Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Mt. Vernon Is No Sharon

The Interwebs are abuzz with chatter about a conservative manifesto, to be released tomorrow (Wednesday) and called "the Mount Vernon Statement" because it will be ceremonially signed near George Washington's plantation in Northern Virginia.  CBS News, the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Politico, Human Events, Fox News, RadioVice Online, LifeNews, Free Republic, People for the American Way's Right Wing Watch, Logistics Monster, and The American Spectator are just a few of the news outlets and blogs that have reported and commented, prospectively, on the declaration.

Drafters and organizers of the Mount Vernon Statement are keeping a tight lid on it and have embargoed its unveiling until after the ceremony.  A few lines have leaked out, but these are not enough to determine the full scope of the statement, which is scheduled to coincide with the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, opening on Thursday.

Chris Good reported the names of some of the signatories in Marc Armbinder's "Politics" blog on The Atlantic's web site last week:
Some key conservative luminaries will be in attendance at the Collingwood Library and Museum in Alexandria, VA (an original part of George Washington's Mount Vernon properties): Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform, Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council, David Keene of the American Conservative Union, former Reagan policy adviser Kenneth T. Cribb, Kenneth Blackwell of Coalition for a Conservative Majority, and Federalist Society co-founder David McIntosh.
The Mount Vernon Statement's own web site expands on this list in what looks like a news release:
The proceedings will be led by former U.S. Attorney General Ed Meese, senior statesman of the conservative movement. He will be joined by more than 80 national grassroots conservative leaders representing tens of millions of conservative activists including: Edwin Feulner, president of the Heritage Foundation; Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Becky Norton Dunlop, president of the Council for National Policy; Brent Bozell, president of the Media Research Center; Alfred Regnery, publisher of the American Spectator; David Keene, president of the American Conservative Union; Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America; David McIntosh, co-founder of the Federalist Society; T. Kenneth Cribb, former domestic policy adviser to President Reagan; Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform; William Wilson, President, Americans for Limited Government; Elaine Donnelly, Center for Military Readiness; Richard Viguerie, Chairman, ConservativeHQ.com, Kenneth Blackwell, Coalition for a Conservative Majority; Colin Hanna, President, Let Freedom Ring and Kathryn J. Lopez, National Review and many others.
Ben Smith notes in Politico that
[Former Reagan administration attorney general Edwin] Meese said the statement is intended to "restate" and "update" the Sharon Statement, a 1960 manifesto of the group Young Americans for Freedom on the limits of government and evil of Communism published in William F. Buckley's National Review, which many view as a founding document of modern conservatism.
Indeed, the Mount Vernon Statement press release (referenced above) makes this claim explicitly:
The Sharon Statement, signed at the home of William F. Buckley, Jr., in Sharon, Connecticut in September 1960, helped launch and define the conservative movement that led to the recruitment, development and election of numerous conservative leaders who have held positions in public office and public trust at all stations from town councils to President of the United States. The Sharon Statement can be viewed here.
Even having not seen the new Mount Vernon Statement, I have to say that this preening comparison with the Sharon Statement claims both too much and too little.

The most glaring contrast between the two is this: The publicized signers of the Mount Vernon Statement are all leaders of the conservative Establishment. Most are more than 50 years old; some are in their late 60s and early 70s.  A number of them are old enough to have been at Sharon or, like Richard Viguerie, got their first job in politics shortly after, and as a result of, the Sharon Conference.

The organizers of the series of meetings that culminated in the gathering at the home of Buckley family in Connecticut in September 1960 were nearly all college-age (if not actually college students) and were Young Turks who were rebelling against the Establishment of their day (the Eisenhower-Nixon wing of the Republican party).

John L. Kelley summarizes in his 1997 book, Bringing the Market Back In: The Political Revitalization of Market Liberalism:
More than 100 young conservatives from over 44 colleges had assembled at Buckley's Sharon, Connecticut, home in September 1960 to draft the "Sharon Statement." The Statement characterized the times as one of "moral and political crisis" when liberty was threatened internally by an overweening central government exceeding its Constitutionally-sanctioned functions and threatened externally by the "forces of international Communism [which] are, at present, the greatest threat to these liberties."
For those who don't know, or don't remember, the Sharon Conference was the founding meeting of Young Americans for Freedom. The late Marvin Liebman offered some background on Sharon in his 1992 memoir, Coming Out Conservative: A Founder of the Modern Conservative Movement Speaks Out on Personal Freedom, Homophobia, and Hate Politics:
The precursor organization to the YAF began to take shape the day after the 1960 convention, when the executive committee of Youth for Goldwater and about six or seven other young conservative activists met in the Columbia Room of the Pick-Congress with [former New Jersey Governor Charles] Edison and me. The old man spoke. He wasn’t Goldwater, he wasn’t Buckley, but he was a hero to them. Edison urged them to keep in touch with each other through some sort of committee of correspondence, similar to that of our own Revolutionary War. He told them that, like the colonists in the l770s, they also had a chance to make a revolution. Edison gave the rallying cry!

In just a little over a month, working out of my New York office and using all the facilities I could provide—mimeograph machine, clerical help, postage meter, mailing house and, most important, money— [Douglas] Caddy, with the help of a few others, set about starting a new organization. They contacted students all over the country—even over the summer recess—and invited them to attend a conference over the weekend of September 9 to 11.

I suggested to Bill Buckley that we have the meeting at Great Elm, the Buckley family home in Sharon, Connecticut. After discussing the logistics with his mother and sisters (it is no small thing to have fifty or more college kids over for a weekend, even for a family with ten children and countless grandchildren), it was agreed, when I assured them that nothing would be damaged.

The Buckley name was a substantial lure. Coordinating the logistics with Bill and his sisters Priscilla, Aloise, and Jane, I organized the meeting. An Interim Committee for a National Conservative Youth Organization was set up in my office under the direction of Caddy.

About ninety activists representing forty-four colleges and universities from twenty-four states made their way to Sharon on chartered buses and on their own. The very first gathering was in the large central hall, the Patio, in Great Elm, with the entire Buckley family, the National Review editors, and all ninety students in attendance. Those of us present from the older generation -- Frank Meyer, Charles Edison, Brent Bozell, Bill Rusher, Buckley, and I -- resolved to give no advice -- unless it was asked for and to keep our mouths shut, which was extremelydifficult for such an articulate group.

The young activists had already started wheeling, dealing, and politicking M. Stanton Evans, one of the older “youths” (at twenty-six!) was busy drafting a statement of their aims and aspirations. This came to be known as the Sharon Statement. Bill Buckley made some editorial changes, and the statement was adopted by the conference as was the name Young Americans for Freedom. Bill Rusher recalled “I remember not liking the acronym (YAF) much—and liking it even less when Liebman . . . became the first to point out this made the rest of us ‘Old Americans for Freedom’ or ‘OAFs.”

Charles Edison was in his glory. This was everything he had ever hoped for. I took great personal satisfaction in this because I loved him and felt this was all a fitting gift and tribute to the work he had done.

While Bill Buckley was speaking at the first event, Edison and I were sitting on the balcony that surrounds the patio. Next to us was Bill’s sister Aloise Heath. Her beloved and elderly dog, Boykie, was given to fits of panting—as was Governor Edison. Edison was sitting on a low stool, panting away, and Aloise softly patted him on the head and said absent-mindedly, “Now be quiet.” Edison, chastised, did as he was bid and ceased panting.

Edison was quite deaf and used a hearing aid, a box he held and aimed at the person who was speaking. When one of the kids was speaking a mile-a-minute to Edison, the governor held out his hearing aid trying to get the words. “No thanks, governor,” said the young conferee, “I don’t smoke!” Edison turned off his machine, and just smiled blandly through the rest of the conversation.

In the ten months following the weekend conference at Sharon, Young Americans for Freedom, working out of my office at 79 Madison Avenue and with an advisory board I made up of every conservative VIP I could think of, became an overwhelming success. Over 180 young conservative clubs sprang up on the nation’s campuses. Widespread publicity in major newspapers and magazines focused on the formation of YAF chapters.

In March 1961, YAF began publishing its monthly magazine, The New Guard. The same month we staged the first YAF National Awards Rally in Manhattan Center, which seated 3,200 people inside; more than 5,000 were turned away from the doors. The main speaker of the evening was Barry Goldwater. Awards went to Bill Buckley, Ambassador George K. C. Yeh of the Republic of China (I was still looking after my old friends), and the columnist George Sokolsky. YAF even set up its own front organizations: the Committee for an Effective Peace Corps, and the Student Committee for a Free Cuba.

Bill Buckley and I were impressed by YAF’s rapid growth, early achievements, and dedication. “What is so striking in the students who met at Sharon,” Buckley wrote, “is their appetite for power. Ten years ago, the struggle seemed so long, so endless, even, that we did not dream of victory. . . . It is quixotic to say that they or their elders have seized the reins of history. But the difference in psychological attitude is tremendous.”

YAF was doing so well that even I began to lose interest. I loved to start organizations, but got bored when it came to running them. This one was already running under its own steam. And although I tried staying out of the limelight, my role in the organization was beginning to receive criticism. In his Rise of the Right, Bill Rusher gently chastised me by saying, “Liebman . . . had innocently fallen into the role of a sort of rich and adoring uncle who could deny these youngsters nothing, unwittingly spoiling a number of them badly.” That was the story of my life then: the rich and adoring uncle to all the bright young men.
Franklin & Marshall College history professor John A. Andrew III elaborates on this background in his 1997 book, The Other Side of the Sixties:  Young Americans for Freedom and the Rise of Conservative Politics.  (Andrew cites Liebman's book in his footnotes.)
Members of the Youth for Goldwater effort in Chicago, along with a few Nixon supporters and others who had pushed Walter Judd’s name forward for vice president, moved quickly to maintain their momentum. The Judd for Vice President headquarters in the Pick Congress Hotel had adjoined that of Youth for Goldwater. Marvin Liebman, friend to William F. Buckley Jr. and public relations guru for many right-wing causes during the 1950s, had organized the Judd efforts. During the course of the convention both Liebman and Buckley (who was in Chicago to cover the convention for National Review) met Youth for Goldwater leaders. David Franke and Douglas Caddy particularly impressed them, and they took the two under their wing. Franke became an intern at National Review, while Caddy joined Liebman’s public relations firm. As the convention ended, Liebman and former New Jersey governor Charles Edison met with the executive committee of Youth for Goldwater and a few other conservative activists in the Columbia Room of the Pick Congress Hotel. They urged Caddy and his colleagues to unite conservative students in a formal organization, and Edison contributed $500 to further the cause.

Within days an Interim Comittee for a National Conservative Youth Organization sprang into existence. Members included James Abstine, Douglas Caddy, Robert Croll, David Franke, George Gaines, Robert Harley, James Kolbe, Richard Noble, Suzanne Regnery, Clendenin Ryan, Scott Stanley, John Weicher, and Brian Whelan. Although they met in Chicago, only Weicher, Whelan, and Regnery were from the immediate area. Caddy and Franke called New York City home; the rest of the Interim Committee came from Indiana, Illinois, Louisiana, the District of Columbia, Arizona, California, New Jersey, and Kansas. On August 16 they issued a call for a meeting to be held at Great Elm, the Buckley family estate in Sharon, Connecticut, September 9—il. This invitation to an “initial organizing effort” went out to 120 “outstanding youth leaders across the Nation” who were known “to be active and influential Conservatives.” Franke and Caddy had found many of them during their loyalty oath efforts earlier in the year. Others had written letters to Human Events or the Young Republican National Federation. They formed the nucleus of the Sharon delegates.
Andrew quotes the call to the conference, sent out to potential participants, which is further evidence of the youth-orientation of Sharon (even more, perhaps, than Liebman's quip about "OAFs").
America stands at the crossroads today. Will our Nation continue to follow the path towards socialism or will we turn towards Conservatism and freedom? The final answer to this question lies with America’s youth. Will our youth be more conservative or more liberal in future years? You can help determine the answer to this question.

Now is the time for Conservative youth to take action to make their full force and influence felt. By action we mean political action! An inter-collegiate society for Conservative youth has been in operation for several years and has been most successful in bringing about a Conservative intellectual revival on the campus. Many feel that now is the time to organize a complementary nationwide youth movement which would be designed almost solely for political action—implementing and coordinating the aspirations of Conservative youth into a dynamic and effective political force.
The text of the Sharon Statement has a heavily libertarian core, something apparent from its first three substantive clauses:
That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual's use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force;

That liberty is indivisible, and that political freedom cannot long exist without economic freedom;

That the purpose of government is to protect those freedoms through the preservation of internal order, the provision of national defense, and the administration of justice;
This libertarian core should come as no surprise. As Ronald Reagan, who benefited more from the success of Young Americans for Freedom than any other politician, once told Reason magazine:
If you analyze it I believe the very heart and soul of conservatism is libertarianism. I think conservatism is really a misnomer just as liberalism is a misnomer for the liberals–if we were back in the days of the Revolution, so-called conservatives today would be the Liberals and the liberals would be the Tories. The basis of conservatism is a desire for less government interference or less centralized authority or more individual freedom and this is a pretty general description also of what libertarianism is.

Now, I can’t say that I will agree with all the things that the present group who call themselves Libertarians in the sense of a party say, because I think that like in any political movement there are shades, and there are libertarians who are almost over at the point of wanting no government at all or anarchy. I believe there are legitimate government functions. There is a legitimate need in an orderly society for some government to maintain freedom or we will have tyranny by individuals. The strongest man on the block will run the neighborhood. We have government to insure that we don’t each one of us have to carry a club to defend ourselves. But again, I stand on my statement that I think that libertarianism and conservatism are travelling the same path.
The Sharon Statement is a lean document. It smartly and successfully walked a narrow path so that all the various factions and wings of the conservative movement could assent to it. John Andrew quotes Stan Evans as later saying that the idea of the Sharon Statement "was to get a declaration which was broadly representative but internally coherent."

Of course, to find such a statement, one may have to look no farther than Barry Goldwater, whose leadership behind the scenes inspired Sharon in the first place. Goldwater said in the first few pages of Conscience of a Conservative:
I have little interest in streamlining government or in making it more efficient, for I mean to reduce its size. I do not undertake to promote welfare, for I propose to extend freedom. My aim is not to pass laws, but to repeal them. It is not to inaugurate new programs, but to cancel old ones that do violence to the Constitution, or that have failed in their purpose, or that impose on the people an unwarranted financial burden. I will not attempt to discover whether legislation is 'needed' before I have first determined whether it is constitutionally permissible. And if I should later be attacked for neglecting my constituents' interests, I shall reply that I was informed their main interest is liberty and that in that cause I am doing the very best I can.
My fear about the as-yet-unseen Mt. Vernon Statement is that it will, unlike the Sharon Statement, incorporate as "principles" divisive views on social issues.  The presence of Tony Perkins, for instance, who is head of the anti-gay Family Research Council, and of Wendy Wright, president of the anti-gay Concerned Women for America, and Elaine Donnelly of the anti-gay Center for Military Readiness, among the list of signers suggests that this might be the case.

A good many of the signers of the Sharon Statement and its organizers were (and, those still alive, are) gay.  These include Marvin Liebman, Richard Cowan (former national director of NORML), and former Congressman Jim Kolbe.  Another prominent gay conservative, former Congressman Bob Bauman, although he was not at Sharon (his wife, Carol, was there), became the first president of Young Americans for Freedom.  One wonders whether the product of the Mount Vernon "movement" (if it can be called that) would be acceptable to these men and others, or if the Mount Vernon organizers would close the "big tent" to them.

We will find that out tomorrow.

To return to my original point, however, it is hubris for the Mount Vernon Statement organizers to hook their reputation to the star of the Sharon Statement.  That small conference 50 years ago launched a movement whose successes can hardly be measured.  (The only comparable meeting might be the first gathering of the Mont Pelerin Society about a dozen years earlier.)  Moreover, for conservative movement veterans -- many of them comfortably ensconced in leadership positions in well-established institutions with multimillion-dollar budgets -- to compare themselves the the hungry, motivated, and youthful organizers of Sharon simply boggles the mind (and I say this as someone who is closer in age to the Sharon generation than today's Young Republicans or College Libertarians).

The Mount Vernon Statement may turn out to be readable, something to argue about, maybe even inspiring to some people.  I hardly expect it will spark a revolution, however.

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2 comments:

Dave Nalle said...

Great analysis, Rick. Perhaps it's time for leaders of the liberty wing of the GOP to get together and issue a manifesto which represents their beliefs to counter the Mt. Vernon Statement.

robbie said...

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