Mel Bradford, Old Indian Fighters, and the NEH

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

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.


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 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