December 6, 2005


'I Didn't Like Nixon Until Watergate': The Conservative Movement Now (Rick Perlstein, Huffington Post)

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 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.

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?

As a matter of fact, there are rather few people of principle and the ones who pretend to be are pretty useless to a political movement. A principled conservative would be obligated to sit by and watch everything he supposedly wants to conserve be destroyed because the exercise of power to save it requires pragmatic compromise. That's why the Right hated Reagan while he was in office and hates W now. Two things are always worth recalling in this regard. First, Eric Hoffer's dictum:
Free men are aware of the imperfection inherent in human affairs, and they are willing to fight and die for that which is not perfect. They know that basic human problems can have no final solutions, that our freedom, justice, equality, etc. are far from absolute, and that the good life is compounded of half measures, compromises, lesser evils, and gropings toward the perfect. The rejection of approximations and the insistence on absolutes are the manifestation of a nihilism that loathes freedom, tolerance, and equity.

And, second, after all that guff about turning the other cheek, Christ personally scourged the moneychangers.

Posted by Orrin Judd at December 6, 2005 8:37 PM

Not bad for an undereducated working stiff, eh?

Posted by: ghostcat at December 6, 2005 11:40 PM

Insistence on absolutes is what drives the totalitarian.

Posted by: Mikey at December 7, 2005 8:53 AM

It's the insistance on perfection that prevents, for example, the California Republican party from having much influence. The point of politics is that we progress toward goals, and we elect candidates who might help us progress toward them. The search for the perfect candidate always turns into a witchhunt for the "deviations" of others from perfection, and the advocates of perfection are, like everyone else, never able to see themselves as possessing faults. The process of politics consists of discovering those faults as weaknesses in your agenda. Principle is a starting place, but politics is about persuasion.

Posted by: Arnold Williams at December 7, 2005 9:31 AM

Being that Nixon's "political surveilance and opposition department," known as the Watergate burglars, unlike their Democratic predecessors
Intertel,or their later sucessor IGI, were possibly the most unpopular clients in the day; Caddy is to be commended for taking the job. As
for Thomas Charles Huston, he had the Patriot
Act down ,before it was cool.

Posted by: narciso at December 8, 2005 10:10 AM