Politics & Policy

The Plot to Steal the GOP

From the NR archives

EDITOR’S NOTE: The following article first appeared in the July 12, 1966 issue of NR.

One of the few pleasant surprises for conservatives, in the aftermath of Barry Goldwater’s 1964 defeat, was the discovery that they were not going to be kicked bodily out of the Republican Party. On the contrary, it soon became clear that the party was still essentially conservative, and that it had no intention whatever of ricocheting into the waiting arms of its Liberal minority merely because Senator Goldwater lost an election.

But the time has come for conservatives to stop soothing themselves with this agreeable news, and pay a little attention to what is happening today in the GOP. Balked at the front door, the Republican Liberals are sneaking in the back. They have a well-constructed plan for taking over the national party apparatus, and they will have the job done in approximately one year if the conservatives don’t get up off their glutaei maximi and start fighting back.

Of course, there are those who contend that control of a party out of power isn’t worth having. After the next national convention in 1968 (so the argument runs), the party’s presidential nominee will predictably reorganize it in his own image anyway, so why bother?

This analysis overlooks, however, the powerful impact that events between now and the 1968 convention are likely to have on that convention. If the key grass-roots organizations of the party — the Women’s Federation and the Young Republicans — remain (as they are today) solidly in the control of responsible conservatives, and if the Republican National Committee remains genuinely neutral, it will be difficult if not impossible for the Liberal Republicans to acquire the kind of intra-party momentum that will put them over the top in the 1968 convention. If, on the other hand, the Young Republicans and the Women’s Federation can be brought under Liberal control at the conventions both are scheduled to hold in mid-1967, the pros who now dominate the Republican National Committee can be expected to get the message and to prepare without much protest to accommodate themselves to a Liberal victory under the big tent in 1968. What conservative Republicans do not realize, or seem incapable of reacting to, is the fact that the Liberals are well on their way to bringing off precisely this multiple coup: not because they have some overwhelmingly popular candidate who can compel it (they don’t); not because they are the representatives of a majority of Republicans (they aren’t); not because they could dominate a national convention if one were held today (they couldn’t); not because they have the slightest claim to the moral or intellectual leadership of the party (they haven’t) — but solely and simply because conservative Republicans haven’t awakened to the danger and begun resisting it. Unless and until they do, there is a very real danger that the fleas will walk off with the Army blanket.

Liberal Takeover?

Of course, the easiest way for Liberal Republicans to take over the GOP would have been to sweep into control of the Republican National Committee itself, in the months following Goldwater’s defeat. It is, after all, a hoary tradition that our political parties atone for their national defeats by sacking the incumbent chairman of the party’s national committee. By that test, Republican National Chairman Dean Burch was fair game when Barry Goldwater was snowed under on November 3,1964, and there is considerable evidence that he knew it and was prepared to go quietly. But it did not necessarily follow that Republican conservatives were ready, or that they ought to have been ready, to hand over the GOP to its febrile clutch of house Liberals as a sort of voluntary act of political bankruptcy. For one thing, the Liberal Republicans did not, and do not today, possess either the numbers or the talent to run the party successfully. Time was — and not so long ago, either — when the Eastern Establishment (the Liberals’ home base) was smart and rich and vigorous enough to beat Mr. Republican himself, Bob Taft, and do it in convention after convention. But there were giants in those days, and one may be forgiven for concluding that the blood has run a little thin when it must be sought in the depleted capillaries of the current generation of “moderates.”

But there was another and still more compelling reason why conservative Republicans, in December 1964, were not disposed to surrender the leadership of the party to the Liberals altogether: they believed profoundly that their analysis of America’s problems was the correct one, and they had by no means despaired that it might one day — and perhaps soon — win popular approval. In all the circumstances, and after a discreet nose-count, conservative Republicans were definitely disposed to fight to retain control of the Republican National Committee. It might, many agreed, be wise to honor tradition, and also absorb the first shock of the inevitable attack, by permitting Dean Burch to return to his Tucson law practice; but it seemed certain that Barry Goldwater could name-in effect, dictate the election of — just about anybody else within reason to succeed Burch as chairman.

Instead Goldwater, for reasons best known to himself, decided that it had to be Burch again Or Else, and the word went forth to that effect. With some private reservations, and a silent prayer that Goldwater had counted right, the nation’s leading conservative Republicans trooped out onto the indicated limb — only to feel it crack and give way beneath them early in 1965 as Goldwater, belatedly concluding that Burch was either flatly unelectable or at least symbolically intolerable to a substantial segment of the party, abandoned the effort to keep him in office. In the ensuing scramble — over which Goldwater still exercised a veto power, though no longer a deciding voice — the chairmanship passed to Ray Bliss, of whom it could be, and still can be, said that his ideological preferences, if any, are known but to God.

Under Bliss, the Republican National Committee has stuck reasonably close to the middle of the Republican road. The heavily conservative staff that ran the Goldwater campaign has, inevitably, been almost entirely replaced — but largely with faceless professionals not publicly beholden to any particular faction. The problem of raising money for the party has been turned over to Gen. Lucius Clay, who is undeniably a member of the Eastern Establishment; but then, to borrow a phrase from Barry Goldwater, that is “where the ducks are” — or, more precisely, where (at least until 1964) the GOP tradition found the largest concentration of geese capable of laying golden eggs. For the rest, Ray Bliss has, at one time or another, irritated all factions about equally, and that is perhaps the surest indication that he is not playing favorites.

Partly because they realize this, conservative Republicans have in general been slow to criticize Bliss. But they have also been deterred by uncertainty as to their own future course. There is as yet no conservative candidate for the Presidential nomination eager to lead them up San Juan Hill in 1968 as Barry Goldwater did in 1964. At the moment, most conservative Republicans probably feel, rather gloomily, that Nixon is the best they can hope for. Some few even wonder whether anything can be done with Romney. Almost all would cheerfully work for Ronald Reagan; but he must first subdue Pat Brown and may well not even want the nomination in 1968. In any case, whatever their personal hopes or fears, conservatives have largely been content, for the reasons aforesaid, to leave the Republican National Committee in the calmly professional hands of Mr. Bliss, who so long and so openly coveted its chairmanship (even though he must wish, nowadays, that he had gone into some relatively relaxing occupation, like crossing Niagara Falls on a tightrope).

The Liberal view of matters has, naturally, been rather different. No doubt they had supposed that, after what they always describe with such relish as the “debacle” (or “disaster,” or “catastrophe”) of November 1964, control of the Republican Party would pass into their hands more or less by operation of law. They must have been dismayed, therefore, to note the strength that could still be assembled in the RNC in January 1965 for the re-election of Dean Burch — that arch-symbol of the “discredited” Goldwater faction in the party. There is, moreover, reason to believe that they were a good deal less than wholly satisfied with Bliss as Burch’s eventual successor. But the necessary assurances have a way of being given all round in these ticklish situations, even if a little inconsistency is involved; and in due course the Liberals, like the conservatives, accepted Ray Bliss as a caretaker chairman.

The Liberal acquiescence in the Bliss regime was fortified by the failure, after 1964, of anyone Liberal Republican figure to move rapidly to the fore, consolidate the others behind him, and advance confidently toward the 1968 nomination — a process which might have swept the RNC into his rucksack almost en passant. If the conservatives have not over Horeb heard the blast of advent blow, neither have the Liberals. And their failure to do so is much harder to explain. It was, after all, a conservative who lost in 1964; it would not be surprising if it took some time for the conservatives to recover their breath and their momentum. But, despite an almost embarrassingly cooperative press, not a single Liberal Republican has yet really captured the national imagination. Romney, whose Liberal credentials may turn out to be forged anyway, remains somehow unfocused — vigorous but vague. Rockefeller still plucks futilely away at his various disabilities. Lindsay’s star ascended heavenward in 1965, but even Murray Kempton has blanched at what he belatedly detects behind that handsome, mirthless façade. As for Kuchel, Case, Hatfield, Evans . . . Brooke? . . . Javits? Now really.

Yet, to their credit, the Liberal Republicans have not allowed themselves to be lulled into inactivity or impotence by the absence of a red-hot candidate, or by the determined neutralism of the National Committee. Correctly assessing the balance of forces within the party, they have moved to seize control of its two semi-autonomous arms: the Young Republicans and the Women’s Federation. It is no accident that these two organizations are bulwarks of conservative sentiment within the Republican Party. They are the only two branches of the party apparatus that elect their national officers in grass-roots conventions, and the grass roots of the GOP are as solidly conservative as they ever were.

In the case of the Women’s Federation, ideology does not seem to have played much part in its affairs until 1962, when Katherine Kennedy Brown of Ohio and lone Harrington of Indiana (later Co-Chairman of the National Draft Goldwater Committee) provided the pro-Goldwater muscle to back up Dorothy Elston of Delaware, an outspoken conservative, when she was elected chairman of the organization. Mrs. Elston was reelected without opposition in 1964, and — since her Board of Directors has set the next convention for May 1967 — her second term will expire at that time.

Conservative dominance of the Young Republican National Federation dates from 1957, when John Ashbrook (now the redoubtable congressman from Ohio) was elected as its Chairman. Conservatives have won every biennial convention since (with the exception of 1961, which the Liberals captured as a result of an internal squabble among the dominant conservatives), and are today represented in the chairmanship of the organization by Tom R. Van Sickle, a 28-year-old Kansas state senator who served as Director of Field Organization of the National Citizens Committee for Goldwater and Miller.

Conservative YRNF

In recent years, in fact, conservative control of the YRNF has become so customary that its critics have labeled its leaders “the Syndicate,” have sought to depict themselves heroically as “the Gangbusters.” But the truth is that the continuing dominance of the conservative faction in the YRNF is a tribute to its own good judgment: for it has stoutly reflected the basically conservative temper of the Young Republicans across the country, while firmly refusing to be lured into the fever-swamps of right kookery (represented in Young Republican circles by the delegation from California, which vies with the Liberals in its detestation of “the Syndicate”).

It is against these two organizations — the Women’s Federation and the Young Republicans — that the Republican Liberals have deployed their guns for the preliminary battles looking toward the convention of 1968. The master gunners are Craig Truax, State Chairman of Pennsylvania, and Governor Robert Smylie Idaho.

Truax, who labors in the shadow of Governor William Scranton, is reported to grieve that he is cast in what the late Forrest Davis described as the most thankless of medieval roles: minister to an idiot king. (Witness the famous “Scranton letter” in San Francisco, which Scranton never saw.) But Truax’s ambitions are boundless, and it may be that when Scranton leaves the governorship in January 1967 Truax will find more scope for his restless talents.

Smylie, too, is handicapped by his Idaho is not precisely the Mother of Presidents, or even of Vice Presidents. But Smylie has maneuvered himself into a position of some prominence as chairman of a group called the Republican Governors’ Association, and exhibits a lively interest in political developments outside the Gem State.

These two politicos are abetted, in their operations against Republican conservatives, by a handful of influential political reporters and columnists who have made the Liberal cause their own. First among these, if only by virtue of that automatic seniority that accrues to the representative of the New York Times, is David Broder, of the Times’ Washington staff. Next is Robert Novak, the livelier half of the syndicated team of Evans and Novak, who appear in the New York Herald Tribune and are also widely followed in Washington and other key cities. Novak, in turn, is understudied by a young Rockefeller protégé named Bruce Chapman, who has the run of the Trib’s editorial offices. Among other writers who can be counted on to join in any chorus struck up by Broder and Novak are such certified Liberals as Charles Nicodemus of the Chicago Daily News, Robert Asher of the Washington Post, Paul Hope of the Washington Star and James Perry of the National Observer.

With press agents like those, even the Cherry Sisters could look good. Truax and Smylie swung into action at the 1965 convention of the Young Republican National Federation in Miami Beach, backing a furniture salesman from North Carolina named Flaherty against Van Sickle. Flaherty was duly clobbered, and has subsequently caused a good deal of merriment in “Syndicate” circles by advising the Deauville Hotel in Miami Beach to forward his very considerable statement of account directly to Mr. Truax in Harrisburg, Pa. Smylie’s contribution to the 1965 festivities was a cute trick from Idaho named Hope Kading, whose lavishly financed candidacy for the co-chairmanship of the YRs was stopped dead in its tracks by the conservative entry, Jill Dover.

But Mrs. Kading and her governor bided their time, and in due course got their revenge. A conservative minority faction of the (Liberal-controlled) New Jersey YRs, jovially nicknamed the “Rat Finks,” had the misfortune to harbor in its midst some unknown irresponsible who composed and circulated a number of racist song-parodies in New Jersey and subsequently at the Miami Beach convention. Mrs. Kading, piloted by Governor Smylie, knew just what to do. The Anti-Defamation League of B’nai B’rith was notified, and in due course the deadly charge was brayed across the nation’s front pages: the conservative “Rat Finks” of New Jersey were arraigned, en masse, for anti-Semitism and other forms of racism. Investigations, conducted with maximum publicity, were launched by Truax’s New Jersey allies and will continue, apparently, forever. A whole series of reputations, including that of the leading “Rat Fink,” Richard Plechner (himself partly Jewish), have been dragged through the mud without the slightest evidence or justification. Moreover, since Plechner and his faction supported Van Sickle at Miami Beach, every effort has been made to link the national leadership of the Young Republicans — the real target in the long run-to one unknown sick mind in New Jersey.

Poor Finks

In pursuit of this higher goal, Truax and his fellow Pennsylvanian and ideological ally, Sen. Hugh Scott, raised the “Rat Fink” issue at the June 20 meeting of the Republican National Committee in Washington, accusing YR Chairman Van Sickle of failing to support efforts to rid New Jersey Young Republicanism of its supposed racist fringe. Van Sickle reasonably pointed out that the first responsibility for policing the New Jersey YRs lay with the state’s own YR and senior chairmen (a telling point, since both are allies of Truax), but vowed that if these officials did not promptly expel all identifiable racists from the New Jersey YR organization, its charter would be revoked by the National Federation. Faced with the necessity of actually hunting for the anonymous songsmith, New Jersey’s Liberal Republicans chose instead to use the issue to cripple their local conservative opposition, and ruthlessly suspended the charters of the recognized Young Republican organizations in no less than seven of the state’s 21 counties — thus unjustly but permanently tarring with the implicit stain of racism an estimated two thousand decent young men and women; or slightly over half of the active Young Republicans in New Jersey. Say what you will about Truax, Smylie and their allies, they know how to fight dirty; but by introducing broad-brush charges of anti-Semitism and white racism as a weapon for regular use in intramural conflicts, they may have opened wounds that will be long in healing.

The richest irony in this whole appalling affair is provided by the fact that Truax and Smylie, in their cynical effort to smear their targets with the charge of racism, have not hesitated to ally themselves with the authentic right-wing extremists, both in New Jersey and nationally, who share their hatred of the responsibly conservative YRs. In New Jersey, for example, Plechner and his “Rat Finks” were narrowly defeated for state control of the YRs by an alliance of John Birch Young Republicans and the very Liberals who look for guidance to senior State Chairman Webster Todd — and, beyond him, to his ideological mentor across the Delaware, Craig Truax. And in California, where (as previously noted) impassioned kookery has found its firmest foothold in Young Republicanism, the state YRs in 1965 went down the line for Flaherty and Kading — the candidates of Truax and Smylie!

Conventions Ahead

The struggle for control of the national YRs is far from over; it may be expected to blaze hotter in the months ahead, and to reach a climax at the YR national convention in Omaha in June 1967. Certainly the intentions of the Liberal Republicans are no longer in doubt — as witness these excerpts from a remarkably candid report by the Washington Star’s aforementioned Paul Hope concerning Sen. Scott’s attack on YR Chairman Van Sickle at the June 20 meeting of the RNC:

Scott believes control of the auxiliary organizations to the national committee-such as the Young Republican Federation, the Republican Women’s Federation and the College Republican Organization — are [sic] of major significance in the nominating process. He contends these groups, through their publications, speakers and convention activities, can get the bandwagon rolling for a Presidential candidate . . .

The next move of the moderates is to oust conservatives from the leadership of the YRs. Scott claims this will be done at the YR convention next year. But removal of Goldwater conservatives from YR leadership is only one step in. the moderates’ objective to take control of the party.

One might ordinarily be excused for discounting rather heavily the proclamations of Hugh Scott, a hot-air factory whose cubic capacity is an object of envious admiration even in Washington, where the competition is fierce. But this description of the intentions of the “moderates” is authoritative; and certainly the cause of conservative Republicanism has been gravely damaged by the “Rat Fink” imbroglio, as lip-smackingly reported by the journalistic allies of Smylie and Truax. Meanwhile, this ingenious pair is not overlooking the Women’s Federation either. Its convention is set even earlier — for May 1967, in Washington, D.C.

The lines in that particular struggle are not yet clear, but of one thing we may be sure: if the outcome can possibly be described by a hostile press as a victory for Liberalism, it will be. This puts a heavy burden on the conservatives in the Women’s Federation to choose their objective judiciously, and then to achieve it at all costs. For if the May 1967 convention of the Women’s Federation were to in a rout of the conservatives, this would inevitably have a demoralizing effect on the conservative YRs who must defend their own bastion in June. And if these too were to be defeated, the elated Liberals would naturally shriek that the verdict of the grass roots was clear — and there would be no lack of opportunists in the party ready to agree and climb the bandwagon for the ride to 1968.

None of this is inevitable. Indeed, if only the conservative Republican leaders who might sound the alarm and lead the counterattack are strangely silent. Barry Goldwater, whose merest growl, even today, could throw the Smylie-Truax entente permanently on the defensive, seems reluctant to use his strength. Richard Nixon, single-mindedly pursuing his devious path toward the White House, is far too afraid of offending anyone to meddle in such touchy matters. F. Clifton White, brooding over the scene from his 35th-floor eyrie in Manhattan’s Chanin Building, has yet to make a move. As a result the Young Republican National Federation has borne the initial brunt of the Liberal attack for no better reason than that its leaders are young and hence easily vulnerable. The YRs have had to fend off as best they could a truly savage smear-job engineered by thoroughgoing professionals with far higher (or is it lower?) aims in view. In this distinctly cold-blooded process, some of the nation’s most responsible young conservatives have heard themselves lashed as “bigoted and immature young hellions” and “brain-twisted deviates” (by Sen. Scott) and even as “gray-flanneled Hell’s Angels” (by Life). And you may be sure that the turn of the Women’s Federation is coming next: already Life has linked it to the YRs by the sneering epithet “rowdies and dowdies,” and it is by no means farfetched to expect that Truax and Co. will soon find, among the nation’s active Republican women, another few thousand “racists” for their busy guillotine. 

Liberals on the March

A highly informed Liberal journalist recently confided to friends that if another Republican national convention were held tomorrow the conservatives, in his opinion, would still be control it. He is probably right; but the next convention will not be held tomorrow. It will not be held until the summer of 1968 — after a lot more water has gone over the dam. Whether that convention is controlled by conservatives or Liberals will depend upon the totality of intervening events — the YR and Women’s conventions, the primaries, and much else. Conservatives, therefore, had better wake up to the fact that the Liberals are already on the march. Unless they are resisted, their victory is assured.

— William A. Rusher was the publisher of National Review. This article first appeared in the July 12, 1966 issue of National Review.

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