The Corner

Harry Jaffa, R.I.P.

Harry Jaffa has died. I remember, in order of increasing importance:

1. The character. Harry was a handful. Early in the Reagan years I got an excited phone call from him (was there ever a calm one?) about the fight over who should head the NEH. The frontrunner was M.E. Bradford, a learned English prof with a sideline in Confederate history. Irving Kristol then pushed Bill Bennett, for his manifest talent, and to avoid re-fighting the Civil War in a Senate confirmation hearing. This was one of the opening shots in the paleocon/neocon fight. (Like many great struggles, it began with cheese parings.) Everyone in right-world took sides. Harry, although he was the last living soldier of the Army of the Potomac, was for Bradford. Why? Because he disliked Kristol. (Irving took the right side in the Civil War, of course, but he did not take it for what Harry considered the right reasons, therefore he was worse than wrong.) And also because of: cheese parings. “This is all about patronage!” he told me. “Bradford will give me patronage! And those [I suppress his epithets] won’t!”

2. Speechwriter. Harry wrote the most incendiary lines of convention oratory since the Cross of Gold speech for Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Cow Palace in 1964. “Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice; moderation in pursuit of justice is no virtue.” It rings and sings; it expresses a powerful thought; I have used it for mic tests whenever I am in a TV or radio studio. But at that time and place, it did its little bit to hold Goldwater to six states.

3. Time thrusts these failings into obscurity, may all of ours follow. Harry’s great and lasting service was to rescue Abraham Lincoln from the whittlers and the minimizers. Early/mid-20th century biographers like Beveridge and Randall added to our detailed knowledge of Lincoln, but in their effort to be scientific and non-partisan, they lost sight of what was at stake in the 1850s and 60s. The Crisis of the House Divided, which Harry wrote for the centennial of the Lincoln/Douglas debates, reminded his scholarly colleagues that politics is sometimes about something; and in Lincoln’s life it was about something vitally important — the nature, and hence the future, of the United States. Imagine a white republic with a slave economy entering the imperial scramble of the late 19th century and beyond — its effect on the world, and on ourselves at home. Harry also defended Lincoln indirectly from his Communist admirers and black nationalist detractors. Lincoln was not concerned, or insufficiently concerned, with justice for the proletariat or for the black man. He was concerned with justice.

If Harry sometimes became hoarse and repetitious in expressing the truth, it was because the truth he expressed was so important, and so often ignored.

“Our republican robe is soiled and trailed in the dust. Let us repurify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.”– Lincoln, Peoria, October 16, 1854.



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