Thursday, August 25, 2005

Chattin with Chet

On yesterday's edition of "Fresh Air with Terry Gross" on National Public Radio, after an interview with former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, television critic David Bianculli reviewed a newly released set of DVDs featuring some of the Dick Cavett TV programs from the 1960s and early 1970s, with the shared theme of rock stars appearing as Cavett's guests.

Bianculli highlights one program among three that featured Janis Joplin, in which she was paired "with fellow talk-show guests Chet Huntley, the soon-to-retire serious half of the Huntley-Brinkley Report anchor team on NBC, and Raquel Welch, the sex symbol whose infamous Myra Breckinridge movie had just staged its grand opening in Hollywood."

He is particularly amazed by Chet Huntley's response to a question from Cavett about Huntley's personal political beliefs:

CAVETT: You know, your leaving will unbalance the news world in one sense, because you’re known to be conservative on some things that your colleagues are not. What are some of those?

HUNTLEY: These labels [that] get thrown around – they’re unfortunate, because I look at myself and I don’t know what I am in terms of “conservative” and “liberal.”

I suppose economically I’m an archconservative. My attitudes toward the federal government, the federal structure -- I’m disenchanted like so many other Americans with that. It’s getting too big and cumbersome and unmanageable, filled with self-serving and self-perpetuating bureaucracy and accomplishes too little for our money.

In terms of humanity, in terms of human beings and the racial issue, I suppose I’m a screaming liberal.

In terms of conservation of our natural resources, now here we get into the ultimate confusion. “Conservation,” “conservatism,” coming from the same root word: What are you if you believe in the conservation of our natural resources, are you liberal or conservative? I don’t know, so we get into terrible confusion here with these words.
Bianculli comments:
He may as well have been talking about red states and blue states, and he was doing it 35 years ago, and given the time to make his point in full. That’s what I love most about this DVD set and why it’s definitely worth watching and owning.
Was Huntley a conservative, a moderate, or a libertarian? It's hard to judge from his brief remarks here, but his words point us toward a type of conservative that is not too prominent these days. (Notice he uttered not a syllable about what we now call "social issues," like abortion, gay rights, marriage and divorce, and so forth.) In 1970, "conservation of natural resources" implied a preference for government action -- the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and passage of the Clean Air Act, for instance.

Today, however, we can turn to decades of studies that support free-market environmentalism, using market-based solutions relying on property rights and sound economics to achieve the same aims that the environmentalists of the 1960s and '70s assumed could only be achieved through legislation and regulation.

So if Chet Huntley were alive today, would he be a free-market environmentalist who proudly wears the libertarian, rather than "archconservative," label? Given his stated preference for limited government and "conservative" economics, he would surely be happy to have a market-based alternative to government action for preserving natural resources, especially what he cherished in his beloved Big Sky Country of Montana.

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