William F. Buckley and George Wallace

gone, gone with the wind?

Further strangeness in William F. Buckley’s career and its fabled connection to the right wing’s ascendency in the 1960’s: Buckley vs. Wallace.

What’s really impressive to me about Buckley is that he held his own, as a larger-than-life public elitist, within the right-wing insurgency that took over the Republican Party; indeed he helped lead it. That insurgency famously gained most of its ground by evincing not old-school country-estate elitism but extreme populism. The right began attacking Democratic Party inheritors of the New Deal, not wrongly, as privileged and patronizing; even more significantly, and at least as accurately, it ganged liberal Republicans like Nelson Rockefeller in with them. Yet Buckley, a self-created cartoon of privilege and condescension, and in his early adulthood a questing romantic for elite glories, managed to help lead the new-right populist charge.

“Liberal Republicans”: Many younger people today may presume these were oddball edge cases. That misperception shows the overwhelming success of the right-wing effort that began during the period we’re talking about. Both parties then had strong liberal-establishment elements, today often called “moderate” on the Republican side, as the right wing (then led by Robert Taft) was always so immoderate that the Republican Thomas Dewey warned against letting the right take over the party: if it ever did, he predicted, Republicans would lose every future election.

Dewey was wrong, of course, and Kevin Phillips, who got it right — he was an author of the populist “new conservative” strategy of the era — scorned William F. Buckley, calling him “Squire Willie.” It makes sense. What place could a newly populist right have for a Yale man whose hot-potato accent rivaled FDR’s and Rocky’s (Buckley’s was evidently put on), who made a career reveling in Bach, using big words, writing books about private sailing trips, and suggesting that uneducated people shouldn’t vote?

One of the more interesting moments in this conflict within the insurgent right came when Buckley interviewed George Wallace on Buckley’s TV interview show “Firing Line.” Although Buckley did the questioning, the program was marketed as a debate, moderated, supposedly, by one C. Dickerman Williams. (A story for another time, and maybe the only Gore Vidalish moment I’ll ever get: I expose the UES/Litchfield County line of my heritage by noting that this C.D. Williams moved in circles in which my maternal grandparents also moved — mainly liberal-establishment Republican ones! — when I was kid. I remember him well and was amused to discover him on “Firing Line” actively not moderating the Buckley-Wallace “debate.”) Despite the presence of a fake moderator, Buckley’s interview of Wallace is really an O’Reilly-like “this is my show” attack.

Since Wallace was poster-boy for racial segregation in the South, Buckley’s attack on him provides Buckley admirers with yet another basis for claiming that Buckley repudiated racism on behalf of conservatism. But again the realpolitik of the moment suggests more interesting readings to me. Continue reading

“Constitutional” Conservatives v. “Constitutional” Liberals

Charles Rappleye, in an op-ed published by the L.A. Times on August 12 (I just caught up with it via the Bangor Daily News), might seem at first glance to be saying pretty much what I’d been saying in my New Deal 2.0 post of August 1 (also on AlterNet and Salon) regarding the framers of the Constitiution and the issue of public debt — a subject especially relevant to specious Bachmann/Norquist/Tea Party efforts to construct balanced budgets and zero debt as constitutionally essential.

Liberals will tend to like Rappleye’s piece for suggesting that enlightenment minds of the kind liberals admire had a logical, well-informed rationale for founding the nation on a public debt supported by taxes. The piece thus flies in the face of certain right-wing preconceptions, and it may be taken as giving modern liberalism at least as strong a claim as the Tea Party’s on the founding generation’s values regarding financial issues so hotly debated today.

But beyond noting that contrary to the populist right’s view, the Constitution was in fact created largely in order to fund a national debt via federal taxation (an assertion outrageous enough for Constitution-romanticizers both left and right), Rappleye and I take directly opposing views of the significance of that founding debt, and especially of the domestic goals of the confederation Congress’s financier, Robert Morris, a mentor of Alexander Hamilton, in yoking a large public debt to national aims, indeed to the aim of having a nation at all.

Employing a tone of knowledgable, disinterested, slightly amused, “above the fray” superiority, which I find all too typical of commentary that we might  borrow a term from Leslie Fieldler and call “liberaloid,” Rappleye must lionize Robert Morris (Rappeleye is the author of a Morris biography that does so on a larger scale), playing up certain features of Morris’s goals and ideas, downplaying others, and declining to give the economic context that, from a modern liberal point of view anyway, would substantially darken the Morris-Hamilton founding-finance story. Continue reading

The Constitution: Historically Complicated, Politically Ambiguous

In my discussion of U.S. founding history with Tea Party leader Michael P. Leahy, at the Broadside Books blog “Line of Fire,” we’re homing in on two opposed ways of looking at the U.S. Constitution. Leahy sees the document as what he calls a secular covenant; he says the Tea Party (at least his branch of that movement) wants to get back to the plain meaning of the Constitution, as ratified and amended, and he sees Alexander Hamilton — rightly, as far as I’m concerned — as one of the chief early originators of liberal and expansive readings of the document. In his latest post, Leahy presents Hamilton’s opponents Madison and Jefferson as the Constitution’s defenders, Hamilton as its usurper, and ends by posing me the two highly germane questions in italics below, which I begin by answering in my response, set out here in full:


Great questions. Short answers first.

1. Do you agree with my broad view of Madison and Jefferson as the defenders of the Constitution and Hamilton as the usurper? No.

2. Do you agree with Jefferson’s statement that Hamilton’s financial system was “a machine for the corruption of the legislature?” In certain ways, yes, of course it was — but I think it’s important to a) interrogate TJ ‘s description in its political context , and b) assess the politics of your second question in terms of the first.

Here’s why: Continue reading

Chit Chat #2: What *Is* the Dang Constitution, Anyway?

Another round at “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, where Tea Party leader Michael Patrtick Leahy and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims.

Circling now around the Constitution.  In the earlier round, Leahy called it a secular covenant; he also called its adoption and ratification “authentically democratic.” So I say:

I suspect there’s something about your use of “covenant” that needs to be unpacked. Is “covenant” a reference to the incontrovertible fact that the document was written via delegation and ratified via representation?

Nobody can disagree that the Constitution was “formed in an intense, elaborate national discussion that took place over four long years from 1787 to 1791.” But I do infer that we have a clear and stark disagreement over the role of democracy in both the convention and ratification, and in this regard I have a disagreement with many liberal historians too. I think the convention’s purpose, as Randolph announced in calling the meeting to order, was to redress what he called “insufficient checks” against what he was not alone in calling “the democracy.”. . .


I use the term “secular covenant” to describe  the binding nature of the Constitution. It represents an agreement between the citizens, the state governments, and the federal government as to how we consent to be governed.  The terms of this secular covenant are contained in the words of the Constitution and its subsequent amendments, and their meaning is the plain meaning of those words. The method of changing the terms of the secular covenant is found in the amendment process of the document itself. No other means of changing the terms–either expansive judicial interpretrations or executive usurpations–are authentic. . . .


(Stay tuned again . . . )

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Tea Party Chit Chat

At “Line of Fire,” the blog for Broadside Books, the HarperCollins line of conservative titles edited by Adam Bellow, Michael Patrtick Leahy (editor of the “Voices of the Tea Party” series, co-founder of Top Conservatives on Twitter and the Nationwide Tea Party Coalition) and I are engaging in a civil yet incisive discussion of my contention that the Tea Party has distorted founding history to fit current political aims. Below are some samples.

Me (first posted in my “Founding Finance” series at New Deal 2.0):

The Tea Party movement, for example, has laid its claim on the founding period, and to a great extent that claim is indeed an economic and financial one. Casting the modern welfare state as a form of tyranny, in large part because of what they see as its excessive taxation, Tea Partiers invoke the famous American resistance to Parliament’s efforts to raise a revenue in the colonies without the consent traditionally given by representation. . . . The Tea Party thus edits out an alternative view of government that prevailed among the ordinary 18th-century Americans who were all-important to achieving independence. . . . The internal struggle for American equality was as important to the founding as the high-Whig resistance to England, but the Tea Party can’t deal with the populist leaders and militia rank-and-file who wrote the socially radical 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution, or the Shaysites of Massachusetts who marched on the state armory, or the so-called whiskey rebels who inspired federal occupation of western Pennsylvania.


Mr. Hogeland condescendingly assumes that tea party activists are unfamiliar with these three historical incidents. To the contrary, we are more familiar with their relevance to our modern circumstances than is Mr. Hogeland himself.

As an historian, Mr. Hogeland should familiarize himself with the three core values of the Tea Party movement, which we’ve loudly proclaimed in every venue possible for the past two years: (1) Constitutionally limited government (2) Free markets and (3) Fiscal Responsibility.

As he well knows, both the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution and the Shays Rebellion of Massachusetts took place before the ratification of the Constitution. As for the “Whiskey Rebels” of western Pennsylvania, their complaint against the early Federal government was that it passed a law that unfairly taxed small whiskey producers at much higher rates than large whiskey producers in urban areas. It was a violation of their individual liberties and the principles of free markets for the government to pick the “winners” (large urban manufacturers) and “losers” (small rural manufacturers).


The Tea Party’s core values, as you lay them out, are overwhelmingly familiar, not only to me but at this point probably to almost everybody else, and as they stand, they’re banal and tendentious, meant to imply that anyone opposing or opposed by the Tea Party must, by definition, favor 1) unconstitutionally unlimited government, 2) strangled markets, and 3) fiscal irresponsibility. Since nobody would openly espouse such a position, it’s useless to argue about it. Any real argument would have to be about what those deliberately unarguable phrases might mean, what they include and exclude, how they should or should not be applied, etc. . . .


To the contrary, our claim that the Constitution, as ratified and amended, is a secular covenant by which we are all bound is the strongest, most democratically rooted claim on history that emerges from the American founding period. . . . Mr. Hogeland appears to regard the Constitution as something other than a binding secular covenant, and in this I would submit he makes an error of historic misinterpretation. . . . Mr. Hogeland seems to be implying that the process by which the Constitution and Bill of Rights were ratified somehow excluded the ordinary citizens who participated in these events. To the contrary, they were heavily involved. Indeed, many of the authors of the 1776 Pennsylvania Constitution participated as elected delegates to the state convention that ratified the Federal Constitution by a 2 to 1 margin in 1789. Influenced by this debate, no doubt, the state of Pennsylvania threw out the 1776 version of its constitution the very next year, so unsuccessful in actual operation had been this document upon which Mr. Hogeland relies for one-third of his argument. Similarly, the participants in Shays’ Rebellion of western Massachusetts voted for delegates to that state’s 1788 ratification convention as well as members of the Massachusetts State Legislature who later deliberated the merits of the Bill of Rights.

(Stay tuned . . . ) [UPDATE: I’ve written a (long) response, which should start getting rolled out, with Leahy’s responses, at “Line of Fire” next week.]

So we’re actually having a debate. No good can come of this!

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Ronald Reagan, Alzheimer’s Disease, and Political Memory

Like many others, I have a distinct memory of watching the Reagan-Mondale debates in 1984 and saying something to the effect of: “Whoa. Reagan’s actually losing it.” And in his video testimony in John Poindexter’s trial regarding the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages affair, in 1990, it was evident that Reagan was in and out: putting on good show, not failing to remember many general facts but possibly not lying when he used what Nixon, in an earlier scandal, had advised his aides is always available to the guilty: “I don’t recall.”

To my eye today, the judge and the lawyers in the Poindexter trial were keenly aware of Reagan’s condition, especially as the witness tired late in the day. Reagan said, for example, that the first time he became aware of “a diversion” of proceeds came in that courtroom, that day, and he seems to have meant it. And when badgered by a prosecuting attorney, he had no evident grasp of either the purport or the content of testimony he’d made earlier the same day.

Given the ’84 debates — the last time most of us had seen Reagan speak off the cuff in any significant way — the decline of ’90 wasn’t surprising. Indeed it vindicated the creepy, unprovable, and strong impression from six years earlier, when Reagan was about to sail triumphantly into his second term as president.

What I have not been able to recall is anything specific about what I might have been responding to, in Reagan’s comments and manner during the ’84 debates, that gave me such a distinct impression that something was wrong. I only remember thinking and saying that he seemed out of it; the debates themselves are a blur. Which, when it comes to memory, I find interesting in itself.

In the past few days, therefore, with the centenary, and a book addressing Reagan’s Alzheimer’s by one of his sons, I’ve been time-traveling backward, trying to arrive at the age of 28, half the age I am now, when I was watching those debates on TV. One thing I find, which will make no sense to 28-year-olds (until they get to be 56): as I look at the videos, the Reagan presidency doesn’t seem long ago at all. Reagan had a huge impact on our lives in the ’80’s, and I watched him very closely at the time. It’s not that it all comes flooding back, it seems part and parcel of today. For me, his inflections and mannerisms remain deeply familiar and present-tense.

Familiar, not beloved. I voted against him — against the Republican platform, that is, which in 1980 had finally been seized definitively by the party’s right wing, had finally triumphed in casting taxation and social welfare as unqualified evils, and began its project to make the American rich richer, at the expense of everyone else, on the pretext that a rising tide lifts all boats. Till Reagan, the jury was out on how the country was going to go on those issues. Then the jury wasn’t out any more. I argued about it fairly bitterly with “Reagan Democrat” friends at the time.

And I’ve been amazed over the years how fully Reagan has been grudgingly reconstructed by liberals as one of our great presidents, in the sense that he was “transformative.” Why we’d want our chief executive to become a transformative historical and cultural force has always eluded me (and I think would have eluded the framers). Washington had to be, and so did both Lincoln and FDR: under pressure of awful necessity, they transformed both the country and, possibly just as significantly, the office. [UPDATE: And as Garry Wills has helped show us, at Gettysburg Lincoln transformed the realationship of the Declaration and the Constitution and reconstructed the founders of 1776 as dedicating a “nation” to a proposition that all men are created equal.]

But FDR also transformed expectations. Thanks to him, “performs transformations” counts as one of the skills supposedly critical to certain kinds of presidential candidate’s resumes (JFK played a role in creating that expectation too, mainly by being a certain kind of gorgeous and getting killed). The president was originally just supposed to execute the laws. Real transformations very rarely occur — rarely should occur — via a presidency.

Yet I observed Reagan at all times with a genuine, half-amused admiration, even awe. “I like Ronnie,” I would say, just to bug lefty friends. His second convention acceptance speech was Americana par excellence, a thing of beauty. Beauty is not truth, nor truth beauty, except in transcendent moments like the one conjured by Keats. But there were times when Reagan had the beauty thing nailed, and on that score, we did not see his like again until Obama, who clearly admires what Reagan could do with a public appearance (and who ran on the transformation magic trick). Cornball, mock-epic national poetry is not a requirement of the job either, as many presidents have made clear. But some happen to have the knack.

In other ways, of course, looking back at the 1984 debates makes 1984 seem very long ago indeed. Barbara Walters’s hair! Fred Barnes — so young! Blah! Blah! … Reagan, though, is timeless. He’d always been Ronald Reagan and always would be. I don’t like charisma, but there it is.

Anyway, it turns out that Reagan’s big moment of cognitive teetering in 1984 is widely considered to have occurred in his summation to the second debate. Continue reading

Socialist Pilgrims? (The War on Thanksgiving)

gobble gobble gobble

Now that the Thanksgiving holiday is over, and the MSM no longer even remembers it, I will comment — I actually feel forced to comment! — on the flap about the Pilgrims as socialists that I was drawn into over the past week. The trip began when I was quoted in an interesting Sunday Times “Week in Review” piece, which lays out the controversy.

(Briefly here: For years, Rush Limbaugh and some publications of the Austrian School of economics beloved by American libertarians, and more recently Glenn Beck, have been saying that the story of the Pilgrims is a story of socialism failed — that the Pilgrims began by holding property in common in a socialist-utopian way and starved because of it, then switched to private property and thrived enough to thank God for the bounty of the harvest: the first Thanksgiving. Thus America began in a lesson about the evils of socialism and glory of property. This year, thanks to the Tea Party, the story has received new mainstream attention.)

The Times quoted me near the end of the piece, not on that subject but on the problem that I think arises when people across the political spectrum seize on some historical event and force it to serve an overdetermined purpose for a current position. Bad history, bad politics. As I told the reporter, history is always slanted. How and why it’s slanted, in particular cases, is something we should be keenly aware of. … blah blah blah.

But thanks to that one, general quote, which came with a reference to my MIT Press book Inventing American History (where I write about distortions in public history), and thanks also to my seemingly endless eagerness to promote myself, I went on both Michael Smerconish’s syndicated radio show and ABC News “Good Morning, America” (do they observe that comma?), to weigh in not on my subject, which is the way everybody across the spectrum, each of us, distorts history, but on the current controversy: whether the Pilgrims began as socialists and then learned the error of their ways.

In the interviews I tried both to wrangle with the immediate question about the Pilgrims and to discuss what is, to me, the great, non-seasonal theme, political tension in public history. I also suggested that now and then we might want to lighten up a bit on the whole “lessons of history” thing. It was fun. Smerconish gave me ten minutes, and we had what I thought was an interesting conversation (and I like his unique effort to bring talk-radio intensity to centrism). “Good Morning America,” with its very specific needs, managed to shoehorn three seconds (literally!) of a twenty-minute interview into a piece on the controversy. Not surprising, but startling to watch: my name flashed on the screen so briefly that all I can do is hope that subliminal advertising actually works.

So now that I’m a media-certified expert: Were the Pilgrims socialists?
Continue reading

What Would the Founders Think? (And Would It Really Matter?)

Advice about invading Iraq?

Another blog I’ve been engaging with is What Would the Founders Think?, which focuses on connecting current debate about the proper role of government in America to the political philosophy of the founders. One of its bloggers, Martin, and I have had some polite yet feisty exchanges on this blog: here and here. I find our differences revealing (and the politeness encouraging), since what I’ve been hoping to do is foster debate, across political lines, about these very issues. 

So instead of more back-and-forth with Martin, buried in the comments, I thought I’d express a few reflections on WWTFT — and about the whole idea of what the founders thought, as it also relates to thinking about the founders’ religion, in the blog American Creation (I discuss that here and elsewhere). 

Putting it bluntly, WWTFT is coming from the current political right — but taking seriously the Tea Party’s appeal to the founding period. Continue reading

Why Liberals Have Never Gotten Populism

old BR / new BR

My essay “Real Americans” is out from Boston Review, both online and in the cool-looking relaunched print version of that well-regarded, well-established publication. (You can’t tell in this picture, but my essay is flagged on the new cover.) The cast of characters includes Sarah Palin, Woodrow Wilson, William Jennings Bryan, Frank Rich and others. The idea is to base a discussion of the Tea Party, etc., on a critique of liberalism and its tropes.

Feel free to comment on BR’s site or here or both; updates to follow.

[UPDATE: Since I’m inviting people to comment on the article over at Boston Review’s site, it’s unfortunate that in Internet Explorer 7, at least, comments there are not displaying. I think BR is working on it, but in the meantime, the site as a whole is best accessed in another browser.]

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

George Washington, Secular Saint?

I’m exploring American Creation, the interesting group blog I mentioned in a recent post on the evangelicalism of the 18th C. socially radical working-class, who play dramatic roles in Declaration and The Whiskey Rebellion.

These American Creation (AC) bloggers have unusual backgrounds (like me) and write skeptically and knowledgeably about prickly matters that bear on today’s conflicts between secularist liberals and the religious right. I’d call the group high conservative, in a kind of refreshingly old-fashioned sense. They bring thinking from the University of Chicago to their posts, making reference to Leo Strauss, Alan Bloom (oh, man!), Aristotle, Sidney; they’re deeply interested in “natural law,” the origin of rights, reason versus revelation, and the proper relationships of religion and government. And they think these are key American topics.

That ain’t me. Another way to put it: they actually care about the religious thinking of the famous founders, and they’re eager to parse it to death. I’m not sure there’s really all that much there (I suspect AC thinks about the issue more than the founders themselves did). When it comes to American 18th C. religion, I’m excited by the millennialism and evangelicalism and in some cases mysticism of the less rich and prominent, with roots in Quaker, Digger, Leveller, Muggletonian and other dissenting English enthusiasms, which I think had a more profound, if sometimes subterranean, effect on the action, though perhaps not so much on the published thought, of the era. The AC focus is relentlessly on the nuances of elite intellectual history. Me, I like the distressing realpolitik of elite action — and the intellectual and spiritual history (and the distressing realpolitik) of the non-elites.

AC gets into how Enlightenment rationalism combined with Christianity in 18th C. Whig America to liberalize both religion and government. In that sense, and in part because they’re conservative, they’re liberal. And I think they’re right to associate the liberalizing of religion with the development of haute-Whig republicanism, which defined the class of American founders who, as one of the AC writers wittily defines them, made it onto our currency (and, I note, tried to hold back democracy and radical social change). Illiberal American religion, the kind I’m interested in, led to other ideas about government, socially radical and at times utopian ones, which the upper class, across the rationalist-Christian-Deist spectrum, found revolting, silly, and infuriating, and yet at times, for political reasons, depended on, without acknowledgment.

One key AC idea is that today’s American liberal democracy may differ fundamentally from the European version, just as the American revolution differed from the French in not being populist and, in a certain sense, not millennial, not an effort to start human society over, to redeem it. The realpolitik I’m interested in, and the action adventures in my books, complicate, shall we say, that idea.

Anyway, in the process of considering these differences, I’ve come to appreciate AC’s liberal/conservative ways of defending the separation of church and state and the first amendment as a whole, and their debunking of a lot of poorly considered ideas coming from today’s religious right.

Hamilton and Washington

As Commander of the Army, General Washington was key. The finance guys wanted him leading the coup [UPDATE: for accuracy:] threat of coup. He declined, of course, and ended up elegantly dispersing the officer rebellion at the army cantonment in Newburgh, N.Y., more or less as described in the AC post.

But then he wrote to Congress, telling them to do everything the officers wanted, which Congress hurriedly did, making the entire officer class one with the financier class, creditors of the United States. (Hence the Society of the Cincinnati, a hereditary officer-class watchdog group, one of whose agendas was to insure that the potential investment bonanza was federally supported.) That set the table for everything the Morrises and Hamilton wanted for America. Later, in the early 1790’s, Hamilton began putting it all into effect as Washington’s treasury secretary.

Washington admonished Hamilton, in their odd and compelling post-Newburgh-crisis correspondence, that while the General firmly supported the nationalists’ aims, trying to manipulate the army to achieve them had been a dangerously bonehead move. In a letter nobody quotes, although it is very easy to find, he even followed up with Hamilton, just in case he might be misinterpreted, to say that the only problem with using the army that way is that, in such cases, things might just as well go the other way, backfire, and the anti-nationalists might have won. Without sullying himself with the sedition in which the nationalists had indulged, Washington made sure that the nationalists got all the things they wanted. And without allowing a coup to occur, he used the coup to get what he wanted. It was a very, very impressive set of moves, with a major impact on the American future. There’s a way in which the Newburgh conspiracy, despite unintended consequences, should be rated a success, in part because of Washington.

And Washington’s strange relationship with Hamilton, which came to fruition in the 1790’s, with the executive-branch suppression of western Pennsylvania during the Whiskey Rebellion — as hymned by John Yoo — had now been established.

AC just doesn’t look into any of this. One of the comments on the Newburgh post mentions the scholar Richard Kohn to the effect that there wasn’t much of a conspiracy at all. That is not what Kohn’s work says — quite the reverse! Somehow the cult of the Republican Saint Washington, indispensible man, is good enough for these normally skeptical thinkers. (He was the indispensible man. The realities of that indispensability are rather fraught.) How can these guys, who so fluently consider the likes of Sidney and Aristotle in other posts, resort to the History Channel and Google when kvelling about Washington? The effect on reason of the modern secular religion of founder-worship is an intriguing one to consider in the context of AC’s examination of religion at the founding.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine