Magazine | December 18, 2017, Issue

A Great Cause

Historian Lee Edwards lectures at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, Calif., January 10, 2018. (Photo: Richard Nixon Foundation via YouTube)
Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty, by Lee Edwards (ISI, 400 pp., $29.95)

As a young American in Paris in 1956, Lee Edwards was a cliché: “I grew a Vandyke, smoked Gauloises, drank Algerian red, read Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller, and . . . paid little attention to politics.” He hoped to write “the Great American Novel.”

History had a different plan. Several hundred miles away, on October 23, Hungarian students revolted against their Soviet oppressors. “I was ecstatic,” recalls Edwards. “My dormant anti-Communism came alive.” As he “put aside Baudelaire and Colette,” however, the Soviets picked up their weapons and struck back, slaughtering more than 2,000 Hungarians and forcing more to flee. Enraged by the U.S. government’s inaction, Edwards took an oath: “I resolved that for the rest of my life, wherever I was, whatever I was, I would help those who resisted Communism however I could.”

And that’s more or less what Edwards did over the next six decades as a writer, editor, activist, press agent, and historian — and now, finally, as a memoirist. Just Right is his valuable, career-capping book, bursting with personal stories about the rise of the conservative movement, from Barry Goldwater’s doomed presidential campaign to the triumph of Ronald Reagan, from the bleakest days of the Cold War to the construction of the Victims of Communism Memorial a decade ago.

Edwards was born in Chicago in 1932 but grew up mostly in Maryland. His father was a Washington-based reporter for the Chicago Tribune and his mother was a teacher. Politics filled their home. Richard Nixon visited. So did Senator Joseph McCarthy, who became a regular source for the senior Edwards. Covering McCarthy, writes the son, “was the biggest running story of his career.”

Edwards went to Duke University, joined the Army, and served in Germany. Upon his discharge, he moved to Paris and took up fiction: “I did not want to be compared with my father, knowing I would always come in second.” The horror of the Hungarian Revolution helped him to overcome these anxieties. He returned to Washington and wrote his first article for National Review in 1958. Yet he didn’t confine himself to journalism. Edwards worked as press secretary for Republican senator John Marshall Butler, a strong anti-Communist from Maryland. In 1960, he visited the home of William F. Buckley Jr., at the gathering that resulted in the drafting of the Sharon Statement and the founding of Young Americans for Freedom. Then he got involved with Goldwater.

The Goldwater campaign became the central event of his early life. In 1963, Edwards was working for the National Draft Goldwater Committee, on the day of President Kennedy’s assassination. When Edwards learned the awful news, he “murmured three Hail Marys for the repose of the president’s soul.” Yet he couldn’t stay prayerful: A stranger pounded on the committee’s door and yelled “Murderers!” Next the phone rang and the caller issued a bomb threat. Everyone, it seemed, had jumped to the conclusion that Kennedy’s killer was a conservative. On NBC, according to Edwards, anchorman Chet Huntley informed viewers, ominously, that Kennedy had died “in Dallas — the heart of Goldwaterland.”

The press reported the name of the assassin: Lee Harvey Oswald. “All over America conservatives were checking their membership and donor lists,” recounts Edwards. They were worried that Oswald was one of theirs. It turned out that Oswald was the opposite of a conservative — a committed Communist — but Kennedy’s martyrdom nevertheless worsened the odds for conservatism’s champion in 1964.

Edwards sensed this but remained enthusiastic as Goldwater stormed through the GOP primaries and seized the presidential nomination. In defeating Governor Nelson Rockefeller of New York, a liberal Republican, the conservative movement notched its first major victory on the stage of national politics. Edwards provides an insider’s account of the insurgency, often quoting colorful details from his own, unpublished diary: At the University of New Hampshire, he wrote, “the girls glow when [Goldwater] looks at them.”

Yet this is no hagiography. As much as Edwards admired Goldwater, he also saw the Arizona senator’s flaws, from his penchant for profanity to his unwillingness to talk about his own background. When Edwards urged Goldwater to speak openly about his experience of flying over the Himalayas during World War II and his ham-radio hobby, the candidate objected: “Lee, if you try any of that Madison Avenue crap, I will kick your ass out of this campaign. This will be a campaign of principles, not personalities. Understood?” Edwards understood, even as he disagreed: “I knew he was dead wrong.”

As a communications man, Edwards had the job of dealing with the media — and he confronted the liberal prejudices that always have vexed conservatives. He describes how reporters underestimated the size of crowds at rallies and even made up quotes to make Goldwater sound like a warmonger: “We corrected the distortions and misstatements, but for every falsehood we struck down, new ones immediately sprang up.” In his diary, Edwards mocked political journalists as “the biggest babies in Washington.”

Goldwater went on to suffer one of the worst defeats in the history of presidential elections, but Edwards saw signs of hope: Twenty-seven million Americans had voted for an authentic conservative. He moved into public-relations work, serving clients who aimed to expand this base: “I was a publicist, coordinator, and fundraiser for nearly every organization on the right.” He ghostwrote a book for Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina and even served as a wordsmith for John Wayne, the actor. He also met Ronald Reagan, covering his political rise for Reader’s Digest.

After visiting Reagan’s home in Pacific Palisades — and discovering it stocked with General Electric appliances as well as “dog-eared and underlined” copies of books by Whittaker Chambers, Friedrich Hayek, and Henry Hazlitt — Edwards jotted a question in his notebook: “President Reagan?” This was in 1965. Two years later, when Reagan was governor of California, Edwards published Ronald Reagan: A Political Biography. It became a bestseller. (An updated edition appeared in 1981, with a new cover and a sensational banner: “Complete through the Assassination Attempt.” When Edwards presented a copy to Reagan in the Oval Office, the president glanced at the cover and grinned. Then he quipped: “Well, Lee, I’m sorry I messed up your ending.”)

During Reagan’s presidency, Edwards began to shift away from his public-relations work. He studied world politics at Catholic University, earning a doctorate in 1986. Then came a series of books that march readers through the story of conservatism, with institutional histories of the Heritage Foundation and the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and biographies of Walter Judd and Edwin Meese. The best of these might be Goldwater: The Man Who Made a Revolution, published in 1995. More than 20 years later, it remains the standard and Edwards knows it: “I think it will be around for a long time to come,” he writes. He also wrote a biography of Buckley. Just Right includes a charming chapter on his long correspondence with the founder of National Review. At one point, Buckley marvels at Edwards’s book-writing pace: “Trollope would not have performed at that speed.”

Edwards acknowledges that as a conservative who writes about conservatives, he suffers from an obvious conflict of interest: “Those seeking absolute objectivity in my Reagan biography or any of my other books about the conservative movement will not find it.” The shelves of libraries, meanwhile, groan under the weight of volumes by supposedly mainstream historians who will admit no such thing, even as they deliver liberal accounts of the Progressive era, the New Deal, and the Great Society. They’re the real court historians.

In 1990, two months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Edwards worried that memories of Communism would fade. His wife, Anne, made a suggestion: “You know what we need? We need a memorial to the victims of Communism!” Edwards noted the idea on a napkin and put it in his pocket — and suddenly had what would become a final great cause: “It struck me that my life had been a preparation for such a venture.”

At first he envisioned a $100 million museum, calculating the cost from the estimate that Communists had killed 100 million people in the 20th century. As time passed, however, Edwards recognized the quixotic ambition of this goal — and he scaled back to a project that now stands on a small triangle of land a few blocks from the U.S. Capitol. The Victims of Communism Memorial is a bronze replica of the Goddess of Democracy statue that Chinese protesters raised at Tiananmen Square in 1989. President George W. Bush spoke at its dedication in 2007, in a ceremony that Edwards calls “the pinnacle of my life.” That evening, as part of the celebration, Buckley received an award and spoke. “It was, so far as I have been able to determine, his last public address,” writes Edwards.

When Edwards helped form Young Americans for Freedom, he and his comrades joked that their elders were OAFs — i.e., the Old Americans for Freedom. Now he’s an OAF himself: “I have been active in the conservative movement at the national level longer than anyone else” who remains alive, he claims on the opening pages of Just Right. He never wrote the “Great American Novel,” but he did something better: He has lived a great American life.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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