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

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.