“Pain is like water,” journalist and historian Richard Brookhiser writes in his new memoir, “it finds every crack in your character and makes it wider.”
The rapidly-rising waters encircling the sinking ship of the conservative movement in the American body politic is revealing cracks and fissures so vast and wide as to elude hyperbolic description. A political and social movement willing to embrace a monosyllabic, moose-killing, Barbie Doll hockey mom as a viable candidate for the office of Vice-President of the United States (okay, maybe it doesn’t defy hyperbole) falls far short of the “the circular pattern of six WASP traits”, as defined by Brookhiser, that form the bedrock of conservatism: “conscience, industry, success, civic-mindedness, use, anti-sensuality.”
Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement in America
(Basic; US: Jun 2009)
As a book about the often contentious relationship between a mentor – conservative columnist, publisher, and television host William F. Buckley Jr. – and his star pupil, Richard Brookhiser’s narrative is hit and miss. The reader doesn’t come away from Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley Jr. and the Conservative Movement with a sense that they really know the author and his elitist, Ritalin-popping idol.
In some regards, this is a good thing. A short section of the book, for instance, details Brookhiser’s battle with testicular cancer, a detour that the Yale English major keeps mercifully short because heaven knows that the market is saturated with self-congratulatory cancer survivor memoirs destined for a second life as weepy, feel-good melodramas for the Lifetime television network.
Books ponder the order and structure of events. Putting the weaknesses in Brookhiser’s memoir aside (even the author notes that “memoirs are a dubious genre”), what emerges in the fast-moving pages of this first-person account of over 40 years of moral, social, and political change is the answer to a question that has been haunting pundits for some time now: What has happened to the Republican party and the conservative movement in America?
The answer is as simple as following the Peter Principle of upward failure: Conservatives launched careers in Washington to affect social change rather than selling the force of their ideas through cultural means.
All in the Family
Like Richard Brookhiser, I was raised in a conservative American household, affording me an early inside look into the dysfunctional, paranoid, and unrelentingly bigoted mindset of “the moral majority” that ushered in the so-called Reagan Revolution in 1980 and, by default, its own demise as a power base in American politics almost a decade later.
It’s important that we understand these values-driven people, because the recent hemorrhaging of unregulated free-market economics and the blood of unjust wars and failed banana republic revolutions stains their hands and would most likely plague their conscience—if only they believed in something as quaint and abstract as a human conscience—but their rabidly anti-intellectual stance does not afford them that luxury. Consider the following from page 88 of Brookhiser’s memoir regarding his marriage to psychiatrist Jeanne Safer:
Religion made a bigger problem than where to get married. My parents, particularly my mother, did not want me to marry Jeanne. Ideally, my mother would not have wanted me to marry anyone, not even a younger replica of herself (such a woman would have been too strong willed), But Jeanne’s Jewishness was certainly a bad part of the mix. My father had encountered similar opposition himself, but as he always did in family matters he supported the policy of the administration, which was set by my mother. He never said anything against Jeanne, but he let my mother give the evil eye unchallenged.
Sadly, Brookhiser’s portrait is a dead-on accurate assessment of many conservative American families. When one of the family members steps out of line – as the author’s mother does with her apparent anti-Semitism – the other clan elders remain deaf, dumb, and blind because the offending party is family. This is why, after calling Democratic President Jimmy Carter “the worst ex-President in history… (and) a very bad President: small-minded, moralizing, and incompetent”, Brookhiser, on page 167 of his tome, writes: “Because Reagan was family, we forgave him many sideslips.” The apple never falls too far from the tree, Rick.
My mother, who passed away at age 65 one year ago this month, was a dyed-in-the-wool conservative with family roots burrowed deeply in the rural farm country of Indiana and Virginia. She was also an anti-Semite, but it would probably be more fair and accurate to say that she was against any thought or action that failed to advance the superior White Anglo-Saxon Protestant cause of middle-class America. She adored, in no particular order, John Wayne, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush, and John McCain.
Like many conservatives, my mother believed in forcing morality down people’s throats, but her own morality was oddly flexible. She had prior convictions for grand larceny and drunk driving. In the early ‘80s, at the beginning of the Reagan Revolution that she so wholeheartedly endorsed (for conservatives, Brookhiser recalls wistfully, the Reagan presidency was “like getting the keys to the kingdom”), my mother was a significant narcotics dealer in the working class West Los Angeles community of Mar Vista.
She sold rock cocaine when she was the manager of a 365-unit apartment building; she had a built-in community of users within the complex, back in the heady days of disco when everybody was snorting or smoking something; eventually she began skimming cash from the rent collections to cover her drug-buying expenses as her network of buyers grew larger. Her larceny was caught by the management company (the apartment complex was owned by Carol Burnett and her husband Joe Hamilton), she was fired, threatened with prosecution, but a PI hired to investigate her revealed that she had neither a pot to piss in or a window to toss it out of so they dropped prosecution because they were seeking recovery of the money my mom stole, not putting her behind bars.
Thus, my mother was aiding and abetting the cocaine-smuggling Latin American revolutionaries that Reagan was actively trying to thwart in his battle against communism through overt and covert counter-revolutionary operations that would ultimately lead to the disgraceful Iran-Contra scandal. All of this while Ronald Reagan was beefing up DEA coffers in an attempt to eradicate marijuana cultivation in Central and Northern California. Familial or political, conservatives in America actually have no moral boundaries whatsoever.