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The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times

1 rating: 3.0
A book by Jeffrey Hart

National Review has been the leading conservative national magazine since it was founded in 1955, and in that capacity it has played a decisive role in shaping the conservative movement in the United States. In The Making of the American Conservative … see full wiki

Author: Jeffrey Hart
Publisher: Intercollegiate Studies Institute
1 review about The Making of the American Conservative...

What he saw at the revolution

  • Jul 10, 2006
This is a excellent book, and also an incomplete one. The excellence is captured in its subtitle, "'National Review' and Its Times." Where it is incomplete -- where it overreaches somewhat -- is in the assumption of its title, "The Making of the American Conservative Mind." The reader would have been better served if title and subtitle had been reversed before publication.

Jeffery Hart was part of the "National Review" story more or less from the beginning, and so this is a fascinating memoir. His depictions of key players (particularly the ones portrayed on the cover, Buckley, Burnham, Kirk, Kendall, and Meyer; oddly, though Whittaker Chambers is pictured as well, his is not a major presence in the book: William Rusher would have been a better choice) are quite good. So too are Hart's evocations of Goldwater, Eisenhower, and Reagan. He has a novelist's eye for interpersonal dynamics and the tensions created by egos and approaches in conflict.

I almost wrote "ideologies" or "philosophies" in place of "approaches" in the previous sentence. But another area where Hart is quite good is in explicating what he sees as NR's crucial frame of reference over the decades, a focus on "strategic, prudential, and therefore gradualist conservatism" (p. 241). Planted by Burke and fed and watered by Burnham and Kirk, this conservatism lives in the real world (it says) and rejects absolutes, ideologies, and utopias. Therefore, Hart criticizes a later generation of NR writers who "on the grounds that lower taxes meant less government, always supported tax cuts. But in the real world, Americans wanted such programs as Medicare and Social Security, and these had to be paid for" (p. 335). Hart makes it clear that Buckley, in particular, was never a revolutionary or (in the word's original meaning) a "radical." He wanted to reform the Establishment, not tear it down, and his goal (and Burnham's) was to make NR the voice of that Establishment. Not for them Garrison's warning that "Gradualism in theory is perpetuity in practice."

As implied in the last paragraph, one of the parts of this book I found most fascinating was Hart's evident disappointment in the direction NR has taken in the last decade or two. More in sadness than in anger, Hart says the magazine has become too "topical" -- more of a conservative news magazine, less of an intellectual forum. The founding generation, so to speak, were university professors, philosophers, and other intellectuals of a high order. In contrast, today's NR contributors are, by and large, journalists. While he speaks highly of current editor Rich Lowry's biography of Bill Clinton, it's clear Hart sees no one in the Manhattan or DC offices who can pick up the colors laid down by Kirk, Kendall, and Meyer. The corresponding decline of NR as the agora where varying modes of conservatism are weighed and measured seems, not without merit, deeply disappointing to Hart.

If all that makes for a very interesting book, there are also certain clear, perhaps deliberate, shortcomings here. A key part of NR's campaign to be that voice of the Establishment was to "help define by exclusion views that were beyond the pale" of respectable opinion (p. 70). Hence the drumming-out, for good reasons or bad, of the Birchers, the Randians, the Rothbardians, the Buchananites and (more significantly) the reinforcement of the myth that modern American conservatism was born in the alliance of Buckley and Burnham some time in the early 1950s. Other books by NR alums, like Rusher's The Rise of the Right (1984), do this too.

But interestingly, I heard a tape recording of some National Review banquet back in the late 70s or early 80s where a speaker (Rusher? Allard Lowenstein?) introduced Buckley as "America's leading spokesman for conservatism ... of a sort." Meant mostly in jest, it's actually a pretty good classification. Despite NR's attempt to corral conservatism within its own preferred limits, there's actually quite a bit more to it. I'd therefore recommend other books to read alongside this one: perhaps The Conservative Movement (Social Movements Past and Present) by Paul Gottfried, Revolt from the Heartland: The Struggle for an Authentic Conservatism by Joseph Scotchie, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement (Background: Essential Texts for the Conservative Mind) by Justin Raimondo, The Right Nation: Conservative Power in America by Micklethwait and Wooldridge, and of course, The Betrayal of the American Right by Murray Rothbard.

Over the years, "National Review" has tried to shape the American mind, and has been vastly influential in molding several generations of thinkers and activists. Jeffrey Hart has given us a very good view of the magazine's history and relevance, though there is yet more still to tell.

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