The Twilight of Conservatism

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As the fading lights of conservative principle dwindle in America’s dark political landscape, those who love life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the Creator from Whom they flow have ample reason to be discouraged. But we must not lose heart.

Fifty years ago, conservatism faced equally grim prospects. Its Republican champions, Robert Taft and Tail Gunner Joe, were dead or discredited. Its establishment alternative, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, appointed Earl Warren and William Brennan to the Supreme Court. He then embraced the growth of the welfare state in proportions that, for his day, were gargantuan. Those were the dark days of 90% tax brackets, "duck and cover," the rise of the United Nations, and the consolidation of Communist rule over a large part of the world even as the liberal establishment consolidated power over the Republican party.

Tough times? Yes indeed. Yet, one conservative did not throw in the towel. My father, Clarence Manion, known as the "Dean" because of his leadership at Notre Dame Law School for thirty years, had early on been one of Eisenhower’ s favorite Democrats. In the two years before the 1952 elections, dad’s Key To Peace had sold over a million copies; he had become a national spokesman for Constitutional government. In 1953 Ike appointed him to chair a commission designed to restore to the states the powers that had been usurped during the FDR years (a talkative but unhelpful junior member was Hubert Horatio Humphrey, a freshman senator from Minnesota).

But Ike soon soured on his conservative champion because Dean Manion had become an advocate of the Bricker Amendment, a Constitutional measure designed to prevent the now-familiar disintegration of American sovereignty under the attack of international organizations and treaties. Ike first tried to cajole dad: "Be neutral and I’ll put you on the Supreme Court," Ike told the Dean.

No dice. But why? Well, Dad used to tell his law students, "If you take the first bribe, you may as well take the rest." So Ike, who thought he had made an offer no one could refuse, figured he had no choice. He fired dad in early 1954, the Bricker Amendment failed, and the first "Republican" administration in twenty years closed the door on conservatism.

There the story might have ended, but for one man’s faith — not in government but in "the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God." Fifty years ago this summer, dad founded "The Manion Forum," a weekly conservative radio broadcast carried over hundreds of stations throughout the country. His tenacious articulation of principle, his defense of the Constitution, and his abiding faith enlightened and enlivened American conservatives for twenty-five years — during which there was no talk radio, no Internet, and no cable news. His was truly a voice in the wilderness.

1954 presented conservatives with a dark picture of freedom’s future, but Dad was undaunted. In 1958, he endorsed Barry Goldwater, at the time a relatively unknown Arizona Republican senator, for president. In 1959, dad found Goldwater a collaborator, Brent Bozell (Bill Buckley’s brother-in-law), coined a title, Conscience of a Conservative, and founded a publishing company when no one else would take the book.

The result was the best-selling political manifesto in English of the twentieth century. 500 pre-publication copies were sent to delegates to the Republican state nominating conventions of several states in early 1960, and the conservative movement of the second half of the century was in full swing.

Ronald Reagan was as close to a personification of that movement as anyone.

When he became president, it was "morning in America." When he was buried last month in California, twilight’s last gleaming disappeared over the horizon.

Now it is night-time in America — as dark for conservatives as it was in 1954. But with fidelity to principle, a tenacious defense of our Constitution, and a reverence for the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God, today’s true conservatives will find an eager and energetic generation ready to heed the call.

That was the secret of conservative success of Clarence E. "Dean" Manion, who died twenty-five years ago today, on July 28, 1979.

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