Mel Bradford, Old Indian Fighters, and the NEH

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In
politics, the dead can never rest in peace. The survivors fight
over the bodies, the way the Achaeans and Trojans fought over the
body of Hector. Mel Bradford died ten years ago, and those of us
who knew him best are finally reconciled to his death. However,
when his detractors insist on exhuming his memory in order to kick
him one more time, we find it difficult to remain silent. Thus,
this reply to an article David Frum wrote recently for NRO.com.

In
his commentary, Mr. Frum briefly discusses the attempt on the part
of Mel’s friends to see him appointed chairman of the National Endowment
for the Humanities. The year was 1981. Mel and I were colleagues
at the University of Dallas. I was his closest friend. At the time
all this all happened, Mr. Frum was a Yale undergraduate, hunched
over one of the tables down at Mory's, humming the Whiffenpoof Song.
So his article is clearly based on the campfire tales of old Neocon
Indian fighters.

He
writes:

But as the
paleos themselves tell the story, the quarrel that erupted into
view that day in 1986 began as a squabble over jobs and perks
in the Reagan Administration — from the perception that, as [Sam]
Francis later put it, neoconservatives had arranged matters so
that "their team should get the rewards of office and of
patronage and that the older team of the older Right receive virtually
nothing."

A quick reality
check here: It is not in fact true that the ambitions of the paleos
fell victim to neocon plots. Paleo Grievance Number 1 is the case
of Mel Bradford, a gifted professor at the University of Dallas,
now dead. Bradford had hoped to be appointed chairman of the National
Endowment for the Humanities, but lost out to William Bennett.
Unfortunately for him, Bradford came to the government hiring
window with certain disadvantages: He had worked on the George
Wallace campaign in 1968, and he had published an essay that could
plausibly be read to liken Abraham Lincoln to Hitler.

First,
for what it's worth, the Wallace connection was never a big issue.
In a 1981 New York Times story, Irvin Molotsky reported that
"[the new conservatives'] criticism of Professor Bradford includes
his support in 1972 of the Presidential candidacy of former Gov.
George C. Wallace and his disapproval of Lincoln, which they view
as especially inappropriate given Lincoln's role as the nation's
first Republican President." So it was the Neocons themselves
who brought up the Wallace issue in the Times. And that's
the last we heard of it.

In
fact, we were surprised that they had missed the juiciest part of
the story: Mel had been Dallas County chairman of George Wallace's
American Party in 1968 — a potentially more damaging involvement
than his 1972 role in the Dallas County Democratic Party (which
liberal columnist Ron Calhoun would later say Bradford had single-handedly
destroyed).

When
the Neocons dropped the Wallace strategy, we knew it had failed.
Perhaps they understood the degree to which Reagan’s victory had
depended on Wallace Democrats, who might be provoked to intervene
on Bradford's behalf. And perhaps the Neocon field officers decided
not to press the theme of other-party affiliation because, according
to our sources in North Carolina, Bill Bennett, Bradford’s rival,
had voted in the Democratic primary in 1980. (To cover Bennett in
this matter, a prominent supporter, a former Nixon cabinet member,
had written a letter stating that Bennett had backed Reagan all
the way. If our sources were correct, he hadn't even voted for Reagan
in the GOP primary; and revelation of that fact would have exposed
the former cabinet member's gracious fib.

Whatever
the reason, the opposition never really tried to hang Wallace around
Bradford's neck; and if any of those old Indian fighters remember
differently, I believe they are mistaken.

The
second charge – the comparison of Abraham Lincoln to Hitler
– is a bit more complicated than Mr. Frum leads us to believe.
Harry Jaffa, in one of his several debates with Bradford (this one
in print), praised Lincoln for believing in higher law. When Mel
showed me Jaffa’s article, I remarked that belief in higher law
was not conclusive evidence of virtue, that Hitler had expressed
the same belief in Mein Kampf. Bradford in replying to Jaffa,
made the point in a footnote.

In
reporting what happened next, I choose to omit the names of those
involved, though I remember them well. Instead, I will use obvious
pseudonyms to avoid the kind of ritual denials that would force
me to name my Washington sources, several of whom are prominent
in the conservative movement and still do business with the Neocons.

The
head of Presidential Personnel at the time was a California car
dealer who, when the word “Lincoln” was mentioned, probably thought
first of the automobile. Certainly he was ill-equipped to follow
the kind of complex and meticulous argument found in Bradford’s
reply to Jaffa. A man I will call “The Great Manipulator,” a supporter
of Bennett, took advantage of this intellectual paucity.

According
to our sources, instead of saying that Bradford had compared Lincoln
to Hitler, as Mr. Frum suggests, the Great Manipulator told the
Car Dealer that Bradford had compared Hitler to Lincoln. “You see,
this man admires Hitler. He even compares him to Lincoln.” At some
point in this conversation' we were told, the word "anti-Semitism"
was used. The Car Dealer’s pulse quickened. He read the footnote.
By George, Bradford did admire Hitler.

The
injustice of this slander, which came late in the game, finally
broke Bradford’s will to continue. I remember standing with him
on the balcony of UD’s Braniff Building a few minutes after we had
received an account of this latest attack. For a moment, he stared
out at the mesquite trees surrounding the campus, then shook his
head.

“I'm
through. If they want it bad enough to do something like this, then
let them have it.”

This
wasn't the first time the Car Salesman had misread Bradford's work.
Earlier in the process, he had summoned Bradford to the Old Executive
Office Building and waved the professor's fifteen-page bibliography
under his nose.

“The
trouble is, you’ve published too much. Too many targets. Take this
thing you wrote about homosexuals.”

Bradford
said he had written nothing about homosexuals.

“What’s
this, then?”

The
Car Salesman ran his forefinger down the lengthy list of items,
one page after another, until he found the item he was looking for.
Then he passed the bibliography across the desk and jabbed at a
line.

“There.”

The
listing was an article on Bishop Richard Corbet[t]’s ‘The Fairies
Farewell.'” – a light 17th-century lyric about the loss of
belief in the supernatural.

Bradford
burst out laughing – a tactical error.

The
Car Salesman was indignant.

Bradford
attempted to placate him by explaining that the poem was not about
homosexuals, but about literal fairies, the kind that fly around
on gossamer wings and do good deeds, e.g., the tooth fairy. It was
like trying to explain trigonometry to a cat.

After
this incident, we wondered if the Great Manipulator had put the
notion about homosexuals into the Car Salesman’s head or if the
Car Salesman had thought of it all by himself. One thing was apparent,
with the Car
Salesman in charge, Bennett's considerably shorter bibliography
was an asset rather than a liability.

Mr.
Frum writes further of Bradford:

Bradford
could never accept that it was his own writings that had doomed
him. As Oscar Wilde observed, “Misfortunes one can endure. They
come from outside, they are accidents. But to suffer for one’s
own faults – ah! There is the sting of life.” Easier to blame
others and pity oneself.

When
and where did Mel Bradford blame others and express self pity? How
about one example? He was appalled at the battle tactics they had
used, but he knew he had spent most of his adult life providing
them with ammunition. Indeed, he understood better than anyone the
liabilities his political opinions incurred — the academic appointments
he was denied, the department chairmanship he had lost years earlier,
the journals in which he could never publish, the conferences he
was never invited to attend. (The University of Dallas trustees
even delayed his promotion to full professor for a year because
of his politics.) None of this surprised him.

Many
years earlier – as a Vanderbilt graduate student – he
had consciously made the choice that led inevitably to the succession
of professional catastrophes that plagued his life. He had chosen
to stand with the losing side, knowing full well what it had cost
his intellectual mentors in the way of honors, academic advancement,
and cold cash.

He
did not, as others did, switch sides after the Reagan victory in
1980. In fact, he had supported Reagan in 1976.

Nor
did he hold a grudge, as Mr. Frum suggests. In fact, when Bill Bennett
was mentioned as a candidate to succeed Terrel Bell as Secretary
of Education, Mel was contacted to see if he would speak out against
his former rival. He replied that he thought Bennett would be a
good choice for the job.

It
was typical of his generous nature; but the response exasperated
many of his friends, who, in this instance, wanted to see less of
Jesus and more of Grendel. He had a magnanimous heart where adversaries
and detractors were concerned, whether in intellectual debate, partisan
politics, or campus quarrels. He forgave trespasses quicker than
any man I've ever known.

So
I find it singularly unfair that — ten years after Bradford's death
— Mr. Frum, who never knew him, would turn him into a Neocon caricature
in order to make points in a current dispute. Indeed, I wonder if
Mr. Frum really believes what he wrote in NRO.com. In a 1989
Wall Street Journal article "Cultural Clash on the Right,"
he tells a somewhat different story.

[I]t is true
that bad feeling between loyalists who trace their conservatism
back to 1984 and beyond…and those who arrived at their conservatism
later has festered ever since the great internal fight over the
proposed 1980 [sic] nomination of M.E. Bradford…to the chairmanship
of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lobbying by Edwin
Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation, William F. Buckley,
Jr. and Irving Kristol persuaded the Reagan transition team to
nominate William Bennett instead.

So
which was it? Did Bradford's political activism and anti-Lincoln
sentiments cause his downfall, or was it the persuasive powers of
Messrs. Feulner, Buckley, and Kristol? The clever answer to that
question is "a little bit of both." However, the more
you think about it, the more that explanation fails to convince.
If Bradford's acts and opinions alone brought him down, then why
credit persuasion? And if persuasion turned the tide, then couldn't
one reasonably blame the persuaders, as Sam Francis did?

Besides,
I find "persuaded" too benign a word to describe what
Bradford's opponents did to defeat him. Here are just a few examples,
most of them reported to us by friends inside the Beltway:

  • The Neocons
    enlisted the support of a University of Dallas colleague, who
    furnished them with passages, violently wrenched from Mel's
    writings, which the Great Manipulator passed around the Old
    Executive Office Building. The collection was entitled “Quotes
    from Chairman Mel” — an arch allusion to a volume of quotes
    by that old Paleo Mao Tse-Tung. By an extraordinary coincidence,
    the colleague who supplied this information ended up working
    for Bennett at the National Endowment for the Humanities.

  • Bennett’s
    partisans called the UD English Department and pumped the secretary
    for negative gossip about Bradford. She refused to give them
    anything – in large part because there was nothing to give.
    But they called her again and again, day after day, until she
    finally began hanging up on them.

  • According
    to our sources, the Great Manipulator padded up and down the
    halls of OEOB, telling everyone from the Vice President to the
    janitor that Bradford had a meager bibliography and that most
    of the items were from obscure Southern journals. In fact, Bradford’s
    bibliography was almost
    as long as the Mississippi River — and included publications
    from all over the country. One of those obscure Southern journals
    was the Sewanee Review, considered by many to be the
    most prestigious literary quarterly in the English language.
    Another was the Southern Review, which routinely published
    works by Pulitzer Prize winners.

  • The Great
    Manipulator repeatedly warned the Car Dealer that Bradford would
    be rejected by the Senate in a nasty floor fight, thereby embarrassing
    the new president. Aware of this ploy, Bradford's Washington
    supporters – including the late Sen. John East – visited
    a number of offices and compiled a dossier of letters signed
    by, according to someone involved, at least 32 Senators, pledging
    their support to Bradford – Democrats as well as Republicans.
    These letters were sent to the Office of Presidential Personnel
    and placed in Bradford’s folder. A few days later, they were
    gone. (Washington insiders called it "stripping the files.")
    Bradford’s supporters told us that the likely culprit was Sneaky
    Sal, who was an ally of the Great Manipulator and worked in
    OEOB. Undaunted, Bradford's people went around to all of the
    offices and again obtained signed letters. A few days later,
    Sneaky Sal apparently struck again. The second batch of letters
    disappeared. So a third time, Bradford’s supporters made the
    rounds of senatorial offices and gathered signed pledges of
    support.

In
the end, such tactics prevailed. Since Mel had been vulnerable because
of his publications — anti-Federalist, pro-Southern, anti-Lincoln
– perhaps an honest, straightforward opposition would have
won the day for the Neocons, as Mr. Frum, in his latest version,
suggests it did. But they just weren't willing to take that chance.
Hence the "gutter tactics," "hard ball," "persuasion,"
whatever Mr. Frum wants to call it.

In
1981, a Washington supporter suggested that we do the same kind
of hatchet job on Bennett – who, to our knowledge, had behaved
well throughout the struggle and had never engaged in Bradford bashing.
Mel vetoed the idea. In the end, he agreed with Will Rogers, who
said, "I'd rather be the man who bought the Brooklyn Bridge
than the man who sold it." I can't help but wonder if Mr. Frum
and all those old Indian fighters could possibly understand such
a remark.

Twelve
years after the NEH squabble, Mel Bradford died in a South Texas
hospital during an emergency operation to repair a severely damaged
heart. Alarmingly overweight, he had suffered a coronary while attending
a conservative conference. When I heard he had been hospitalized,
I called him. The surgery was scheduled for the next morning. His
voice was strong, and he was in good spirits. We talked for about
ten minutes. Both of us knew this might be our last conversation.
(Earlier that day I had taken a dark suit to the cleaners.)

Then,
just before we hung up, he said to me,”If I go out tomorrow, I’ll
go without any bitterness in my heart. I’m at peace with everybody.”

He
was not necessarily talking about the Great Manipulator or those
who participated in the various machinations to block his nomination.
However, if they were on his mind that night, I'm sure he meant
to include them in this blanket absolution. When you're about to
die, you can't be bothered with irrelevant matters like the National
Endowment for the Humanities.

But
what about those of us who are left behind? How should we respond
to these renewed attacks? The Christians among us have it on the
Highest Authority that we are to forgive our enemies. Whether or
not we have the duty (or even the right) to forgive the enemies
of our friends is a more complicated question. If a friend is maligned
or patronized when he is no longer present to defend himself, perhaps
we should turn the other cheek. But then it isn't our cheek that's
been slapped, is it?

I'm
surprised that this matter has surfaced again. No one has anything
to gain by keeping the quarrel alive. The Neocons have all the power
and visibility and resources they yearned for in 1981. The Paleos
have been marginalized to the point where their opinions, given
voice by a shrinking number of publications, are depicted as scandalous
by the Left and by such people as Mr. Frum.

The
Neocons are too busy running the world to tilt with Mel Bradford.

The
Paleos, in the Era of Political Correctness, risk calumny every
time they open their mouths, particularly in defense of the dead.

Besides,
what we're really debating here is not substance but form, what
is considered "proper" as opposed to what is intellectually
true. Simply put, the Neocons did things we were taught not to do.
Apparently they were taught differently. Today, folks call that
"diversity."

At
this late date, the Neocons' best rhetorical ploy is not to rewrite
history but to say, "So what? We won, you lost." –
precisely what William Tecumseh Sherman might have told Southern
civilians whose farms he ordered burned and whose family members
he ordered randomly shot. (It was Sherman who said, "The only
good Indian is a dead Indian.")

That
kind of response would silence us, since we would be left with no
common ground on which to pursue the debate. But letu2018s hear no more
of noble Indian fighters and Paleo self pity. We could say a lot
more on those subjects. And we will, if sufficiently provoked.

April
25, 2003

Thomas
H. Landess [send him mail]
taught English for 24 years at Vanderbilt, Converse College, and
the University of Dallas. He has published literary criticism and
political commentary in such publications as the Wall Street
Journal, the Sewanee Review, and Modern Age.


     

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