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Rick Perlstein

Rick Perlstein

Posted: December 5, 2005 08:40 PM

'I Didn't Like Nixon Until Watergate': The Conservative Movement Now


This past weekend, Princeton University presented the conference "The Conservative Movement: Its Past, Present, and Future." The sponsor, the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions, advertises itself "an independently funded center...[s]tarted by the courageous and interpid Robert P. 'Robby' George, the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence in Princeton's Politics Department." George is a member of the President's Council of Bioethics. "I believe that if students understand our nation's principles, they will grasp their wisdom and goodness," he told the Princeton Alumni Weekly in describing the Madison Program's aims.

Speakers included such right-wing luminaries as Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention, New York Times columnist David Brooks, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich, and William Bennett. Historian and American Enterprise Institute Fellow Steven Hayward opened the conference, posing the question, "What do we mean by conservatism?" He answered by quoting the conservative philososopher Russell Kirk: "belief in a transcendant moral order." Conservatives, he said, "defend the unchanging ground of our changing experience." Karl Rove showed up for a surprise after-lunch briefing and Q&A, in which he defended his conservative purity by boasting of how he pressured a reluctant Republican into voting for a free trade bill ("That sombitch was cryin!").

One self-identified liberal spoke at the conference: myself.

I was part of the panel "Barry Goldwater and the Modern Conservative Movement," alongside Lee Edwards and M. Stanton Evans, cofounders of the pioneering conservative activist group Young Americans for Freedom and movers in the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign. This is the speech I delivered.

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I interviewed both these gentlemen for my Goldwater book on the same day in 1997. That same week I interviewed Richard Viguerie. David Keene of the American Conservative Union set up a breakfast for me at the Capitol Hill Club at which Alfred Regnery, William Schulz of Reader's Digest, and Alan Riskind of Human Events, reminisced about the old days.

I loved it all. As an unabashed ideological liberal in the depths of the age of Clintonian triangulation, I found the recollections of the risks you all took for a cause absolutely inspiring.

In a sense, I considered you political role models.

The name that came up over and over in my interviews with these veterans of Young Americans for Freedom was "Richard Nixon." They came to the 1960 Republican National Convention determined to draft Barry Goldwater for vice president. They left after making a breathtaking ad hoc run at drafting Goldwater for president instead, and taking down the presumptive nominee as an unprincipled sellout.

Richard Nixon once instructed a new staffer, Richard Whalen, "Flexibility is the first principle of politics." The conservative movement has understood itself to be the people who unflaggingly answered back to Nixon: "Principle rises above politics." That's a quote from Alf Regnery, in a profile of him this fall in the Washington Post. In the same article, David Keene related his answer to someone who criticized the ACU for attacking congressional spending, because Republicans were the ones in charge of it: "Well, that's too bad." The man here to my right, Lee Edwards, got the money quote: "What we have here is the principled conservatives vs. the pragmatic conservatives."

Young Americans for Freedom distributed a pamphlet in 1965: the text of the inaugural address of their first chairman named after the Goldwater defeat. It excoriated conservatives "who abuse the truth, who resort to violence and engage in slander," and "who seek victory at any price without regard for the broken lives...incurred by those who stand in the way." That is the spirit of Barry Goldwater--the spirit we honor on this panel. As he put it in Conscience of a Conservative--in italics: "we entrust the conduct of our affairs to men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power they have been given."

I'm working on the sequel to my book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus now. It's going to be called "Nixonland," and it covers the years 1965 to 1972. And it wasn't long into the research before I found myself wrestling with a historiographic problem.

What to make of the fact that some of the names who pioneered this anti-Nixonian movement of principle showed up in the dankest recesses of the Nixon administration? People like Douglas Caddy, of course, the co-founder of the effort to draft Goldwater for vice-president in 1960 and YAF's first president, who was the man the White House called on to represent the Watergate burglars in 1972. And people like the guy inaugurated as YAF's chair in the 1965 with those stirring words about truth: Tom Charles Huston--who, as the author of the first extra-legal espionage and sabotage plan in the Nixon White House, can fairly be called an architect of Watergate.

It is a thread one finds throughout the annals of the Nixon presidency. The notion that what they were doing was moral, the eggs that need be broken in the act of redeeming a crumbling West. Jeb Magruder told the Senate Watergate Committee: "Although I was aware they were illegal we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a cause." That message came straight from the top. "Just remember you're doing the right thing," the president told Bob Haldeman on Easter Sunday, 1973. "That's what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi." Then he briefed him on how to suborn perjury from an aide concerning the blackmailing of the Watergate burglars.

Here is something I started to ponder only after completing Before the Storm. How did my subjects from the youth conservative movement of the 1960s, the ones that later came to inherit the world, present themselves to the researcher who came calling for stories about how their triumph began? On the one hand, beaming, telling me stories of principle. On the other, sometimes in the same breath, winkingly defining political deviancy down, telling Hustonian tales of antinomial subterfuge. Peeling off opposition bumper stickers with razor blades, jamming Rockefeller phone banks, working to subvert the 1961 National Student Association convention by setting up a dummy "Middle of the Road Caucus." I related these in the spirit they were offered: as evidence of good, healthy political exuberance, in an ennervated political age. I didn't even give a second thought to the delight F. Clifton White took in relating, in his two memoirs, his self-tutelage in the techniques of Stalinists--Stalinists!--to take over the Young Republicans National Federation.

Well, I'm writing now, however, not in an age of Clintonian triangulation, but in an age where the notion of conservative Republicans seeing as their first duty divesting themselves of the power they have been given seems perfectly absurd. Perhaps that is why it has becomes my thesis that the Republicans are less the party of Goldwater, and more the party of Watergate--and this not despite the operational ascendecy of the conservative movement in its councils but in some sense because of it.

Nixon knew that if you had a dirty job to get down, you got people who answered to the description he made of E. Howard Hunt and G. Gordon Liddy: "good, healthy right-wing exuberants." My question is: can conservatism exist without the Tom Charles Hustons?

Religious traditions suffused with a sense of millennial stakes often have subrosa discourses akin to what the Mormons call "lying for the Lord." Pentectostal missiologist C. Peter Wagner, for example, has written, "We ought to see clearly that the end does justify the means.... If the method I am using accomplishes the goal I am aiming at, it is for that reason a good method."

Lying for the Lord has its concombinants on the political right. Jerry Falwell has argued for the elimination of all public schools. Nothing wrong with making that argument. But in 1998, when confronted with a quote, he denied making it, and denied having anything to do with the book in which it appeared. It was from a book of transcriptions of his sermons.

This past year, I interviewed Richard Viguerie about conservatives and the presidential campaign. I showed him an infamous flier the Republican National Committee had willingly taken credit for, featuring a crossed-out Bible and the legend, "This will be Arkansas if you don't vote." "To do this," Viguerie told me, "it reminds me of Bush the 41st, and not just him, but other non-conservative Republicans."

Republicans are different from conservatives: that was one of the first lessons I learned when I started interviewing YAFers. I learned it making small talk with conservative publisher Jameson Campaigne, in Ottawa, Illinois, when I asked him if he golfed. He said something like: "Are you kidding? I'm a conservative, not a Republican."

But back to Viguerie's expression of same. With a couple of hours' research I was able to find a mailer from an organization that was then one of his direct-mail clients that said "babies are being harvested and sold on the black market by Planned Parenthood."

Why not cut corners like this, if you believe you are defending the unchanging ground of our changing experience? This is what many Americans of good faith seem to be hearing conservatives telling them. I wonder how many conservative activists know what most liberal activists know: that the White House has in operation an automated program to make it impossible for citizens access through Google certain combinations of words on its website--like: "president/mourning/Iraq."

The conservative obsession with secrecy is exhibited in groups like the Fellowship, which organizes the National Prayer Breakfast each February. They claim a $10 million a year budget and own a group house where eight members of Congress pay subsidized $400 rents and helped broker meetings for foreign dignitaries with Ronald Reagan, but refuse to get permits for the group homes it runs for juvenile delinquents who caused a rash of burglaries in the neighborhood. "There is no such thing as the Fellowship," employees say.

For a less obscure example, consider a group called the House Republican Caucus. They hold their controversial votes in the middle of the night: 2:54 am, 1:56 am, 2:39 am, 5:55 am on a Saturday morning. Or, for a vote on school vouchers in the D.C. public school system during primary season, during an out-of-town presidential debate.

Is this allergy to transparency a constitutive part of conservatism? A friend of mine suggests an answer, imagining Hillary Clinton reading conservative con law professor John Yoo's assertion that "in the exercise of his plenary power to use military force, the Preisdent's decisions are for him alone and are unreviewable": "President Hillary thanks you."

I get the question all the time from smart liberal friends: what is conservatism, anyway? They're baffled. "As far as I can tell, anything someone on the right does is, by definition, ethical. It's not about the act, or even the motivation. It's about who's perpetrating it." It has become the name for a movement that can scream from the rooftops that every Supreme Court nominee should have an expiditious up-or-down vote, then 15 seconds later demand tortuous proceduralism when that nominee is Harriet Miers. Flexibility is the first principle of politics.

I'm trying to make here an argument not about instances, but about a structure of thought. It is the structure of thought betrayed, I think, by Ahmed Chalabi, explaining his deliberate deception of U.S. intelligence: "We were heroes in error."

Is Chalabi, or Jerry Falwell, a "principled conservative" or a "pragmatic conservative." That's a question I'd like to pose to you all. My head hurts just thinking about it.

This part of my talk, I imagine, is long after the point a constitutive operation of conservative intellectual work has clicked on in your minds: the part where you argue that malefactor A or B or C, or transgression X or Y or Z, is not "really" conservative. In conservative intellectual discourse there is no such thing as a bad conservative. Conservatism never fails. It is only failed. One guy will get up, at a conference like this, and say conservatism, in its proper conception, is 33 1/3 percent this, 33 1/3 percent that, 33 1/3 percent the other thing. Another rises to declaim that the proper admixture is 50-25-25.

It is, among other things, a strategy of psychological innocence. If the first guy turns out to be someone you would not care to be associated with, you have an easy, Platonic, out: with his crazy 33-33-33 formula--well, maybe he's a Republican. Or a neocon, or a paleo. He's certainly not a conservative. The structure holds whether it's William Kristol calling out Pat Buchanan, or Pat Buchanan calling out William Kristol.

As the Internet's smartest liberal blogger, Digby, puts it, tongue only partially in cheek: "'Conservative' is a magic word that applies to those who are in other conservatives' good graces. Until they aren't. At which point they are liberals."

Tom Charles Huston often signed his memos to Richard Nixon "Cato the Younger," after the statesman of the late Roman Republic famous for both his stubborn inflexibility and incorruptibility.

What does it mean that the member of Nixon's staff who was closest to the conservative movement, who was best-versed in its literature and its habits, was not merely the most ruthless malefactor on Richard Nixon's staff but the one most convinced he was acting on principle?

Historians of conservatism should make this as central a part of their inquiries as how the exact equipoise of Buckleyan "fusionism" was eventually arrived at.

For the stations of the cross of a conservatism in power include not merely Sharon, Connecticut, but Saipan, Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands; not merely Mont Pelerin, but the competing Indian casinos whose money was laundered by conservative groups on Jack Abramoff's behalf. Barry Goldwater ran against Lyndon Johnson's ties to Bobby Baker. Now Republicans have made Bobby Baker their majority leader. His K Street Project is a lineal descendant of the attitudes and actions that constituted Watergate: Richard Nixon calling for the heads of Democratic donors and howling, "We have all this power and we're not using it." The American Conservative Union has made defending him to the death a point of conservative honor.

Ask yourself, What would Barry Goldwater say?

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Postscript: The response to my address was, understandably, defensive. My co-panelist Stan Evans retorted that my invocation of Richard Nixon was inappropriate because Nixon had never been a genuine conservative. He added: "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate." I responded: "Thanks for making my point."