Another Sixties: The New Right, Part II
Paul Lyons, Richard Stockton State College
This essay was originally presented as a paper at the Sixties Generations conference, March 1993, Fairfax. VA.
Lee Atwater 11
Along with Noonan, Lee Atwater was the most important kind of conservative baby boomer. Whereas Noonan represents the newly suburban Reagan Democrats, the Northern, immigrant-stock ethnics, Atwater was a good old boy Southerner and a fraternity boy cut-up who reflected the ways in which Sixties liberation, the sex, drugs and rock'n'roll trinity, have often led to quite conservative ends.
Atwater was "a street-fighting... anti-Establishment man from the git-go," according to David Remnick. Like Noonan, Atwater spoke for the right-wing populism so much at the heart and soul of the conservative successes in the Seventies and Eighties. As a senior in high school, he ran his first successful campaign for a friend seeking the student government presidency:
Of course, his boy won.
Atwater was the conservative most focused on generational issues. He identified himself strongly, passionately with his version of the Sixties. While in high school, he had a white soul band, The Upsetters Review, which had some local success playing Motown and the likes of Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett. His folks persuaded him to go to college instead of hitting the road with the band. There, at local Newberry College, while still a rock'n'roll animal, he found his primary passion in politics, first with a summer internship in Strom Thurmond's Washington office. Atwater became active in College Republicans, rose to state chair, and then went on to the national office before joining the GOP consulting firm of Black, Manafort & Stone.
Atwater was a conservative, a believer in Right-to-Life, free market economics, anticommunism. But he was mostly committed to winning, to the chase, to the sheer joy of the political battle. In this sense, he was more scoundrel than ideologue, more the Southern rascal--he admired Huey Long--than the Klansman. He used the race issue for political purposes at the same time as he waxed enthusiastic about the African-American contribution of the blues.
Most of all, Atwater offered hints of M*A*S*H crossed with Porky's, of the good old boy-cum-fraternity boy-cum iconoclast. Sixties activists, left and right, challenged authority of all types; they helped to break down patterns of deference and tradition. They were rebelling against men in gray-flannel suits, organization men, a bureaucratic, white-collar environment which seemed to operate as if there was no longer such a thing as the human body. Such was their attraction to rock'n'roll, the re-assertion of the body, of movement and sexuality; they celebrated the moment, humor, spontaneity, trying to give a goose to an uptight system. But in several ways, they were extending what Martha Wolfenstein called "the fun morality." They were advancing a culture of abundance. Atwater personified a fun morality, a liberation from restraint which the Sixties encouraged, but without the social conscience, the social agenda associated with the Left. He embodied the "flight from commitment" Barbara Ehrenreich associated with both the Beats and the Playboy philosophy, which shaped much of the male-defined counter-culture of the Sixties. To Atwater, "it's all a gas... the whole deal," "the whole phantasmagoria of politics and TV rock 'n roll and baby-boom demographics." You can bet he would have understood far better than World War II veterans Bush and Jim Baker the political importance of Bill Clinton's sax performance on Arsenio and the "Rock the Vote" campaign of MTV. 12
Bill Bennett 13
Bill Bennett combines aspects of several kinds of conservative baby boomers; in some ways he seems more like the progeny of neo-conservative veterans of Old Left wars--Abrams, Kristol--even though his own family background is Catholic and mainstream. Bennett, like Noonan and Atwater, carries populist passions, resentments at the wealthy, nurtured by his divorced mother. Although he went to elite Williams College, he had to wait tables and spend summers hauling furniture to cover his costs. He juxtaposes his own middle-American experiences with what he caricatures as a New Left elite.
Bennett most reflects the transformation of the liberal into, first, a neo-conservative, and then a conservative. Michael Massing claims there are two Bill Bennetts--one, passionate, accessible, thoughtful; the other, intolerant, combative, Nixonian. There is another dualism. Bennett, a staunch pro-civil rights liberal at Williams, was attracted to SDS, but was persuaded by his older brother (Robert Bennett, recently Cap Weinberger's attorney) that SDS membership might not look good on future resumes. This additional dualism juxtaposes idealism with ambition.
Bennett, an offensive tackle, "a lover of Aristotle and rock'n'roll," studied under John Silber at Texas, where he stayed clear of campus politics. When he taught philosophy at Southern Mississippi in 1967-1968, he was still a liberal, publicly championing the message and the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Bennett's dramatic moment, comparable to Noonan's Washington bus ride, occurred in 1970 when he was attending Harvard Law School. There he was dormitory proctor to a black freshman pre-med student who wanted to switch to sociology. Bennett, convinced that the student was merely responding to peer pressures, refused to sign off on the change in major. An argument began which continued into the Harvard dining room. "I followed him to his table, and he said, 'You can't sit here,' and I said, 'Why not?' and he said, 'It's just for blacks.' And I said, 'That's a lot of junk. I heard that in Mississippi, and now I'm hearing it at Harvard.'" Bennett, already alienated by what he perceived as the anti-Americanism of student protesters and by Black Power activists, became a neoconservative, "his intellectual hero" became Irving Kristol, and he went off to work for John Silber at Boston University.
In 1982, when he was chosen as head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, he was accurately perceived as the neo-conservative option to the more right-wing M.E. Bradford of the University of Dallas. But by 1986, by then Secretary of Education, he had more than built his bridges to the right wing of the conservative movement.
Bennett, who won a lottery date with Janis Joplin in his college years, despite his ferocious Sixties-bashing, identifies himself as a rock'n'roller. After explaining to his limo driver how to identify a Neil Sedaka song, he proclaimed, "That's Manfred Mann--'Do Wah Diddy', 'Hey Cleve,' he called out, 'Ever know a Secretary of Education who knew rock 'n roll before?'" Bennett, a staunch polemicist against cultural relativism, nevertheless tempers his admiration for Allen Bloom, "I hate that prissy crap where he's anti-rock 'n roll."
Bennett speaks of his resentments at privilege: "I really dislike snobs, pretentious people who mistreat people who have to work for them. I hate them." It is here that Bennett stands with the right-wing populism that has so driven the generational aspects of New Right success: the attacks on the New Class, on the cultural elite, although virtually never, the Fortune 500. Bennett, who his former mentor John Silber now castigates as "the Sorcerer's Apprentice" for his ruthless opportunism, sees himself as a champion of old liberal values and everyday people against the phonies and snobs. He has a sharp eye for left-of-center hypocrisies; none for his own.
David Stockman 14
David Stockman was caught up in the Barry Goldwater campaign of 1964, inspired by "the truths of Christianity and Republicanism" of his grandfather, a Midwestern supporter of the Far Right Liberty Lobby. But then he went off to college where he fell "into the clutches of campus radicalism," taking up "Marxism and America-hating." Always melodramatic, Stockman concludes, "Liberal professors and antiwar agitators shattered everything I believed in." But "when the radicals turned violent," he adds, "I finally saw the light." The young David Stockman who had flirted with Students for a Democratic Society at Michigan State "discovered that the left was inherently totalitarian." Interestingly, Stockman, who says he found intellectual nourishment from the ideas of Reinhold Neibuhr and Walter Lippman, and sponsorship from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, David Broder, and John Anderson--centrists all--calls himself "a radical ideologue." The road from SDS to the supply-side of town did not seem so long.
Most striking are the ways in which Stockman defines his adversaries during his tenure as Ronald Reagan's Director of the Office of Budget and Management. He sounds remarkably similar to the New Leftists who once excoriated liberal Democrats--corporate liberals--unwilling to confront the inherent contradictions of capitalism. Stockman's new truth came from a free-market ideology every bit as passionate and abstract as the Frankfurt School of neo-Marxism. He became "a disciple of F.A. Hayek," and through the influence of Jack Kemp, read Jude Wanniski's The Way the World Works, which, he tells, "hit me with the force of revelation." Notice how he describes this New Right rebirth:
The analogies between New Left and New Right, between left-anarchism and right-libertarianism, the patterns of cross-over and overlap in the careers of Gary Wills, Murray Rothbard, Karl Hess, and Ron Radosh have yet to be adequately explored. Minimally, one notices the utopian fervor, the sense of belonging to what both camps glowingly call a movement. When Stockman allowed his Atlantic interview with William Greider, he offered this explanation: "Like me, he was anti-political." To both New Left and New Right, authenticity, commitment, a beloved community stand in contrast to Weber's ethic of responsibility, the world of politics and, therefore, compromise. Consider 1964--the Goldwater debacle, in your heart you know he's right, even if destined to overwhelming defeat; and the refusal of the Mississippi Freedom Democrats to accept LBJ's two seat compromise. The movement is greater than the party, compromise risks the loss of all integrity, all authenticity.
David Horowitz, Peter Collier, Ron Radosh 15
David Horowitz, Peter Collier, and then Ron Radosh represent "the God That Failed" phenomena, a second generation of disillusion and ideological flip-flop from Left to Right. Horowitz and Collier consider their own and the New Left's complicity in Black Panther crimes, especially the murder of a book-keeper they provided to the party, to be their moment when forced to come to grips with radical evil; in Radosh's case it was a combination of the trauma of being attacked by lefty friends over his critical examination of the Rosenberg case and a rejection of the left-wing romance with Third World revolutionary movements, especially in Cuba and then Nicaragua. Such "Second Thoughts" conservatives seem more comparable to ideologues like Elliot Abrams and William Kristol--all still seemingly fighting old ideological battles, the sons as their fathers, vanquishing ghosts. They're grounded in counter-attack and negativity, and they lack the mythic reservoirs, the popular passions, the affirmative visions of Webb, Noonan, Atwater, and, in some ways, Bennett. Their identity is established through their enemies.