention the
culprit's title, “The Key to Peace.” This obscure work with the
ill-phrased obscurities sold over a million copies in the early
1950s. It examined the religious origins of American freedoms. Its
impact (prose and all) was widespread, and deserves, perhaps, a
more honorable mention. It got one just last year: on his radio
show, Paul Harvey called it “the most important book, besides the
Bible, that I have ever read.”

My
father taught constitutional law. In 1953, Eisenhower offered him
a seat on the Supreme Court, but required as a condition that dad
renounce the Bricker Amendment, a wise measure designed to limit
the secret treaty-making power of the executive (Yalta, Potsdam,
Teheran, Kennedy-Kruschchev come to mind). Dad refused this “litmus
test,” so the seat went to another Irish Catholic Democrat named
Brennan, the Bricker Amendment failed by one vote in the Senate,
and I grew up on an obscure farm in rural Indiana, instead of inside
the beltway.

Thank
God. (But thank Ike for Justice Brennan).

In
the late 50s, Dad urged Barry Goldwater to run for president. He
suggested Goldwater write a book, and founded a publishing house
when no one else would touch it. Dad even conceived the title, “The
Conscience of a Conservative.” It was the best-selling political
manifesto in the English language of the twentieth century.

Dean
Manion founded the first conservative radio talk show, the Manion
Forum, in 1954. It introduced virtually every American conservative
to a nationwide audience over hundreds of stations every week. It
was on the air until his death in 1979. He was 83.

Dad
was a man of many facets. As a law student at Notre Dame he led
the glee club, as professor he chaired the athletic commission.
In my youth dad often quoted Knute Rockne, another obscure teacher
at that backwater Indiana campus. My favorite was, “You should never
spit on a man's head if you're standing on his shoulders.”

Words
to live by, Mr. Greenberg. Thanks for bringing them back to life,
and for proving them so timelessly true.

March
15, 2000

Christopher
Manion, a founder of the political satire group the Capitol Steps,
runs a background music production company in Front Royal, Virginia,
and teaches political theory at Christendom College as an adjunct
lecturer. He was at the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago, where,
he insists, Nixon stole the nomination from Goldwater.

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