The Bogeyman Is Dead [i]The Death of Conservatism[/i] by Sam Tanenhaus

The Death of Conservatism by Sam Tanenhaus
(New York: Random House, 2009)

RICHARD J. BISHIRJIAN is President and Professor of Government at Yorktown University and an Editorial Advisor of Modern Age.

Sam Tanenhaus, like most children of
his generation, was told to be good, or
the Bogeyman would get him. Fifty years
later, Tanenhaus brings to his colleagues
at the New York Times the good news that
the Bogeyman is dead. Whether he really
believes that the Bogeyman of conservatism
has died cannot be known. This little
book is an example of the use of magical
realism to create a speculative golem with
the words “Conservatism is Dead” on its
forehead. Tanenhaus’s arguments in The
Death of Conservatism are so strained and
his analysis so submerged in graceful writing
as to be invisible, that a careful reader
must conclude that Tanenhaus’s Bogeyman
may not be really dead. In fact, there
is evidence that conservatism, like Freddy
Krueger, is quietly planning to strike back
in the 2010 off-year elections.

Let’s begin at the beginning.

Tanenhaus has spent most of his career
at the New York Times. Most intellectuals,
including this conservative, grew up
relishing the prospect of reading the New
York Times. Especially on Sundays, before
hernias became a problem, we would heft
the Times off the shelves of local vendors
and devour the news pages while saving
for last the “Week in Review” and the
Sunday Magazine. Unlike the Washington
Post, whose business section is written by
social workers, the New York Times actually
reported on business. But behind the
printed document was an ethos of sixties
leftists, Woodstock attendees, pot smokers,
Pete Seeger fans, and an anti-bourgeois
dress code of Levis, sandals, long hair, and
an attitude that America’s enemies had a
point. They’re still there at the New York
Times and still wearing jeans and sandals,
their hair long, though their midriffs are
substantially wider.

So why is Tanenhaus writing conservatism’s
epitaph? Why does he even care?
Unfortunately, like Gary Wills, John Kenneth
Galbraith, and a long list of other liberals
befriended by William F. Buckley,
Sam Tanenhaus was invited into the inner
sanctum of conservatism’s premier journal,
National Review, and the salon of Pat
and Bill Buckley. That Bill Buckley was
domiciled much of the time in New York
enhanced the likelihood of his encounters
with the Left, but instead of stiff-arming
them, he did the Christian thing and took
them in, befriended them, and they in
turn bit the hand that fed them canapés.
Bill Buckley’s death spared him this last
indignity—a zealous attack on conservatives,
Bogeymen all.

But let us first praise Tanenhaus before
we cite the liberal cant he should know not
to utter after years of rubbing elbows with
Bill and Pat and nibbling brie, but just
can’t seem to shake off.

It is to Tanenhaus’s credit that he can
smell, and accurately report, the deca
dence in the premier journals that used to
be called “conservative.” He might even
have quoted Frank Meyer who loved the
phrase “whited sepulcher” to describe liberal
promises. Today’s whited sepulchers
are Commentary magazine, National Review,
and the Weekly Standard. Commentary and
the Weekly Standard reflect a phenomenon
more often found in Hollywood where
the sons and daughters of 1950s film stars,
producers, and directors make successful
careers. John Podhoretz and Bill Kristol
have benefited from their fathers’ success
and have become journal editors in their
own right. National Review, reflecting the
first influence of the “corporate Right,”
threw off its former traditional conservatism
and became, Tanenhaus writes,
“mouthpieces of the Republican Party.”
They “recognize no distinction between
analysis and advocacy, or between the competition
of ideas and the naked struggle
for power.” In this one respect, Tanenhaus
comes close to telling the truth: conservatism
has received a nearly fatal blow due to
the apostasy of National Review.

What Tanenhaus seems to be saying
is that these worthies are ideologues.
Here he introduces the icon of Edmund
Burke, who railed against the application
of abstract reason and abstract solutions
to matters requiring prudential reasoning,
and later he brings to his argument
the measured—today we’d call it “moderate”—
conservatism of Whittaker Chambers.
Chambers is a favorite of Tanenhaus,
who published a biography of Chambers
in 1999. Chambers, Tanenhaus observes
approvingly, told Bill Buckley that the
Right has no program and that the American
dependency on government was “a
function of the unstoppable rise of industrial
capitalism.” Between Burke and
Chambers on the one hand and Kristol,
Podhoretz, and National Review‘s Lowry
on the other, Tanenhaus sees the betrayal
of a great intellectual tradition.

Conservatives who read National Review‘s
David Frum’s attack on traditional conservatives
and the malignant attack on M.
Stanton Evans’s study of Joe McCarthy will
find it hard to disagree with Tanenhaus.
We’re dealing with propositional reasoning
and a modern variant of millennialism that
is the hallmark of ideologies. Collectively,
and with a little assistance from President
George W. Bush and gnostic White House
speechwriter, Michael Gerson, this crowd
championed a war motivated by the religious
impulse to create a New Jerusalem in
this world. In doing so, they destroyed the
Republican brand and handed the reins of
American government to an unadulterated
ideologue.

So much for where Tanenhaus’s analysis
seems to be right. Unfortunately, for
Tanenhaus, like the European Left, there
are no enemies on his Left. The death he
wishes to report is the death of conservatism,
not the freak revival of Wilsonian
idealism given new life by the failed presidency
of George W. Bush. Tanenhaus has
the temerity to describe the Bush Administration
as “the most conservative in modern
history.” Those are words that could
only be written by someone without a true
understanding of his subject. Of course,
Tanenhaus’s subject isn’t the real conservatism.
His true subject is the latest manifestation
of the booboisie that so exercised H.
L. Mencken.

What conservatism really is hasn’t
seeped into Tanenhaus’s consciousness. He
writes: “whether or not racist themselves,
[conservatives] were not morally repulsed
by racial prejudice, which to them was
consonant with their preferred ideal of a
hierarchical society.” If Tanenhaus were
to attend some conservative Tea Parties,
town hall meetings with Congressional
time-servers, the annual Right to Life
rally in Washington, or the many Chris
tian gatherings where current affairs are
discussed, he would not have written of
conservatism’s “preferred ideal of a hierarchical
society.” Hell, at the pinnacle of our
current hierarchy stands the liberal intellectual
Establishment in whose ranks Sam
Tanenhaus stands tall. For Tanenhaus a
true conservatism that honored its Burkean
principles would be supportive of government
programs despite evidence that
the Great Society and President Obama’s
federal stimulus initiatives do more harm
than good.

The Death of Conservatism is a little book,
a mere one hundred twenty pages of text,
and rightly so because Tanenhaus’s idea of
conservatism whose death he reports is a
figment of his imagination. While reading
this work I was reminded of Dutch,
Edmund Morris’s biography of Ronald
Reagan commissioned by Nancy Reagan.
Morris hadn’t a clue about his subject,
Reagan’s conservative philosophy, or even
his motivations, so, in the school of magical
realism that is country cousin to modern
ideologies like communism, socialism,
and modern millennialism of Podhoretz,
Kristol, and Lowry, Morris invented a fictional
Dutch to carry the storyline to its
bittersweet conclusion. For today’s “modern”
writers, when the facts don’t fit the
conclusion they have in mind, they recreate
them in such a way that the fictional
facts fit.

Americans seem not to have grasped the
similarity of the skills of magical realists in
literature and the murderous acts committed
by flesh-and-blood revolutionary ideologues.
Americans cannot comprehend the
libido dominandi that drives the speculative
creation of what Eric Voegelin calls “second
realities.” So Tanenhaus’s ideological
trashing of conservatism is given respectful
praise and not the denunciation it so
richly deserves. If you doubt that Tanenhaus
has pulled off a bait-and-switch,
watch “Morning Joe” on MSNBC, where
Tanenhaus is introduced lovingly as the
author of that great book, The Death of
Conservatism.

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