Politics & Policy

Remembering the Birth and Rise of Modern Conservatism

President Ronald Reagan at the re-commissioning ceremony for the USS New Jersey in 1982. (National Archives)
In a new memoir, groundbreaking Republican consultant Arnold Steinberg looks back on the moments and people who built a movement.

At the bookstore, eastern and midwestern browsers might pause upon seeing the cover of Whiplash! From JFK to Donald Trump, a Political Odyssey, wondering just who its author, Arnold L. Steinberg, is and why they should care about his “political odyssey.” But a quick sit-down at the store’s coffee bar, Whiplash! in hand, would be very instructive.

Steinberg has had a great impact on the conservative movement over the years. In the summer of 1970, “Arnie,” as he was known to his fellow young conservatives in those years, was the influential 20-year-old editor of The New Guard. He signed on as the news director of James Buckley’s Conservative-party run for U.S. senator from New York. He was the first campaign operative to arrange his candidate’s schedule so the campaign would earn maximum “free” news coverage in specific media markets, and it worked: Buckley, the third-party outsider, pulled off a stunning upset victory.

Thus began the career of one of the most imaginative and effective political consultants and pollsters anywhere. It’s a story Steinberg tells with charm, keeping the reader engaged through entertaining firsthand stories of the many minor and major celebrities he has encountered over the years. He starts out as a young fan of John F. Kennedy, is soon drawn to Goldwater Republicans, and then flirts intellectually with objectivists and libertarians before winding up an adherent of “fusionist” conservatism, which embraces elements of libertarian and traditionalist thinking.

Growing up mostly in Los Angeles multiplied Steinberg’s exposure to current and future notables in politics, entertainment, academia, sports, and other sectors, just as residing in New York does. As a teenager, he befriended longtime Los Angeles Times columnist Morrie Ryskind, known for generations as an important voice of conservatism in Southern California. Later, he writes, Clint Eastwood sought his advice when considering a run for office. (He told Eastwood to pass on a run for mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Calif. Eastwood eventually campaigned for and won the job anyway.) Later still, he recounts a story about Ronald Reagan’s 1980 run for president, told to him by Michael Reagan, the Gipper’s son. At a family lunch gathering, Reagan asked daughter Maureen if she could tone down her persistent support for the Equal Rights Amendment, which was alienating his supporters. Maureen agreed, on the condition that her father promise to nominate a woman for the first available vacancy to the U.S. Supreme Court. “Done,” said the future president. He kept his word, too, nominating Judge Sandra Day O’Connor of Arizona upon Justice Potter Stewart’s retirement.

One of the most important insights conveyed by Steinberg’s writing is how the American conservative movement rose from a negligible number of intellectuals and elected officials in the early 1950s (before his time) to securing the Republican nomination for president in 1964 for one of its own, Senator Goldwater. Arnie notes the strong Catholic origins of the new movement (led by William F. Buckley Jr.), later explaining how his own Jewish and pro-Israel roots guided him to embrace the conservative cause.

In the wake of President Johnson’s ringing victory over Goldwater, however, many liberal observers in the media sounded a death knell for the nascent conservatives. Here, Steinberg explains why that turned out not to be the case, bringing the reader into the regrouping councils of the movement, whose efforts would culminate in the 1980 election of Reagan as president. He documents the ascension of Young Americans for Freedom and other conservative organizations, as well as the emergence of the so-called New Left, which radicalized thousands of young Americans disgusted with the Vietnam War.

Steinberg was tapped to debate some of the top leaders of the New Left, including disciples of Herbert Marcuse. He points to the obvious hypocrisy of Marcuse, who was advancing the notion of “repressive tolerance.” That is, he opposed freedom of speech for those he deemed to be insufficiently progressive, just like those seeking to shout down conservative speakers on American college campuses today.

All too many liberal or underinformed observers believe they fully comprehend the forces and events that led to the founding and growth of the conservative cause. But they are mistaken, and they could do worse than to learn the error of their ways from reading Arnold Steinberg, who was there at the movement’s founding and knows its history from the inside.