Rick Perlstein: "I didn't like Nixon until Watergate"

Historians in the News

I've referred here often to my 2005 Princeton speech, and thought I might as well publish it here. It's something of The Big Con project's manifesto—a lesson about why conservative ideology, as it is lived in the real world, is in its way as abominable as Leninism.

The conference included Richard Land, director of the Southern Baptist Convention, New York Times columnist David Brooks, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, Moral Majority founder Paul Weyrich, and William Bennett.

Historian and American Enterprise Institute Fellow Steven Hayward opened the conference, posing the question, "What do we mean by conservatism?" He answered by quoting the conservative philososopher Russell Kirk: "Belief in a transcendant moral order." Conservatives, he said, "defend the unchanging ground of our changing experience."

Karl Rove showed up for a surprise after-lunch briefing and Q&A, in which he defended his conservative purity by boasting of how he pressured a reluctant Republican into voting for a free trade bill ("That sombitch was cryin!"). I was the token liberal, part of the panel "Barry Goldwater and the Modern Conservative Movement," alongside Lee Edwards and M. Stanton Evans, cofounders of the pioneering conservative activist group Young Americans for Freedom and movers in the 1964 Barry Goldwater presidential campaign.

I interviewed both these gentlemen for my Goldwater book on the same day in 1997. That same week I interviewed Richard Viguerie. David Keene of the American Conservative Union set up a breakfast for me at the Capitol Hill Club at which Alfred Regnery, William Schulz of Reader's Digest, and Alan Riskind of Human Events, reminisced about the old days.

I loved it all. As an unabashed ideological liberal in the depths of the age of Clintonian triangulation, I found the recollections of the risks you all took for a cause absolutely inspiring.

In a sense, I considered you political role models.

The name that came up over and over in my interviews with these veterans of Young Americans for Freedom was "Richard Nixon." They came to the 1960 Republican National Convention determined to draft Barry Goldwater for vice president. They left after making a breathtaking ad hoc run at drafting Goldwater for president instead, and taking down the presumptive nominee as an unprincipled sellout.

Richard Nixon once instructed a new staffer, Richard Whalen, "Flexibility is the first principle of politics." The conservative movement has understood itself to be the people who unflaggingly answered back to Nixon: "Principle rises above politics." That's a quote from Alf Regnery, in a profile of him this fall in the Washington Post. In the same article, David Keene related his answer to someone who criticized the ACU for attacking congressional spending, because Republicans were the ones in charge of it: "Well, that's too bad." The man here to my right, Lee Edwards, got the money quote: "What we have here is the principled conservatives vs. the pragmatic conservatives."

Young Americans for Freedom distributed a pamphlet in 1965: the text of the inaugural address of their first chairman named after the Goldwater defeat. It excoriated conservatives "who abuse the truth, who resort to violence and engage in slander," and "who seek victory at any price without regard for the broken lives...incurred by those who stand in the way." That is the spirit of Barry Goldwater--the spirit we honor on this panel. As he put it in Conscience of a Conservative--in italics: "we entrust the conduct of our affairs to men who understand that their first duty as public officials is to divest themselves of the power they have been given."

I'm working on the sequel to my book Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus now. It's going to be called "Nixonland," and it covers the years 1965 to 1972. And it wasn't long into the research before I found myself wrestling with a historiographic problem.

What to make of the fact that some of the names who pioneered this anti-Nixonian movement of principle showed up in the dankest recesses of the Nixon administration? People like Douglas Caddy, of course, the co-founder of the effort to draft Goldwater for vice-president in 1960 and YAF's first president, who was the man the White House called on to represent the Watergate burglars in 1972. And people like the guy inaugurated as YAF's chair in the 1965 with those stirring words about truth: Tom Charles Huston--who, as the author of the first extra-legal espionage and sabotage plan in the Nixon White House, can fairly be called an architect of Watergate.

It is a thread one finds throughout the annals of the Nixon presidency. The notion that what they were doing was moral, the eggs that need be broken in the act of redeeming a crumbling West. Jeb Magruder told the Senate Watergate Committee: "Although I was aware they were illegal we had become somewhat inured to using some activities that would help us in accomplishing what we thought was a cause." That message came straight from the top. "Just remember you're doing the right thing," the president told Bob Haldeman on Easter Sunday, 1973. "That's what I used to think when I killed some innocent children in Hanoi." Then he briefed him on how to suborn perjury from an aide concerning the blackmailing of the Watergate burglars....

Read entire article at Rick Perlstein at http://commonsense.ourfuture.org

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