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Jeffrey Hart Interview

Jeffrey Hart calls me Tuesday 7:30 am, February 28, 2005, after I emailed him for an interview about his new book The Making Of The American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.

Jeffrey: "I got your email of course.

"This thing is off. What should we do? What are you telling me?"

Luke: "If any of these questions interest you, I'd like to get your answers."

Jeffrey: "OK. Go ahead."

Luke: "What did you think of George Will's review Sunday?"

Jeffrey: "It was OK as far as it went, but his main thesis was that Mr. Bartlett and other conservatives disagree with Bush on one thing or another. I suppose that if he wanted to list mine, his column space would not be long enough."

Luke: "What did you love and what did you hate about writing this book?"

Jeffrey: "I liked what I learned. I decided to organize it on the sequence of [presidential] administrations from the time the magazine started in November of 1955.

"To establish the different administrations, I tried to get the best of current historian's account of them. For example, Fred I. Greenstein's book, The Hidden-Hand Presidency: Eisenhower as Leader... I learned that rather than the kindly Eisenhower, he was actually ruthless and highly organized, as one might expect from someone who pulled off D-day and chased the Wehrmacht across the Rhine. To end the fighting in Korea, he sent a message through New Delhi threatening the Chinese with nuclear warfare. The fighting stopped.

"As an administrator, he made tough decisions. He didn't support the French in Indochina/Vietnam. He did not support the British and French empires in the [1956] Suez crisis. When he heard wrong intelligence that Kruschev was planning to send 100,000 volunteers to the Mid-East, he said, amusingly, out loud 'I guess we'll have to drop a whole bucket [of nuclear weapons] on them.'

"He did nothing about the Hungary crisis because the Russians had complete air and land superiority. Hungary was landlocked.

"He was a successful president. He had three years of budget surplus. He started the interstate highway system. He was strong on national defense. There were the U2 spy flights over the Soviet Union and the Polaris missile which could be fired from the bottom of the ocean, the nuclear navy.

"The great presidents of the 20th Century were Franklin Roosevelt, Eisenhower and Reagen.

"Reagen kicked the rotten barrel of the Soviet Union and saw it collapse without firing a shot, as Margaret Thatcher said.

"National Review was interesting as it commented week-by-week as things developed. It wasn't easy to do that as they haven't read the books I've read. Hell for a periodical journalist might be to read editorials a year later. I found it an engaging magazine from the beginning, full of interesting and colorful characters who collided on various issues."

Luke: "Was there a golden age for the magazine?"

Jeffrey: "As long as James Burnham was there. He became sick about 1980. Eventually he developed cancer. He was a big loss. The disappearance of Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendall..."

Luke: "What did you think of Ann Coulter's falling out with National Review?"

Jeffrey: "I'm not sure what Ann Coulter did."

Luke: "She submitted a column that said we should invade Islamic countries, kill their leaders, and convert the populations to Christianity [at the point of a sword]."

Jeffrey: "I didn't know that. No wonder there was a falling out. That's not desirable at all. Where does she write?"

Luke: "She's written a bunch of best seller such as Slander."

Jeffrey: "I look at Drudge once in a while on the internet and there's a bunch of columnists listed and she's one of them."

Luke: "How active are you with National Review today?"

Jeffrey: "I'm still a senior editor. I'm mostly at home on the computer. I disagree with the magazine on a number of important points."

Luke: "What are your most important disagreements with National Review?"

Jeffrey: "Iraq, stem cell research. I don't believe it is wise to try to ban abortion. In general, the Wilsonian policy [trying to remake the world] of the Bush administration and the evangelical base that keeps him in power. Many of the evangelicals are often wrong, even about the Bible. They have no biblical scholarship. Some even think the universe was created in six days. On most social issues, they are wrong. They are against birth control.

"Bill Buckley wrote a column [Feb 24] saying that [the Iraq invasion] did not work. He says that the animosities between the different groups in Iraq are too strong for us to bridge them. That is why Saddam ruled with an iron fist. That's the way you keep a country like that together. Saddam was corrupt.

"I thought Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then I supported [the American-led invasion]. Now I find that many of those claims were not only incorrect, but possibly fabricated."

Luke: "What grade would you give the Bush administration?"

Jeffrey: "He's the worst president in American history. I've been reading about James Buchanan. He wasn't bad. He was just trapped in a situation where civil war was inevitable."

Luke: "Where do you come from religiously?"

Jeffrey: "I became a Catholic in 1968. I accept the Catholic metaphysics. The creed. They have struck out since the early Renaissance on too many issues of ethics in this world starting from taking interest on money, on cadaver disections, smallpox vacinations, the syllabus of errors, just war theory. The Church has no theory of social change or the interaction of science with human behavior. I see that [Pope] Benedict came out this morning against invitro-fertilization because too many fertilized cells, what he calls embryos, are wasted. That's true, but in natural fertilization, a lot of cells are wasted."

Luke: "What is your position in brief on stem cell research?"

Jeffrey: "I'm all for it."

Luke: "Anything that will enhance human life?"

Jeffrey: "Sure. I don't think a dozen cells are the equivalent of a child with diabetes or an adult with parkinson's."

Luke: "Are there any prominent religious Muslim intellectuals in the American conservative movement?"

Jeffrey: "I can't name any."

Luke: "How well do you get along with your peers?"

Jeffrey: "There's been some friction but not about my views, but about the independent student newspaper The Dartmouth Review, which has been aggressive. I think it's OK if it's aggressive. They're students. If they do something sophomoric, well, they're sophomores. The college financially supports papers that are much more aggressive than The Dartmouth Review. There's The Women's Review, which keeps changing the spelling of 'women.' There's Black Praxis, The Dartmouth Free Press. The Dartmouth Review raises its own money."

Luke: "What's your position on legalizing drugs?"

Jeffrey: "Libertarian except that experts tell me that crack cocaine causes people to be violent. I don't see why anybody should worry about marijuana."

Luke: "What's your position on legalizing prostitution?"

Jeffrey: "I don't think it should be done. I've had [conversational] debates about that with Milton Friedman. He says that if you catch a disease from a prostitute, you can sue. I can't see Teddy Kennedy suing Suzy Q in court."

Luke: "Does society have an interest in promoting heterosexual marriage and stigmatizing other forms of sexual expression?"

Jeffrey: "Certainly government doesn't. There are tax exemptions for couples who have kids, which is OK."

Luke: "Do you think gay marriage is cool?"

Jeffrey: "I don't think the term 'marriage' should be applied but I support civil unions."

Luke: "What about if a brother and sister of adult age wanted to have a civil union?"

Jeffrey: "I haven't thought about that. Is this really an issue?"

Luke: "It illuminates greater issues."

Jeffrey: "I'm probably against it on traditional grounds -- that it has never been approved of and probably shouldn't be."

Luke: "Do you think John Lennon was a poet?"

Jeffrey: "I've never read anything he wrote. A couple of serious people have said that Bob Dylan was a good poet. I haven't gotten into it."

Luke: "What do you think of the Fox News channel?"

Jeffrey: "Of what?"

Luke: "Fox News. It's a conservative counterpart to CNN.

"Have you heard of the book Southpark Conservatives or the idea behind it?"

Jeffrey: "No."

Luke: "Would you say that Joseph Sobran and Patrick Buchanan are antisemitic?"

Jeffrey: "No. But some of the things they said could be taken that way. Pat's a good friend of mine. Of course I don't think he's anti-semitic.

"In his newspaper column, Joseph Sobran recommended a far-out magazine called [Insaturation], which was definitely anti-Semitic and anti-black. That was strange that he found some insight in that. It might've been true insight. But collectively the magazine was far beyond acceptability. And a few other things like that.

"I know that Joe has plenty of Jewish friends. I don't know what is going on there."

Sobran, who spent 21 years at the National Review, lectures to the Institute for Historical Review, which is obsessed with denying the Holocaust.

[Jeffrey writes me later about Sobran lecturing to the IHR: "This would really be a Rake's Progress."]

Luke: "Has he been marginalized from the conservative movement?"

Joseph: "I'm not aware of him much. The National Review kept a file of his columns. I'm not sure it still exists."

Luke: "Have there been any antisemites in prominent positions at National Review?"

Joseph: "No."

Luke: "Is the publication good for the Jews?"

Jeffrey: "I think so. Good for anybody. It presents its view literately and I don't think it is hostile to any group on ethnic or religious grounds."

Luke: "How do people at National Review and how do you view the chapter on race in the book The Bell Curve?"

Jeffrey: "The National Review had a symposium on that when the book came out. Psychometrically it's a commonplace that blacks score 15 [IQ points behind (on the mean average) whites who are about 15 IQ points behind asians].

"No one is saying that this is immensely important in any sense. It's a fact. If you lack five IQ points on somebody, it does not mean you will accomplish less."

Luke: "Have you noticed that the public and private positions of people in the National Review crowd differ on race? With ordinary people, the things we say privately about race are very different from what we'd like to see quoted in The New York Times."

Jeffrey: "No. I've been around the place for years and I've never heard anybody... Frank Meyer was Jewish. He had a deathbed conversion to Catholicism. The religion editor for years was Will Herberg (Jewish theologian)."

Luke: "Are we able to have a honest public discourse on race today in America?"

Jeffrey: "I'm not sure. It depends on who's doing the discourse."

Luke: "Do you feel comfortable publishing your thoughts on race?"

Jeffrey: "I don't have any trouble. I think people of different races are all American."

Luke: "Do you notice any differences in behavior between conservative and liberal intellectuals?"

Jeffrey: "No. Behavior in America is basically a matter of class."

Luke: "Are most of your friends conservative?"

Jeffrey: "Not most of my faculty friends."

Luke: "Bill Buckley..."

Jeffrey: "He's fascinated by people with a different point of view. He has the impulse of an impresario presenting a lot of people he doesn't entirely agree with. Most conservatives internalize a lot of these things -- they're a little bit individualist, a little bit libertarian, some are traditionalists. So they can sympathize with various points of view."

Luke: "What do you think of the magazine today?"

Jeffrey: "It has less internal controversy and is less interesting for that reason. Without the internal controversy, it can go wrong, as it has gone badly wrong on Iraq. There should've been someone around saying, 'Wait a minute. This place has three mutually antagonistic elements. It's full of religious fanatics.'

"I can imagine a tough authoritarian like Kemal Ataturk smashing the whole structure and reconstructing it on another basis. I don't think we're prepared as a nation to do that."

Luke: "What do you think of the string of conservative pundits who've been found taking payola?"

Jeffrey: "It's bad."

Luke: "What do you think of the influence of rap on our culture?"

Jeffrey: "Probably bad but I am not well acquainted with it. The stuff where they talk about hos and whores and violence, it is not only a reflection but an encouragement to a culture of violence."

Luke: "How would you gauge the internet's affect on political and philosophical discourse?"

Jeffrey: "Up to a certain extent, excellent, but it can be time-consuming if you get trapped by it.

"I've got to get going towards a lunch date."

Bush Policies Deformed By Christian Extremism

Jeffrey Hart writes:

During the 2004 presidential election perhaps the most scandalous of these arose as an issue in the campaign, stem-cell research. In August 2001, Bush issued an executive order banning federal funding for such research involving fertilized cells created after 2001. This severely inhibited research which had indeed proved promising. Bush claimed to have issued his order for "moral reasons," but all the moral reasons seem to support the research.

The fertilized cells in question are left over and frozen in fertility clinics, in fact doubly doomed because frozen and with a finite shelf-life, and also because a fertilized cell will not develop unless implanted in a woman. Instead of wasting them, why not use them to, it seems possible, treat an entire array of dreadful diseases? One opponent of the research put the objection crisply: such cells "must not be destroyed no matter how noble the cause." It seemed clear that Bush's objection to the research was driven by his Evangelical base, indefensible as his position was.

Other Bush-inspired policies with severe implications for public health began to form a list as long as your arm. In fact, despite their potentiality for real harm, they possess a comical sort of zaniness. As reported in The Washington Post, they include:

* Information about safe sex was removed from the Centers for Disease Control Web site.

* The scandal that the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research prohibited over-the-counter sale of a "morning after" contraceptive as encouraging promiscuity and thus spreading disease -- clearly outside the mandate of the FDA. The New England Journal of Medicine described this as a political decision, which of course it was.

* The fact that the Bush administration has devoted millions to faith-based organizations promoting abstinence, but in doing so telling flagrant lies: that condoms fail to prevent HIV 31 percent of the time during heterosexual intercourse (3 percent is accurate); that abortion leads to sterility (elective abortion does not); that touching a person's genitals can cause pregnancy; that HIV can be spread through sweat and tears; that a 43-day-old fetus is a "thinking person"; and that half of gay teenagers have AIDS. Some grants for faith-based programs stipulate that condoms be discussed only in connection with their failure.

You would think that such Halloween science would be impossible in federally funded programs. Isn't bearing false witness prohibited by the Ten Commandments? But, as we see, Evangelicals make up their own scripture. And this is the Bush administration.

* Then there was that book the federal bookstore at the Grand Canyon was obliged to carry, maintaining that the Grand Canyon was caused by Noah's Flood. Geology shows that the canyon took millions of years to form by erosion. No problem. Geology is wrong.

The saints, they are marchin' in. H.L. Mencken, where are you when we need you? But some of that represents the comic side of the Bush administration. No one should be laughing about its stem-cell policy. Welcome to Evangelical Land. Today, it's us.

The Making Of The American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times

George Will writes in The NYT Book Review:

For more than three decades, [Jeffrey Peter] Hart, an emeritus professor of English at Dartmouth, has been a senior editor of National Review. There he has seen, and helped to referee, conservatism's struggles of self-definition. His book is a gossipy memoir leavened by a quick skimming of 50 years of political history. "I confess," he says, "to a fondness for gossip, which, indeed, is a conservative genre. Gossips do not want to change the world; they want to enjoy it."