A specter is haunting National Review. The magazine that once sold T-shirts with Eric Voegelin’s picture admonishing us “Don’t let them immanentize the eschaton” has gone and immanentized it, married it, and stuck it on their masthead as their claim to the conservative movement. As an indispensable ingredient of their ideological enterprise, the purge of all wrong-thinking vermin is under way. That haunting specter is the disappearance into the mist of conservative principles they left behind on the bedrock shore of principle.
Now they proudly drift without anchor into the gnostic fog. True, they go not silent into that murky deep — indeed, curses abound, calumnies and diatribes, assuming the mantle of authority as judge, jury, and heir of the conservative “movement” they tried, and failed, to hijack.
While they have abandoned conservative principles, they desperately covet the conservative label.
A generation ago, most conservatives embraced a Burkean humility towards politics. Limited government served the paramount goal of human freedom even as it reflected both the desirability and the limits of individual virtue. Conservatives understood the temptations of the lust for power. Veteran conservative author Stan Evans coined a phrase in the dawn of the Reagan years, as he observed all the newly minted “Reaganauts” coming to Washington. “Conservatives who come to Washington know it is a sewer,” he said; “the trouble is, most of them wind up treating it like a hot tub.” To paraphrase Cardinal Newman, Stan recognized that being a good conservative doesn’t make you more holy; it only makes you more guilty when you sin.
A generation later, the hot tub thrives, and not only is Voegelin’s admonition forgotten by the new NR crew, it merits only blank stares of incomprehension. A recent participant in NRO’s “corner” offered Voegelin’s phrase as a basic of conservative thought, but, knowing his audience, he had to tell his fellow writers to “look it up!” In a candid moment, Jonah Goldberg told me a while back, during a civil exchange of e-mails, that “alas,” he was not able to study the core courses of Western Civilization in college, because of all the feminist trash he was forced to consume there. This moment of humility, alas, quickly passed.
Now, “immanentizing the eschaton” was Voegelin’s theoretical phrase describing the ideological attempt to promise in this world the perfection that Christians have always understood to be available only after death and the end of the world. The promised perfection bears only one price: give us power, and watch the future grow. Throw away the Constitution and its restraints on the power lust, and the world will be our oyster, prime for schucking. Throw in a little Trotskyite dialectic and Maoist love of contradiction, mix in a little hubris, and voila, you’re a neocon.
Blissfully ignorant of all this, a couple of weeks ago one of Washington’s champion hot-tubbers penned a story for National Review. Editor Rich Lowry then put it on the cover during the week that America was finally starting the war that NR had been demanding for over a year. You’d think Lowry could have at least blazed a banner header, “NR Wins!!” across that issue, but NR was curiously more intent on intellectual ethnic cleansing, using the occasion of war to lambaste as unpatriotic the “paleos,” those conservatives of an earlier generation who still remembered and championed the principles of limited constitutional government, American sovereignty, and intellectual humility.
Alas, to use the language of combat, the cover story bombed. It not only bombed, NR was also the victim of its own “friendly fire.” Suddenly the prestige press was full of stories detailing those nasty questions that had been posed by the “paleos” — and ignored by everyone else. The Wall Street Journal and the New York Times suddenly published detailed and careful studies of the messianic agendas of the Bush defense cadre that dated to the 1990s, when Rumsfeld’s key advisors had worked for Israeli Likud Party politicians. The New York Times published separate reports about the hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees that one of those advisors, Richard Perle, was receiving from two clients who stood to make tens of millions of dollars from favorable U.S. government decisions, while Perle was serving as Chairman of the Defense Policy Board. Under fire, Perle made one of his classic “nuanced” moves, resigning as chairman but keeping his board membership, his clearances, and his Pentagon building pass.
Suddenly NR was in a bind. None of what Ann Coulter called the “girly-boys” who now run the enterprise was old enough to remember that great couplet that supplied the title of John Stormer’s classic: “Treason never prospers, what’s the reason? For if it doth prosper, none dare call it treason.” Suddenly those nasty traitorous paleos were being joined by the nation’s two largest and most important newspapers. All hell was breaking loose, and questions were being discussed all over the media about the past and the personal agendas of “The String of Perles,” the present collisions on policy within the Defense Department and between it and the State Department, and the turgid future of Iraq as reflected in U.S. policy. The NR cover story had threatened all questioners, calling them unpatriotic or treasonous, hopeful of squelching debate. Now, the questions were being asked everywhere, and no one could stop them.
Enter Bill Rusher, an adult who had actually been around the conservative movement before Monica Lewinsky became a household name. In the famous words of Ambassador and General Vernon “Dick” Walters, Mr. Rusher tried to “resuscitate the cadaver” of the lifeless NR cover story. He devoted his April 3 column to that valiant effort, calling the cover-story bomb a “seismic” event and repeating its charges — that Bob Novak and Pat Buchanan are unpatriotic, that they hate Bush, that they hate their country, and that they hope for a terrorist victory in America’s “war against terror.” Rusher daintily quotes the NR story, rather than making these assertions himself, but then he gets down to his own agenda: defending his dearly beloved magazine, National Review, for which he labored long and hard for decades as publisher.
For Mr. Rusher, National Review is the source and bedrock of all conservatism. In one of the few original lines in his column, he insists that his beloved magazine is the origin, the “I am” of the American right:
In fact, both the neos and the paleos were preceded on the scene by the group that formed itself under the leadership of Bill Buckley and National Review as early as 1955, and which has been content ever since to describe itself as simply “conservative” … . The appearance of this bell-book-and-candle [cover-story] denunciation of the paleos in the National Review signals a firm alliance of the original conservatives and the neoconservatives against so-called paleoconservatism.
For Mr. Rusher, National Review has acquired the status of an idol. One might think that his passionate and laudable devotion to his work over the years has come to cloud his memory, and his judgment, but his real accomplishments merit genuine praise. Unfortunately, one can say for sure that Mr. Rusher can find no words to praise the accomplishments of anyone else.
Rusher’s column caught my eye because all this has been going on for a while. In 2001, when Rick Perlstein’s book Before the Storm appeared, chronicling the early years of the Goldwater for President movement, Mr. Rusher objected to Perlstein’s extensive attention to the efforts of Clarence Manion, my father, who retired as Dean of Notre Dame’s Law School about the time Bill Buckley got out of Yale. Perlstein spent an entire chapter on Manion, Rusher complained, and gave too short a shrift to — you guessed it — National Review.
Perlstein prefers politicians to intellectuals, and this bias misleads him into spending an unnecessary amount of time on various conservative political efforts in the 1950s that got nowhere — notably the brave but doomed efforts of Dean Clarence (“Pat”) Manion of Notre Dame Law School — while giving relatively short shrift to the central conservative event of the decade: the founding of National Review by Bill Buckley in 1955. Conservatism was preeminently a movement of ideas, and ideas took precedence over political action in its first decade. In the beginning was the Word. But once the political actors begin arriving on the scene in the late 1950s and early ’60s, there is little that Perlstein misses.
Here Mr. Rusher treats National Review with biblical language reserved for the deity — even in caps — and here, I believe, is the basis of Rusherism: National Review is the beginning, the Word, the crux, the foundation, the truth and the source of truth.
Note that Dean Manion had authored several books, one of them the hugely popular Key to Peace, before 1955 He began the nationally syndicated “Manion Forum” radio show in 1954, which was on the air every week until he died in 1979. Dad was first and foremost a humble man, which led him to recognize and to defend the principles of liberty so tenaciously. He would not crave a Rusher mention. But Rusher’s brushing him off as a mere “politician” has a deeper motivation, and it doesn’t take long to emerge. Rusher’s very next paragraph begins:
The attempt to nominate Barry Goldwater at the 1960 Republican convention was premature and predictably failed. But his Conscience of a Conservative (actually written by L. Brent Bozell Jr.), which had to be published by a corporation set up for the purpose if it were to see daylight at all, sold 3.5 million copies in hardcover and paperback, and by 1961 the woods were full of young political activists ready to do battle in his name.
Poor Mr. Rusher. Goldwater’s book was not published by National Review, so he cannot bear to tell the reader how all this might have come to pass.
Dean Manion’s efforts “got nowhere”?
Well, Dean Manion recruited Barry Goldwater, devised the idea for the book, gave it its name, started a publishing company to publish it (because no one else would — here Mr. Rusher is correct), recruited Brent Bozell Jr. to co-write it with Goldwater, and signed every one of the numerous, hefty, and regular royalty checks to both men, the endorsed originals of which are in my own files.
This is an old story, to be sure, but Mr. Rusher’s current attempt to revive NR’s attack on “paleoconservatism” requires that it be told. For Mr. Rusher, conservatism might be dead (it might as well be, if it’s to be defined by the neocons), but family values are not. Clearly, National Review is Mr. Rusher’s primeval family. Anyone from outside the family is a barbarian, unless they come into the family and are accepted, as he explains the earliest neocons were “in the 1960s.” Anyone who defies the family are anathematized as heretics, racists, traitors, and the rest. Mr. Rusher might invoke the biblical “Word,” but for him conservatism is not about ideas; it is all about National Review. And NR demands to be the arbiter of what is, and what is not, “conservative.” For those who do not measure up, the cover story pronounces sentence: “now we turn our backs on them.”
In the fourth century AD a bishop named Donatus claimed that the Christian church was too full of sinners. He instituted a second baptism — a new sacrament — and started a new church meant only for the holy, not for the sinful vermin who populated the pews at the time. By the time Augustine wrote 60 years later, the Donatists, having purged just about everybody, had virtually disappeared.
Mr. Rusher and Bill Buckley deserve credit for their good work during the early National Review days of Meyer, Burnham, Niemeyer, and Sobran, The frumblings of the present crew, however, struggling to stand on the sagging shoulders of Buckley and Rusher, conjure up a frightful specter indeed, one more reminiscent of Shelley:
I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: — Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter’d visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mock’d them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare,
The lone and level sands stretch far away.
Christopher Manion [send him mail] served for nine years on the staff of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He helped edit the galleys of the Conscience of a Conservative in spring of 1960, and attended both Goldwater national conventions. He was head of the local Youth For Goldwater in 1964, and volunteered for Reagan in 1968. A Notre Dame PhD, he has taught political theory and ethics at Catholic University, Boston University, and the University of Dallas.