Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Will on Diggins on Reagan

George F. Will reads John Patrick Diggins on Reagan and tries to draw a lesson or two for conservatives, for many of whom "nostalgia for Ronald Reagan has become...a substitute for thinking."

If Diggins is right about Reagan (is he, Steve?), then, at the very least, RWR enabled GWB. And then also Reagan’s optimistic gloss on conservatism is ultimately unconservative, more Emersonian than anything else. On that subject, one should read Patrick Deneen’s magisterial Democratic Faith.


Discussions - 21 Comments

"This mental paralysis -- gratitude decaying into idolatry -- is sterile: Neither the man nor his moment will recur. Conservatives should face the fact that Reaganism cannot define conservatism."

I’ve been reading a lot of Reagan lately. Not out of nostalgia or worship but because of his timeless principles. We’ve lost the thread and need his bold colors, not pale pastels.

I know the man and the moment will not recur--but how will we possibly get back to Madison and Burke if we can’t even recur to Reagan?

Is this really out of date?

And this idea that government is beholden to the people, that it has no other source of power except the sovereign people, is still the newest and most unique idea in all the long history of man’s relation to man. This is the issue of this election. Whether we believe in our capacity for self-government or whether we abandon the American Revolution and confess that a little intellectual elite in a far-distant capital can plan our lives for us better than we can plan them ourselves.

Those who would trade our freedom for the soup kitchen of the welfare state have told us that they have a utopian solution of peace without victory. They call their policy "accommodation." And they say if we only avoid any direct confrontation with the enemy, he will forget his evil ways and learn to love us. All who oppose them are indicted as warmongers. They say we offer simple answers to complex problems. Well, perhaps there is a simple answer . . . not an easy one . . . but a simple one, if you and I have the courage to tell our elected officials that we want our national policy based upon what we know in our hearts is morally right.

We cannot buy our security, our freedom from the threat of the bomb by committing an immorality so great as saying to a billion human beings now in slavery behind the Iron Curtain, "Give up your dreams of freedom because to save our own skin, we are willing to make a deal with your slave-masters." Alexander Hamilton said, "A nation which can prefer disgrace to danger is prepared for a master, and deserves one!" Let’s set the record straight. There is no argument over the choice between peace and war, but there is only one guaranteed way you can have peace...and you can have it in the next second...surrender!

Is this sentimental nostalgia?

I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil. ...I believe we shall rise to the challenge. I believe that communism is another sad, bizarre chapter in human history whose last pages even now are being written. I believe this because the source of our strength in the quest for human freedom is not material, but spiritual. And because it knows no limitation, it must terrify and ultimately triumph over those who would enslave their fellow man."

Today, it’s terrorists, not Communists. Troop freezes, not Nuclear Freeze, etc.

But Reagan’s principles remain a rock. Will is willy, willy wong.

I can’t wait for this conversation to unfold. Let’s hear from Mr. Hayward!

As someone who grew up in the Reagan years (a television reporter asked this 4th grader what they thought about the election and I explained to her that everything was Carter’s fault...) it seems to me that Reagan’s great gift to conservatism was his optimism and belief in the American project. I have the utmost respect for Will, but maybe we should say that optimism and cheerfulness isn’t exactly his most obvious characteristic. I’m glad he’s around, but perhaps one’s enough...

Truth to tell, Reagan was never a neo-Burkean type of conservative. He never thought that Jefferson was a Frenchman. He didn’t think that America was "ill-founded." Reagan will never entirely `sit right’ with that wing of conservatism, and the invocation of Reagan’s basic principles will always make George Will a bit nervous.

The question shouldn’t be "what’s conservatism?" Rather, the question should be, and this is what Reagan understood so well, the question should be "what’s AMERICAN?"

We’re "The last, best hope of mankind on earth." Not Europe, nor an abstract conservatism for that matter.

Our task as Conservatives and Republicans isn’t to measure ourselves and the party against some abstract notion of what is conservative, according to Burke, Hayek, Kirk, et al. Our task is to give voice to American Exceptionalism. Our task is to make real that Exceptionalism, confident that such Exceptionalism is the best answer to most of our problems.

Being female, I’ll give you the sentimental nostalgia. Reagan gave us those conservative principles Noel mentions and cites, and managed to do it straight, yet with such a disarming simplicity that the political center understood him and knew truth when they heard it. He was not didactic (is that one of Newt’s flaws?) and made his points with charm and wit. Contrary to Will, I think Reagan told sobering truths in a comforting and flattering way.

Someone on the blog, maybe John Moser, has mentioned that Reagan was less conservative in his second term and that conservatives were sometimes disappointed in him. That is quite true. There was regret at conservative promises compromised. The Reagan I liked best came in his political newsletters before the first election; so maybe it was Lyn Nofziger whom I really loved. But the essential ideas were expressed during Reagan’s entire presidency, in his speeches, if not always in policy.

I don’t think Reagan ever questioned, "What’s American." I think he knew and spoke to that. This speaks to the dependence on big government issue - I think it became clear early on that the administrative state could not be dismantled, nor even seriously altered. I remember someone within his administration - Richard Schweiker, maybe, saying something to the effect that he could only seriously change his department one or two levels down. Below that, everyone was protected by the civil service. So principle carries you so far, and then there is reality, like a wall against your principles. In a sense, I think Diggins is right about the problems with that, but I think Reagan’s way was to forgive it, and get on with things. That’s a very Christian trait.

Drat, that felt like a meander, but I have to go to church.

Reagan had a good bit of libertarian faith in decentralized "order," and this was the source of his optimism. True conservatives really aren’t "upbeat" about humanity...we see the warts and understand that checks-and-balances are necessary, that constraint/authority is required (but must be checked...constantly), that in the words of Robison Jeffers, man is a "clever servant, insufferable master."

Reagan had enough Burkean sensibilities to appeal to people like me, but I don’t fool myself. It was his infectious optimism and deep respect for the American people that appealed to the electorate. I admired him greatly because he wasn’t a "market-worshipper," and yet he had that crazy optimism you find in libertarianism. A pretty rare combo...there will never be another like him.

Just wanted to second Peter’s recommendation of Pat Deneen’s Democratic Faith book. A must read (and superbly written). In an aphorism: he contrasts democracy as an object of quasi-religious faith, with the necessity of faith (and hope) for democrats.


I’m just starting Diggins book, as I have to be on a panel with him at Cato in two weeks as a respondent, and I am also having him to AEI in early March. But as you know, I’ve been a bit distracted this week, so I can’t give you a full read yet. In general I am a big Diggins fan; he is one of the lefty writers who is truly worth reading always. He gets the Founding largely right (see The Lost Soul of American Politics, where he defends the Lockean component of the Founding from Gordon Wood, et al), and he gets Lincoln right.

Moreover, even if his argument that Reagan is "Emersonian" has flaws, when a prominent lefty historian says Reagan should be ranked with our three or four greatest presidents, I say: "Game, set, and match." The left cannot now succeed in doing to Reagan what they did to Coolidge. It’s over, and we’ve won. Our faithful trolls will just have to deal with it.

Will’s column struck a chord with me that it apparently did not with the more learned posters on NLT.
It *seems* to me that Pres. Reagan effectively dismissed Original Sin (and its corrective to an unbridled optimism about human possibilities), much like the Prosperity Preachers of today avoid talk of the Cross.
Do I like tax cuts? Yes. Are they prudent in the absense of serious spending cuts? I think not. Reagan (and Bush) wanted it both ways. They both pander(ed) to our fantasies. This is not political leadership. It’s political abdication. And maybe it’s the only political offering that could get elected in America in the past 25+ years. Not an encouraging observation about the American electorate, and current American character.
On a more important topic......Kate, will you move to the Southwest and tutor my kids??

I may be out of touch with the left that Hayward has in mind, but I think the significance or the "greatness" of Reagan is secure even among those who disapproved of many things he did.

George Will has been cross with two generations of Bushes, and he is the author of a book interpreting Madison, so it is not surprising that he wants to be a part of the post-Reagan conservative intellectual action.

Bear in mind that Will is generally not a Reagan fan.

He is absolutely right that looking back to Ronald Reagan is no substitute for the hard work of clarifying conservatism for our moment in history. He is equally right that neither Reagan nor his moment will occur again.

Reagan’s optimism, his version of American exceptionalism, and his exaggerated confidence in the common man did lead to some mistakes and caused him to neglect certain things. It is not hard to imagine that they gave us the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli immigration act, a liberal con job the results of which we are suffering from today.

However, the 1951(!) quotation about all human desires being good doesn’t particularly impress me as evidence. At this point in his life (or immediately before), Reagan was, to put it bluntly, fooling around with a lot of women. As is also fairly well-known, he later said: "Put simply, my life really began when I met Nancy." On one level, of course, that is nonsense. But on another, it must be taken seriously. The mature Reagan -- "the man in full," so to speak -- was well aware of the dark side of human nature, and said so. He even understood the dark side of democratic politics. While in some sense he loved every American, he also understood the left and its dangers better than every other modern Republican president except perhaps Nixon. Did he not, in 1984, say of liberal Democrats: "They’re so far left, they’ve left America"? This does not strike me as softheaded, simplistic optimism.

Certainly RR was an optimist, but it was a tempered optimism. The stronger expressions of it can easily be viewed as rhetorical flourishes, in the good sense. If we want to find immature optimism of the sort that Will (and apparently Diggins) see, we can look at the Bushes. It seems to me that Burkean conservatism itself has an optimistic element. While Reagan was not, subjectively, a Burkean, his basic politics was consistent with Burkean conservatism in most cases.

The Emerson quotation about only laws that come from one’s nature being sacred can be understood as a belief in natural law, poorly expressed.

It’s definitely a victory when a liberal intellectual of Diggins’ stature calls Reagan one of the greatest liberators among American presidents and one of the greatest presidents. But the interpretation of RR seems one-sided.

James Madison: "If Congress can employ money indefinitely to the general welfare, and are the sole and supreme judges of the general welfare, they may take the care of religion into their own hands; they may appoint teachers in every State, county and parish and pay them out of their public treasury; they may take into their own hands the education of children, establishing in like manner schools throughout the Union; they may assume the provision of the poor; they may undertake the regulation of all roads other than post-roads; in short, every thing, from the highest object of state legislation down to the most minute object of police, would be thrown under the power of Congress. ...Were the power of Congress to be established in the latitude contended for, it would subvert the very foundations, and transmute the very nature of the limited Government established by the people of America."

Which of the major politicians of the last half-century would be most in concert with Madison’s view? Ronald Reagan. Ironically, it was Madison’s checks and balances that kept Reagan from making the government more Madisonian.

Will has never forgiven Reagan for that Paine quote. Although Paine became a "lefty" crank, he should be given his due; ’Common Sense’ galvanized the colonies and the man got out in the snow and mud with Washington.

Every schoolchild today knows the story of Rosa Parks. Her principled refusal to give up her seat on that bus led to civil rights for millions. But she wasn’t the first. From Peter Schweizer’s ’Reagan’s War’:

""The important thing is that you should not argue with them," said writer F. Scott Fitzgerald, who spent time in Hollywood writing for movies such as "Winter Carnival." "Whatever you say they have ways of twisting it into shapes which put you in some lower category of mankind – ’Liberal,’ ’Trotskyist’ [’Climate Criminal?’-heh] – and disparage you both intellectually and personally in the process."

Reagan had his first taste of this a few months before the strike, when he was serving on the executive committee of the Hollywood Independent Citizens Committee of Arts, Sciences and Professions (HICCASP), which he had joined in 1944. The group boasted a membership roll including Frank Sinatra, Orson Welles and Katharine Hepburn. It was what they called a "brainy group," too, with Albert Einstein and Max Weber lending their name to the organization. It was the usual liberal/left Hollywood cultural group, concerned about atomic weapons, the resurgence of fascism and the burgeoning Cold War. But some were concerned by what they saw as its regular and consistent support for the Soviet position on international issues.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr. declared in Life magazine that he believed it was a Communist front, an organization in which "its celebrities maintained their membership but not their vigilance."

Stung by this criticism, a small group within HICCASP, including RKO executive Dore Schary, actress Olivia de Havilland, and FDR’s son James Roosevelt, decided to put their fellow members to the test. At the July 2, 1946, meeting, Roosevelt noted that HICCASP had many times issued statements denouncing fascism. Why not issue a statement repudiating communism? Surely that would demonstrate that the organization was not wholly communist.

Reagan rose quickly and offered his support for the resolution, and a furious verbal battle quickly erupted. Musician Artie Shaw stood up and declared that the Soviet Union was more democratic than the United States and offered to recite the Soviet constitution to prove it. Writer Dalton Trumbo stood up and denounced the resolution as wicked. When Reagan tried to respond, John Howard Lawson waved a menacing finger in his face and told him to watch it. Reagan and the others in his group resigned from the organization.

Sorrell gathered his resources for the fight. Along with financial support from the Communist Party, he also could count on help from Vincente Lombardo Toledano, head of Mexico’s largest union and described in Soviet intelligence files as an agent. The slender, well-dressed and poised young lawyer was one of Moscow’s most trusted agents in Mexico, regularly putting his resources behind Sorrell, providing money while pressuring Mexican film industry executives not to process any film from Hollywood as a show of solidarity. He also appeared at a rally in Hollywood to encourage the strikers.

Herb Sorrell had promised violence if he didn’t get his way in the studio strike, and it didn’t take him long to deliver. Led by his "sluggers," strikers smashed windshields on passing trains and threw rocks at the police. One studio employee went to the hospital after acid was thrown in his face. When the police tried to break up the melee, things got even worse. As actor Kirk Douglas remembered it, "Thousands of people fought in the middle of the street with knives, clubs, battery cables, brass knuckles and chains."

Sorrell and his allies wanted to shut down the studios entirely, so anyone who crossed the picket line became a target of violence. Jack Warner insisted on keeping up production, and the studio remained open. To avoid injury, workers, including stars who were shooting movies, were forced to sneak into the studio lot through a storm drain that led from the Los Angeles River.

Reagan, getting ready to start production on "Night Unto Night," was furious about the violence. And unlike his approach to the little battle with the Communists in HICCASP, he was not in a mood to retreat.

Blaney Matthews, the giant-sized head of security at Warner Brothers, had seen this sort of violent strike before. He advised Reagan and other stars to use the storm drain to get onto the lot safely. Reagan flat-out refused. If he was going to cross the picket line, he was going to cross the picket line, he told Matthews.

Matthews then arranged for buses to shuttle Reagan and a few others through the human gauntlet outside the studio gate. But he offered a bit of advice: Lie down on the floor, or you might get hit by a flying Coke bottle or rock. Again, Reagan refused. Over the next several days, as he went to the studio lot to attend preproduction meetings, a bus would pass through the human throng of violent picketers, with a solitary figure seated upright inside."

Ronald Reagan’s principled refusal to give up his bus seat in the face of thuggery also led to freedom and civil rights for millions. The need for that kind of principle is as fresh as this morning’s headlines. Reagan may not have always lived up to George Will’s high standards of Intellectual Correctness. He wasn’t perfect--just better than all the rest.

ps; Kate, that wasn’t Nofziger you were reading in the 70’s; it was Reagan at the heighth of his intellectual--yes, intellectual--powers, and in his own hand.

Just a couple points as I am in a hurry. Will has now twice publicly disavowed his Madisonian book Statecraft as Soulcraft.

And I also got him to admit, at the Princeton conference in 2005), that a number of his judgments of Reagan in the 1980s were wrong in hindsight.

Doesn’t take much for a Conservative to be irked at the Bush administrations, both pere and fils.

Within two Republican administrations, the Bush men have effectively obliterated Reagan Republicanism.

What are we to make of a man who has an award for public service created, and names the first recipient Edward Kennedy. What are we to make of that? Can you imagine the type of mentality that would even think of awarding Ed Kennedy anything, let alone a "public service" award!

Then we have the son, who is out there trying to "reform" the United Nations. Conservatives know that the agenda of the UN cuts clean across traditional notions of sovereignty. That’s why Conservatives tend to stay well clear of the entanglements of the UN. But George W. Bush has channeled just about the entirety of his foreign policy of late through the auspices of the UN. As John Bolton has recently observed.

The sooner the GOP leaves the Bush clan in their dust the better for the party, the better for the country.

14: Noel, thanks for posting this material about the Hollywood strike. No serious evaluation of Reagan is possible without an understanding of his exposure to these communist vermin, and his courageous response. It is indeed more important than meeting the standards of any conservative intellectual. As you say, "he wasn’t perfect, just better than all the rest."

15: Dan, yes, the award to Ted Kennedy by the Bush Senior foundation is an absolute outrage, and it is indicative of the entire family. We need to put GWB and all other Bushes firmly behind us and get on with making history to the best of our ability.

I second (or third) the sentiments on the Bush family. There is some tragic flaw in that family, an impurity in the ore that floats to the top every damned time. Let’s get someone with "the vision thing" before it’s too late...a vision that is genuinely conservative, of course.

Noel, yes, I know. But, I have wondered if it would have happened without Nofziger. I did like him, too. Also, I recall dismay at the time that the ideas of Reagan’s that I had delighted in reading, seemed, sometimes, after the election to vanish from political discourse. Was I just young, idealistic and foolish? Well, yes. (Now I am just old, idealistic and foolish.) But I take your point about Madison’s checks and balances, as well.

Just a little wonder, but would conservative support of GWB have been so strong at any point in his presidency, without 9/11? His first months in office, I recall being exasperated, which political exasperations have not evaporated, but I temper them because of international events. I do not mean that I, nor anyone on the right, would have voted for John Kerry in 2004, but mightn’t there have been a challenge, (from the right, not the left) for the Republican nomination were it not for the attack? I know, it’s probably a silly "what if", but I wondered it at the time and the question has never gone away. The complaints above make me wonder, again. Then, is this, the war on terror, something that has kept any serious challengers from rising on the right? No, I know you guys have mentioned some possible candidates, but there is no one person who galvanizes the right. May I suggest that if there is something we really miss about Reagan, it is that. He was sitting upright in the political bus, having been governor of a major state and all, and had been braving the political rocks and bottles, visibly, for some time. I think it is some guy like that who we are missing, even more than the man, himself.

Thanks, Gary Seaton, that was sweet, but I am otherwise occupied.

Will is Burkean and thinks American conservatism should be too (go back to his books of 10-15 years ago and his preferences are abundantly clear). But, Reagan’s conservatism was not. Thank goodness! American constitutionalism brought the world something new. Why does American conservatism need to ape its British antecedent?

A parcel of excellent comments here, this Johnny-come-lately conservative is learning a lot.

To get back to the "thinking" aspect, this certainly is a correct criticism. For a very long time conservatism had a bad name in the US and it has only been in the last 30 years that we have gained some respect. Among those that helped keep cons on the outs were what I would call the "know-nothing" wing of the Republican party. Unfortunately, there are still many around. Those that claim to be on the "common sense" side of things, lambaste any who disagree with them, are anti-elitist and appeal to the common folk. They use the language of the day, but do not understand the root (ideas have consequences) of either that which they agree or disagree with, they simply know what they believe and go no further. They do not believe in honest debate but will use any method to get you out of the way to get to their ends. The reality is, that the Bushes (1 and 2)have not embraced the Reagan folks much or much of what Reagan stood for - compassionate conservatism seems to mean that we will do business the way the Dems do and co-opt their language and ideas. There are a great many intelligent Reagan folks that have no connections to the current admin and they are not sought out nor listened to much. Will is right, that many cons do not put forward ideas for discussion, even among themselves. They look at something, think they have figured it out and then run with it, regardless of what those closest to them might think or say. Further witness to this is putting know-nothing friends up for important posts (remember GWB’s first Sup Crt nominee? or other appointments, such as at Ed Dept?) These folks go about saying that the sky is falling in their realm, get a few folks to agree with them and then run with their own cures regardless of the damage it may do to their potential friends or the longterm effects. What Will touches upon is not the disagreement, but the righteousness! We have come to accept this from many prominent liberals, but to see these "conservatives" doing the same thing and with no basic understanding of the foundations or lack there of of in their own positions is disheartening to those of us that take ideas seriously and believe in treating people fairly and engaging people into a serious discussion, in an effort to change things in the long run, not to have a brief effect. It bothers me that I have found myself breaking the 11th commandment, but when they will not talk with you, but only down to you and then only to strengthen their political hand, it angers me to no end. Thanks for the posting.

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