Lee Edwards has not just known the greats of post-World War II conservatism, but he has also lived with them, and as one of them…
Celebrating his eighty-fifth year on this earth, Lee Edwards is a remarkable cultural treasure, a man’s man, a gentleman’s gentleman, and a conservative’s conservative. Biographer of Ronald Reagan and of Barry Goldwater, Dr. Edwards has not just known the greats of post-World War II conservatism and libertarianism, he has lived with them, among them, and as one of them. His most recent book, Just Right: A Life in Pursuit of Liberty, movingly and joyfully guides the reader through the ins and outs, the successes and failures, and the dos and don’ts of conservatism. As with the man himself, this autobiography screams hope.
Born into an intelligent and caring family in 1932, Dr. Edwards found himself in France as a struggling literary hopeful in the mid-1950s. Never quite an expatriate, though living on the Left Bank in Paris and drinking too much coffee, the aspiring writer chanced a non-fiction essay and sent it off to William F. Buckley at National Review. Buckley not only liked the essay, he also became intrigued with the author. This, more than anything else, began Dr. Edwards’s career as one of the greats in the Goldwater-Reagan movement.
In a recent lecture sponsored by John J. Miller and the Dow Program in Journalism at Hillsdale College, Dr. Edwards admitted that at the moment Buckley accepted his essay, “Buckley saved me from myself” and, in encouraging a non-fiction writing career, “led me in the right direction.” His first essay, “The Way of All France,” beautifully crafted, appeared on February 1, 1958, in National Review.
A lamentation of sorts, Dr. Edwards worried that the “General Strike” in Paris came not from conviction but from apathy. “Fatalistic acceptance is to be commended in war or in any time of crisis,” he wrote, “but apathy and indifference to ills that can be cured are dangerous symptoms of a dying society.” This essay, the author admitted, might be a prophecy of what is, or, worse, what is to come. “We may live to see the poignant shrug become a final compulsive shudder.”
No wonder Buckley liked the young writer. In his own high praise of Buckley, Dr. Edwards claims that while Buckley could have become “the playboy of the western world, he rather dedicated himself to be the St. Paul of the conservative movement.”
Returning to the United States soon after his National Review piece appeared, Dr. Edwards threw himself into journalism and campaign management. Playing a critical role in the creation of Young Americans for Freedom, the writing of its manifesto, “The Sharon Statement,” and promoting its views in several mass rallies in New York City, Dr. Edwards found himself the director of communications for the Draft Goldwater Committee and, quickly after, the Goldwater presidential campaign.
In his recent speech at Hillsdale College, Dr. Edwards discussed two matters: the three men who built modern conservatism—Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan—and a call for a “new fusionism” of traditionalists, libertarians, and any sane voice not on the ideological left.
In addition to being driven and charismatic, the three founders of modern conservatism, Dr. Edwards told his audience, shared much in common, but nothing more importantly than their love of free will and free enterprise mixed with their pietistic embrace of a loving and eternal God.
His mother a devout Episcopalian, Goldwater had been a faithful acolyte in the Phoenix Episcopal Church. Following his mother’s example, Goldwater never smoked or drank coffee in his life, but he kept a bottle of Old Crow near him, whether in Arizona or D.C. Critically, Dr. Edwards noted, Goldwater never possessed a racist or bigoted bone in his body, and he had de-segregated the Arizona National Guard and happily belonged to the Urban League and the NAACP long before he entered national politics. When Dr. Edwards offered Goldwater advice on publicity in the 1964 presidential campaign, Goldwater reprimanded him to keep out any “Madison Avenue crap,” as this presidential run would be “a campaign of principles not personalities.”
Dr. Edwards came to know Ronald Reagan through the latter’s support of Goldwater and, especially, through his famous “Time for Choosing” speech, which Dr. Edwards believes to have been the “Gettysburg Address of the conservative moment.”
Dr. Edwards and his wife first met Reagan in 1965, getting to spend two full days with him, as Dr. Edwards prepped an essay to be featured in Reader’s Digest. Much to Dr. Edward’s surprise, Reagan’s very modest house was full of books. Indeed, “full” is an understatement, as Reagan’s home had become, essentially, a huge library, filled with books of history, politics, and economics. When he could, Dr. Edwards thumbed through the books. He found their pages dog-eared and full of underlines and marginalia. Hayek’s Road to Serfdom, Chambers’s Witness, Hazlitt’s Economics in One Lesson, and Bastiat’s The Law held prominent places in Reagan’s collection. Reagan came to his own convictions, Dr. Edwards said, “one book at a time” and understood policy only through the prism of a conservative and libertarian philosophy.
After praising these three exemplars of conservatism in his lecture, Dr. Edwards offered his own ideas on how to rebuild the movement in the twenty-first century. Not surprisingly, he called for a “new fusionism,” one to model (but not mimic) the fusionism of the late 1950s and 1960s, which had, he argued, provided conservatism its greatest and most lasting successes through Buckley, Goldwater, and Reagan. A new fusionism, he believes, will do the same.
In the new fusionism, Dr. Edwards explained, conservatives and libertarians must recognize and understand the greatest external threat to the West: Jihadism. Equally important, conservatives and libertarians must combat the greatest internal threat, the younger generation’s fascination with socialism.
Further, he notes, conservatives and libertarians must prudently approach social media, recognizing its ability to spread messages far and wide, while also knowing that it seems to put more emphasis on appearance than on reality. Finally, just as the first fusionism wrote the John Birchers out of the movement, so must we conservatives and libertarians of today write off the alt-righters.
Though all of Dr. Edwards’s stories—in Just Right and in his talk at Hillsdale—give powerful witness to the strength of his convictions, none does more so than his reason for becoming a conservative. When Soviet tanks moved into Hungry in 1956, and the United States did nothing to help the anti-communists there, Dr. Edwards was horrified and embarrassed to be an American citizen. In that moment and in that reaction, he vowed that he would dedicate the entirety of his life to ending tyranny in whatever form it took and, equally important, in upholding the dignity and sanctity of each human life. Though himself incredibly humble, at age eighty-five, Lee Edwards has every right in this whirligig of a world to claim victory, as a man, as a thinker, and as a conservative.
The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.