The next panel — Max Boot, Jay Nordlinger, Elliott Abrams, and, as moderator, Yale professor Charles Hill — discussed the continuing relevance of Witness to America’s dealings with the world. Chambers famously said that, in renouncing Communism, he was leaving the winning side for the losing side. As the Soviet empire was breaking up 20 years ago, it seemed that Chambers was proved wrong. But, Abrams starkly asked, is that true? The collapse of the Soviet Union meant Communism would die — but that did not mean Western civilization would survive. Chambers had contrasted materialism with “the instinct of [the] soul for God.” But all too often, in our battle with the new enemy of Western civilization, Islamism, we take the materialist side, and think, as Abrams put it, “that if we only create more jobs for Saudi youth” the Islamist problem will melt away. Max Boot took up the theme of confronting Islamism with a lesson from George Kennan (whose character, as John Gaddis described it, paralleled Chambers’s in many ways). Kennan had advocated political warfare, which we applied very competently in the Cold War — notably by helping forestall Communist political victories in Western Europe by assisting the Christian Democratic parties. Under both George W. Bush and Barack Obama we have missed myriad opportunities to help moderates in Muslim countries — and we must, said Boot, relearn how to do this. Jay Nordlinger concentrated instead on the pervasive double standard by which American intellectuals to this day rail against Pinochet’s crimes but completely ignore the Cuban gulag and the Chinese laogai. Nordlinger quoted Vladimir Bukovsky’s mordant remark about Joseph Brodsky, who had been so heroic as a Soviet dissident and then seemed to go soft when he came to the United States. “It is far easier,” said Bukovsky, “to stand up to the KGB than to The New York Review of Books.”
The final panel — Peter Berkowitz, Norman Podhoretz, Alfred Regnery, and, as moderator, Roger Kimball — addressed the question “Without Anti-Communism: What Defines Conservatives Today?” Podhoretz recalled how in the 1970s the American Left gave up defending Communism — instead, it turned to attacking America. And it is still doing so. Therefore, he urged, the task of conservatives of all stripes today is “to fight as passionate a war against anti-Americanism as we did against Communism.” However, that means that “great as Chambers was,” we must part company with him on one crucial point: He believed that the focus on material prosperity was a stain on the American character; he “never saw America as good
.” Alfred Regnery, after pointing out that libertarians of the Rothbard stripe never embraced anti-Communism — on the grounds that fighting Communism would enlarge the state — sketched the enduring “pillars” of conservatism: liberty, rule of law, tradition and order, and belief in God. Peter Berkowitz continued this theme by saying that conservatives can rally around “a return to constitutionalism,” but he added that this does not mean rolling back everything the federal government has done since the New Deal — contra the early Bill Buckley, as Roger Kimball pointed out. Constitutional conservatism, Berkowitz explained, entails “a balancing and blending,” and any action requires taking account of “entrenched realities.” For him, calls for “small government” will not resonate: Too many Americans want
a larger safety net. However, we can still call for, and fight for, “limited
government” — a resolution, as Lee Edwards remarked, that is very much in the spirit of Chambers, who on political matters constantly weighed how much you can give up against how much you can’t
give up and maintain your principles.
The tone of these panels was very different from that of last year’s — partly, no doubt, because the buoyancy of Bill Buckley contrasts so sharply with the plangent pessimism of Whittaker Chambers. The tone of the dinner, too, was very different. Last year’s was in high celebration mode; this year, outgoing Indiana governor Mitch Daniels gave a sober assessment of what conservatives must do going forward from November 6. He began with Witness, echoing Norman Podhoretz’s criticism of Chambers as being too critical of America. He then went on, in his quiet, unassuming way, to explain why Mitt Romney was so very wrong — not just politically maladroit, but wrong — in his famous remarks suggesting that nearly half our fellow citizens are parasites. Daniels, who has spent countless hours getting to know ordinary Indianans during his eight years as governor, retorted: “Think of people on Social Security earned through a lifetime of honest toil; of men thrown out of work by a reeling, mismanaged economy and desperately trying to find new employment while on unemployment insurance; of young families, including active-duty military personnel, working hard but still accepting food stamps, which, for the moment, they legitimately need to provide adequately for their families.” The vast majority of these people, Daniels continued, will respond to the candidate who says: “We believe in you and your ability to decide for yourself, and they don’t.”
What will the Buckley Program do for an encore? Well, the early Fifties were teeming with books by the people Bill Buckley would soon gather into the conservative movement. I’m sure these imaginative Yalies will have no trouble continuing their winning formula — or finding a new one. As we walked out into the streets of New Haven, I found myself thinking: WFB would be proud.
— Linda Bridges is an editor-at-large of National Review.