Conservatism and the Media in Historical Perspective



William F. Buckley interviewing Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1971 on Firing Line


The Way of Improvement Leads Home correspondent reports are rolling in this morning!  Here is William Cossen‘s report on a fascinating session on American conservatism.  Read all of Cosseen’s posts from the AHA in Denver here.  –JF

On Friday, I attended an excellent AHA panel, “Supplying Conservatism: Media Infrastructure and the Rise of the New Right.”  This panel’s four papers shed new light on a subject of continued importance, especially given last year’s presidential campaign.

The first paper, Nicole Hemmer’s “‘Hatchets with Soft-Covered Sheaths’: Conservative Publishing and the Goldwater Campaign,” examined the birth of an early 1960s trend among conservatives toward independent publishing of paperback books.  Examples of such books include Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice Not an Echo and John A. Stormer’s None Dare Call It Treason.  These books and similar titles were at the center of what Hemmer (the University of Virginia’s Miller Center) described as the creation of an unmediated, conservative, grassroots publishing movement.  Conservative bookstores played an important role, Hemmer argued, in serving as “alternative distribution systems” to mainstream publishers.  Why did these independent bookstores and books – which were printed in the millions – appear when they did in 1964?  Hemmer explained that many conservatives had become impatient with a GOP establishment that they felt had become too conciliatory and complacent in the face of growing liberalism.  This provided fertile ground for the rise of alternative conservative media.  “This isn’t just populism,” Hemmer argued.  “It’s populism plus.”

The second paper, Heather Hendershot’s “Firing Line: Steering Wheel and Compass of the Modern Conservative Image,” described William F. Buckley’s important role through his long-running television show Firing Line in making conservatism not only respectable but also “stylish.”  Hendershot (MIT) did a fine job weaving film clips from the show throughout her talk, reminding audience members just how entertaining and informative Buckley’s show was at its peak.  Hendershot explained that the show’s premise was to figuratively place liberals on the firing line.  Firing Line drew a diverse political audience.  Interestingly, many liberals would tune in and then walk away from the show with a deeper resolve to promote liberalism.  However, it also played a critical role in constructing the intellectual framework of the New Right.  Buckley’s urbane, witty manner, which was also evident in his magazine National Review, served, Hendershot argued, as “walking, talking proof of the insufficiency” of Richard Hofstadter’s paranoid style thesis.

The third paper, courtesy of my Penn State graduate school colleague Paul Matzko (congratulations on your recent graduation, Dr. Matzko!), “Polish Ham, Talk Radio, and the Rise of the New Right,” explored an early 1960s protest against and boycott of consumer items – especially Polish ham – originating in communist Eastern Europe and being sold in the United States.  This protest was led by conservative women and facilitated by religious radio broadcasters, groups often absent from general histories of the rise of the New Right.  Matzko explained that while figures like Buckley played important role in the growth of conservatism in the second half of the twentieth century, radio broadcasters may have had a far larger numerical impact in terms of audience size than Buckley’s National Review.  The rapid spread of right-wing radio stations in the 1950s and 1960s laid the organizational groundwork for the New Right alongside Buckley’s intellectual contributions to the movement, the latter of which were described in Hendershot’s paper.  This growth of conservative broadcasting, coupled with conservative women’s grassroots organizing, came together in response to President John F. Kennedy’s promotion of increased trade with communist countries.  Polish hams came under attack as almost apocalyptic symbols of an alleged communist takeover of the United States.  The ensuing boycott had a massive economic impact.  Matzko recounted a Polish embassy estimation that the protest led to a $5 million loss in trade with Poland – in just a few months in 1962 alone!  Matzko concluded that actions such as the Polish ham boycott were the “stuff” of which modern conservatism was made.  The protest, much like the independent book publishing described by Hemmer, revealed the power that hundreds of thousands of dedicated, non-establishment political figures could have in elections and in the formulation of public policy.

The panel’s final paper, Michael McVicar’s “Surveillance – Dossier – Exposé: The Infrastructure and Technique of the Anticommunist Blacklist,” provided a revealing glimpse into the nuts-and-bolts methods used by conservatives from the 1920s into the 1960s  to infiltrate, uncover, and eliminate what they perceived to be a growing communist threat in the United States, which dovetails nicely with Matzko’s paper.  McVicar (Florida State University) explained that early religious, anticommunist activists built on organizational techniques and classificatory charts pioneered by late nineteenth-century management experts to construct extensive databases that sought to connect liberal Protestants with communism and alleged communist front groups.  These archival materials have been underutilized by historians, and McVicar’s research promises to provide a more nuanced genealogy of the New Right reaching to the years immediately following the First World War.

President-elect Donald Trump’s electoral victory has clearly been on the minds of many historians attending this year’s AHA, serving as the subject of not one but two major conference sessions.  This panel on the New Right was not responding directly to the outcome of election, as it was organized much earlier than November.  Still, the speakers’ contributions to the subfield of New Right history provide many useful insights into how this political movement and its legatees have continued to thrive, and the panel itself was a model of thoughtful organization and planning that brought together four papers complementing each other exceptionally well.

The Author’s Corner with Kevin Schultz

Kevin Schultz is Associate Professor of History, Catholic Studies, and Religious Studies and Associate Chair of the Department of History at the University of Illinois-Chicago.  This interview is based on his latest book Buckley and Mailer: The Difficult Friendship That Shaped the 1960s (W.W. Norton, 2015). 
JF: What led you to write Buckley and Mailer?
KS: The 1960s have become this almost-mythologized time in American history, when American culture moved to the left, American politics to the right, and new roles were envisioned for men, women, African Americans, and, well, nearly everyone.  But there is so little out that that helps us understand it all.  Why did so much happen so quickly, and so violently?  With that question in mind, a few years ago I stumbled across some letters of the left-wing novelist Norman Mailer.  One was a beautiful back-and-forth between Mailer and the right-wing firebrand William F. Buckley, Jr.  The letters showed obvious intimacy, but also rivaling visions for how America should move forward in order to allow maximum freedom for the individual.  A light bulb went on in my head.  Through the friendship of Buckley the conservative and Mailer the radical, I could tell an important story about the 1960s, about how the right and the left both attacked the liberal center with their varying demands for increased freedom, and how that battle led to what Mailer called the violent “birthing pangs of a new order.”  This book was my attempt to explain why the 1960s happened in the way that they did.
JF: In 2 sentences, what is the argument of Buckley and Mailer?
KS: That the best way to understand the 1960s is by seeing it as a period when one set of assumptions that most American shared was replaced by another, and that this happened because both the left and the right were unhappy with the culture that developed in the aftermath of World War II, thinking it denied Americans too many freedoms.  With such colorful characters like Buckley and his demands for laissez faire economics and respect for Christian tradition, and Mailer with his demands for a less repressive culture, I get to tell the story of this profound change through dozens of raucous stories, which include boxing matches, public debates, antiwar rallies, and Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.
JF: Why do we need to read Buckley and Mailer?
KS: Not only to better understand why the 1960s unfolded the way they did, but also to learn how two guys with nearly opposite political outlooks became friends and enduring debating partners, something sorely missing today.  The secret was that they both emphasized their love of America and understood the other as doing the same (just, to their mind, completely incorrectly).  Finally, it’s useful to recognize how today’s politics have developed from the ashes of the 1960s, with Buckley’s quest to honor “the great Western tradition” still a powerful demand of Republicans, and Mailer’s yearnings for increased individual freedoms a calling of the left.
JF: When and why did you decide to become an American historian?
KS: Some time in my middle teens I realized that the context in which we’re raised and in which we live determines so much about how we look at the world.  I wanted to understand the ideas that dominated our thinking but which we barely knew were there, the water we swim in. The answer always led me to history.  The ideas that dominate our lives emerged out of older debates about which ideas should dominate our lives.  And this became the way I understood the world–in order to feel I understand something, I needed to know the context in which it became that way.  I think this kind of historical thinking is true for lots of people, I’m just lucky I get to make my living at it!
JF: What is your next project?
KS: Good question.  I have two books in mind, one that keeps me in the 1960s and one that moves me to the 1970s.  The 1960s book will likely be about another major figure, one who is a minor but important player in Buckley and Mailer but whose ideas captivated me the more I learned about them.  The 1970s book will be about the intellectual requirements of economic inequality, although I’m not sure how that book will develop.  Either way, they will be narratives, as I learned that I absolutely love to tell stories.
JF: Thanks, Kevin.  Look forward to reading it!

"Moore Engaging" Interview with William F. Buckley

If you are not familiar with Dave Moore’s web show “Moore Engaging” you should definitely check it out.  I highly recommend the episode in which Dave interviews William F. Buckley.  (The interview appears to be about ten or twelve years old). Moore does a great job.  I don’t know a great deal about Buckley, but Moore tells me that in this interview he talked about things that he has never discussed publicly before.

Buckley talks about how he writes and (briefly) how George Will and Arthur Schlesinger Jr. writes. He says that if anyone wants to know who he really is, they should read Nearer My God, Cruising Speed, and Overdrive.  He defends his propensity to use big words, discusses his background, speaks candidly about his Christian faith, and reflects on some of his books, including God and Man at Yale. And that is only in the first twenty minutes. Check it out:

Moore Engaging William F. Buckley from Clover Carroll on Vimeo.