The Weekend Review
National Review at 50: Lolita's 50th Was More Fun
Pierre Tristam/December 24, 2005
The birth of the modern conservative movement is usually carbon-dated to 1964, when Barry Goldwater lost the election only to see the conservative desert bloom in his wake. A closer look at the fossils should push the date back to 1955. That was the year Dwight Eisenhower launched America’s neo-imperial age by sending the first advisers to Vietnam, the year corporate America decreed profits an entitlement when General Motors became history’s first billion-dollar company, the year Ray Kroc launched billions and billions of thromboses with the first franchising of McDonald’s, the year a half century of great American literature died when five American publishers rejected Nabokov’s Lolita, and the year conservative’s die-hard trinity was born with a look-who’s-talking-now twinkle in its halo: Chief Justice John Roberts, Chief Jingoist Bruce Willis, and National Review — the magazine Wheel of Fortune’s Pat Sajak says brought him “clarity of perspective and the intellectual ammunition to fight the battles that needed to be fought.” Vanna White’s America has been turning the pages of that puzzle board for 50 years.
And so National Review commemorates its 50 th anniversary with its special December 19 issue. These self-referential flower-to-thyself parties by the established magazines are usually guaranteed money-makers from the advertising point of view and attention-grabbers from the editorial. National Review editors banner their celebration as “The Mother of All Anniversary Issues.” Must be a single mother this time around, because the first thing one notices here is the thinness of the advertising. About thirty full-page ads in 120 pages (compared, say, with 42 pages in the randomly selected Oct. 29 issue of The Economist and 60-odd pages in the current, post-Christmas Newsweek). NR isn’t ever big on advertising, but you’d expect its commemorative editions to pull in more weight. Is corporate America giving up on its intellectual arms supplier?
The second thing one notices is the thinness of the authorship. Some of the ageing conservative all-stars are there — Richard Brookheiser, Midge Decter, Paul Johnson, Roger Kimball, Charles Bell-Curve Murray, Richard Pipes (whose reputation has been sullied by hapless association with that of the ever-rabid, Arab-baiting Daniel Pipes), Terry Teachout, James Q. Wilson, and of course the always prolific Mr. Much More (which turns out to be cover for the lesser likes of Jeb Bush, Haley Barbour, Mona Charen, Laura Ingraham, Dick Cheney, Henry Hyde, and so on). The list on the cover is almost indistinguishable from the lineup of NR’s January 24, 2000 preface to the new century.
But where’s Bill Buckley? President Bush managed to give him and the magazine a 50 th anniversary salute, stiltedly joke-filled but decently literate. But besides recycling his own remarks from the magazine’s Oct. 6 anniversary dinner, Buckley chose not to contribute. (Give him that much: To liberalism’s chagrin, he’s earned the break). And besides a few editorial shorts at the front of the magazine and his own recycled tribute delivered at the White House, Bush is mostly absent—not as an author (no one would expect him to put pen to gloss) but as a subject matter. It’s as if the magazine didn’t want its posh little celebration sullied by Mr. 37 percent. (More recent swells in the president’s approval rating can only be attributed, like the Dow’s late-year spikes, to the season’s irrational exuberance. The swells will pass.)
The magazine begins in earnest with a happy top-ten list on “How to Increase Liberty in America,” an urgent subject the magazine turns over to ten writers. Here then is liberty according to its Praetorian Guard: School choice, colorblindness, sensible districting, assumption of risk, tax reform, the “fiscal constitution” (rein in spending) and drug legalization, all of which are legitimate subjects of debate, some of which are eminently liberal ideas (except when the tax reform piece is handed over to John Stossel and Arthur Laffer restricts his examples of redistricting gone haywire to California). But the list also includes these suggestions: More policing, a national ID card, and — get ready for the grand finale — a “Just Censorship.” That’s not the punch line. The author of that proposal is: Robert Bork. An excerpt from Gomorrah’s Slouchy Bearded One: “Relations between the sexes are debased by pornography (now the leading American industry) while taboos against incest, pedophelia and homosexual behavior weaken or disappear altogether.” And we wonder, with the likes of allegedly respectable intellectuals like Bork still peddling equivalencies of pedophelia and homosexuality, why bigotry still has so many adherents in this country. He goes on: “Large parts of television are unwatchable, motion pictures rely upon sex, gore and pyrotechnics for the edification of the target audience of 14-year-olds, popular music hardly deserves the name of music — even Mick Jagger called his performances ‘noise’” It would have been more interesting to quote Mick Jagger on Robert Bork’s performance on the talk circuit since he blessedly resigned his court of appeals seat in 1988.
Liberty in conservatism’s hands, then, is summed up this way: Control, power, economic Darwinisn, cheapskatism, favors to the lucky chosen, tough luck (to not say something more offensive, but more honest) to the rest. It is Republicanism gone Calvinist.
Onto Midge Decter — born, we should remember, when Calvin Coolidge was king, but also on the tenth anniversary of the introduction of Canada’s income tax. Her inclusion in this issue may explain husband and neo-con brigadier general Norman Podhoretz’s absence: He was in NR’s “New Century” line-up in 2000, so the couple Gore Vidal called “refugees from a Woody Allen film: The Purple Prose of West End Avenue” must be tag-teaming their contributions to the magazine. Here’s the opening sentence of Midge’s article: “Anyone with a minimally dispassionate sense of history would have to judge that George W. Bush conducted the Iraq war brilliantly.” The line should win a People’s Choice Award for One-Liner of the Year if it weren’t for the competition, which Decter provides a few paragraphs on: “Yet the country is in danger, in some ways in even greater danger than in 1941, for those who would destroy us hide in shadows, and behind, and even sometimes inside, the skirts of women.” Does she know something the FBI doesn’t? (Then again, who doesn’t?) Midge’s is a plea to the president to “do more to involve Americans in the war.” She never quite gets around to calling for a draft, but her nostalgia for the days of conveyor-belt cannon fodder is as aromatic, in this brief paean to war, as the smell of cordite.
Do we—as they say on television before breaking for a GM commercial—have time for one more? So we get Paul Johnson declaring 2005 “better than 1955, by a damn sight.” And why? Because Japan and Germany haven’t overtaken the United States as economic overlords, as was predicted in the 1950s, and because domestic fertility aided by immigration “should ensure American material leadership for the foreseeable future.” He doesn’t limit his “damn sight” exultations to the United States. Totalitarianism is dead, India is “becoming affluent,” China “has embraced capitalism.” It’s almost as if Paul Johnson is taking dictation from Thomas Friedman. Of course this is the sort of contented math that works only when the calculator is set to ignore a few unwanted zeroes on the less lavish side of the ledger. Johnson’s calculations work only by neglecting to notice that the world’s population in 1955 was all of 2.5 billion, while today, 2.5 billion people (out of 6.5 billion) live on less than $2 a day. A world better by a damn sight for the lucky few of us on the frothy side of the numbers, yes. But again: selective fortune is nothing to celebrate, when it only reveals the extent to which we failed, in those fifty years, to alleviate as well as profit, and when the 1990s, America’s richest ever, also saw a slow-down in the fight against poverty.
A few pages on, on page 50 to be symbolically exact, Ramesh Ponnuru—National Review’s Sean Hannity and Alan Colmes wrapped in one bi-weekly package of refined snobbery, but with redeeming and attractive intellect between the lines—attempts a definition of conservatism, and does what all such definitions are doing these days. He gets lost in ifs and not-all-conservatives-are-this but all-liberals-are-that, and other such baseless conjectures. Example: “Liberalism has long included a powerful, and maybe dominant, strand of impatience with, and even hostility to, the Founders and their handiwork that has no analogue on the right.” His evidence? “In 1996 the liberal writer Daniel Lazare wrote Frozen Republic: How the Constitution is Paralizing Democracy. It is impossible to imagine a conservative writing a book with that title.” Besides the fact that most conservative book producers are too busy hashing up titles that make liberalism sound like terrorism, communism or both, does Bork’s A Country I Do Not Recognize: The Legal Assault On American Values ring a bell? Does Antonin Scalia’s A Matter of Interpretation? (“By trying to make the Constituition do everything that needs doing from age to age,” Scalia announces fearfully, “we shall have caused it to do nothing at all.” Unless, goes the implication, Scalia is allowed to interpret it freely.) Our Borks and Scalias of course aren’t arguing that the Constitution should be rewritten, only that it should quit serving so many of democracy’s pluralities. They long for the 1920s when the Constitution was just an instrument of business, a wall against regulation and pluralist interpretation. They think “their” constitution has been in exile since then as FDR’s regulatory state moved in and freedom from oversight moved out (Jeffrey Rosen summed up the “Constitution in Exile” argument in a New York Times Magazine piece in April.) But so goes so much of what passes for conservative argument. It’s a con in common-sense argot, “common sense” being the favored slogan that attaches to most glorifications of things conservative.
The dearth of new ideas, like the dearth of ads, is a subtext of NR’s celebration. The magazine is so immersed in nostalgia that it not only offers us its same-old stable of walker-addled writers but returns to causes it championed that have long been either claimed by the history books or discredited by them — “ending the Soviet Union,” “The Strategic Defense Initiative,” “Supply-Side Tax Cuts,” etc. There’s even a piece celebrating the demise of “Hillarycare,” as if the wasteland of health care we are forced to inhabit since is anything less than an unmitigated human rights disaster. What that says about the conservative movement isn’t that it’s run out of ideas, exactly (The Weekly Standard keeps churning), but that its voice has been taken over by conservatism’s militia movement — radio and television’s shouters and inquisitors, and now the rabble of the bloggosphere, where insults and denigration of anything defined as un-conservative preempts ideas. When Buckley began his magazine, few people saw what he saw: that ideas move mountains, as ideas indeed did for the conservative ascendancy since 1980. But few people see that what made the conservative movement so successful is now either tired or infected by the base, the rabid, the reactionary. The so-called war on terror is its godsend of fear-inspired elections and loyalty riddled governance, it gives the movement a chance to shine again with cold war-like abandon. But it’s not a new idea. Like NR’s very substance, it is nostalgia wrapped in the language of triumphalism. Conservatism’s only saving grace is unfortunately liberalism’s persistent absence as an alternative, as a voice with renewed means of ascent (with apologies to Robert Caro).
NR’s anniversary issue goes on with snippets of self-congratulations and songs to Bill. Henry Kissinger quotes Winston Churchill and speaks of “verities.” George Will plays Henry James (“It is difficult to remember, and hence especially important to remember, the slough of despond conservatism was in 1955”). Tom Wolfe plays himself. It ends with yet another nostalgic look, this time at books that have “advanced the cause of conservatism”—Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Charles Murray’s Losing Ground, Milton & Rose Friedman’s Free to Choose, James Burnham’s Suicide of the West. The magazine claims the books also advanced the cause of freedom. But aside from Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which also makes the cut, it’s difficult to argue how books immersed in politics of exclusion, retrenchment, resentment and calculated indifference, books that aren’t called “ammunition” for nothing, have advanced anyone’s freedom but for those already poised to profit from it. And isn’t that NR’s and conservatism’s greatest triumph of the last 50 years? Conservatism has redefined liberty to suit the needs of the chosen. Those without portfolio need not apply. In 1955, NR was America’s first gated community. In 2005, it is the community’s loyalty oath.