Commentary Magazine


Topic: Pat Buchanan

Kike Wisse Like Me

Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece called “Vexing Questions about Jewish Identity” that was the talk of the town, its subject being a documentary with the outlandishly provocative title Kike Like Me. Its director and star, Jamie Kastner, travels from Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn to Pat Buchanan’s house outside Washington to a Paris suburb to a Berlin Holocaust memorial to a Krakow synagogue and finally inside the gates of Auschwitz in an exploration of Jewish identity and what being a Jew means today. The movie is made Michael Moore style, with Kastner playing the role of ingenuous naif lost in the woods and looking for help trying to get himself out. The influence of Moore, combined with Kastner’s seemingly cutesy refusal in interviews to say whether or not he is in fact Jewish and its appearance on a cable channel associated with the reflexively leftist Sundance Film Festival, led me to expect Kike Like Me would be a standard-issue work of self-examination in which Jews and Jewry would effectively be put on trial, not anti-Semitism.

And…I was very, very wrong. Kike Like Me is bracing and tough-minded, and is, in fact, a study not of “Jewish identity” but of 21st century anti-Semitism. When Kastner, a Canadian with a modest and inoffensive manner, asks Pat Buchanan about a paragraph in one of his books that calls the patriotism of neoconservatives into question, Buchanan takes a quick look at the curly-headed Kastner and instantly terminates the interview. In London, he interviews Richard Ingrams, the odious one-time editor of Private Eye who has famously declared that he glances at the bottom of letters he receives to see whether its author has a Jewish name for, if so, he will simply not read it. An American expat in London tells him she has decided to return home because she is unable to have a single conversation with English friends in which the supposed perfidy of Israel is not referenced.

He wanders through Krakow looking for a Jew but finding only restaurants that cater to Jews, Israelis primarily, who have traveled there to see evidence of Polish Jewry before its destruction. Even the old woman in the Krakow shul who hands him a yarmulke isn’t a Jew, and once he discovers the fact, he takes back the $5 he gave her.

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Yesterday, the New York Times ran a piece called “Vexing Questions about Jewish Identity” that was the talk of the town, its subject being a documentary with the outlandishly provocative title Kike Like Me. Its director and star, Jamie Kastner, travels from Lubavitch headquarters in Brooklyn to Pat Buchanan’s house outside Washington to a Paris suburb to a Berlin Holocaust memorial to a Krakow synagogue and finally inside the gates of Auschwitz in an exploration of Jewish identity and what being a Jew means today. The movie is made Michael Moore style, with Kastner playing the role of ingenuous naif lost in the woods and looking for help trying to get himself out. The influence of Moore, combined with Kastner’s seemingly cutesy refusal in interviews to say whether or not he is in fact Jewish and its appearance on a cable channel associated with the reflexively leftist Sundance Film Festival, led me to expect Kike Like Me would be a standard-issue work of self-examination in which Jews and Jewry would effectively be put on trial, not anti-Semitism.

And…I was very, very wrong. Kike Like Me is bracing and tough-minded, and is, in fact, a study not of “Jewish identity” but of 21st century anti-Semitism. When Kastner, a Canadian with a modest and inoffensive manner, asks Pat Buchanan about a paragraph in one of his books that calls the patriotism of neoconservatives into question, Buchanan takes a quick look at the curly-headed Kastner and instantly terminates the interview. In London, he interviews Richard Ingrams, the odious one-time editor of Private Eye who has famously declared that he glances at the bottom of letters he receives to see whether its author has a Jewish name for, if so, he will simply not read it. An American expat in London tells him she has decided to return home because she is unable to have a single conversation with English friends in which the supposed perfidy of Israel is not referenced.

He wanders through Krakow looking for a Jew but finding only restaurants that cater to Jews, Israelis primarily, who have traveled there to see evidence of Polish Jewry before its destruction. Even the old woman in the Krakow shul who hands him a yarmulke isn’t a Jew, and once he discovers the fact, he takes back the $5 he gave her.

But the most stunning scene in the movie takes place in a Paris suburb called Sancerre Sarcelles, when with his digital camera rolling he finds himself in the middle of an outraged argument between two Jewish women and five male Muslim youths. As the woman argue heatedly, the boys claim Jews own all the businesses in France, that the local synagogue is a palace — this after Kastner has been taken to a nondescript shul hiding inside a Paris building that was nonetheless firebombed — and that Jews “dominate us. They’re dominators.” Kastner asks the boys what they think of him. “If you’re a Jew,” one says, “then we don’t like you…If you get a chance, you’ll screw me over…Because they’re bastards. They’re traitors.” As the boys get more and more revved up, Kastner’s translator quietly suggests it’s time for him to leave, and in a state of some alarm, he and his cameraman climb into their rental car and speed away.

Once Kastner arrives at Auschwitz, he has a negative epiphany — the gift shops and tourist stops all seem to be trivializing the enormity of the crime. “Strange to see it here like a movie set preserved for our benefit,” Kastner says. His cameraman says he needs to see the ovens, that the film needs a shot of him looking into the ovens. He has had enough. In a state of revulsion, he declares as he storms off, “This is f—ing horrible and I don’t need to see anything else. You can call me yellow, you can call me a lily-livered Y-d…this whole f—ing place should be blown up and the people who did it with it. How’s that for Jewish identity?”

(Now how would we call him a “lily-livered Y-d” if he weren’t a Jew?)

In the end, it seems, the real influence on Kike Like Me isn’t Michael Moore but COMMENTARY’s own Ruth Wisse. Now, I have no idea whether Kastner knows who Ruth is or has read her work. But in her passionate exploration in the recent Jews and Power of the threat posed to Jewry by its own historic passivity, and in other writings in which she has expressed her deep concern about the sentimentalization and pseudo-sacralization of the Holocaust (she has an unforgettable memoir on the subject in the upcoming issue of COMMENTARY), she has given intellectual voice to many of the concerns expressed in Kastner’s scorchingly honest and literally provocative documentary. (For those with TiVos and DVRs and a cable package that includes the Sundance Channel, it airs again on December 27 at 5 am.)

Review of Jews and Power from the September issue of COMMENTARY.
COMMENTARY Onscreen: An Interview with Ruth Wisse

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There’s Always a Mike Huckabee

We are six weeks away from the Iowa caucus, and as has frequently been the case, Republicans in the Hawkeye State are beginning to shine the light of their noble countenances on a candidate with no chance of winning the nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is bidding fair to serve as this season’s “Republican Guy Who Is Coming Out of Nowhere to Place a Surprising Second in Iowa.” He follows in the Surprising Second tradition of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes, the salutatorians of the caucuses in 1988, 1996 and 2000 respectively. The failure of these candidacies to make any real headway after Iowa (even though Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary a few weeks later) indicates just how little meaning anyone should attach to the Surprising Second. These Roman Candle candidacies do serve to remind other candidates, as Huckabee’s surge is reminding candidates this year, of the importance of social-conservative views to a significant swath of the the Republican electorate. But who didn’t know that already this year?

We are six weeks away from the Iowa caucus, and as has frequently been the case, Republicans in the Hawkeye State are beginning to shine the light of their noble countenances on a candidate with no chance of winning the nomination. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee is bidding fair to serve as this season’s “Republican Guy Who Is Coming Out of Nowhere to Place a Surprising Second in Iowa.” He follows in the Surprising Second tradition of Pat Robertson, Pat Buchanan, and Steve Forbes, the salutatorians of the caucuses in 1988, 1996 and 2000 respectively. The failure of these candidacies to make any real headway after Iowa (even though Buchanan won the New Hampshire primary a few weeks later) indicates just how little meaning anyone should attach to the Surprising Second. These Roman Candle candidacies do serve to remind other candidates, as Huckabee’s surge is reminding candidates this year, of the importance of social-conservative views to a significant swath of the the Republican electorate. But who didn’t know that already this year?

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The Fulani Follies

It has been proven yet again that New York City’s colorful political scene rivals that of any municipality or state. To wit: Lenora Fulani—the political cult leader—appears to be making a comeback, planning a run for the mayoralty in 2009.

In 1989, Fulani wrote that Jews “function as mass murderers of people of color” and “had to sell their souls to acquire Israel.” Last week she said: “The language I used was harsh, and today I would call it excessive.” Irrespective of whether Fulani is an anti-Semite (the fact that she waited eighteen years to repudiate these remarks and has only done so on the verge of announcing her intentions to run for political office renders her motivations highly suspect), she still remains a disreputable public figure. She has long been allied with Fred Newman, who, as a “revolutionary” psychotherapist, playwright, and Marxist political activist, rivals L. Ron Hubbard in his megalomaniacal dilettantism and knack for operating cults behind the veneer of an ostensibly respectable front group. Newman and Fulani eventually manged to gain control of New York’s Independence Party. Yet, like many Marxists, the two are opportunists first and ideologues second, as this 2005 piece in the New York Times (which discusses Newman’s one-time support for Al Sharpton) and this 1999 piece from the Nation (about Fulani’s erstwhile allegiance with Pat Buchanan) demonstrate.

Mayor Bloomberg sought—and won—the support of Fulani’s Independence Party in his 2001 election, and has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the party’s political coffers. He even went so far as to join with Fulani’s group in the campaign to bring non-partisan elections to New York City, which would have weakened the Democratic Party and strengthened the Newman/Fulani faction. When necessary, Bloomberg has delivered the standard disapproving sound-bite about the wackiness of those running the Independence Party. Politics does make strange bedfellows, particularly in New York. But before the Mayor begins to tread in Presidential waters, he would do well to explain why he spent so many years currying favor with such disreputable politicians.

It has been proven yet again that New York City’s colorful political scene rivals that of any municipality or state. To wit: Lenora Fulani—the political cult leader—appears to be making a comeback, planning a run for the mayoralty in 2009.

In 1989, Fulani wrote that Jews “function as mass murderers of people of color” and “had to sell their souls to acquire Israel.” Last week she said: “The language I used was harsh, and today I would call it excessive.” Irrespective of whether Fulani is an anti-Semite (the fact that she waited eighteen years to repudiate these remarks and has only done so on the verge of announcing her intentions to run for political office renders her motivations highly suspect), she still remains a disreputable public figure. She has long been allied with Fred Newman, who, as a “revolutionary” psychotherapist, playwright, and Marxist political activist, rivals L. Ron Hubbard in his megalomaniacal dilettantism and knack for operating cults behind the veneer of an ostensibly respectable front group. Newman and Fulani eventually manged to gain control of New York’s Independence Party. Yet, like many Marxists, the two are opportunists first and ideologues second, as this 2005 piece in the New York Times (which discusses Newman’s one-time support for Al Sharpton) and this 1999 piece from the Nation (about Fulani’s erstwhile allegiance with Pat Buchanan) demonstrate.

Mayor Bloomberg sought—and won—the support of Fulani’s Independence Party in his 2001 election, and has contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the party’s political coffers. He even went so far as to join with Fulani’s group in the campaign to bring non-partisan elections to New York City, which would have weakened the Democratic Party and strengthened the Newman/Fulani faction. When necessary, Bloomberg has delivered the standard disapproving sound-bite about the wackiness of those running the Independence Party. Politics does make strange bedfellows, particularly in New York. But before the Mayor begins to tread in Presidential waters, he would do well to explain why he spent so many years currying favor with such disreputable politicians.

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Are You Kidding Me?

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

Reading Pat Buchanan’s superb appreciation of Robert Novak and his new memoir, Prince of Darkness, one is reminded of what a great writer and historian of Republican politics Buchanan can be. What a pity that, fifteen years ago, he headed off to the fever swamps of the conservative movement as he pursued a series of failed presidential runs. Although today he remains a staple of talking-head TV, his presidential campaigns, loaded with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, and protectionist messages, make him impossible to take seriously.

But I’m also reminded of something I witnessed, involving Novak, in 1996. I was in Des Moines, on the eve of the 1996 Iowa caucuses. Although there were many semi-viable Republican candidates that year, in the final few days before caucus day, the contest had suddenly become a hot three-way race among Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, and Lamar Alexander (I was Lamar’s policy director that year). I was at a high-spirited Alexander rally that night and found myself talking with Novak and Weekly Standard editor Fred Barnes. As the three of us left the rally to go to dinner, Novak, apropos of nothing, suddenly declared: “Wouldn’t it be great if Pat won this whole thing.” Fred and I chuckled at this—until suddenly there was an awkward silence. The two of us had realized that Novak was dead serious.

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Sam Tanenhaus: Arsonist

The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

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The current issue of the New Republic contains a caustic exchange between me and Sam Tanenhaus, editor of the Sunday New York Times book review.

Tanenhaus had written an article in TNR about William F. Buckley, Jr., the broader conservative movement, and today’s war on terror. In an aside, he said that COMMENTARY had called for the prosecution of the editors of the New York Times for “treason.” He also characterized the NSA terrorist surveillance program—the highly classified counterterrorism program disclosed by his newspaper in December 2005—as a “domestic surveillance program.”

I wrote a letter pointing out that in my March 2006 COMMENTARY article about the affair, I never accused the editors of the Times of treason. I did not use the T-word at all—precisely because, whatever else they did, the Times’s editors had not committed that particular crime. Nor did I say they had committed espionage. What I argued was that they had violated a U.S. statute proscribing the publication of classified information pertaining to communications intelligence.

In my letter to TNR, I further pointed out that it was inexact to call the NSA program “domestic.” In fact it was international, tapping only those conversations or intercepting those emails that had crossed borders, and in which one party was a suspected al-Qaeda operative either in the United States or abroad.

Summing up both of my objections to Tanenhaus’s article, I wrote: “To confuse an international surveillance program with a domestic one is to be as imprecise and inflammatory as to use the word ‘treason’ in describing a much less serious violation of the law.”

“Inflammatory” was the right word. For if in his initial article Tanenhaus was tending toward the incendiary, his response to my letter, now published in TNR, is a Molotov cocktail.

First he accuses me of propagating “nonsense.” Then he pours a bit of gasoline into the bottle, saying that the “charge of espionage implies a corollary charge of treason,” and that in distinguishing between the two I was employing a “mode of clarification” that is precisely like “one used a half-century ago by Joseph McCarthy.”

But I never said, to repeat, that editors at the Times committed either treason or espionage. Section 798 of Title 18, the provision at issue, is entitled “Disclosure of classified information” and it is very easy to understand. Even analysts who disagree with me about the desirability of prosecuting the Times—Morton Halperin, for example, of George Soros’s Open Society Institute—concur that the Times did indeed break this law.

As for his calling the NSA surveillance program “domestic,” Tanenhaus justifies this with a single citation from the December 16, 2005 Washington Post in which it was called “domestic spying”—as if that settled the matter. It doesn’t. And it doesn’t add a single fact to the discussion, except that someone at the Washington Post is also confused.

I have read a lot of Tanenhaus’s writings over the years in the Times, in Vanity Fair, in Slate, and even in COMMENTARY. I have never known him to break into a sweat or even get hot under the collar. For that matter, though he writes at great length about current events, I have never seen him stake out a genuinely controversial position on anything—attacks on safe targets like Pat Buchanan or Ann Coulter clearly do not count. His past reticence on matters of importance was always something of a mystery to me, although I have had my theories. Whatever explains that past reticence, his present act of minor intellectual arson in defense of his employer, in which he does not hesitate to toss in the name of Joseph McCarthy as tinder, offers an additional clue to the puzzle—about which, once again, I have my theories.

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The British Pat Buchanan

The battle has been joined for the soul of the British Conservative party in, of all places, that leading organ of the Left, the Guardian.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of The Strange Death of Tory England, a polemic against Thatcherism, and Yo, Blair!, a diatribe against Tony Blair’s alliance with George W. Bush, has published an article in that paper taking the British Conservative party to task. According to Wheatcroft, “the Tories have been infiltrated by Anglo-neoconservatives, a species easily defined. Several of the younger MP’s are fanatical adherents of the creed with its three prongs: ardent support for the Iraq war, for the U.S., and for Israel.”

Wheatcroft wheels out the old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty” by suggesting that only in Britain “is there a Conservative party, and Tory press, largely in the hands of people whose basic commitment is to the national interest of another country, or countries.” He quotes one such member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, who insists that “it is in our national interest to support Israel . . . because I believe they are a front-line ally in a war against people who wish to destroy our democratic way of life.” Wheatcroft then twists his words to ask if the Tory leader, David Cameron, shares “Carswell’s belief that the British army in Basra and Helmand is fighting on behalf of Israel.”

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The battle has been joined for the soul of the British Conservative party in, of all places, that leading organ of the Left, the Guardian.

Geoffrey Wheatcroft, author of The Strange Death of Tory England, a polemic against Thatcherism, and Yo, Blair!, a diatribe against Tony Blair’s alliance with George W. Bush, has published an article in that paper taking the British Conservative party to task. According to Wheatcroft, “the Tories have been infiltrated by Anglo-neoconservatives, a species easily defined. Several of the younger MP’s are fanatical adherents of the creed with its three prongs: ardent support for the Iraq war, for the U.S., and for Israel.”

Wheatcroft wheels out the old anti-Semitic canard of “dual loyalty” by suggesting that only in Britain “is there a Conservative party, and Tory press, largely in the hands of people whose basic commitment is to the national interest of another country, or countries.” He quotes one such member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, who insists that “it is in our national interest to support Israel . . . because I believe they are a front-line ally in a war against people who wish to destroy our democratic way of life.” Wheatcroft then twists his words to ask if the Tory leader, David Cameron, shares “Carswell’s belief that the British army in Basra and Helmand is fighting on behalf of Israel.”

Wheatcroft is equally hostile to the United States: “There was once a vigorous high Tory tradition of independence from—if not hostility to—America. It was found in the Morning Post before the war, and it continued down to Enoch Powell and Alan Clark.”

As it happens, I met both these colorful figures, who served in various Tory administrations, though never at the highest level. Powell is best remembered for his “Rivers of Blood” speech of 1968, in which he denounced mass immigration from the Commonwealth and warned of civil war. This speech was widely interpreted as racist; it permanently marginalized Powell in mainstream politics. A few years later he left the Tory party. Some people now see him as a prophet who foresaw the difficulty of integrating a large Muslim minority, but his concerns were about race rather than religion.

Powell was once asked whether he was anti-American. He replied: “Most people are. The only change is that it has become a term of abuse.” In answer to the question why, he said: “Well, I just don’t like America, or Americans. It’s like saying you like sugar in your tea. De gustibus non est disputandum.”

At least Enoch Powell was not an anti-Semite. Alan Clark, however, was not only anti-American, but an enthusiastic and unashamed admirer of Hitler, whose portrait he kept on his wall. Clark’s pro-Nazi views permeate Barbarossa, his well-known history of the German invasion of Russia, but they also shine through at several points in The Tories: Conservatives and the Nation State, 1922-1997. He hints that German-Jewish refugees hindered Anglo-German efforts to preserve peace. Of Chamberlain’s belated decision to declare war on Germany in 1939, he writes: “Not since the Angevin kings had responded to mystic revelations from the Divinity instructing them to call a crusade to arms can any group of national leaders have taken so momentous a decision on such tenuous assumptions.”

But it is when Clark comes to Rudolf Hess’s flight to Scotland that his agenda is clearly revealed. Not only is he convinced (against all the evidence) that Hess brought a genuine peace offer from Hitler, that Churchill turned down this “wasted opportunity” to save the British Empire, and that the entire British establishment then engaged in a conspiracy to cover it up right down to 1987, when Hess was “strangled in his cell.” Clark also believes that a fall in Wall Street stocks on the news of Hess’s flight holds the key: peace, he claims, would have hit profits, which were far more important to Americans (many of them Jewish) than “the certain fate of human beings.”

As for more recent episodes: Clark depicts the Falklands war as a behind-the-scenes struggle between the Reagan administration, determined to frustrate the British attempt to regain the islands, and a stubborn Mrs. Thatcher—which is more or less the opposite of the version she herself recalls. Clark gained notoriety by publishing his sensational diaries, but they merely reinforce the impression of a clever but twisted mind, a crashing snob and conspiracy theorist, who fantasized about his boss, Mrs. Thatcher, as a kind of female Hitler, describing the thrill he got from her proximity as “Führer-Kontakt”.

So much for Alan Clark and Enoch Powell as keepers of the Tory flame. But Wheatcroft also admires the Arabist tradition exemplified by the vehemently anti-Zionist Ian (now Lord) Gilmour. Then he goes further back, rejecting Charles Moore’s claim that Conservatives have usually supported Israel in the past: “That highest of high Tories, Lord Curzon, deplored the Balfour declaration. . . . In his day Curzon might have seemed the truer Tory than Balfour, and it’s only recently that his spirit has been stifled in his old party.”

So, in Wheatcroft’s mind, true Tories reject the existence of Israel. He ignores such Conservative heroes as Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, who staunchly supported both America and Israel, or in the more remote past Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. Instead, he postulates “infiltration” of the party by “zealous Anglo-neocons” who have “encircled” the Tory leader. He does not want David Cameron to become “the Hugo Chavez of Notting Hill,” he says, but to “forge a foreign policy that, unlike Blair’s, is based on the national interest of this country and not another.”

Geoffrey Wheatcroft emerges here as a British equivalent of Pat Buchanan. It is not often that such venomous resentment of the United States and Israel from the Right is brought out into the open in Britain—and no accident that it is the Guardian that offers these views a platform. To judge from the readers’ comments on the Guardian website, he has brought quite a few extreme anti-Semites out of the woodwork, too. But the tenor of Wheatcroft’s article is not untypical of the circles in which many senior Tories move. It is not only in America that paleoconservatives exist. Britain evidently has its very own Anglo-paleocons.

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The Politics of Personality

At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

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At first, it seems hard to disagree with Peggy Noonan’s op-ed in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, which argues that in politics, ideas should outweigh loyalty to particular politicians. “It is better to see activists driven by philosophy than by personalities,” she writes. “Better to be faithful to the cause than to individuals with whom you merely have a history.” A long-time Reagan loyalist, Noonan argues that she was simply true to his conservative principles, never really knowing the man.

Yet it’s hard to deny that personality has played a very important—and positive—role in Republican politics. Democratic primary politics have always been about institutions and traditional alliances: unions, teachers, Hollywood, blacks, Jews, women, gays. Even today, Democratic jostling is not really over philosophy, but rather over who is a better voice for the reliable Democratic interest groups.

By contrast, Republican primaries have always been a potent mix of big ideas and outsize individuals. Reagan’s popularity surely depended not only on his pithy paeans to smaller government but on his sunny optimism about America—a distinct retreat from the more dour conservatism that preceded him. Their attraction to lone-wolf leaders has made possible the candidacies, however flawed, of Bob Dole, Pat Buchanan, John McCain, and Alexander Haig. Personality is what makes us listen to Fred Thompson’s ideas about what he might do as President.

It is also worth remembering that Republicans have always believed that character—an essential part of personality—really does matter. Many of Clinton’s policy ideas were not that bad, but his character—revealed so plainly in his first campaign for President—made him unfit to serve as our chief executive. We should be happy that the GOP continues to attract quirky, ambitious, colorful, admirable personalities who want to mix it up in the battle of ideas.

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