Another Sixties: The New Right, Part I
Paul Lyons, Richard Stockton State College
This essay was originally presented as a paper at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax. VA.
Two of the most influential recent analyses of American politics, Tom and Mary Edsall's Chain Reaction and E.J. Dionne's Why Americans Hate Politics, emphasize the ways in which the upheavals of the 1960s subverted the New Deal coalition and set the terms for the conservative triumphs of the 1970s and 1980s. 1 If we were blocking a stage play about the Sixties, contemporary pundits could plausibly place George Wallace and Barry Goldwater at center stage or, at the least, as a powerful chorus from the Right. It's not as if the longtime leading actors from the New Left, counter-cultural, and civil rights movements have been displaced; rather it is now a more contested and crowded frontstage, mixing decade-events with generational elites.
Most of my students emphasize the role of the most visible of the generational elites, the long-haired hippies, committed to the counter-cultural trinity of sex, drugs and rock'n'roll, challenging authority at all turns, from the Vietnam war to the climactic concert at Woodstock. Within this particular play or, to be more precise, video, there are radical hippies--note the absence of any distinctions between cultural and political rebellion--but no conservatives and, significantly, no baby boomers on the sidelines. All youth are frontstage, dancing to the Airplane and the Dead, celebrating the romantic, utopian values of peace, love, and the ultimate orgasm.
In fact, I want to argue that the most accurate and telling stage production of the baby boomers' 1960s--the generation within the decade--would be a two-ring circus, with New Left and New Right elites under the spotlight, and most of their generational peers--and the rest of the nation--in the audience watching, taking in messages at the margins and over time.
E.J. Dionne provides the most provocative framework for such a revisionist history of the Sixties. He highlights the remarkable similarities between New Left and New Right, including their contempt for corporate liberalism, their critiques of instrumentalism and behaviorism, and their search for the heroic. 2 It would be interesting to know how many SDSers went through a conservative phase, perhaps through reading William F. Buckley's Up From Liberalism or Goldwater's Conscience of a Conservative, or through an attraction to Ayn Rand's neverending stories of Nietzschean individualists. And, equally, it would be useful to find out how many New Rightists shared David Stockman's flirtations with student radicalism.
My own interest is in formulating a more complete picture of that tumultuous decade. I have finished work on what I call "the silent majority baby boomers," that is, those of the Sixties generation, mostly white and middle American, who seemed to go about their business--school, dating, sports, marriage, work, kids, insurance payments--while all around them History was happening. 3 It's not as though such people were untouched by the major events of the Sixties--civil rights, the Vietnam war, cultural rebellion, feminism, ecology--rather, they were affected at the margins. As Yankelovich suggests in New Rules, most baby boomers integrated the more manageable and tolerable challenges which made them freer, more open-minded, and sometimes, as critics like Christopher Lasch argue, more alienated. Most fit Herbert Gans' model of Middle American Individualism, trying to blend self-fulfillment with commitment to family and local community, skeptical about politics and politicians, most comfortable cultivating their own suburban gardens. 4 In brief, they are a key segment of a generation influenced only at the margins by the Sixties decade.
In this article, I wish to focus on the more sharply featured, organized voice of the Right as it was affected and shaped by the 1960s. After all, when the tumult of the Sixties finally subsided, and the dust settled, the New Left suffered decline, albeit with powerful influence on a host of movements. But one could argue that History belongs to those who rallied to Goldwater in 1964, responded to George Wallace's appeal to white backlash, and built the counter-establishment that spawned the Reagan Revolution which remains alive, if not well, into the Nineties.
As late as the mid-1950s there wasn't yet a consensus that conservatism defined a right-wing movement. Only with the emergence of Buckley's National Review in 1955 did conservatives consistently call themselves conservatives. Buckley's journal boasted 30,000 readers in 1960, 60,000 by 1964, and more than 100,000 by 1969. He was central as well to the founding of the Young Americans for Freedom (YAF) in 1960 whose mostly student membership reached 70,000. Who were these students? They seem to have been both less affluent, more vocationally driven, and more Roman Catholic than those attracted to SDS. 5
I want to suggest the range of New Right baby boomers through a series of portraits. Those selected reflect significant stories and themes which I believe offer insight into the success of a revived Right into the Seventies and the Eighties. They by no means reflect some statistical sample of Sixties generation conservatives. Most of all, they tell the kinds of stories we all need to hear if we are to finally come to grips with the still omnipresence of the 1960s.
New Right baby boomer stories can be examined within a set of polarities. One is the extent to which a Sixties conservative was touched by the political or cultural radicalism of that decade. David Stockman, for example, flirted with SDS; Richard Cheney seems to have been totally unaffected by Sixties challenges, despite studying at the very epicenter of eruption--the University of Wisconsin campus at Madison. Another issue is the impact of cultural change. Cheney and Elliot Abrams never felt the attractions of Woodstock Nation; indeed both seem to have moved into traditional adult roles prior to completing college. On the other hand, conservatives like Lee Atwater, Bill Bennett and P.J. O'Rourke present themselves as devoted rock'n'rollers, hardly likely to thrill to more favored GOP entertainers like Bob Hope or Wayne Newton. Let me suggest a typology for conservative baby boomers.
Dick Cheney 6
In 1969, Dick Cheney was a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, the setting for the Sixties documentary, "The War at Home." On a campus famous for its tolerance of political dissent, home to the New Left journal Studies on the Left, to radical historians such as William Appleman Williams and Harvey Goldberg, to a powerful movement against the Vietnam War which targeted university complicity in the war effort with protests against the napalm-producing Dow Chemical Company--on such a campus, Dick Cheney began his career as a rock-solid conservative politician.
Cheney, born in 1943, came out of Caspar, Wyoming, which his high school sweetheart Lynn describes as an "'American Graffiti' kind of place" where "the big thing was to drive cars up and down, and go from one root beer stand to another." But the young Dick Cheney never so indulged: "He worked; he always had a job. He read a lot." One should add that this youthful workaholic was no nerd; he captained the football team and was an avid outdoorsman.
Cheney went off to Yale on a scholarship, but did poorly and dropped out after three semesters. He returned to his roots, graduating from the University of Wyoming, marrying Lynn and proceeding to Madison for a master's in political science. His key breakthrough was a one-year internship in the Washington office of a local congressman, where he impressed the up-and-coming Donald Rumsfeld. Cheney moved with Rumsfeld from the Office of Economic Opportunity staff to first Nixon's and then Ford's staff, where, when Rumsfeld became Defense Secretary, Cheney was promoted to Chief of Staff. He was thirty-four. When Carter defeated Ford, Cheney, already suffering the first of three heart attacks, successfully ran for Congress from his home district in Wyoming. As a six-term Congressman, Cheney was consistently conservative, hard-line on defense, committed to Contra aid and to Star Wars.
What is intriguing about this utterly uncharismatic, efficient, hawkish Defense Secretary is the fact that he never served in the armed forces. He says that he was generally supportive of the Vietnam war and opposed to the demonstrators. But his hawkishness didn't lead him to volunteer; instead he accepted student deferments which allowed him to avoid military service. All Cheney will say is, "As did most other Americans, I watched the war from afar." There remains something odd about this hard-line Cold Warrior's evasion of what would seem to be his patriotic duty.
One must note that, by conventional estimate, Cheney is not a baby boomer. Of course, neither are most of the founders of SDS, the New Left initiators of Second Wave feminism, or the leading voices among the counter-cultural hippies. Cheney is a war baby, like the CIA's Robert Gates, Dick Darman, and Newt Gingrich. Pat Caddell's expanded framework for baby boomers, which includes those born during World War II, seems most appropriate here.
James Webb 7
In an early chapter of his Vietnam war novel Fields of Fire, James Webb takes a few jabs at Harvard students who found a variety of ways to avoid military service during the Vietnam war era. He prefaces a chapter with a general's comments to a journalist on those who did and did not serve:
Webb, a 1968 Annapolis graduate, is proud of descending from a line of Southerners who had fought in virtually every American war, beginning with the American Revolution and including Confederate service during the Civil War. He served in Vietnam in 1969 as a Marine rifle company commander, earning a Navy Cross for wounds he suffered while shielding one of his men from a grenade explosion, a Silver Star, two Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts. In brief, James Webb was a war hero.
Webb defends the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, but argues: "The military was forced to pay a human cost for the country's caution and then paid again with its prestige when some labeled the inevitable results of such limited activity 'military incompetence.'" About himself, he states, "In my mind, I am a writer. In my heart, I am a soldier, and I always will be."
Webb is an intriguing figure precisely because of the ways in which he differs from Cheney--and from Dan Quayle. He has always been a straight shooter, a ramrod soldier-intellectual willing to speak unpleasant truths. His Vietnam war novels and articles savage not only peaceniks, who he blames for upwards of 10,000 American deaths in Vietnam, but also arrogant Marine officers whose ineptness put at risk the lives of the grunts Webb commanded and respected. There is a populist core to Jim Webb, a deep allegiance to everyday virtues, to the values he associates with his own Missouri, dirt farm roots:
Webb differs from both Cheney and Quayle not only in his Vietnam war service but in the ways in which his politics have been driven, in part, by a conservative populist reaction to and resentment about the movements of the 1960s, defined as permissive, hedonistic, hypocritical, and, most of all, elitist. Of equal note is that iconoclasts like Webb seem blind to the upper-crust hypocrisies of their fellow conservatives.
For example, in Fields of Fire, Webb uses Harvard as an emblem of antiwar selfishness, lack of patriotism, and cowardice. In closing scenes he has the father of a returning vet turn a draft-evader over to the police and then concludes the novel with the now-chastened Harvard vet being harassed by snotty student radicals after calling them on their hypocrisies.
Webb stands as somewhat of a contrary personality, attractive in his courage, problematical in his choices. He got in a heap of trouble, for example, condemning the integration of women into the armed forces; he initially condemned Maya Lin's design for the Vietnam Memorial as "a mass grave," an insult to Vietnam veterans; more recently he has been a critic of George Bush's Persian Gulf policies. In many ways, Webb is a more attractive version of at least the manufactured mythos of Oliver North, his contemporary at Annapolis.
Whereas in North one senses an underlying immaturity, a compensatory bravado, in Jim Webb one is persuaded that there is a steely, stubborn, virtuous if difficult core. In brief, Webb, independent of ideology, demands respect. His portraits of peaceniks, feminists, liberals are often drawn one-dimensionally, but his loyalty to those who fought in the frontlines in Vietnam, his loyalty to those of the past, present and future who resonate to his mountaineer brand of patriotism, is powerfully evoked.
II. Traditionalists Obsessed With the Sixties
Elliott Abrams 8
Concerning Elliot Abrams, there can be no neutrality. His is a high-wire ideological act, within which there are no subtleties, no "maybes"--to put a twist on a Sixties cliché, you're either part of the problem or part of the solution. Abrams grew up in the ambiance of a New York, Jewish liberal Democratic household. Moreover, he was educated at the progressive Elizabeth Irwin High School, an institution where the range of commitment stretched from beat cool to ADA liberalism, from Jack Kerouac to Adlai Stevenson, with considerable challenge from various contentious Marxist voices. Abrams bought into the political passions, but kept his distance from all forms of cultural deviance. In this sense he was a true and loyal son of his rather strict parents.
One of his Harvard roommates declares, "Elliott was completely out of sympathy with the cultural tone of the sixties. He was the only person I ever met who looked more comfortable in a brand new pair of Levis than worn-out ones." Another roommate recalls him as "basically happy, well-adjusted, and unalientated.... He had good relations with his family and was always far more oriented to success, including monetary, than anyone else we knew." Abrams resided at Adams House which had become a left-wing center; he became a leader among the anti-New Left, anticommunist enclave, a mix of Social Democrats, liberals and conservatives. Even within this culturally conservative group, he stood out as "a metaphor for the parents everybody had left behind. He seemed immunized against the common collegiate attractions of sex, drugs, and rock'n roll." Abrams flirted with some aspects of Sixties politics, including criticisms of the Vietnam war and of local police abuses, but his heart was always more mainstream, including his support for Hubert Humphrey in the 1968 presidential campaign.
Abrams personifies those baby boomers fundamentally and negatively shaped by the Sixties rebellions. As such, they are of a different order from old-fashioned ramrods like Webb. Several of them, like Carl Gershman, come out of the Old Left, anticommunist culture. They resonate to Depression Era labor and campus wars between Communists and Socialists. Many of them began with a mistrust of what they perceived as left utopianism. They were often particularly incensed at the refusal of New Left activists to recognize the need to refuse collaboration with communists. They remained loyal to organized labor and found even more baffling the New Left flirtation with the hippie counterculture. It seemed particularly irresponsible. Abrams, for example, felt revulsion at the mindlessness, the hedonism of so much of that era; one friend suggests that Abrams is still living in confrontation with the Sixties, still shaped by the images of New Left zealotry and campus rampages.
9 William Kristol shares with Abrams what might be called the "anti-red diaper baby syndrome." His father Irving and his mother, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, frame his experiences. Unlike Abrams, he was always a Vietnam hawk; at Harvard in the early Seventies he wore a Spiro Agnew sweatshirt. Kristol condemned those "cocksure radicals who thought they were the smartest generation ever and that none of the traditions were worth preserving." And he was untouched by the cultural transformations, except in opposition--short hair, no drugs, no rock'n'roll.
Kristol is particularly interesting insofar as he has guided both Quayles in their intra-generational polemics, Dan's "Murphy Brown" attack and Marilyn's convention speech. To this generationally-rooted element in the conservative movement, the Sixties is fair game, it is the core of the cultural war for hegemony--and it is a war whose early battles occurred during the 1960s, on campuses. Abrams and Kristol represent a relatively small but highly influential segment of New Right baby boomers; they were on the outside from the start, truly their parents' children, as Bob Dylan might say, "forever old." We now need to turn to those more a part of the Sixties cultural transformations, "forever young."
III. New Right Sixties Generation
Peggy Noonan 10
Peggy Noonan is an Irish Catholic baby boomer, raised in the same Massapequa, Long Island suburb as Ron Kovic (Born on the Fourth of July). Noonan's story offers the most significant variation on generational changes:
Noonan describes her Massapequa lower-middle-class suburb as a world where
Noonan airbrushes out the dark side of the Fifties, e.g., McCarthyism, racism, the oppressiveness of postwar gender politics. But at the same time, her depiction of a suburban-dominated landscape captures, indeed embodies, central myths in the rightward migration of European immigrant-stock people. Noonan tells of her family's love affair with Jack Kennedy, who "opened the doors of American glamour to the working class," then delivers a double-edged compliment to the Democrats who, she says
A disinterested student in high school, Noonan attended Fairleigh Dickinson University part time for two years while working at Aetna Insurance in Newark, before enrolling on a full-time basis. Noonan became editor of her college newspaper and stayed safely mainstream.
Noonan's concept of "normal kids" tilts more toward the middle than the working class. For example, of the Vietnam war, she admits, "The war didn't affect me in a direct way. I lost no one." Like the silent majority baby boomers I've studied, Noonan lived at a distance from the realities of black and Hispanic public-school and white working-class parochial school, graduates and drop-outs who served and died in Vietnam.
Noonan's story is a paradigm of New Right mythmaking. She speaks of "the moment I wasn't of the Left," during a 1971 bus ride to a Washington anti-war demonstration. She saw "contempt for the nineteen-year-old boys who were carrying guns in the war or in the Guard.... It was understood that they were undereducated, and somewhat crude. There was contempt for America." Noonan asked herself, "What am I doing with these people?" and shouted, at least to herself, "Get me off this bus!"
Note that Noonan is embracing grunts who she admittedly doesn't know personally and is concentrating her rage against "their more advantaged brothers and sisters [who] were back home giving interviews to Eric Severeid on the Concord Bridge... the professionals and news producers and opinion leaders of the baby-boom generation." Off the hook are those like herself who managed to avoid both the war and the protests. Her New Class analysis argues that "the characters they invent on thirtysomething and L.A. Law will never admit that they were wrong not to oppose Communist tyranny in Vietnam." Her version of "The Big Chill" is the "chronic unease" and guilt among these boomers whose antiwar actions "helped produce the boat people, the Cambodian holocaust, a gulag called Vietnam, and an untold increase in horror for the people of that part of the planet."
Most interesting is Noonan's emphasis on generational realignment:
She is fully aware that "movement conservatives" are "a bunch of creepy little men with creepy little beards who need something to seethe on;" nevertheless, Noonan sees hope in her generation of New Rightists:
Sounding like a right-wing Saul Alinsky, Noonan preaches, "The conservatives, in the sixties and seventies, didn't go into the churches, to the neighborhood gathering places, and make their case with fire."
Noonan has an essentially cinematic vision of America which allows her to not so much desire a movie actor as President, but rather a President as movie actor. Hear her on Reagan:
No wonder she claims, "All of us as adults now, that's how we get our sense of our country, from the movies. All of us, including him." Noonan crafts movie scripts; she doesn't seem to read much history.
It would be easy but foolish to write Peggy Noonan off as a lightweight. But, for better and worse, there is weight, substance and power in her vision and her myth, as damaging and absurd as it often is. Noonan understands, for example, the dangers of fanaticism: "Beware the politically obsessed. They are often bright and interesting, but they have something missing in their natures; there is a hole, an empty place, and they use politics to fill it up." Such truths swing Left and Right. She speaks of two kinds of activists: "Those who are impelled by love, and those who get their energy from hate," concluding that haters "cannot engage in honorable debate because they cannot see the honor of the other side."
The recent works by the Edsalls and Dionne suggest the critical importance of the disaffection of Middle America from the New Deal tradition. At the moment of Peggy Noonan's Republican apostacy, her mother chastised, "My father always said, 'stick with the Democrats. They're the party of the working man.'" Noonan replied, "When grandpa said that, it was true. It's not anymore." Peggy Noonan, a Sixties generation conservative, part of what she calls "the up-and-coming constituency of young ethnic Catholics," uncomfortable with country club Republicanism, places her faith in the supply-side gospel that "growth is all," adding "growth doesn't come from noblesse oblige, thank you very much."