Lessons for Today from the Immortals, Buckley and Reagan

April 2, 2013 - 4:30 AM

Looking over this audience, I sense that I may have been around the political track a few more laps than most of you. I can tell you that every lap is unique in its own way -- and that the lap we completed last November was uniquely disappointing. Rarely in my experience has a winning candidate appealed to meaner spirits. Never has a winning candidate seemed less interested in calling his countrymen to reconciliation and common purpose. When has an American President, even in the afterglow of victory, seemed so small?

As you all are painfully aware, it is the settling judgment of the commentariat that the light of the American day is beginning to fade. They say that we are on the downslope of history and headed for inconsequence. That's highly unlikely, in my view, but it may help to remember that ours is not by a wide measure the darkest day in the American story. Heed the words of Abraham Lincoln, speaking from the pitch-blackness of December 1862: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion . . . We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country."

Exactly. Let's begin today to disenthrall ourselves.

I propose, in search of wisdom, to summon the ghosts of my two great mentors, William F. Buckley Jr. and Ronald Reagan. Buckley, the younger man by 14 years, first.

Bill Buckley was, as you know, a man of great accomplishment. He wrote more than fifty books. He edited an earth-shaking magazine. He hosted the longest-running talk show in television history. Bill Buckley took it upon himself to shape and then build and then lead the conservative revival in this country. That task became the central mission of his life.

When I went to work for him in 1963, he had begun the rough assembly of a new conservative coalition. The first cluster of potential supporters he called Traditionalists. These were people of religious faith. People of patriotic fervor.  People who stood up a little straighter when the flag went by. The second cluster was made up of Libertarians. People who reveled in the promise of American opportunity. People who squirmed under the hot breath of government on the back of their neck. And the third cluster, at the time much the largest of the three, were the anti-Communists. People who saw American values as a stay against international chaos. People who saw American military might as a civilizing force in the twilight struggle for the world.

The tensions between and among these groups, as you can imagine, were palpable. The Libertarians looked at religious belief and saw superstition. The Traditionalists looked back at the Libertarians and saw godless amorality. Both groups looked at the anti-Communists and remarked the high price in individual liberty paid to the national security state. The coalition seemed always at the edge of dissolution.

But they were pulled together by centripetal forces, as well - not just by the charismatic leadership of Bill Buckley, but by a shared cultural heritage, by a temperamental optimism tethered to an historical pessimism, and by the most powerful adhesive of all, a common enemy. The Traditionalists knew that a dominant Soviet Union would crush religious freedom. The Libertarians knew that a dominant Soviet Union would crush economic opportunity. And the national security hawks knew that a dominant Soviet Union would replace a benign pax Americana with a rapacious pax Sovietica. Bill Buckley's allies in those days amounted to little more than a ragtag scouting party. But they would grow in time into a continental army.

One of the pivotal moments in conservative history, a moment that would define the political contours of our movement even to the present day, came in the winter of 1964. The question before the editorial board of Buckley's National Review was this: whom should the magazine support for the Republican presidential nomination? In those early, formative days, National Review's support was thought to be dispositive in such questions.

On one side were the supporters of Nelson Rockefeller, then governor of New York. On the other, supporters of Barry Goldwater, then senator from Arizona. The case for Rockefeller will sound familiar. It went like this. First, Rockefeller was a sophisticated candidate, a man of nuance and moderation who could expect positive treatment from the eastern press. Second, Rockefeller had the financial resources and his influence was marbled through the institutional Northeast - Wall Street, big medicine, big philanthropy, the real estate moguldom, the high culture. As governor of a northeastern state, it was thus argued, Rockefeller could put at least parts of that region in play - a rare and valuable asset for any Republican hopeful.

But all of that was mere preamble. The most potent argument for Rockefeller was that on the central issue of the campaign - in those days, it was our struggle with international Communism - on that issue, Rockefeller would stand with us against our mortal foes, the capitulationists of all parties.

That was a strong argument, one that you will recognize in its basic outline as the winning argument at the two most recent Republican conventions.

What was the response from the Goldwater camp? First, we argued that Goldwater would make our brand-new case for conservatism with verve and impact. Most Americans had never heard that case - remember, we were making it up week by week at the magazine. Most voters had never seen a conservative candidate; liberalism, in either its hard or soft iterations, controlled both parties. Second, we argued, a Rockefeller nomination would mute both the social issues and the limited-government issues. (I would remind you that Nelson Rockefeller was himself a social liberal, in his personal appetites almost Clintonian. And he was, quintessentially, a big-government Republican, as those of you who have visited Albany, New York can attest.) By alienating both the Traditionalists and the Libertarians, in other words, Rockefeller's nomination would stunt or splinter our emerging conservative coalition. Finally and most important, we argued that Goldwater would advance our cause strategically. He would yank the party from its roots in the eastern establishment and push it into the future - toward the west and toward the south.

Does this debate sound familiar? It should. It is the core debate that has engaged conservatives and Republicans every four years for the past half-century. It was at the heart of the primary battles of 2012 and will most likely be so again in 2016 -with Chris Christie, possibly, cast in the Rockefeller role and Rand Paul, possibly, cast in Goldwater's.

How did Bill Buckley resolve this question? In June of 1964, he gathered the editors in New York and announced that "National Review will support the rightwardmost viable candidate." Yes, Bill Buckley spoke in the cloudy, oracular mode. But what he said was a clear victory for Barry Goldwater. Note that Bill did not use the word "electable." What he meant by the word "viable" was that Goldwater, while quite possibly the proximate loser in 1964, would likely be a long-term winner for our cause. He was the man who would help us conservatize both party and country.

And so it came to pass. For the next forty years, Republicans nominated and elected conservative candidates from the west and the south - Nixon twice, Reagan twice, the Bushes thrice. Think of how different the political landscape might look today if there had been no Goldwater and, in turn, no Reagan.

There are many lessons that can be adduced from this seminal episode, but I commend to you this one, which has served us well in all political seasons: We as conservatives should embrace our role as the permanent insurgency. We will never be the entrenched establishment. It is the natural tendency of government to spread and engorge and metastasize - that's been true from Periclean Athens twenty-five hundred years ago to the socialist dystopia that is Athens today. And if it is the propensity of government to grow, it is the responsibility of the citizen to join the resistance.

Now, Ronald Reagan. As President, he gave me two jobs. First, my production company won the contract to produce his television appearances. It was the worst job I ever had. My recurring nightmare in those days was that I would get up one morning, walk down the driveway to get the paper and see there my picture above the fold on the front page under the headline: "Nitwit Producer Makes Reagan Look Bad on TV." A wiseguy in my office used to shout out whenever we packed up for a shoot at the White House: "Don't get famous today." It was a terrible job, no upside whatsoever, but we proved for all time that nobody could make Ronald Reagan look bad on TV. And the job had side benefits. We got to know the President better.

Just one Reagan story. One of the things I liked best about him was that he was so instinctively anti-bureaucratic. One day we were covering the visit of a new Japanese prime minister. We got that classic Oval Office two-shot, the leaders, side by side, armchairs at the oblique angle, discussing weighty matters of state. One and done, we thought. But our friends from NHK, the big Japanese network, were in a tizzy. They didn't want just a garden-variety video op, something that the Prime Minister of Thailand or New Zealand might get. They wanted something to show a personal relationship between the two great allies, a special rapport beyond the perfunctory diplomatic relationship. Much chatter ensued, most of it above my pay grade. Then Reagan agrees that he'll do a walkabout - and soon enough the tall American is loping across the White House grounds, pointing out attractions to the prime minister, who was scurrying after Reagan like a hapless schoolboy. Well, you don't get to be prime minister of Japan without a little political savvy. So, pretty soon, the prime minister is pointing at things and gesticulating, too. They come to a stop across from the old EOB - a huge, gingerbread office building stuffed with assistants to the president and assistants to the assistants and assistants to the assistants to the assistants. And the prime minister points and says, "Ahh, what's that building?" And Reagan says, "Well, they call that the Old Executive Office Building. Offices for my staff." And the prime minister says, "Ahh, how many people work there?" And Reagan without missing a beat says, "Best I can tell, about half."

The other side benefit of that job was a lesson I learned from Reagan - a timeless lesson, to be sure, but particularly apposite to this historical moment. In almost every speech he gave, every public appearance, Reagan taught us to celebrate the right heroes. I've come to believe it's one of the most important elements of leadership - in a nation, in a community, in a business, in a family.

We all know who Obama's heroes are. He displays them as if in a trophy case in the First Lady's box at the State of the Union. According to my informal survey, there appear to be four tickets to Michelle's box in the balcony, four kinds of Obama heroes. First, a witness to the venality of corporate America. Second, a pioneer in some form of separatism or multiculturalism. Third, a victim whose plight could have been averted by higher government spending. And fourth, a rich guy who wants to be taxed at higher rates. That's Obama's America. The Obama coalition - the resentful, the aggrieved, the dependent and the guilt-stricken.

That wasn't the Reagan coalition. Those were not Reagan's heroes.

Yes, of course, he celebrated conventional heroism - the astronaut, the Green Beret, the Secret Service man willing to take a bullet for him. Nobody did that better. Nobody did that more gratefully. But those weren't what we came to recognize as Reagan's heroes, the Americans who epitomized for him a teachable moment.

No, his heroes were salesmen and shopkeepers. Inventors and entrepreneurs. Pastors and coaches. Parents and grandparents. People who cope and tinker, people who lead and mentor. People who aim at high purpose and pursue it in high spirit. Reagan's heroes were ordinary men and women growing into their roles as free American citizens - in Reagan's view, the greatest role one could play upon the human stage. His heroes were us and, for seeing us that way, we loved him.

I once dug up a quote from John O'Hara that Reagan liked. O'Hara, the popular mid-century novelist, had written that there are two kinds of people in this world, the people who do things and the people who describe things.

Take a lesson from Ronald Reagan here. Celebrate the right kinds of heroes. Bring up your kids and grandkids to be doers, not describers.

The other job Reagan gave me was much more satisfying. Back in the Eighties, I had made a film on Margaret Thatcher's privatization initiative. As you may recall, the British government in the postwar period had nationalized various domestic industries. These were spasms of socialist enthusiasm, never reconsidered, never reversed. Well, Mrs. Thatcher, who had the heart of a lioness, decided that it was time to de-nationalize those industries - or, as she put it, to privatize them. First with Jaguar motor cars, as I recall, and then with British Telecom, the big UK telephone company, and others. These IPOs were great success stories. Win-win-wins: the British treasury received windfall checks, the managers and employees began to earn competitive compensation and the customers got improved products and services. And they needed improvement. If you owned a government-made Jaguar in the late 'Seventies, you probably had it in the shop more often than you had it on the road.  And as Mrs. Thatcher said memorably of BT's handsets back then, "You can have any color you like as long as it's black."

Well, I produced this film and aired it on PBS, where it was seen by seven people - one of whom, as God clearly intended, was a member of the White House staff. A few weeks later, I was summoned to the White House, along with two colleagues, and told that the President wanted to privatize Intelsat. Would I be interested in working on such a project? I replied thoughtfully, as one tends to do in those circumstances, by saying, "Yes, sir." On the way out, I remember saying to myself, "I wonder what that Intelsat is."

As it turned out, Intelsat was the global satellite consortium that carried most of the world's voice, video and data traffic. It was the basic infrastructure for international communication. To my further surprise, Intelsat turned out to be not a commercial entity governed by contract but an Intergovernmental Organization, or IGO, governed by treaty. What that meant in practice was that any material change at Intelsat would require the unanimous approval of the signatories to the treaty -- 146 different sovereign nations. One of which was France. Well, we started beavering away - tugging and hauling, meeting each time on a different continent, conducting meetings in seven different languages, maneuvering here and there. Hiring French people. And we finally got Intelsat de-bureaucratized and then transferred into the hands of private investors. It was a win-win-win. But that was in 2002. And by that time, of course, my colleagues had retired along the way, our liaison officers at the State Department and the Commerce Department had turned over and, most dismayingly of all, President Reagan in 1994 had slipped into the fog of Alzheimer's. I did the only thing I could think of and reported in to Nancy Reagan, who did me the kindness of pretending to know what I was talking about. But even if he was denied a sense of personal satisfaction, it was a great day for Ronald Reagan. A news story was headlined, "One Last Win for the Gipper." And so it was. In this microcosmic way, we had helped Reagan do what he tried always and everywhere to do - to vest responsibility in free people living in a free society, while pushing back against the advance of statism.

He would do it elsewhere, of course. On many occasions. Famously, in 1983, he had liberated the island of Grenada. You will recall that the Liberals mocked him for deploying vast military might to invade a tiny Caribbean nation. But it was always a great day for Ronald Reagan when he could flip a piece of real estate, however small, from the column marked "slave state" to the column marked "free state."

It was in these and a long series of other microcosmic victories that Reagan laid the predicate for the masterwork of his presidency - when he gathered the forces of righteousness that would blow down the Berlin Wall and let the winds of freedom rush into every dusty corner of the Soviet empire. That was a macrocosmic victory for the free peoples of the world.

What lesson does Reagan bequeath to us today? I think he would tell us to be ever-vigilant for opportunities to enlarge the zone of individual freedom. In our homes and workplaces. At the school board and the town meeting. And yes, at the elections board and the polling place. For some of you, at the state and national levels. All of us should look always and everywhere to enlarge the zone of freedom. Let's not let government fill the vacuum. Let's fill it ourselves.

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