Huston: Reminiscences of a Conservative Dawn

November 19, 2013

(For the use of the membership only; copyright © 2013 by Tom Charles Huston, all rights reserved, reprinted by permission)

By Tom Huston

I have been ruminating lately on the debt I owe to that generation of American conservative thinkers who were my mentors in the early morning hours of the modern conservative renaissance. The clock is working against those of my generation who were present, if not at the creation, then at the hour of the first major ground attack by organized conservative forces against two of the major redoubts of liberal hegemony: the universities and the “modern” Republican party of Dwight Eisenhower. Memories are fading and a new generation of conservatives is riding high in the saddle pushing a rootless, programmatic conservatism of universalist pretensions.

A movement that was forged in adversity and unified by idea and necessity has, since the end of the Cold War, been plagued by schisms arising less from ideas and ideals than from policies and personalities. During the Reagan years, the movement entered into what George Nash calls “the era of applied conservatism” — that is, it turned its attention from theory to practice. In the desire to be a governing party, it has increasingly focused on policy to the exclusion of principle. It has become more committed to the idea of governing than to governing in accord with an idea.

It has been more than 50 years since I enlisted in the conservative militia that launched the initial forays against the liberal citadels that dominated the American landscape in the Age of Camelot. In the course of my enlistment, I rose from the ranks to command the field force that was YAF (Young Americans for Freedom).

YAF was a political-action organization. We were committed to rousting the liberals from control of government. We envisioned a day when the government in Washington would be in the hands of conservatives, not for the patronage benefits that would accrue, but for the public-policy objectives that could be realized. We were, thus, early advocates of an “applied” conservatism. It did not, however, occur to us that conservative governance could be divorced from conservative ideas or principles.

The notion that a policy wonk could be expected to advance a conservative public-policy agenda without a deep understanding of conservative principles simply did not have currency among us. We would have thought it inconceivable that conservatives in power would seek to distance themselves from conservative intellectuals, would come to believe that conservative policy could be divorced from conservative philosophy or would subscribe to the idea that the “practical” was incompatible with the theoretical.

Our cadres were schooled in philosophy as well as policy, and they understood the difference. Our troops were trained to teach as well as to fight.

When I enrolled in the Department of Government’s honors program at Indiana University in the fall of 1959, there was one self-identified conservative on the faculty, and the closest thing to a consciously conservative student organization was the Young Republicans, which was controlled by the Phi Delta Theta social fraternity as a captive credential-builder for its pledge class.

In the spring of 1960, I heard about a book by the junior senator from Arizona titled “The Conscience of a Conservative.” I went to the university bookstore to buy a copy, but it was not on anyone’s required reading list and was not available. I checked several off-campus bookstores and finally found one that had a few copies on hand. The proprietor had read (in the Chicago Tribune, as I recall) that the book was developing something of a cult following among young people. The cult had not yet reached Bloomington until I showed up at his store and purchased a copy.

Early in the summer after my freshman year at Indiana University, I took the time to read “The Conscience of a Conservative.” It was short, it was simple, and it was compelling. Barry Goldwater’s conscience and my conscience were in sync.

A fraternity brother at DePauw University told me about an organization that sponsored a lecture on his campus by a conservative academic from the University of Chicago. The Intercollegiate Society of Individualists (now the Intercollegiate Studies Institute or ISI) had a regional office in Indianapolis, and I phoned Don Lipsett, the regional director, and asked if I could meet with him.

I took a day off work and drove the 75 miles from Logansport to Indianapolis to solicit Don’s help in establishing a student conservative organization at Indiana University. He was generous with his advice, offered to provide speakers if I could put a group together and sent me on my way. In the fall, I set up a table at student registration, posted a sign announcing the formation of the Indiana University Conservative League and, in the course of two days, signed up fifteen members, among whom was Phil Crane, then a graduate student, later a distinguished member of Congress.

In the course of the 1960-1961 school term, young conservatives firmly and defiantly planted their flag on the Bloomington campus. We didn’t march, and we didn’t protest. We invited discussion, we pitched ideas, and we gave as well as we took.

Young conservatives in the early 1960s battled on two fronts: One was intellectual and the other was political. Operating within a community of scholars, it was imperative for conservatives to establish their intellectual credentials and to claim a legitimate intellectual heritage. If we were to be taken seriously, we had to be serious and acknowledged to be serious, which meant we had to traffic in ideas.

On the political front, we had to mobilize, strike at targets of opportunity and seize the initiative. We were, at best, a guerrilla force operating behind enemy lines. We had few resources, no trained field commanders and a challenge in recruiting. That we prospered at all was remarkable. That we ultimately turned the tide was more a tribute to the power of the ideas we advocated than to the skill we demonstrated in small-unit tactics.

For a young person on the right in the early 1960s, the first order of business was the fight against international communism. The YAF entered this fight with enthusiasm and élan. We supported the loyalty oath, the government employment security program, the House Un-American Activities Committee and, at mid-decade, the war in Vietnam. We opposed trade with Communist countries (which we characterized as “the enemy”) and the admission of Red China to the United Nations. It was this opposition to communism that unified a right that, on domestic issues, social policy and cultural values, was held together with bailing wire and Band-Aids.

I have never known two conservatives who did not disagree on some point that one or both of them regarded as “fundamental.” Factious and contentious, the “organized” Right in the ’60s was a herd of cats that didn’t want to be herded. The YAF succeeded better than most in keeping the herd moving in the same direction, largely as a result of our statement of principles, the “Sharon Statement.”

It is difficult to conceive of two more different documents than the Sharon Statement and the “Port Huron Statement” — the statement of principles propounded by Students for a Democratic Society. It was not merely the difference in substance that was striking, but also the difference in length. The Sharon Statement was short and concise. The Port Huron Statement was long and diffuse — some would say ponderous.

The Sharon Statement, drafted by then Indianapolis News editor M. Stanton Evans, reflected the philosopher Frank Meyer’s “fusionist” dictum that the mission of conservatives was to seek traditionalist ends through libertarian means. It had something to offer to all the 57 varieties of American conservatism. It affirmed that there are “eternal truths;” declared that “foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;” stated that the Constitution is the best arrangement yet devised to establish and maintain limited government (the sole purposes of which are “the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense and the administration of justice”) and cited the division of powers (federalism) as “the genius of the Constitution;” embraced the free market as the “single economic system compatible with the requirements of personal freedom and constitutional government;” and pronounced opposition to international communism the most important business at hand, rejecting co-existence and demanding victory.

By opting for a mission statement with broad objectives and general principles in the early years, we were largely able to avoid the sectarianism that is the Achilles heel of a political organization with an ideological orientation. Each young conservative was free to emphasize that particular point in the statement that he deemed most important, and when disputes arose, as they often did, compromise was possible by recourse to the accommodating language of the statement.

Yet the most vexing aspect of my job as YAF national chairman was refereeing disagreements among various “tendencies” within the organization. The internecine ideological revolts that had to be quelled constantly were not unique to young conservatives. They were endemic to the movement.

Bill Buckley was referee-in-chief. With tact, charm and a natural disposition to accommodate, he kept most of the intellectuals who constituted the National Review crowd in the fold and, generally, on speaking terms, although not even his enviable talents were sufficient to keep an occasional lamb from wandering off.

The cause of this restlessness was rarely a difference of opinion involving a substantive public policy. Generally it was the result of a disagreement over tactics or, more often, a difference over “principle,” that is, a matter of doctrine. For conservatives of the founding generation, ideas mattered and were worth fighting over.

Young conservatives in those early years were fortunate to have easy access to the most distinguished conservative thinkers. The yeoman work that Intercollegiate Studies Institute did in organizing seminars featuring such intellectual stars as Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, George Stigler, Milton Friedman, Thomas Molnar and Gerhart Niemeyer enabled thousands of young conservatives to be introduced not only to great ideas but to great thinkers.

The National Review circle was incredibly generous in its outreach to young people. Bill Buckley had made his family home at Sharon, Conn., available for the founding meeting of YAF and spoke at every YAF national meeting during its early years.

Bill Rusher intervened to save YAF when, in its infancy, a schism threatened to destroy the organization. Frank Meyer relished the role of arbitrator of contesting ideas and tendencies and threw himself into the fray when matters of doctrine were the subjects of the hour. The early ’60s was a wonderful time to be young and interested in ideas.

I am more optimistic than most about the intellectual future of a uniquely American brand of conservatism. The Intercollegiate Studies Institute, Young America’s Foundation and other similar organizations do important work on campuses educating young people in the principles and heritage of liberty. The existence of a multitude of conservative public-policy organizations such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute and the Indiana Policy Review Foundation was beyond our wildest dreams half a century ago. There are more missionaries today, but the mission remains the same: to educate for liberty.

I am less optimistic about the political prospects of conservatism to the extent that its future is tied to the Republican party. After years of struggle over the course of decades, we seem to have lost much of the ground we gained during the Goldwater and Reagan years. In my jaundiced eye, we are once again faced with a feckless, go-along-to get-along, me-too party short on principle and long on dissembling.

Perhaps I’m wrong. I certainly hope so.

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.



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