Nostalgia, Humility, and Other Qualities

by Jay Nordlinger

Here at NR, we have frequently spoken of the dangers of “Reagan nostalgia”; in Britain, some have spoken of “Thatcher nostalgia.” I brought up this issue with Michael Gove, the British education secretary, and I report what he said in today’s Impromptus: the last installment of my series “Gove in the Arena.”

Said Gove, “There’s always going to be nostalgia, and it’s understandable. We’re always going to think we live in an age of men and that the age of gods and heroes has passed.” But we should look at history with clear and understanding eyes. “If you look back and airbrush out of the record the contradictions and complexities of the individual, and turn him into a plaster saint, that’s problematic.”

Thatcher, said Gove, “had a clear set of principles that guided her, but she was tactically prepared until the very end to concede in order to move on. She never made the perfect the enemy of the good.” This is a point that absolutists always overlook. (And bear in mind that Gove is considered the purest of the pure, the boldest of the bold, the rightest of the Right.)

Reagan too, said Gove, had a clear set of principles, and “he also recognized, through experience, intuition, or intellect, that you needed to bring together the maximum number of people who could broadly support your program.”

Gove also mentioned George W. Bush — who “recognized how there were shifts in the demographics of America, which he was in a position to exploit.” As a result, different communities could “see him as their guy.” A challenge for today’s conservatives, said Gove, “is to think, What is the emerging coalition which, without compromising on essential principle, you can bring together? I ask respectfully, and as one looking from the outside, Have Republicans failed to appreciate the extent to which new Americans from a variety of immigrant communities are amenable to their message?”

Probably so. There is an old conservative lament: “In our hearts, we know we’re wrong.” Susana Martinez doesn’t know she’s wrong — and she brought her Reagan-conservative message to communities all over New Mexico, and won, in a state 3 to 1 Democratic.

Michael Gove is famously known as “the politest man in London,” or certainly at Westminster. He does not talk like many American politicians or cabinet officials talk. An example: I asked whether conservatives in other countries could borrow from what he has done at the Education Department. Could learn from how he has maneuvered through politics. Gove answered, “Just as it’s too soon to pass judgment on the Iraq War [which we had been discussing], it’s too soon to pass judgment on my tenure here. I might end up being viewed as having had a disastrous effect on English education, as someone who overplayed his hand politically, and people might look back and say, ‘This is an object lesson in how not to hold office.’”

Um, no. That is a polite, humble, and Govian thing to say — but no.