Huston: The Hard Life of a Genuine Moderate
(For the use of the membership only)
by Tom Huston
I don’t have a thing against moderates. Indeed, some of my best friends are moderates. I am confident that they are genuine moderates because they assure me that they are. They are leery of extremists (whom they associate with the Tea Party and evangelical snake handlers), but they still invite me to an occasional cocktail party. That, I think, demonstrates that they also are tolerant.
The faculty at Indiana University fingered me as a right-wing extremist when I introduced Sen. Barry Goldwater to a full house at the University auditorium. I asserted that Franklin D. Roosevelt was guilty of criminal negligence in not warning Admiral Husband E. Kimmel at Pearl Harbor that the Pacific fleet might be in danger. I suspect there are still a few old-timers squirreled away in nursing homes in Bloomington who get the shakes when my name comes up in the course of discussion about the perils of snake-handling.
As a student, I never had much sense about the proprieties of introductions in an academic community. Having offended half the faculty during that Goldwater presentation, I ticked off the rest of them the following year when I introduced Gov. George Wallace of Alabama as a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination in the forthcoming Indiana primary. I did realize at the time that it was in bad taste to call attention to the party with which segregationists identified.
President Richard Nixon once introduced me to the prime minister of Australia as his resident liberal. He thought it was a joke, but the prime minister didn’t get it. Neither did my wife.
Actually, the president thought I was a progressive conservative, which he regarded as a compliment. I thought it was cause for questioning where I had gone wrong. National Review publisher Bill Rusher had a ready answer to that question: I had gone off the rails when I went to work for Dick Nixon. Bill thought I was a conservative sellout, which was worse than being a progressive conservative, but not by much.
J. Edgar Hoover referred to me in conversations with his staff as “that hippie intellectual.” I think he got that impression because I had long hair, and I spoke in complete sentences. Liberals never accused me of being an intellectual. When I showed up at the I.U. Student Union Building for initiation into Phi Beta Kappa, the preeminent liberal don looked at me with surprise and asked what I was doing there.
I don’t mean any offense, but I have always thought that moderates were a dependent class. Like the yellow strip down the middle of the road, their position is determined by the width of the ideological pavement. Widen the road and the yellow strip shifts. As the political distance between conservatives and progressives increases, moderates are forced to shift ground to stay centered. Where they end up depends largely on which strip of pavement, left or the right, is the widest.
Moderates today are not the same as those I tangled with 50 years ago. On economic issues they are more conservative and on social issues more liberal. That may be a badge of honor, but they didn’t earn it. It was awarded by the ideological pavement contractor.
Moderates tend to be put off by fighting words, such as “have a blessed day.” Conservatives and progressives, on the other hand, are fine with them. Conservatives, particularly those associated with radical groups like the Tea Party, have a weakness for such provocative statements as “Obama is a failed president.” Progressives are not reluctant to respond in kind: “Just shut up.”
Goldwater didn’t think that moderation in pursuit of liberty is a virtue, but what did he know? After all, he got swamped in the general election, which delighted moderate Republicans. Progressives denounced Ronald Reagan as a right-wing extremist until he died, at which point he became the model of moderation in contrast to those Republican extremists who were still breathing.
It’s tough out there in the middle of the road, ducking reckless extremists as they speed by. I concede that someone has to do it. Just not me.
Tom Charles Huston, A.B., J.D., an adjunct scholar of the Indiana Policy Review Foundation who lives in Indianapolis, is retired from the private practice of law. He served as an officer in the United States Army assigned to the Defense Intelligence Agency and as associate counsel to the president of the United States.