The only good conservative is a dead conservative.
That, in a nutshell, describes the age-old tradition of liberals suddenly discovering that once-reviled conservatives were OK after all. It’s just we-the-living who are hateful ogres, troglodytes, and mopers.
Over the last decade or so, as the giants of the founding generation of modern American conservatism have died, each has been rehabilitated into a gentleman-statesman of a bygone era of conservative decency and open-mindedness.
Barry Goldwater was the first. A few years ago his liberal granddaughter produced a documentary in which nearly all of the testimonials were from prominent liberals like Hillary Clinton and James Carville. Almost overnight, the man whom LBJ cast as a hate-filled demagogue who would condemn the world to nuclear war became an avuncular and sage grandfather type. Down the memory hole went one of the most despicable campaigns of political demonization in American history. Even Sarah Palin hasn’t been subjected to an ad in the New York Times signed by more than 1,000 psychiatrists claiming she’s too crazy to be president (though I don’t want to give anybody any ideas).
Then there was William F. Buckley, the founder of National Review, the magazine I call home. For more than four decades, Buckley was subjected to condemnation for his alleged extremism. Jack Paar (the Johnny Carson/Jay Leno of his day for you youngsters) was among the first of many to try to paint Buckley as a Nazi. Now, Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times book review section, who is writing a biography of Buckley, insists that Bill’s life mission was to make liberalism better.
But it’s Ronald Reagan who really stands out. As we celebrate the 100th anniversary of his birth, the Gipper is enjoying yet another status upgrade among liberals. Barack Obama took a Reagan biography with him on his vacation. A slew of liberals and mainstream journalists (but I repeat myself) complimented Obama’s State of the Union address as “Reaganesque.” Time magazine recently featured the cover story “Why Obama (Hearts) Reagan.” Meanwhile, the usual suspects are rewriting the same columns about how Reagan was a pragmatist who couldn’t run for president today because he was too nice, too reasonable, too (shudder) liberal for today’s Republican party.
Now, on the one hand, there’s something wonderful about the overflowing of love for Reagan. When presidents leave office or die, their partisan affiliation fades and, for the great ones, eventually withers away. Reagan was a truly great president, one of the greatest according to even liberal historians like the late John Patrick Diggins. As you can tell from the gnashing of teeth and rending of cloth from the far Left, the lionization of Reagan is a great triumph for the Right, and conservatives should welcome more of it.
On the other hand, what is not welcome is an almost Soviet airbrushing of the past to serve liberalism’s current agenda. For starters, if liberals are going to celebrate Reagan, they might try to account for the fact that they fought his every move, alternating between derision and slander in the process. As Steven Hayward, author of the two-volume history The Age of Reagan, asks in the current National Review, “Who can forget the relentless scorn heaped on Reagan for the ‘evil empire’ speech and the Strategic Defense Initiative?” Hayward notes that historian Henry Steele Commager said the “evil empire” speech “was the worst presidential speech in American history, and I’ve read them all.”
The point isn’t that liberals were wrong to oppose every Reagan policy. But what they seem to ignore is that those policies were the products of a political philosophy. Sure, he made pragmatic compromises, but he started from a philosophical position that the self-anointed smart set considered not just wrong, but evil or stupid or both. The Media Research Center has issued a lengthy report chronicling countless journalistic examples, but my favorite comes from Madame Tussauds Wax Museum in London, which in 1982 held a vote for the most hated people of all time. The winners: Hitler, Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, and Dracula.
While the encomiums to Reagan & Co. are welcome, the reality is that very little has changed. As we saw in the wake of the Tucson shootings, so much of the effort to build up conservatives of the past is little more than a feint to tear down the conservatives of the present. It’s an old game. For instance, in 1980, quirky New Republic writer Henry Fairlie wrote an essay for the Washington Post in which he lamented the rise of Reagan, “the most radical activist of them all.” The title of his essay: “If Reagan Only Were Another Coolidge . . . ”
Even then, the only good conservative was a dead conservative.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.