October 7, 1999
ago conservatives were debating whether Pat Buchanan is still a
conservative. Now theyre debating whether George W. Bush is a
G.W. has fallen into the habit of
self-extolment, at the expense of his party and some of his supporters. He
offers himself as the advocate of compassionate
conservatism. This annoys other conservatives by its suggestion
that compassion is alien to them, just as his fathers
kinder, gentler vision suggested that Ronald Reagans
presidency wasnt sufficiently kind and gentle.
Now G.W. Bush has taken a couple of
whacks at the Republican Congress, first for balancing the budget
on the backs of the poor the very words Bill Clinton and
countless other liberals have used and now for their pessimism
about an America slouching toward Gomorrah. The latter
phrase was a mocking allusion to the title of a book by Judge Robert Bork,
who is held in high esteem by cultural conservatives.
But all this arguing about whos a
conservative omits one thing: a helpful definition of conservatism. In the
conservative movement, only one certitude remains: the Reagan cult. Most
conservatives still believe in the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, but
Reagan runs a close fourth.
Republican presidential candidates
invoke Reagans legacy and compare themselves to
him at every opportunity; those who served in his administration
as advisors, speechwriters, cabinet officers drop his name
constantly (As Ronald Reagan used to say ...). What lends all
this a touch of grim comedy is that today Ronald Reagan can remember
none of these old intimates.
These candidates likewise attack each
other with charges that their rivals have departed from the Ways of
Reagan. Bush and Buchanan have been variously accused of abandoning
Reagans warmth, optimism, vision, toughness, internationalism,
etc. Like God, Reagan comprehends every perfection, and the flesh is
flawed to the degree that it doesnt resemble Reagan. Reagan has
ascended to the plane of a Platonic form, a pure essence unsullied by
lower matter, as witness the old conservative slogan Let Reagan
be Reagan. Only the people around Reagan
wimpy poll-obsessed aides and advisors were preventing him from
being himself. (As one exasperated wag quipped: Let someone else
Thus candidate Gary Bauer replies to G.W.
Bush with a dual invocation of Reagan: Yes, conservatives need to
embrace the buoyant optimism of Ronald Reagan about our countrys
future. But we also need to be grounded in Ronald Reagans
realism. It all reminds one of the days when the Chinese appealed
all questions to the great icon of Mao Zedong, even when Mao himself was
silent: We must be true to Chairman Maos socialist
vision, one side would say. Yes, the other side would
reply, but we must also remember that Chairman Mao was a great
pragmatist, never fettered by dogma. The only question was which
of Maos myriad virtues was most relevant at the moment.
In 1988 George H.W. Bush won the
presidency by running as Ronald Reagan. He trailed Michael Dukakis in the
polls until he gave a stirring convention speech Read my
lips: No new taxes! ghostwritten by Reagans poet
laureate, Peggy Noonan. Bush won by a landslide, then enraged Reaganites
by agreeing to new taxes.
I once teased my old friend and colleague
William Rusher for being a total Reagan apologist. Bill, I
told him, whenever Reagan does something awful, you defend it on
one of two grounds: either that Reagan had no choice, or that the full
wisdom of his action will be disclosed to lesser mortals in Gods
good time. Unshaken, Bill instantly replied, May I point out
that the two positions are not necessarily incompatible?
Reagans authorized biographer,
Edmund Morris, frustrated in his search for the real Reagan,
encountered, in his many interviews with his subject, only an
airhead and a bore. Poor Morris was driven to
write the most eccentric biography of our time, with a fictional character
where Reagan should have been.
Its high time to face it: the
real Reagan beloved of conservatives never existed outside
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