Politics & Policy

Grading Greatness

Some day the national-greatness "movement" may live up to its name.

My computer crashed when I was two-thirds through writing a brilliant and thoughtful essay on national-greatness conservatism. As it is now a little after one o’clock in the afternoon and I am very weary, I’ve decided it ain’t worth rewriting the damn thing. I bring this up because, well, lately you you guys have been complaining about my tardiness and the length of these columns. I write long when short on time.

Anyway, Frank Foer has written the best summary of what’s happening with so-called “national-greatness conservatism” to date. Admittedly it’s not a crowded field, but as someone who gives Frank a hard time too often, I should say he did a great job.

The essence of his piece is that Bill Kristol has become a liberal. That’s a bit too provocative; if you pick almost any public-policy issue, with the possible exception of campaign-finance reform, Kristol will give you a conservative opinion of it. But Foer isn’t being irresponsible when he calls Kristol a liberal either; in a very narrow sense everyone who follows the “greatness” debate knows what he means.

First, some quick background. In 1997 Weekly Standard editor-in-chief Bill Kristol and senior editor David Brooks — two men who make up roughly 50% of the entire national-greatness “movement” — wrote an interesting essay in the Wall Street Journal arguing that the Right has internalized too much of its libertarian, anti-government rhetoric. “Wishing to be left alone isn’t a governing doctrine,” they wrote. “And,” they continued, “an American political movement’s highest goal can’t be protecting citizens from their own government.” Hence, they wanted to inject conservatism with more patriotic language and fervor.

In 1997 they favored an activist government that couched time-honored conservative goals in Teddy Rooseveltian rhetoric, arguing that we should “[B]ust the great public trusts of our time — the education, health and Social Security monopolies,” which, as Foer points out, is precisely what libertarians and conservatives had been arguing for a few decades. Abroad, they favored a more assertive foreign policy infused with American values, also hardly a “new” idea in conservative circles.

Over time Brooks wrote some wonderfully elegant essays in favor of building more patriotic monuments and public architecture. He wrote fondly of the Republican party’s post-Civil War activism and he praised land-grant colleges and the Library of Congress with a passion rarely associated with land-grant colleges and the Library of Congress. David Brooks is one of my favorite writers in the world, but with his emphasis on the patriotic spectacle and the wonders of government activism, he sounded a bit too much like Charles de Gaulle for my taste.

Ultimately the problem for those of us not immediately converted to the idea was that it was hard to see what exactly was both new and useful in it. What was useful was essentially a restatement of conservative and neoconservative thought — strong defense, more patriotism, less libertarianism — while what was new was very hard to understand except as public relations, Kristolian conservative-movement hi-jinks, or simply plain, old-fashioned nostalgia.

Then along came Sen. John McCain who seemed the perfect candidate for a cause without a home. A charismatic war-hero/presidential candidate was precisely the sort of TR-type that national greatness needed to be relevant. The problem is that McCain, for reasons too lengthy to go into here, decided — or seemed to have decided — that success amounted to winning praise from the liberal media and that reform involved beating the tar out of the Republican party (it’s no shock these things are complementary).

It seemed as if The Weekly Standard, or at least the voice it assumed when writing about McCain and national greatness, was willing to forgive any bad idea or destructive action for the benefit of McCain’s candidacy. To be fair, when you hitch your wagon to a man on a white horse, it’s very difficult to steer.

So now national greatness is an allegedly “conservative” cause permanently associated with a politician whose following has very little to do with an ideology of any kind. Unlike in 1997, there’s a political agenda associated with national-greatness conservatism today, but it’s an agenda derived almost entirely from an increasingly incoherent cult of personality.

For example, if you go to conservativereform.org, Marshall Wittmann’s national-greatness hub, you will find lots of interesting things, some of them worthwhile and conservative, but you won’t find a “new” conservatism. You will find a Santeria shrine that uses Republican saints like Teddy Roosevelt and Lincoln as substitutes for the real deity, John McCain. And, you can light as many votive candles to McCain as you want, but it won’t make his de facto membership in the Democratic party any more conservative.

I think this is a shame for a host of reasons. First of all, I think McCain didn’t need to run to the left and quicken Jonathan Alter’s pulse in order to be a good candidate. And, I think McCain could do much to improve contemporary conservatism and the GOP.

Second, I always said I would be in favor of national-greatness conservatism if we could find some great things worth doing. But building monuments and passing some truly awful campaign-finance laws isn’t my idea of being a shining city on a hill. I am in favor of a limited, truly federal, government. But that doesn’t mean I think we should give up on the principle that government can do good things. After all, the government won World War II (See, for example, my “Invade Africa” columns on 5/3/00 and 5/10/00). And, I think Kristol and Brooks are right when they say anti-government rhetoric sometimes goes too far.

I also think what’s happened is a shame because it seems like Kristol is in a corner intellectually. “Why are conservatives so upset? It isn’t that we supported McCain; it’s that we haven’t apologized for supporting him,” Kristol tells Foer, “There’s something sick about a movement like that.” Well, yes and no. Maybe some people are asking Kristol for a full kowtow for his McCain support; Lord knows my brief endorsement of McCain caused some readers to spit their Diet Cokes out of their nostrils and onto their screens.

But in a sense an apology is in order. During the campaign Kristol suggested more than once that to be a Bush supporter was tantamount to being a hostage to evil corporations that put profit above patriotism. Similarly, during the campaign and after, the McCainiacs claimed to be fighting cynicism and corruption, but rhetorically they burned the village to save it. How else to explain the bizarre pas de deux of simultaneously saying they wanted people to love their government while at the same time supporting a political candidacy which says the government is profoundly corrupt? Isn’t that how national greatness got started in the first place — by bemoaning those who trafficked in anti-government rhetoric?

To the extent that their original critique of libertarians was correct, it seems to me that they defy their own standards when they align themselves with the deeply cynical politics that says government is bought and paid for and that groups which are locked out of the liberal media are necessarily nefarious if they oppose campaign-finance reform because they wish to make themselves heard.

Moreover, as McCain spirals farther and farther into self-caricature — as the New York Times’s golden boy, one gets little sense from the national-greatness corner that maybe, just maybe, the senator from Arizona hasn’t turned out to be what they had in mind. Obviously, Bill Kristol doesn’t need to apologize to me because, well, he’s much more important than me and because I like the guy. But I — and conservatives like me — would be far more amenable to his arguments were he to address a few of these concerns.

National greatness as an idea is at a crossroads. It can either resurface as a serious idea for conservatives to debate and refine through debate, which one day might be a “movement” with more than four or five members. Or, it can be the slogan for a havoc-wreaking politician whose only allegiance is to a movement that has his name above the title. It cannot be both.


1. I think a number of you have either forgotten about or never heard of our Ask the Editors feature. We like it and so should you. In fact, I even asked the editors a question myself. Check it out.

2. If you missed NRO Weekend you missed a lot, including John Podhoretz’s excellent piece demolishing NBC’s West Wing.

3. Friday’s column elicited a lot of angry e-mail from people who were angry for precisely the reasons that I predicted. We will come back to the issue of morality another time. I just wanted to let people know I am reading all of these e-mails.

4. Speaking of reading e-mails, I got over 600 suggestions for book titles and themes. I’m still wading through them. Again, my apologies but I cannot respond to everybody, but I’m trying to read them all.

5. I will let everyone know how the bachelor party went another day. Suffice it to say we all survived, which was in doubt for a while.

5. And, I just thought you might like to see my column for the American Enterprise where I am a media critic.

6. I’m going to go take a nap now.


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