As an undergraduate in 1960 preparing to cast my first presidential vote for Richard Nixon, a graduate-student friend suggested the only responsible Republicans were liberal. Why, I wondered, was the brilliant William F. Buckley Jr. the lone conservative taken seriously in those days? I read his clever columns, with a dictionary at the ready, watched him dispatch opponents on television with relative ease and perused his provocative journal, National Review.
Twelve years later my first freelance piece appeared in NR, and I continued writing for him and other publications after becoming an editorial writer for The Detroit News in 1982. Several years after I retired from the San Diego Union-Tribune in 2004, we exchanged letters before he died. I thanked him for launching my writing career and for composing a generous letter of recommendation to Hillsdale College for our oldest son. His gracious reply remains a prized possession along with his notes of thanks for pieces I wrote.
This conservative icon, who was a genuinely decent guy, was very much on my mind when I wrote “Creators of politics as a blood sport” (Forum, June 14) that keelhauled right-wing political demagogues. I have long lamented the glaring contrast between Buckley’s intellectual civility with today’s hate-merchants who have hijacked the conservative movement.
Several of my critical respondents concluded I was a lefty leading my college students astray. Or as Buckley used to quip: “Colleges and universities are liberal laundromat for unwashed minds.” To the contrary, I routinely provoke my students to think for themselves and challenge their assumptions about liberals and conservatives alike. I insist they consider a wide range of sources, including the satirical shows on Comedy Central, and then make up their own minds.
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Sadly, the satire of Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert will be missing as we face another presidential election that could be the most venomous ever. Rush Limbaugh’s thinly veiled misogyny will kick into overdrive if Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee. His disciples will doubtless display tasteless bumper stickers and push nasty narratives like those they shouted about Barack Obama being a Kenyan Muslim terrorist sympathizer determined to destroy this country.
Speaking of irrational narratives, Rush claims that segregationist Southern Democrats of yore should be blamed for the Confederate flag flap, failing to mention that their racist heirs have solidified the radical-right GOP base ever since Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act a year later. He also fails to note that Nixon’s cynical “southern strategy” in 1968 exploited that resentment that has transformed the party of Lincoln, which liberated black Americans, into a political liability. Add the voter ID laws enacted in some red states clearly intended to suppress that 47 percent that Mitt Romney complained will never vote for us, combined with Fox News blaming the rabble for Obama’s re-election, and it’s little wonder Republican candidates cannot connect with voters of color, let alone women.
The classic conservative Edmund Burke, whom Buckley revered, was distrustful of all ideologies because they often generated destabilizing extremism. Just as the hatefulness from the radical left repelled many Americans and discredited liberalism during the Vietnam era, radical right vitriol has been no less damaging to the current conservative movement. That’s why most Americans, including myself, have opted for the moderate middle. To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “I didn’t leave the conservative side; it left me.”
Alan Miller is a former editorial writer and columnist for The Detroit News and the San Diego Union-Tribune. He currently teaches at American River College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.