M. Stanton Evans: The Conservative Movement’s Hilarious Happy Warrior

by John O'Sullivan

M. Stanton Evans — “Stan” to his numberless friends — was one of a dozen or so people who founded, promoted, and worked in the American conservative movement and who made it the most entertaining place to be on five continents. It wasn’t Stan who said “Toryism is about fun” — to start with, he had an American patriot’s suspicion of Toryism — but he ensured that any conservative meeting he attended or, better, chaired was enlivened by his own droll, seemingly spontaneous wit delivered in a slow, deep mid-Western drawl that could transform the worst political disaster into an occasion for helpless, falling-off-the-chair laughter.

One of his specialties was to treat liberal criticisms of the conservative movement as simple, straightforward truths. Thus he remarked that the Falklands war put conservatives in a painful dilemma: “On the one hand we like imperialism; on the other, we favor military dictatorships.” It always surprised me — though not Stan — that liberals carried on saying these things when he had so thoroughly sent them up. But anything was grist to his mill. When the Reagan administration was being excoriated for its mean prescription for school meals, he opened a meeting of the Monday Club by defining it as “a body of men united around the principle that ketchup is a vegetable.” And when Republicans strayed from the path, as they very frequently did, he flayed them with the same dry humor.

Indeed, his rightly celebrated “Evans’s Law” held that “when our people get into government, they cease to be our people.” The Nixon administration confirmed this law so comprehensively — with wage and price controls and détente with the Soviet Union — that Stan was one of those conservatives who professed to find Watergate a breath of fresh air. He claimed tongue in cheek to have telephoned the White House to assure them that, if he had known they were doing “all these neat things,” he wouldn’t have been so tough on them.

With a little help from Bill Buckley and others, Stan infused this spirit of self-mockery into the entire American conservative movement. Very few people could match Stan in this — WFB in his day, Mark Steyn in ours — but conservatives were nonetheless different because of it. Whenever I watch a movie in which the right-wingers are all scowling puritanical scolds, I sigh and realize that the writer and director simply don’t know what the hell they’re talking about.

Don’t take my word for it, however. The internet is full of Stan’s speeches and jokes, irony and satire, simple sallies and subtle jabs. He’s still with us in spirit, and that spirit is wit in the service of common sense.

Stan, however, was a great deal more than his jokes. He fought all the major battles of conservatism from the mid-fifties until yesterday. He went from Yale to work at National Review. He was a founder of Young Americans for Freedom and helped write the Sharon Statement. He was the youngest editor of a major metropolitan daily at the age of 26. He founded the National Journalism Center in Washington, D.C. to train able and aspiring young journalists in a scrupulous regard for factual accuracy. Among his graduates are Ann Coulter and NR’s own John Fund. He wrote major historical works. He was one of the early backers of the Goldwater campaign. He wrote a nationally syndicated column for almost two decades. He helped Ronald Reagan to turn around a failing presidential campaign with independent expenditures made possible by a Supreme Court decision he had also helped win. In short, he was no summer soldier of conservatism. He had all the right campaign medals.

Stan’s obituaries have generally said most of these things pretty accurately. My favorite is that by Lee Edwards (found here) because it gives a well-rounded picture of the man and contains some of his best lines. But all the conservative ones are worth reading, and, interestingly, the New York Times does Stan proud, too. It’s an obit that focuses more on Stan’s serious political achievements than on his subversive personality. But that’s the right bias for a paper of record, and it contains Stan’s final sober reflections on the partial success of the movement he helped prosper — which maintain and demonstrate his long refusal to deceive himself or others. Conservatives helped to defeat Communism, but — so far — liberal overspending has defeated us.

Stan never minced words or facts. Nor does his Times obituary. He may be looking down and thinking that his many criticisms of the paper over the years had some effect. After all, it got one important story right.

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