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Can Nixon Save the GOP?

Sam Tanenhaus tries to resurrect a more-agreeable breed of conservatism.

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It certainly seemed like a plausible enough quickie-book idea late last winter: The Death of Conservatism, by Sam Tanenhaus, editor of The New York Times Book Review and the paper’s “Week in Review” section and, as official biographer of William F. Buckley Jr., the paper’s unofficial scholar of the right. What Democrat wouldn’t want to read about how conservatives were “clenched in the rigor mortis of a defunct ideology,” as he writes, not to mention do a little jig around the stiff? Nine months later, in the midst of the belligerence over Obama-care, reports of conservatism’s demise seem premature. But Tanenhaus tells Carl Swanson that it just proves his point.

There’s a lot of right-wing ferment right now. Look at the town-hall meetings.
What passes for conservatism today is insurrectionism. These are radicals, not conservatives. And that’s what the book is about.

Seems like you’re redefining conservatism to suit your own tastes.
One never likes to predict reactions to one’s book, but I can very well imagine where some conservatives would say, “What he really wants is for conservatives to be liberal Democrats.” That’s not the argument of the book. That’s why it’s interesting to look at Nixon again, because he’s been so demonized and we forget he ran on five national tickets and won four of them. He appealed to the center. When either party strays too far, when it gets out of its orbit, then there’s an opening for the other one.

So you think all this anti-Obama rhetoric is for naught? It won’t help restore the GOP to power?
One thing that really struck me during the campaign was Obama’s race speech. Not so much what he said about black people, but what he said about white people. And I watched it and thought, This is [Daniel Patrick] Moynihan’s argument about how white ethnics, who are not accountable for America’s legacy of slavery, have their grievance, too. And Obama really got that. Somehow he’s absorbed more of this conservative history. He is a kind of [Edmund] Burke. And I do think he and Clinton were the model contemporary presidents, which will of course shock all my conservative friends. They adjusted to the realities of the politics of their day, which is exactly what Burke and Disraeli and Buckley said politicians are supposed to do.

What attracted you to Buckley?
God and Man at Yale is the single most important book to come out of the right. Buckley and Joe McCarthy, both in different ways, high and low, made the same discovery: Politics is about culture. It’s not about the economy or policy. Buckley was the master aesthetician of controversy.

And today?
I look at National Review and the Weekly Standard and Commentary, and it’s so rare to see somebody who’s actually making a reasoned argument. Who is not just labeling, name-calling.


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