soul of conservatismFew things reveal the degraded state of “conservatism” in America more than the recent, seven-minute exchange between Bill O’Reilly and George Will. What the two fought about really matters very little. To set the context, suffice it to state the debate had to do with the attempt on Ronald Reagan’s life and how well Mr. O’Reilly researched and interpreted the event in his seemingly ubiquitous book (which is featured at Costco and Wal-Mart as well as at bookstores), Killing Reagan.

Mr. Will, along with a number of other prominent conservatives, such as Steve Hayward (author of a two-volume biography of Ronald Reagan), have savaged Mr. O’Reilly’s book. In particular, those attacking Mr. O’Reilly despise his contention that Reagan’s dementia began soon after John Hinckley shot him. As someone who has spent a considerable amount of time studying the Reagan presidency, I can state without even a hint of equivocation that Reagan’s mental faculties did not decline after the attempt. If anything, Reagan’s physical, emotional, and mental abilities and faculties sharpened. He continued to read as much as he ever had (which was a lot), and he worked out so much after the attempt on his life that he added a full two inches to his chest.

Working for him, I saw he was no dullard, as his critics claimed. From his eight years as governor and his many other years of writing and speaking out, he had thought his way through most domestic issues and knew how to make a complex governmental structure work in his favor. In the first year of his presidency, I also saw him dive into the details of the federal revenue code and become an authority as he negotiated with Congress. When he wanted to focus, he had keen powers of concentration and could digest large bodies of information. He was also one of the most disciplined men I have seen in the presidency (much more so than Clinton, for example), sot that he worked straight through the day, reading papers and checking off meetings on his list. At day’s end, headed off for a workout and would plow through more papers in the evening in the upstairs residence. He made the presidency look easy in part by keeping a strict regimen. He also had a retentive mind. After years of memorizing scripts in Hollywood, he would recall verbatim a lot of what he had read. He recited Robert Service poems as well as he did jokes. [David Gergen, Eyewitness to Power, 197]

For this essay, however, I am not interested in entering the particulars of this debate, beyond this brief observation; rather, I would like to comment on the larger phenomenon that I see occurring at Fox and elsewhere.

The exchange between Messrs. O’Reilly and Will was so brutal that, of course, news media across the country picked up the story. One of the most interesting stories comes from Salon, which ran this byline: “Killing Reagan battle is really for the soul of the GOP. Too bad both sides are grifters and hacks.”

Salon is absolutely right. The battle is for the “soul.” But, not in the way Salon means it. The website understands it as a fight between the moderates (Mr. Will) and extremists (Mr. O’Reilly) for control of the party.

In reality, the fight is a fight about the old guard (moderate, conservative, or otherwise) acting with dignity and the new guard (moderate, conservative, or otherwise) hoping to bully its way into the mainstream of the conservative movement. By old guard, I do not mean age. Mr. Will is only eight years older than O’Reilly, and not enough to make them of different generations. By old guard, I do not mean educationally, either. Each is a product of the Ivy League. Regionally, there is a difference as Mr. Will grew up in Chicago, while Mr. O’Reilly grew up on the East Coast.

Russell Kirk

Russell Kirk

By old guard, I mean those who wish to approach the most important subjects of the world with reason and deliberation. These are the Russell Kirks, the Leo Strausses, the Eric Voegelins, and Robert Nisbets. The new guard are those who use the media not to promote conservatism, but to sell it, searching for an ever-broadening base of consumers. For the sake of argument, let us leave these people nameless. They tend to be very loud and very plastic, and my guess is that you, The Imaginative Conservative readers, could list them instantly. These are the “conservatives” who use their media access to denounce the liberal arts and the classics, demean women and minorities, and spew their hatred against all who disagree with them. They don’t converse, they scream. They talk in the language of bullet points and bumper stickers. And perhaps most importantly, they never listen.

As scholar John Willson so wisely cautions, in recognizing that Mr. O’Reilly is a bully, one should not canonize Mr. Will. Frankly, I am not a huge fan of either, and I find each somewhat lacking in his own personal life as well as in his thinking. Neither has lead an exceptionally virtuous life, and Mr. Will labels himself a soft atheist. All well and good: Mr. Will can believe or not, but I am not willing to designate such a person the current leader of conservatism. Still, whatever Mr. Will’s faults and gifts, he has always approached the public arena with dignity. He has always been a gentleman.

So, yes, the battle is over the soul of conservatism, as Salon explained. To me, though, if a conservative consistently behaves badly, he really is not a conservative. A true conservative behaves with dignity—for his own sake, for that of his opponent, for the movement. The brashness of certain commentators who label themselves conservative is nothing more than the revelation of snake oil salesmen. They might well be able to sell themselves and their ideas to the lowest common denominator, but they will never conserve what must be conserved and bequeath to our children what must be bequeathed. They will sell only snake oil.

Books by Bradley Birzer may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. His newest book, Russell Kirk: American Conservative, recently arrived on bookshelves.

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