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Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Musings After Midnight--The Buckley Factor and It's Long Lasting Impact

Here we are again, my friends, for another late-night/early morning gathering which I have dubbed "Musings After Midnight," or if you prefer, my indulgence in navel gazing on sleepless nights, pretending that somebody out there may be actually interested in the vanity of an aging middle aged man who is quickly nearing his senior years.

If you find something in these observations of mine that are helpful or comforting, or even if you feel validated by my occasional rants, then congratulations. You can count yourself among the enlightened ones who are of a like mind.

If, on the other hand, you are repulsed by my informed opinions and well-crafted and defended views, then go away. There is a reason you feel repulsed, and for me to tell you why would only insult you.

You wouldn't understand it anyway.

Now, my dear reader, that is, for those of you who are still here, I intend to do some educating tonight, not because I think you are ignorant but because you may not be privy to some of the information I am about to tell you.

But you will have to indulge some personal history. I will try to make it interesting.

My interest in politics has been lifelong, beginning as a very young child in the late 50s and early 60s. My family has always had a keen interest in the subject, though we were of limited means in the south. But my grandparents and parents were hard working, honest, and interested in being good citizens. To them that meant holding down a steady job, saving your money, voting, and taking a personal interest in what was happening in the country politically.

Talk around our table was often centered on politics, and this was true not only in my own home but that of my grandparents, on both sides of the family, all of whom I remember very well.

To a person, every single member of my family was a Democrat, with the exception of one--my father. My Dad had come of age, entering adulthood, during the early years of the Eisenhower Administration. I remember my Dad saying on more than one occasion that Ike had convinced him that Republicans were better than Democrats, that the years Ike was in office were the smoothest 8 years he ever remembers for the country.

Everyone else in the family could never quite break away from the strong southern tradition of supporting Democrats. Most could remember how Republicans in Congress treated the south in the years after the Civil War, or if they did not remember they had always heard the numerous stories of the cruelty of the carpetbaggers, the scalawags, and the revenuers.

But they were conservatives. Some of them supported FDR's programs because the south was hit hard by the Depression, and they believed at the time that poor people needed the help the government afforded them during such a dire crisis. This did not mean, however, that they supported such measures once the crisis passed.

My maternal grandfather, for example, was often heard to say during the 1960s when LBJ was implementing his 'Great Society' that he thought the President was going way too far and that the government was actually rewarding non-action and non-work. He said that the difference between that and the Great Depression was that during the 1930s people had been raised with a strong work ethic and did not want something for nothing. By the 1960s, he said, things had changed dramatically, and thus, he opposed Johnson and the Democrats, although he remained a registered member of the Democratic Party.

Interestingly enough, my grandfather as an old man told me that in 1980 he voted for Reagan and that is was the first time he had ever voted for a Republican in his entire life.

Of course, I was pleased.

"Why did you do it?" I asked. He replied, "Well, it wasn't because I changed. It was because Democrats changed. They became something I did not recognize. Reagan was able to speak to me in a way that made perfect sense, so I voted for him."

Thus, my grandfather was among the very first group of a vast army that became known as "Reagan Democrats." These Democrats were staunch conservatives who felt betrayed by their party. And they left the party in droves in order to vote for Reagan.

Back to the early 60s.

The lively political discussions that took place in my family spilled over to the neighbors. A man who lived beside my grandparents was a dear fellow who was very good to this young boy, but he was a hard-nosed, dyed in the wool liberal Democrat who loved to argue. It was there, sitting on his porch while he smoked cigars and chewed tobacco that I honed my skills in the realm of the political debate.

We would debate every single day.

I would do research at night with the encyclopedias that my parents had bought me in order to arm myself with facts and proof that what liberals were doing to the country was detrimental and what conservatives wanted to do was constructive.

This exercise came in very handy during the Johnson-Goldwater race in 1964. He was a strong supporter of Lyndon Baines Johnson, whom I was convinced was nothing more than a vile charlatan, a base character with a penchant for the uncouth and the unethical, and who would sell the country down the road to socialism if it helped him advance his selfish political goals.

I supported Goldwater with a passion.

It was then that I was introduced to Ronald Reagan and William F. Buckley. Reagan gave a televised speech in support of Goldwater. I was deeply impressed. Buckley had been one of the few conservatives of national stature who defended Goldwater with an eloquence that was rare in America, even during that period in our history.

In less than 10 years I would find myself working in Buckley's organization he started for college students called "Young Americans for Freedom." And within one year after joining we were working toward the election of Ronald Wilson Reagan as President of the United States.

Reagan was the great communicator who could take the conservative message and make it simple for the average person. He could speak with a pathos that pulled on the heart strings of the common man, and lead him gently to see that the conservative vision for America was the one that most closely followed the vision of the Founders, and the one that would save America from the coming destruction.

And I loved him for that.

But it was Buckley who laid down the intellectual foundation of the conservative movement. And at the time, during the early 70s, that is exactly what I needed. He appealed to my intellect and articulated a principled program for America based on limited and smaller government, lower taxes, greater individual freedom, and a recognition that the Judeo-Christian worldview was the one that drove the Founders to discover the timeless truths they expressed in our founding documents, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights.

Buckley believed that if conservatism had a chance of making a comeback after it had been nearly annihilated by the Progressive Movement of the late 1800s and early 1900s, and by the New Deal of FDR and the Great Society of LBJ, it had to have its roots in the college campuses where the nation's youth would be exposed to its powerful concepts.

This was the primary goal of Young Americans for Freedom--to take the conservative message to campuses where students would form local chapters, hold forums, seminars, debates, and where students would be encouraged to challenge the Leftwing indoctrination that was rampant in academic circles. We did all of this work where we were, in the colleges where we were students, behind the scenes and with little publicity.

Buckley had personally encountered the indoctrination of the academy as a student at Yale in the early 1950s. His experience with Leftwing professors and university administrators led to a major best seller he wrote entitled, God and Man at Yale. Buckley was appalled that a university that was founded primarily as an institution that would train minsters for the Christian ministry was now openly attacking the very Christianity that gave it its birth.

In time, Young Americans for Freedom would become the vehicle by which Buckley would seek to correct the excesses of academia by introducing an alternative point of view, a counter-balance to the ultra liberal propaganda being promulgated routinely in the lecture halls of nearly every university and college in America.

We, as members, were given tools by which to effectively challenge liberal myths that were presented as facts in the classroom. We wrote letters to the school newspapers. We even wrote letters to the editor in local town and city newspapers.

We held issues forums, staged public debates, and even gave speeches and lectures anywhere we were invited.

And then there were those rare treats where we were afforded the opportunity to watch the master rhetorician work his magic in person. Buckley loved to come south to participate in student sponsored debates on college campuses. And he never failed to deliver, invariably making minced meat of his liberal opponents who had agreed to be part of the panel.

And watching Buckley at work on his weekly PBS television series, Firing Line, was a must. Firing Line at the time was the longest running TV series of any kind.

Buckley, the man, was a charming individual who could make and maintain friendships with people of all persuasions, even those with whom he disagreed vociferously. And he had their respect for the most part. They respected his intellect even if they could not agree with his views.

During the 70s and part of the 80s a frequent guest on the Buckley program was Fred Friendly, former CBS exec who along with Edward R. Murrow produced the very first news documentaries that were shown on television during the medium's infancy. Friendly and Murrow had helped to destroy Joe McCarthy's political career over the Senator's charges that there were numerous members of the Communist Party in the U.S. government, in the Hollywood film industry, and in the arts and the press, such as authors, journalists, playwrights, etc.

Buckley had been a McCarthy supporter.

Some of more interesting and invigorating episodes of Firing Line featured debates between Friendly and former McCarthy attorney Roy Cohn.

Cohn, unfortunately, died of AIDS before it was discovered through the release of previously classified, top secret documents by the Soviet Union when the communist regime disintegrated that most of the individuals McCarthy had accused of being part of the Communist-Soviet plot to destroy the United States were, in fact, working with the old Communist KGB to advance the Marxist agenda, including supporting the Soviet Union against their own country during the Cold War.

M. Stanton Evans, an associate of Buckley's who had been a long time respected journalist, documented each of McCarthy's claims in a monumental work he released several years ago entitled, Blacklisted by History--the Untold Story of Senator Joseph McCarthy. 

Evans provided full documentation from Soviet records and from documents released by the U.S. Government in the 1990s that totally vindicated McCarthy.

It is also most unfortunate that Fred Friendly died before seeing the documents. It is always most sweet to see a vicious liberal proved 100% wrong.

The foundation that Buckley laid on college campuses during the 1970s was one of the main factors that led to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The Republican establishment was dead set against him. Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Nelson Rockefeller, George Romney, Republicans in the House and Senate, were near unanimous in their opposition to Reagan, claiming that he was an "extremist outside the mainstream who was unelectable."

But Buckley was convinced that Reagan represented conservatism's greatest hope of winning the White House and assuming the reigns of government in a major way for the first time since the 1920s. And he made sure that we who served as the foot soldiers in Young Americans for Freedom would get on board with that goal as well.

We came close in 1976. Reagan nearly unseated a sitting President in an attempt to wrest the Republican nomination from Gerald Ford, who had ascended to the Presidency upon Richard Nixon's resignation. But Ford squeaked by and won--barely. Although Reagan graciously agreed to give a brief speech in support of Ford at the GOP convention, Ford could not muster enough support in the electorate to beat Jimmy Carter in the general election.

All of us knew the moment Ford eeked out a win against Reagan for the nomination that we were in deep trouble. His pardon of Nixon was highly unpopular. And though he was viewed as a nice and decent fellow, he was widely perceived as a lightweight, a 'pragmatist' who lacked any solid ideological convictions and principles.

Reagan was the one with the fire in the belly.

So, we set our sights on making sure that in four years Reagan would not be denied his chance.

Thus, by the time the 1980 election cycle rolled around, we had helped form and put into place a strong organization in all 50 states, and the conservative students in Buckley's Young Americans for Freedom were a big part of that organization. We had laid the foundation through our local activism. We had prepared the ground for the end game.

And, as Buckley later stated when asked how he would characterize the historic Reagan revolution of the 1980s, "We won."

Reagan beat President Carter in an embarrassing landslide in 1980. Four years later he beat Walter Mondale in an even bigger landslide. He inherited an annual inflation rate of 13%--staggering by today's standards, and lowered it to a manageable level. He inherited interest rates of 18 to 24%, and lowered them to 10-12%, and later to 8%. That sounds very high according to today's standards, but at the time such rates were considered low when compared to what they had been under Carter.

And of course, Reagan's policies made it impossible for the Communist Soviet Union to survive financially. His buildup of America's defenses, including its nuclear arsenal, bankrupted the Soviet Union when they attempted to keep up. Those internal stresses led to the break up of the Soviet block by the time Reagan left office in 1988.

But he was opposed every step of the way in attempting to destroy what he called, 'the evil empire.' Democrats fought him tooth and nail. Even the Republican establishment opposed him.

A little known fact about Reagan's famous speech at the Berlin Wall in 1987, where he called on Russian Prime Minister Gorbachev to "tear down this wall," was the behind the scenes controversy about Reagan's planned remarks. Reagan himself had insisted that the phrase be included in the speech, and he had written it into the text himself. This was Reagan's own line, not a speech writer's.

But Colin Powell objected. The State Department objected. The Defense Department objected. The RINOS of the establishment, such as Powell, did not want to 'rock the boat.'

The appeasers thought they had won when Reagan at first reluctantly deleted the comment out of the speech. But on the way to the Wall, while still in the limo, Reagan took out his small index cards on which he wrote all of his speeches, and added the phrase back in without informing anyone he had done so.

Thus, when Reagan reached that dramatic climax of the speech where he demanded that the Soviet President tear down the wall that had prevented those seeking freedom from leaving their Communist slave masters, everyone was taken off guard, including speech writers, Powell, and everyone else in the  Administration.

But it would be the one line from that speech that would be viewed as one of the most powerful and courageous statements an American President had ever made in the face of a foreign enemy. And it is the reason that the speech is remembered to this very day as one of the greatest Presidential speeches in history.

"We won," declared Buckley. You bet your sweet liberty we won. And the significance of the Reagan years cannot be overstated. It was the watershed moment when America, at least for eight years, stopped its death march into Marxism at home and weakness and appeasement abroad.

Did we get all we wanted? No. Both Buckley and Reagan would agree. All of us said so. But we got at least 70% of what we wanted, which was a vast improvement over the ZERO we had gotten for at least two decades prior to the Reagan years.

Did we make some mistakes? Of course we did. Hind sight is 20/20, and human beings are flawed. ALL human beings. We did not push hard enough for some things when we had the chance. Other things were put on the back burner, things that were very important but which at the time seemed to be issues that were of secondary importance to some other things we wanted to do.

If we had it to do over again there is no way in hell we would support the Brady Campaign bill of 1986, which in essence was a gun control measure. But Brady was a powerful force at the time in the aftermath of the attempt on Reagan's life early in his presidency. I have no way of knowing for sure what was going through Reagan's mind when he decided to sign the bill. But I do know he got some very bad advice during his second term from some people I never trusted, James Baker and Donald Regan being two of them. I also know that Nancy had a near pathological obsession with "protecting Ronny's legacy." She did not want him remembered as an extremist conservative. So, she pushed him to make concessions in the name of 'world peace.' She also wanted him to sign the Brady bill.

As a side note about Baker, while the adviser served Reagan fairly well during his first term, it is to be remembered that Baker was forced to contend with two other advisers who were equally as powerful during Reagan's first term--Ed Meese and Michael Deaver.  Meese was the conservative true believer of the group. Deaver was the protective shield who was so committed to Reagan personally that he would defend him against all attacks regardless. Baker was the moderate pragmatist. He was often outnumbered. But during Reagan's second term, Meese and Deaver departed, leaving Reagan with Baker and Don Regan. This was a colossal mistake. Neither man served the Reagan agenda well and in fact did all they could to undercut Reagan's brand of conservatism. I have never had any use for either one of them whatsoever. That goes double for Colin Powell.

The other biggie that we would have done differently was the so-called "war on drugs." This, too, was a Nancy Reagan baby that she nurtured by pushing the "Just Say No" campaign. The tax money that has been spent fighting that 'war' has been a waste ever since Nixon first declared such a war in the late 60s and early 70s. The nation has not even made a dent in the illegal drug use of citizens in spite of all we have done in terms of funding, interdiction, etc.

Nobody has any easy answers to the problem, but we HAVE learned that criminalizing drug users is an exercise in futility, not to mention that it takes up valuable prison space that could otherwise be used for violent criminals.

The fact is we are losing the war on drugs, and we have been losing it ever since it was first implemented. This is not to say something should not be done to help those caught in the addictions cycle, but what we have been doing has not worked and can be considered with all certainty to be a failure.

But, it is my firm conviction that in spite of the few major mistakes we made, the vast majority of what we did during the 1980s was a glowing success. And those successes far outweigh the failures.

Thus, when we look back at recent history and note the demise of Communism all around the world, we can thank Buckley and Reagan. When we consider how close we came to economic annihilation during the Carter years of the 1970s, we can thank Buckley and Reagan for pulling us back from the edge of the precipice. When we consider that during the early 80s the largest single tax cut in U.S. history was implemented, we can thank Buckley and Reagan. And when we consider that during the 80s businesses could breath easier due to massive rollbacks in rules and regulations that strangled their ability to make a profit, we can thank Buckley and Reagan.

And if, somewhere along the way in the 1980s you found yourself becoming proud to be an American again, proud to wave the flag, and proud of what this nation stands for in freedom and prosperity, after having suffered the long dark night of the 60s and 70s when radicals told us we were evil, when college professors told us that capitalists are oppressors who need to be ridiculed, marginalized, and even killed (according to Obama crony Bill Ayers), when we were told we need to be ashamed of our fighting men and women who served their country in Viet Nam, and when America was viewed on the world stage as a weak caricature of its former grandeur as a world power, you can thank Buckley and Reagan for making sure America was back strong and powerful again, worthy of our admiration and devotion.

Personally, I am proud that I was able to be a small part of the revolution that sought to restore the nation to its constitutional roots of maximum individual freedom and the role model of liberty and the responsible use of power for a world caught in a web of darkness.

I pray that another group of leaders in the mold of Reagan, Buckley, and Goldwater will emerge for our country in an hour such as this. I fear that unless this occurs, and soon, we will never get another chance to save this constitutional republic that is based on the premise of individual liberty.


Rev. Paul said...

That is one of the most eloquent defenses of the Conservative movement I've read. Thank you for all that you did, and continue to do. You, sir, are a patriot of the highest order.

Welshman said...

Thanks, Rev, but in all honesty, in the grand scheme of things my role was a very small one. I was still cutting my political teeth, wet behind the ears, and had a lot yet to learn. But I was passionate about the cause. I wish I could have done much more.