What it means to be a conservative is a hotly debated question at the moment, with many self-described conservatives saying that they don’t feel at home in their political base, the Republican Party, or under the party’s titular leader,
Should conservatives be welcoming of immigrants or should they try to conserve a cultural balance that mass immigration could disrupt? Is conservatism the ideology of American global leadership or a temperament that is skeptical of foreign entanglements? What to do when free markets produce outcomes that are corrosive of traditional values?
At a time when longtime political comrades are turning against each other—pro-
anti-Trump, anti-anti-Trump—it is instructive to be reminded of an earlier epoch of conservatism, one that appears to be more cohesive than the one today but that endured its own fissures and internal debates.
Lee Edwards’s delightful memoir “Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty” offers just such a reminder—a perspective on our current moment that is informed by the past. A soft-spoken distinguished fellow in conservative thought at the Heritage Foundation and an adjunct professor at Catholic University, Mr. Edwards has not only chronicled the modern American conservative movement’s history. He has lived it.
By Lee Edwards
ISI, 378 pages, $29.95
“I was born under the sign of
on December 1, 1932, on the South Side of Chicago,” Mr. Edwards begins. Of course, the handiwork of
and his fellow liberals would guide Mr. Edwards’s life only by inspiring opposition. His father was the award-winning—and, Mr. Edwards is quick to add, “hard-drinking”—reporter
Willard Ambrose Edwards.
His mother once ran for the local school board and was savaged by an area political columnist as a “radical right” candidate married to a reporter for the “ultra-conservative” Chicago Tribune.
“Her bitter experience influenced my decision never to be a political candidate—my skin was not thick enough for electoral politics,” Mr. Edwards writes. Yet politics was in his blood, and he would advise and serve candidates over the years. Most notably, he was there from the start with
1964 presidential campaign, a doomed effort that laid the groundwork for a conservative takeover of the heretofore milquetoast Republican Party. He notes that
was a reluctant candidate, personally friendly with the Democratic incumbent,
John F. Kennedy,
and fearful that he did not have a presidential-caliber intellect. Mr. Edwards chronicles the campaign’s highs and lows, not least the Democratic attacks on the GOP nominee as a mentally unstable man bent on nuclear war.
Mr. Edwards was with
long before the White House years, when the erstwhile Hollywood actor considered his first run for governor of California. The Reagan of those years, Mr. Edwards shows, was a mix of the commanding personality that the country would come to know and a man with a quiet but deep interest in the writings of the conservative intellectuals who would gradually win him over from his youthful liberalism.
It was the “Red Menace” of the Soviet Union that first drew Mr. Edwards to serious conservatism. The “three pillars” of his political and cultural outlook, he says, were “my Catholicism, my anticommunism, and my individualism, but my anticommunism came first.” As for his sense of the broad direction of the conservative moment, he took his cues, he says, from
M. Stanton Evans,
the witty and genial editor of Human Events, the Washington-based publication for which Mr. Edwards still writes. But it was William F.
who published his first article, in National Review, the flagship publication of the conservative movement.
What is especially remarkable is what a varied career Mr. Edwards has had within the movement: practical politics; journalism, including the editorship of Conservative Digest; a shelfful of books, including biographies of Buckley, Goldwater and Reagan; and an almost nonstop activism, including his work to memorialize the victims of communism after the Free World defeated the Soviets in the Cold War.
Beyond the autobiographical details, “Just Right” is a survey of the disparate elements that have made up the conservative movement and a reminder of how perilous conservatism’s future has often seemed. The conservative story is often told through the prism of Creation (Buckley founding National Review), Fall (Goldwater’s loss to
) and Redemption (Reagan’s victories in 1980 and 1984). That standard account is retold here in detail, but there is a lot of intervening history.
If conservatism seems like an incoherent rabble in the age of Never Trump and
consider some of the important figures of its past.
priorities were as different from Goldwater’s as Goldwater’s were from Reagan’s and Reagan’s from
, to say nothing of figures outside the political realm, ranging from
Taft was as skeptical of warfare as welfare, while Goldwater believed a robust military was essential to American leadership. Goldwater rejected the strong social conservatism that defined Helms’s politics. Schlafly’s anti-feminism resonated for many evangelicals but was seen as a liability by party stalwarts seeking to close the gender gap.
Mr. Edwards acknowledges the seeming lack of purpose that has at times gripped conservatism since its triumph over communism. Yet he traces commonalities between early conservatism and its later iterations, like the Contract With America and the Tea Party. He is not without insights on the current president. “Trump clearly spoke for the kinds of disaffected Americans who have long supplied a ready audience for conservative ideas and candidates,” he observes. “But he also pushed aside key tenets of the conservative approach to governing, including some that unify essentially all the various factions of the conservative movement.” Whoever can reconcile it all will write conservatism’s next chapter.
Mr. Antle is politics editor of the Washington Examiner and the author of “Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped?”