I caught the second half of a pretty interesting panel discussion on “The Conservatism and Liberalism of the 1960s: Then and Now” at the New York Public Library this (Tuesday) afternoon. The occasion was the publication of new editions of Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative and John Kenneth Galbraith’s The New Industrial State by Princeton University Press, and when I got there Hendrik Hertzberg of The New Yorker was explaining how Ronald Reagan was the intellectual descendant of Galbraith. Or something weird like that; I only heard the very tail end.
After Hertzberg, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. took the microphone to make the case that Barry Goldwater was a swell guy (“He called himself an honorary gay, and this was in Arizona before Brokeback Mountain came out”) whose movement was “hijacked” by the likes of Paul Weyrich and Richard Viguerie, who with help from the Christian right and the acquiescence of the “indolent, negligent press” did what they could to subvert conservatism in service of “corporate profit-taking.”
Economic journalist Jeffrey Madrick and NYT Book Review editor Sam Tanenhaus followed that with their presentations (I think I might get to Madrick in another post). Tanenhaus pointed out that Goldwater didn’t actually write Conscience of a Conservative: L. Brent Bozell Jr. (yes, this guy‘s daddy) did.
Things only got really interesting when Columbia sociologist Todd Gitlin asked an incredibly long-winded question from the floor. What he wanted to know was what had caused the crotchety, individualistic conservatism of Goldwater to metastasize into the conservative movement, but he phrased it so verbosely that, well, you really had to be there.
City University of New York historian John Diggins had one answer: “Todd, the conservatives were reacting against the 1960s, and they were reacting against you.” Added Tanenhaus: “They were reacting to language like that, that is so presumptuous in its superiority.” Kennedy said again that the “negligent, indolent press” was to blame. And then Tanenhaus, who is neither negligent nor indolent, finally cut loose.
“Goldwater comes out of the heart of the modern conservative movement, which emerged out of the National Review and Joseph McCarthy,” Sam the man said. It was a pro-business, pro-religion, Sunbelt movement, and “Goldwater very directly played to racial anxieties in 1964…
“There’s a kind of fantasy created that Goldwater was a singular, heroic conservative unattached to the movement that followed,” Tanenhaus continued — while Kennedy, whose fantasy-spinning he was clearly talking about, sat quietly by. “Goldwater wanted to end the Vietnam War with limited nuclear weapons.”
So that was that. I noted to myself never to try to pick an intellectual fight with Sam Tanenhaus. And then I saw a guy sitting near me who looked kind of familiar. “Are you The Dread Alterman?” I asked. He nodded. I introduced myself. We shook hands. I didn’t punch him or anything. Sorry to be so dull.