This book is about political and economic upheavals between the years 1960 and 2005, and the navigation through heavy waves that many of us chose. This is not just my story, but the story of hundreds of thousands, even millions. Many more are likely to join us over the next decade. Reality does not flinch from teaching human beings hard lessons.
One of my first political involvements was to prepare a lyrical speech—I suggested the “New Frontier” as a theme—for a Democratic aspirant to the U.S. Congress from New Jersey, who wanted to invite John F. Kennedy to campaign for him, and to have his own high-toned talk to impress the senator. I wrote the talk, but the Kennedy team never came to Paterson. I sent the speech to Boston any- way. The nominating convention was a little less than two months away, so I suspect the Kennedy team had already chosen the theme themselves. But the effort did have some interesting repercussions among the local union leaders and city hall “realists” in New Jersey.
During the early 1960s, Tom Hayden and the Students for a
Democratic Society used an article of mine from Harper’s
alongside their own founding documents. A bit later I began writing about the war in Vietnam, first defending it, then slowly becoming more critical of it—and then even more critical of the anti-war movement itself.
From 1965 on I found myself out in California as an assistant professor at Stanford, just as the Berkeley radicals were coming into full throat, and conscientious objector rallies were heating up at Stanford. My dear Karen and I attended one peaceful march in Oakland that turned mean, and we were very nearly arrested.
By the beginning of 1968, Bobby Kennedy called me to San Francisco, as the first person (so I was told) he would meet with when opening his California campaign. He had two messages: that an article of mine, “The Secular Saint,” had moved him to step up and finally jump into the race; and that he now needed my support among young people in the West. A bit startled, I said I needed twenty-four hours to clear some obstacles, but—yes.
I had loved Bobby’s brother Jack and was still desolate after his sudden bloody death. (The murder of my own brother in Bangladesh followed two months after Jack was slain.) I was in Rome for the Vatican Council on November 22, 1963, and that night we few Americans huddled together with other Americans—my stricken wife, Karen, and I ended up at dinner with John Cogley (who drafted Kennedy’s address to the Protestant ministers in Houston) and Michael Harrington (author of The Other America
The four of us could barely talk, we felt so empty, so plunged into the Absurd.
I then watched supportively as President Johnson launched the War on Poverty, and then the big push on the civil rights revolution (which had begun under President Kennedy and Martin Luther King).
I was still at Stanford the night that Bobby Kennedy was shot. (I had been invited to fly with him and his family to the Los Angeles hotel that night.) Just two months earlier, on April 4, Martin Luther King had been struck down in Memphis. An awful spring. An awful year. An awful five years.
A longtime supporter of Hubert Humphrey (a hero to my father- in-law, who was the Iowa Democratic Party committeeman), I had been horribly embarrassed by a speech Humphrey gave at Stanford on the war in Vietnam. That crushingly miscalculated speech and the immense disgust that followed led me to promise myself that I could never vote for him for president. Internally, I moved left of left. By August 1968 I was working with Harris Wofford at Old Westbury, the new experimental college of the State University of New York. Harris had been Sargent Shriver’s point man in the Peace Corps; he was later elected U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. He was a decent, generous, and spirited man.
In 1970 the great and wonderful Sarge, a truly good, large- hearted, and—if it’s not too much to say—even saintly man, asked me to come with him on his national campaign to elect Democratic congressmen, and we traveled together to thirty-nine states. Two years later I was on the campaign plane with him again, in 1972, having shown up at his home with a draft of his acceptance speech when he got the nomination to be George McGovern’s running mate. I had already written speeches for McGovern. Throughout the campaign I came to admire both men greatly. It didn’t hurt that both were fans of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics,
but it was the sheer goodness of their characters that won me over. Both were war heroes. Both were modest, not self-promoting.
Through a mutual Baptist friend, Jimmy Carter came to see me in New York late in 1975—it was his very first campaign trip there, and we spent all day in Queens (Archie Bunker country), and then drove in for his first ever talk in Manhattan. Afterward I wrote a piece that turned out to be the first coverage of him in the national press, and it went into all the early press books of the campaign.
In 1976, for foreign policy reasons, I decided I could not support Carter after all, and I began campaigning for Senator Scoop Jackson in Pennsylvania. At the convention in New York I was in Scoop’s hotel room on standby, in the event that Jimmy Carter telephoned to ask him to be his running mate (the senator had been tipped off that he was one of two finalists).
By 1979 Carter’s foreign policy weaknesses tempted Muslim rioters to take hostage many Americans at the embassy in Iran. Domestically, Carter was forced by the economic “stagflation” to speak of American “malaise,” but he then irrelevantly campaigned against millionaires and “three-martini lunches.”
I learned a lot from that campaign, and even more from the next twenty-five years of the greatest prosperity ever experienced in human history. I saw the force of ideas in that campaign and the political battle that followed. The sunny Ronald Reagan (coming into office in the wake of Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II) was a good deal shrewder and his ideas were stronger and deeper than the press and his opposition had bargained for. The facts of America’s rapid revival forced me to change my approach to economic policy, from Democratic welfare designs to the creation of new industries and millions of new jobs. For the first time, against my presuppositions, I saw the contributions to the common good made by the founding of a few million new small businesses. “Entrepreneur” went in my mind from being a slur to being an indispensable vocation for the benefit of the poor and unemployed. To have employees you need employers.
Further, Ronald Reagan’s determination to take the “Kick me!” sign off the backs of Americans (he picked up the phrase from a speech of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s at the 1984 Republican National Convention on the San Francisco Democrats) and his new toughness in working every single day to bring down the Soviet Union taught me an ancient lesson again: “Si vis pacem, para bellum:
If you wish for peace, prepare for war.” I learned from Reagan’s clearheadedness about two terms Americans in their moralism like to avoid: “self- interest” and “power.” I saw how his hard-minded thinking about ridding the world of nuclear weapons outflanked the Soviets by building superior power and through American inventiveness. (His threat of “Star Wars” was taken with deadly seriousness and shook them to the bottom of the Soviet treasury, even while many of my old liberal friends ridiculed it.)
For some years, meanwhile, William Simon, Jack Kemp, Vin Weber, and many of their friends were awakening me to a new way of thinking about economics, as approached through foresight, enterprise, initiative, and risk. I witnessed with my own eyes the almost immediate results of the switch from Carter’s economic poli- cies to Reaganomics. I could see close at hand the jump in morale among young entrepreneurs (including graduate students suddenly grasping that they could start new businesses of their own). I saw with my own eyes the effects of Reagan’s creative tax and regulatory regime, which was designed to propel a burst of millions of new small businesses, along with an unprecedented explosion in employ- ment. I watched as wholly new technologies such as computers, cell phones, genetic therapies, and fiber optics came into being. Reagan’s capital gains tax cuts enticed the investments that ushered in a new Electronic Age, replacing the Machine Age. This was a prosperity that, to my surprise, lifted every boat, from the bottom up. The numbers and proportion of the poor dropped; the median income rose; more than ever before, many married-couple families among blacks earned more than $50,000 a year. I had not expected any of that. My aim on the left had been to help the poor—I now began to see a better way to do that.
President Reagan twice asked me to be his ambassador to the UN Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, and then to take on a related assignment a few years later at the Bern Round of the Helsinki Talks (that year focusing on “openness” among societies).
Although I was a rank amateur and made lots of rookie mistakes, I must have done something well: In later years, the presidents of the Slovak Republic, the Czech Republic, and the Republic of Poland awarded me the highest medal those countries can give a foreigner, in large part for that work.
Reagan had also appointed me to the Board for International Broadcasting, the governing body responsible for Radio Free Eu- rope and Radio Liberty (since 1994 the body has been known as the Broadcasting Board of Governors), and then Bill Clinton re- appointed me. I may have been one of the longest serving board members ever (eleven years), and I gained invaluable insight into how Communist countries actually worked—and into the impending breakdown of Communism. First the Berlin Wall came down in the epoch closing year of 1989. Then the Soviet Union collapsed in
1991. My friends in Prague sent me a big Soviet flag they tore down from their building as soon as the Russian soldiers left for home (speedily) —and I hung it in my office for a while, with joy.
Bill Clinton had befriended me (he befriended everybody) about a month before taking office as president, and we worked together on more than one small project—for one, arranging for him to meet with Václav Havel on the Old Bridge across the Charles in the Old City and to play his saxophone to an adoring world press. The aim was to let Havel make the case directly to Clinton for moving the Radios from Munich to Prague. Clinton supported the move when few in his administration approved. It saved the U.S. government a small fortune, and it brought the Radios closer to their audience on the other side of the old Iron Curtain. The Radios sponsored all sorts of new activities—for example, seminars for journalists trained under Communism but now working in free countries on how to choose their stories on their own and how to develop them without being told in advance what to write.
Clinton imitated much of the Reagan economic program, raising taxes only a little actually, and he kept the economy strong and vital. Yet his one flaw was not paying attention to developing threats. (His focus was domestic; he did not see the connection between international strength and domestic progress.) There are always wars in human history—new ones, generation after generation—because wars spring from the human heart itself (as Saint Augustine taught back in the fifth century). Peace never lasts. This time, the original and founding dream of one Muslim empire was being stirred by a minority of radicals, a minority that was passionate and constantly active. These radicals eventually saw the United States as their great- est obstacle: the fount of all the dreadful perversions of modern secular culture—the “Great Satan.”
Eight months after George W. Bush took office in 2001, the plotters struck. It was a particularly peaceful, blue-skied Septem- ber day. Thank God, Jack Kennedy championed the U.S. Special Forces, then called the Green Berets, giving them immense public support (not to say romance), political impetus, and the financial wherewithal to expand. In them the United States had a world-class, small-team fighting force, ready for instant worldwide action. Presidents George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush had much need of them. I supported both Iraq wars, for reasons discussed below. Both were necessary if young Muslim males were to turn their energies from resentment and destruction toward working for prosperity and the expansion of the human rights of Muslims. I attribute the later outbreak of democracy movements around the Arab world to the passionate discussions of liberty that distinguished the struggles in Afghanistan and Iraq. The Arab Spring was only a first wave; it was almost certain to fall short, but there will be many future waves. Human rights are natural rights, and universal, and nothing drives their necessity home like suffering under oppression.
Finally, I have lived long enough to see economic errors repeat themselves over and over. Dostoyevsky predicted this: Humans claim to want liberty but then shuck it off when its attendant responsibilities become irksome. I have come to judge “progressivism” itself to be a well-intentioned but deadly error. It overrates human innocence and goodness and underrates human weakness and preference for getting things for free rather than as a result of arduous work. It claims to want equality, but it does not grasp how that demand undermines the motive for initiative and hard work. It is a form of statism, trying unsuccessfully to drape the smaller garments of small government and liberty around its gigantesque frame. And the trouble with statism is that it works only until the state runs out of other people’s money. By 2013 the United States has done that. Most government spending today is financed by debt, most of it owed to foreign powers. That is a symptom of the greed of progressives, feeding boundless appetites for utopian schemes, to be paid for at the severe expense of future generations. I find this disgusting. For me it is just plain stealing from our grandchildren. I can hardly face my own, Emily and Stephen, Wiley and Julia. Our generation’s thievery from our children is perpetrated in the name of the unprecedented “compassion” of our generation—a compassion that we ourselves are not paying for.
I am glad that I am in my eightieth year and will not live to see the suffering, and perhaps bitterness, of these grandchildren. How they will despise us!
A philosopher and theologian by training, I grew up with a deep interest in how ideas change history—and how history changes ideas.
Providence—held by America’s founders to be that “Great governor of the universe”—arranged that I should live through movements both from history to ideas and from ideas to history.
At eighty I look back over the events I have witnessed, and I re- visit the lessons I learned the hard way. Events and facts forced me to change my mind about the ideas with which my education imbued me, eager pupil that I was. I worked out my changes of mind publicly in articles and books. As my new direction became clear, I lost many close friends. My phone stopped ringing. Angry letters from dear friends pleaded with me to desist. I was shunned at professional meetings, even by the closest of old colleagues. Some refused to appear with me ever again on any academic program. This was a common experience among those of us who moved from left to right in our time.
Why? Because the two metaphysical beliefs of the Left are that progress is unstoppable,
and that progress means always turning left.
Any turning toward the Right contradicts this metaphysics and must be shunned.
Even today, when feelings have mellowed, old acquaintances josh me for having changed my mind on several key matters. I josh them back: “How on earth, seeing what we saw, living through what we lived through, did you not
change? I thought the rule was open-mindedness, revision as facts warrant, and fresh judgments of reality.”
Many persons today are again wrestling with political and economic beliefs they have long held and are beginning to drift away from them.
I may be quite wrong in how I dealt with my own doubts and inquiries during my adulthood. Perhaps the record of how I believed, and then doubted, and found what seemed to me a better way to reach our goals may help others to avoid mistakes I made and take better and surer steps on their own. In heavy seas, to stay on course it is indispensable to lean hard left at times, then hard right. The important thing is to have the courage to follow your intellect. Wherever the evidence leads. To the left or to the right. “The first moral obligation is to think clearly.” part one Left Turn
A Snapshot of My Left Turn, 1967
One pivotal scene at Stanford University in February of 1967 may plunge the reader into the political turmoil of that time. Vice President Hubert Humphrey—an old hero of Karen’s and mine (and of her politically savvy father), and an old Niebuhrian realist himself— came to Stanford to give a major speech on the war in Vietnam, just as support for the war at home was tottering.
That there would be a protest on Stanford’s campus when Humphrey showed up went without saying. Yet a number of us, to one extent or another anti-war and moved by the anxiety about the futures that gripped many of the young men in our classes, tried in vain behind the scenes to make the imminent protest peaceful and dignified. My own favorite maxim in those days came from Albert Camus, and I quoted it often: “I should like to love my country and still love justice.” Several of my professor friends and I wanted to have the American flag on our side and appeal to American prin- ciples and rhetorical traditions. We thought it very wrong to alienate the vast American middle. Most of Middle America did not like this war, either, and wished their
sons did not have to go fight in it, so far away. And most did not like the strutting South Vietnamese generals who were running the country after the assassination (with President Kennedy’s connivance) of Diem, the legitimate leader of that time. It was a mistake, we thought, to drive Middle America away. For the Left, it was only decent to reason with the American public directly, facing both the ugliness of the situation and the hard necessity to block China’s ancient ambitions in Southeast Asia.
So let me now describe what happened on Humphrey’s visit.* The campus prepared for Humphrey’s visit for more than a week.
But even a month before, at the end of January 1967, a group of students from various religious groups had collected funds to send two professors to the Washington mobilization of the Clergy and Laity Concerned about Vietnam. They then sponsored rallies and smaller discussions on campus. The radical students were discouraged and relatively quiet. Thus, just as Humphrey arrived, leadership in the anti-war movement had passed to moderates and newcomers. A hastily organized faculty committee urged as many persons as possible to greet Humphrey in strict silence, wearing white armbands, and pledged neither to applaud nor to boo. Student groups—not consulted about this proposal in advance—held strategy meetings of their own. The radicals had collected a file on Humphrey’s speeches and insisted that the vice president no longer heard alternatives but only emitted propaganda. They were insulted that he was being offered a university platform, thus lending Stanford’s prestige—their
prestige—to such propaganda. The moderate students, together with the hastily organized faculty group, argued that militant pro- tests antagonized
public opinion. A young man with a soft Georgia accent, who had recently resigned from the ROTC, was especially persuasive in arguing that demonstrations should be “effective” and “designed to persuade the uncommitted, not alienate them. I know what the people back home think,” he said, “when they see pictures of wild demonstrations.”
In the end, ecumenism triumphed: all anti-war groups would work together. The night preceding Humphrey’s visit, an all-night teach-in was held. As usual, all the radical students were there, but relatively few moderates. Early the next morning, crowds gathered outside Memorial Auditorium. Although students and faculty were admitted one by one through a single door, where identity cards were checked, the 1,700 seats inside were filled in fifteen minutes; many of the about a thousand students and faculty who wore white armbands and had pledged silence did not get in. (Although of- ficial denials were forthcoming, many thought at the time that the auditorium had secretly been packed through other doors.) When Humphrey entered, those in the front rows (mostly senior university people and guests) rose as one man, and the ovation of the unpledged overpowered the silence of the pledged. Humphrey began his ad- dress to a tense, divided university audience by honoring them with their recent appearance on the cover of Time
magazine as members of “The Now Generation.” His glib, insensitive speech was met with incredulity, then disgust, and finally outrage by many of those who until that moment had considered themselves moderates.
About sixty radical students rose to walk out just after Humphrey began to speak, to demonstrate that they knew he would voice no honest opinion. Others, persuaded by the moderates, had decided “to give the vice president of the United States a chance.” They sat quietly for almost twenty minutes while Humphrey evaded the question of the war in his prepared remarks, tried to portray him- self as a former radical from Minnesota, which he was, and then nationally as a founding leader of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), the left wing of the Democratic Party. When three selected panelists finally brought up the question of the war, Humphrey spoke of it in terms that well-read students knew were mere simplicities. When he claimed that the university community supported
the war, almost two hundred others—many of whom had not intended to walk out—rose and quietly filed out. Outside, listening by loud- speaker, students and faculty evaluated every sentence, some shout- ing “Shame!” or “Lie!” at his succession of simplistic statements. A serious, reasoned, complex talk about the war would, that day, have persuaded many at Stanford. The anger that Humphrey generated— oblivious to his own ineptitude—turned scores of heretofore inactive students into militant opponents of the administration.
Humphrey appeared at a window after the speech. Those outside cried “Shame! Shame!” A crowd gathered to let Humphrey know the insult he had delivered, and to let him feel their detestation of the murder and destruction committed in their name in Vietnam. (“We do not bomb civilians,” Humphrey had answered indignantly. “But you can’t put a bomb in a barrel.”) As the Secret Service whisked Humphrey to his car fifty yards away, students came running, shouting, “Shame!” and, from the more angry, “Murderer!” Two prostrate protestors were moved from his unmarked path by police. No one touched Humphrey or his car. The shoving and the running, less rough than in a crowd after a football game, nevertheless conveyed a sense of stampede and an electric passion of outrage. A Secret Service man kicked over a rancid can of beer and thought someone had thrown a container of urine at him. Humphrey was still speaking bitterly of his Stanford experience a year later.
President Sterling of Stanford apologized—not to the university for the vice president’s performance, but to Mr. Humphrey for the university’s behavior. There had been no violence, no riot, nothing but the excitement of running and voicing “Shame!”—and an utterly shameful example of government propaganda. President Sterling then took the extraordinary measure of sending a letter to every person at the university “out of a deep concern for the preservation of free and civilized debate.” The debate, some students felt, had not been free; it was, on Humphrey’s part, a mockery of civilized discourse: he was using the platform of a great university to clothe the government’s policies with respectability. There was no arrange- ment of any kind for genuine cross-examination by the university community—nothing like the freedom of the Oxford Union, for ex- ample. The helplessness of the United States Senate regarding U.S. foreign policy was experienced at Stanford that day in February. The moderates felt betrayed. The radicals said: “We told you so.”
Excerpted from Writing from Left to Right by Michael Novak. Copyright © 2013 by Michael Novak. Excerpted by permission of Image, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.