Grover Norquist and Fearless Leader: The Train Stops Here

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"He
who controls the past controls the future." V.I. Lenin uttered
those words. So has Rage Against the Machine. But if you think movement
conservatives aren't up to applying this principle of the Revolutionary
Left to their own cause, well, you don't know movement conservatives.
And it's almost certain you don't know one of their four-star generals,
Grover Norquist. When it comes to deifying heads of state — at least
conservative heads of state — Grover knows nothing succeeds like
excess.

I
mention this in the context of a minor-league skirmish that is threatening
to become a major-league war: the renaming of a stop in the Washington,
D.C.-area subway system. Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., is threatening to
hold up additional federal funding for the entire system until local
Metro officials redesignate "National Airport" as "Ronald
Reagan National Airport" on all signs and other documents,
as required by federal law. Local members of Congress are outraged
at Barr. He's holding up the gravy train in service of partisan
politics. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General
Manager Richard White, who also balks at the retrofit, estimates
that compliance would cost $400,000. Assuming that figure is accurate,
it's still small change compared to the $9.4 billion in federal,
state and local funds it took to complete the 103-mile rail system,
and the additional $12.3 billion that Metro officials estimate will
be needed for capital expansion and improvements between now and
2025. But let's get our priorities right — Reagan's immortality
is at stake.

The
cost of rapid transit, and who pays for it, is a vexing subject,
but one best reserved for another place. Pertinent here is the danger
the Right poses in replicating the behavior of the Left in the name
of "liberty." It makes sense that Grover Norquist is leading
the charge. He is a pugilistic True Believer, a picture-perfect
manifestation of the kind of obsessive zealot I've encountered all
too often in our nation's capital. People who project this kind
of certitude are saying in effect that debate on the issues ought
to center on acquiring and consolidating power. Since we have all
the "right" answers, the real challenge is to develop
a conquering strategy. Winning hearts and minds can take them anywhere.

In
1997 Norquist, along with several lieutenants at his organization,
Americans for Tax Reform, hit upon an idea: the Ronald Reagan Legacy
Project. Norquist, as chairman of the project, would attempt to
name (or rename) at least one public facility in each of the 50
states after Ronald Reagan. This would take quite a bit of networking
with state and local officials, but the effort would be worth it.
Future generations of Americans would never be allowed to forget
the truth about Reagan's greatness.

In
short order, the campaign scored a major coup: Congress, as an 87th
birthday present to the Gipper, voted in February 1998 to rename
Washington National Airport "Ronald Reagan Washington National
Airport." The conservatives' Schadenfreude knew no bounds.
From now left-leaning politicians and activists would have to gnash
their teeth in impotent rage as they saw that name, Ronald Reagan,
whenever they arrived at or departed from the airport. Take that,
teachers' unions, civil-rights activists and gun-grabbers — right
in your face!! You will be reminded of the magnificence of Reagan,
the president who single-handedly won the Cold War and restored
prosperity.

In testimony before Congress this March Norquist let it be known
his group is raising the bar. In addition to the states, he wants
at least one Reagan dedication in all 3,067 counties plus the formerly
Communist East European countries. "Nationally, we have also
begun work on placing Ronald Reagan's portrait on the $10 bill,"
he added. The project thus far has succeeded in dedicating more
than 40 facilities in 12 states, plus Washington, D.C. and a couple
of overseas sites. Glorious triumphs to date include Ronald Reagan
Avenue in Miami, Ronald Reagan Elementary School in Bakersfield,
Cal., and the Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site,
Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. For a while, Norquist was
bullish on adding Reagan's visage to Mount Rushmore, but even the
chief backer in Congress on that one, Rep. Matt Salmon, R-Ariz.,
seems to have given up the ghost.

Taking
the long view, Reagan was, by contemporary standards, a first-rate
president. Operating under severe constraints, not the least of
which were cynical mass media and blood-lusting Democrats in Congress
(let's remember he came within a hair's breath of impeachment in
1987), he accomplished more than what reasonably should have been
expected. I will grant as well that Norquist is right on the issues
more often than he's wrong. Like P.J. O'Rourke and Thomas Sowell,
he understands that beneath its pose of "compassion,"
the egalitarian mind is motivated by a power grab to level achievers,
and in the process undermine the creative spirit. He knows the levelers
are aggressively promoting their agenda. When you're up against
the likes of Ralph Neas and Marian Wright Edelman, pugilism is more
than fair sport; it's a necessity. Yet there's something about this
Ronald Reagan Legacy Project that ought to induce queasiness.

An
arm's-length respect for the office of the presidency is not unhealthy
in and of itself. Even if I despise a particular president, and
wish him gone at the earliest moment, I still respect the office
he occupies. This idea is embedded in the U.S. Constitution. But
the Cult of Reagan is more than that. It is a right-of-center Americanized
version of the Great Head of State. That is to say, it contains
the seeds of totalitarianism.

First,
Norquist is a believer in the power of Communist-strongman style
as a model for mobilizing conservatives. Back in the mid-80s, in
a speech before one of those Heritage Foundation "Third Generation"
soirees, he indicated whose enthusiasm we should copy:

"We
must establish a Brezhnev Doctrine for conservative gains. The
Brezhnev Doctrine states that once a country becomes communist
it can never change. Conservatives must establish their own
doctrine and declare their victories permanent…A revolution
is not successful unless it succeeds in preserving itself…(W)e
want to remove liberal personnel from the political process.
Then we want to capture those positions of power and influence
for conservatives. Stalin taught the importance of this principle."

We're
a long way off from the conservative temperament that Burke, Disraeli
and Oakeshott had in mind, not that such an incongruity causes too
many culture-war conservatives a lack of sleep. (Grover still talks
that way today, in case you're wondering.). During the 90s it became
voguish for conservatives to appropriate the strategic meta-principle
of Antonio Gramsci, founder of the Italian Communist Party. Gramsci
was a pure Leninist, obsessed with organizing a revolutionary vanguard
to engage in a "long march" through cultural institutions.
Working with state and local officials to plaster Ronald Reagan's
name onto as many public facilities as possible fits in nicely with
the idea of a marching stealth vanguard. The campaign could have
been a page lifted from the classic neoconservative playbook, a
real-life version of the Mad magazine feature, "Spy
vs. Spy."

But
the campaign to deify Reagan also emits more than a few whiffs of
totalitarianism in its likely outcome. It's standard practice
in a modern police state to find pictures of, or quotes from, the
reigning Fearless Leader on walls, billboards and TV screens. The
Soviets had their own renaming campaign after they took power, turning
St. Petersburg into Leningrad, and Volgagrad into Stalingrad (they
since have reverted back to their original names). In latter-day
Iraq it is almost impossible to go anywhere without encountering
the "heroic" face of Saddam Hussein on a poster or billboard
— and just try complaining about it. And of course during China's
Cultural Revolution nothing was more de rigeur than plastering
pictures of Chairman Mao on public walls. Granted, such actions
constituted radical overkill, and to the benefit of incumbents;
not even march-in-lockstep conservative warriors would have been
so brazen as to propose Reaganizing the nation's public works while
he was still in office. Still, there's something creepy about making
sure wherever citizens go, they cannot escape the aura of a past
head of state. A totalitarian-in-reverse is…well, a totalitarian.

David
Kralik, the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project's new executive director,
counters that Reagan is hardly the first ex-president to benefit
from a naming campaign. "After all," he writes, "John
F. Kennedy has some 600 dedications in his honor — none of which
were ever protested by conservatives." This claim is accurate,
but also disingenuous. These dedications overwhelmingly were responses
to JFK's assassination, not his policies; to oppose them at the
time would have been near-political suicide for conservatives. Kralik
also points out, accurately, that refusing to rename the subway
stop after Reagan is illegal. Public Law 105-154 states that "any
reference in a law, map, regulation, document, paper or other record
of the United States to the Washington National Airport shall hereafter
be known and designated as the u2018Ronald Reagan Washington National
Airport.'" But on this point, too, Kralik engages in sleight
of hand. It was Norquist, more than anyone else, who persuaded the
GOP-controlled Congress to enact the law in the first place!

Ironically,
though conservatives are loathe to be reminded of this, they hurled
their share of jabs at Reagan during his presidency. In 1984 The
Heritage Foundation's in-house magazine Policy Review asked
eleven conservative activists and intellectuals to evaluate Reagan's
performance as President; fully eight gave him negative reviews.
Commentary magazine's Norman Podhoretz, in his then-column
for the New York Post routinely accused Reagan of appeasement
toward the Soviets during his second term. The titles of some of
Podhoretz's editorials said it all: ""Reagan: A Case of
Mistaken Identity," "What If Reagan Were President?,"
and "How Reagan Succeeds as a Carter Clone." Even where
conservatives see Reagan as their deliverance, they conveniently
overlook his bows to modern liberals. It was Reagan who proposed
to Gorbachev, not the other way around, that nuclear weapons be
abolished. The federal domestic budget increased not just because
the Democrats controlled the House for the whole eight years and
the Senate for the last two, but also because the Reagan White House's
own proposed budgets had called for spending hikes. And while Reagan
pushed for and signed landmark tax-cut legislation in 1981, he also
signed the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, the infamous
"TEFRA," the next year, which phased in about $100 billion
in new, mainly corporate income taxes.

Such
unpleasant facts aren't likely to present detours to the Ronald
Reagan Legacy Project's road to deification. Some of the project's
proposals, like replacing Alexander Hamilton's picture on the $10
bill with Reagan's, are politically beyond the pale. But once Reagan
dies, the orgy of renaming proposals will begin, with no such thing
as "enough already." Grover Norquist's vision, fully realized,
would be a national environment in which Reagan's name and face
would be as ubiquitous as Mao Tse Tung's…or Elvis Presley's. And
you can be sure the photographs will show Reagan only from the waist
up.

Suggested
reading: Benjamin Hart, ed., The
Third Generation: Young Conservative Leaders Look to the Future
,
Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1987; Gary Dorrien, The
Neoconservative Mind: Politics, Culture and the War of Ideology
,
Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993; Jonathan Chait, "Still
His Party
," The New Republic, August 7, 2000, pp.
26-29.

March
31, 2001

Carl
F. Horowitz formerly served as a policy analyst with the Heritage
Foundation and as a Washington correspondent for Investor's
Business Daily. He is currently a Washington, D.C.-area consultant.

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