Magazine | March 25, 2013, Issue

Sam’s Smear

Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the New York Times Book Review
Preposterous history from The New Republic

‘Every contributor to this collection . . . blandly ignores the possibility that there could be any real issue of a rational kind in American politics today which would justify the existence of an opposition, and proceeds to a sociological-psychological analysis of the extraordinary fact that there is one.” Frank Meyer was writing more than 50 years ago, but the impulse he described is still at work. The explanation for conservatives’ opposition to President Obama and his agenda must be found not in our ideas but in our pathologies.

Thus many liberals seem to have convinced themselves that we resist Obama’s agenda because he is black. It is a theory that does not depend on evidence. Liberals read elaborations of the theory not to understand the world around them but to feel the warm glow of moral superiority.

It is a glow that suffuses the long cover story Sam Tanenhaus, the editor of the New York Times Book Review, recently wrote for The New Republic. Titled “Original Sin: Why the GOP Is and Will Continue to Be the Party of White People,” Tanenhaus’s essay purports to show that Republicans’ crippling weakness among non-whites ultimately has its roots in the infatuation of conservative intellectuals with — John C. Calhoun. Yes, the antebellum politician best known for his defense of slavery as a “positive good” is, on Tanenhaus’s telling, the real founder of the conservative movement: “When the intellectual authors of the modern right created its doctrines in the 1950s, they drew on nineteenth-century political thought, borrowing explicitly from the great apologists for slavery, above all, the intellectually fierce South Carolinian John C. Calhoun.”

Now Tanenhaus doesn’t want you to think he is saying that today’s conservatives are just a bunch of racists. Certainly not. He is up to something much more subtle than that. “This is not to say conservatives today share Calhoun’s ideas about race. It is to say instead that the Calhoun revival, based on his complex theories of constitutional democracy, became the justification for conservative politicians to resist, ignore, or even overturn the will of the electoral majority.” With that to-be-sure throat-clearing out of the way, Tanenhaus continues with an essay that makes sense only as an attempt to identify racism as the core of conservatism.

Rarely has slander been so tedious.

That slander does not consist of reminding us that many conservatives, including William F. Buckley Jr. and National Review, were grievously wrong about the civil-rights movement. That fact is something all conservatives should ponder. Nor does it consist of suggesting, correctly, that certain conservative principles — federalism, traditionalism, economic freedom, judicial restraint — contributed to this moral error (just as certain liberal tendencies led The New Republic and the New York Times to make their apologias for Mussolini, Castro, and Stalin). Instead, Tanenhaus seeks to make, without defending, the dubious claim that any invocation of these principles is necessarily an implicit or explicit appeal to Calhoun’s worldview.

Because Calhoun was an articulate exponent of arguments for state sovereignty properly credited to Jefferson, Madison, and other Founders, many conservatives, including Buckley himself, occasionally quoted him. The notion that the conservative movement was ever enthralled to Calhoun is, however, not merely wrong, but preposterous.

Tanenhaus wildly overstates Calhoun’s status in the early years of National Review. Calhoun, he says, was the conservative movement’s “Ur theorist.” Yet in George Nash’s universally respected book The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, Calhoun’s name appears twice: the first time in a favorable quote from the liberal historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., the second 50-odd pages later, in Schlesinger’s criticism of Russell Kirk for lumping Calhoun and abolitionist John Quincy Adams into the same political tradition. Calhoun is absent from the memoirs of the supposedly “Calhounist” William Rusher, the longtime publisher of National Review. He is mostly absent from the writings of James Burnham, although Burnham does reject Calhoun’s idea of a plural executive in a brief discussion in Congress and the American Tradition. There’s no mention of Calhoun in Tanenhaus’s own biography of Whittaker Chambers. Perhaps more telling, there’s no mention of Calhoun in his more recent book The Death of Conservatism, which he marketed as the official autopsy of the intellectual Right. Odd that he missed the role of conservatism’s ur-theorist. And Calhoun’s infrequent appearances in Buckley’s writings betray no adulation. The one reference in Buckley’s Miles Gone By, for instance, notes that Calhoun practiced his speeches in a field and then wrote them down when he came back inside. If that is a Calhounist dog whistle it must be one that only a liberal can hear (which, as it happens, is the case with most allegedly racist code from the right).

#page#Tanenhaus’s claim that National Review was baptized into the cult of Calhoun rests largely on a handful of quotes from Russell Kirk and James J. Kilpatrick. What results is a distorted picture of Kirk, but a nearly unrecognizable one of NR and conservatism. Neither Kirk nor Kilpatrick had the influence on NR that Burnham, Meyer, Chambers, Willi Schlamm, or Willmoore Kendall did. None of these founding editors of National Review is even mentioned in Tanenhaus’s indictment. Moreover, any remotely positive mentions of Calhoun disappeared from the magazine before most of the current staff and editors were born. Since then, the name has most often appeared in disapproving discussions of liberal efforts to create — dare we say it? — Calhounist majority-minority districts.

We suspect that an intramural disagreement among conservatives has confused Tanenhaus about Calhoun’s influence. For many years a group of conservative scholars led by the brilliant Harry Jaffa have contended that the Constitution must be read in light of the moral principles of the Declaration of Independence. It is a powerful argument even if not all of the implications Jaffa and his students draw from it are convincing. In his more recent and polemical works, unfortunately, Jaffa has often claimed that anyone who disagrees with any aspect of his theory is thereby taking Calhoun’s premises on board. If you didn’t believe in natural law, you were a Calhounist. If you placed more weight on the sovereignty of the states than on the powers of the federal government? Calhounist. Kendall, who perfunctorily dismissed Calhoun as a “man I cannot do business with”? Obviously a Calhounist, doubtless operating under deep cover.

Reviewing Jaffa’s Original Intent and the Framers of the Constitution, Robert Bork tried to count up all of Jaffa’s enemies: “Jeane Kirkpatrick, Irving Kristol, Edwin Meese, Russell Kirk, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., William Rehnquist, and, I rejoice to say, given the company to which I am assigned, me.” Bork added, “It turns out, for reasons that are not entirely clear, that most of us are disciples of the late, unlamented John C. Calhoun.” Bork ran afoul of Jaffa by arguing that it was not necessary to advert to the principles of the Declaration to see that Dred Scott was wrongly decided; the text of the Constitution was enough.

While Tanenhaus does not mention Jaffa, he seems to have exaggerated Jaffa’s insults. If that is what happened, one irony is that Jaffa’s views have largely prevailed among mainstream conservative intellectuals, who are far more Lincolnian in their thinking about the Declaration than they were before he began writing. (Jaffa may not be willing to accept the credit: Buckley once quipped that if you thought disagreeing with Jaffa was hard, try agreeing with him.) In short, Jaffa issued an incidental and gratuitous smear against rival conservatives, and Tanenhaus has made the incidental central and the gratuitous fundamental in constructing a political smear against all conservatives.

Smears are not noted for their precision. What is Calhounism anyway? Tanenhaus never gets around to explaining Calhoun’s political theory in his 6,000 words, or to showing the links between the man and the alleged manifestations of that theory in the modern world. Everything is kept vague. After claiming that Calhoun has inspired conservatives to “overturn the will of the electoral majority,” he writes:


This is the politics of nullification, the doctrine, nearly as old as the republic itself, which holds that the states, singly or in concert, can defy federal actions by declaring them invalid or simply ignoring them. We hear the echoes of nullification in the venting of anti-government passions and also in campaigns to “starve government,” curtail voter registration, repeal legislation, delegitimize presidents.

So: If you think the federal government is too large, you are an ideological descendant of John Calhoun. Favor the repeal of legislation? So did Calhoun! Tanenhaus keeps hearing more echoes until he goes figuratively deaf to anything but the Calhoun thesis. When conservatives suggest that our fidelity to the Constitution is declining, Calhoun is again lurking in the background. It is when Tanenhaus actually addresses the issue of race that the logic of the cancer cell finally takes over. “The rising faction of neoconservatives, who denounced ‘affirmative discrimination,’” were, he tells us, tacit allies of Calhounists who asserted “black inferiority.” Really? New Republic contributing editor Nathan Glazer popularized the phrase “affirmative discrimination” in his book of the same name. Someone better get him off the magazine’s masthead, quick.

Tanenhaus predictably recycles a slander of Ronald Reagan that has a long history on the left, writing that “in 1980, he flew directly from the nominating convention to Philadelphia, Mississippi — where three civil rights workers had been slain in 1964.” It is true that Reagan traveled to a county fair outside Philadelphia as he sought to win what was then a swing state. It is also true that the next day he addressed the Urban League in New York. The idea that Reagan was trying to signal his solidarity with lynchers is simply an ugly partisan invention.

Tanenhaus’s analysis continues to metastasize when he gets to the contemporary scene. When Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan talk about the toll of familial instability, especially among black Americans, they are echoing Calhoun. (No word on whether Bill Clinton and Barack Obama are neo-Confederates of some stripe for making similar points.)

Readers may recall the controversy that flared when President Obama remarked last year that businessmen too often attribute their success solely to their own efforts. Republicans attacked him for scanting the role of entrepreneurs and glorifying government — or, at least, that’s how most people interpreted the ruckus. Here’s what Tanenhaus has to say about it, right after he reads something racially sinister into Paul Ryan’s comment that good character can help people get ahead in life.

Character, he presumably meant, like that exhibited by Republican delegates in Tampa, who thrilled to the refrain “We built it” — with the identity of the “we” all too visible to TV audiences — just as the inimical “they” were being targeted by a spurious campaign to pass voter-identification laws, a throwback to Jim Crow.

It would complicate the narrative to note that polls find that most blacks support voter-ID laws and that there was no disparate impact on black registration when Georgia implemented one. Tanenhaus goes merrily along with his story of the Republicans’ “overtly [!] nullifying politics.”

In his essay and in interviews, Tanenhaus insists that such phrases as “Take back America” are proof of the burning sense of white entitlement on the right. It seems not to have dawned on Tanenhaus that this phrase was something of a liberal motto during the Bush years (and has a rich history in American politics generally). Nation editor Katrina vanden Heuvel co-wrote a book titled “Take Back America.” In 1992 Jerry Brown’s campaign slogan was “Take back America.” Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Howard Dean, and countless other Democrats routinely promised to “take back America,” perhaps most conspicuously at annual left-wing “Take Back America” conferences.

#page#Come to think of it, we seem to recall a fair amount of “delegitimization” of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush during their presidencies. Back then it was mostly liberals who said that the Constitution was becoming a dead letter. Nor is a desire to repeal legislation a monopoly of the Right. Watch what’s happening to the Defense of Marriage Act. Overturning the will of electoral majorities has been the stock in trade of liberal legal activism for decades. Conservatives do sometimes express nostalgia for a better time. Then again, so does Tanenhaus’s New York Times colleague Paul Krugman in writing about New Deal America. The “nullifiers” of the Tea Party, Tanenhaus writes, would have plunged us all off the fiscal cliff. So would Senator Patty Murray, the liberal Democrat from Washington State who spent much of last year arguing that we should go off the fiscal cliff. None of them, of course, qualifies as a “nullifier” because the term has only partisan content.

Echo, echo: “It is not a coincidence,” Tanenhaus writes, that all this nullifying has been going on under a black president. The old Marxist phrase is almost always a sign of argumentative laziness; it insinuates a causal connection that the author cannot forge honestly. Yet there is some truth to the remark in this case: Of course it is not a coincidence. A black, liberal president was bound to put white liberals on hair-trigger alert for racism and induce them to imagine it.

Perhaps Tanenhaus just has a bad case of tinnitus. Or perhaps he has found in Calhounism and nullificationism a way to tar as racist in origin anything he dislikes about conservatism. He is trying to delegitimize not just any number of elected officeholders but millions of his fellow citizens. His essay may seem to offer just the liberal moral self-congratulation with which every conservative is familiar, combined with a dash of post-election triumphalism. But there is something else at work too.

In a seemingly irrelevant and somewhat otherworldly tangent, Tanenhaus claims it is a “cherished myth” on the right that conservatism was out of favor in the Fifties, when NR was founded. This is part of Tanenhaus’s peculiar romantic nostalgia for a conservatism that he could admire for its proud irrelevance. (It was also a theme of Death of Conservatism.) He writes, “For most of these writers, conservatism was more a matter of disposition — a belief in order, tradition, the revival of humanist values — than of developing or sharpening a political program.” Ah, yes! If only conservatives would leave political programs to liberals and get back to the vital and important work of developing their humanist values.

That’s the goal here: to make conservatism, weakened as it is right now, disappear as a political force. And if it takes a dressed-up smear to nullify conservatism as such a force, Tanenhaus is apparently ready for the occasion.

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