In this excerpt from her new memoir, An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War,Hoover overseer Midge Decter describes her final break with liberalism.
Into the Fray
By the early 1970s I found myself becoming an increasingly ardent ideologue. I had been publicizing my views, to be sure, in my two books and in numerous magazine articles and op-ed pieces as well. But writing is one thing—one lonely thing—and I began to be moved by the itch to do something more.
The beginning of my activist life came in 1972, when Richard Nixon was competing for his second presidential term against George McGovern. McGovern’s candidacy signaled the capture of the Democratic Party by the hard left, who had taken control of it through a lethal combination of radical opposition to the war in Vietnam, the radicalization of the civil rights movement, and women’s liberation. Even in the heat of the Vietnam War, no radical or representative of radicals could ever win the presidency of the United States, so there was clearly no possibility of a McGovern victory. But a group of us Democrats, in a state of combined fear and disgust about what had become of the Democratic Party, viewed the inevitable McGovern defeat as our opportunity to recall the Democrats to their commitments to the policies, as we put it, of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy. Among us were moderate activists from the camps of Hubert Humphrey, the true father of civil rights legislation and vice president to Lyndon Johnson, and Henry M. "Scoop" Jackson, senator from Washington and the leading liberal advocate of a firm anti-Soviet policy and a strong American defense; previously nonactivist intellectuals such as my husband and me; and a group of young intellectual workers in the vineyards of the labor movement.
What I had seen moving in the culture of this country beginning in about 1965 had been like an arrow aimed at my nervous system.
By the time McGovern had gone down to one of the worst defeats in the country’s history, we were ready with a publicized statement of purpose, which said in effect that we were opposed to the left and to all those legislative and judicial measures—as a prime example, affirmative action—whose intent was to overturn the country’s essential philosophical and political underpinnings. We called ourselves the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, or CDM, and, to put it mildly, nothing serious ever followed from what seemed to us a most auspicious beginning (except for a number of lifelong friendships). The then-leadership of the AFL–CIO, which provided a significant part of our meager treasury, was certainly sympathetic but far too occupied with opposing Nixon to lend us any real power. Our purposes were further diluted by a few members of the Humphrey group who thought that, since the left in the person of George McGovern had been thoroughly defeated, it was time to make peace with it. But mainly—a crucial lesson if your game is politics—you cannot get into that particular game without a candidate; and foolishly our candidate, Senator Jackson, felt it was not yet in his interest to offer himself to us. So CDM basically withered on the vine, and in 1976 the Democrats, unreformed, took back the White House from Nixon-Ford with Jimmy Carter.
During all this time CDM hosted an occasional banquet and handed out an occasional award, but our success as an influence on the Democratic Party may be measured by the fact that Carter had appointed only one lonely member of the group to any position in his administration, and that was an ambassadorship to some faraway and forgettable land about which we and the rest of our fellow Americans knew, and cared, nothing.
But one snowy late-winter morning in 1980, at God knows whose urging, President Carter invited the leaders of CDM to the White House, the idea evidently being that, having to run for office again that year, maybe he could use a little support from the moderates in his party. So a group of us met with him, and a silly meeting it was. This president of the United States, by whose own account it took the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan to teach him more about the Soviet Union than he had ever known, evidently forgot that the purpose of our invitation to the White House was to court us for support in the upcoming presidential election. On the contrary, he clearly expected us to court him. He became visibly annoyed when we offered him what was less obeisance than he expected and demanded and soon walked off with flaming cheeks, leaving us to the ministrations of his staff. One of our number that day was Jeane Kirkpatrick. As we left the White House we were approached by the group of television reporters who seem to hang out on the White House lawn every day waiting for something to happen, and—as it would turn out for all of us, fatefully—she faced the cameras and announced that she was going to support Ronald Reagan.
My Battle Station
The truth is, Carter had been right to respond to us as he had because with only one or two exceptions the delegation that met with him that day had by then lost all interest in saving the Democratic Party, not only because it had not changed but because we had. For a group of us CDM had turned out to be a kind of last-ditch effort to hang on to the liberalism that had been to that point our lifelong estate. We are the real liberals, we kept insisting; those others who have usurped and sullied the good name of liberalism have to be identified for what they are, namely, radicals, people beyond the pale of proper politics.
But all the while we were saying that, we were actually moving to the right, which was precisely what the logic of our position dictated. For in the end you cannot defend American democracy without defending the economic system that is its necessary underpinning. And you cannot truthfully defend that system without accepting a number of other propositions, perhaps the principal one being that government should be restricted from interfering in lawful economic activity. Paul Johnson, who is among various other admirable things a great modern historian, has said that once he understood that socialism was wrong, he had to rethink everything he knew, including even what he knew about the Roman Empire.
Those marauders of the sixties left were out to bring down the country that was so generously giving them houseroom, and all around me were fine liberal people hemming and hawing and surrendering. Put it all together—the politics and the culture—and it spelled warfare.
Well, perhaps without going so far as all the way back to the Roman Empire, we, too, had to rethink most of what we had once thought, not only about politics but about a whole slew of things that fall under the category of what you might call the Nature of Man and God.
For me in particular, what I had seen moving in the culture of this country beginning in about 1965 had been like an arrow aimed at my nervous system: because the preparation of this explosion from the decade before was something I myself had had a hand in. Or if it seems too self-aggrandizing for me to put it that way, I will just say that the preparation for the sixties explosion was something I had all too carelessly embraced, as a way, it strikes me now, of continuing to assert my membership in the gang of bad kids who refused to mind their mothers. My children were small then, and I had recklessly failed to make any connection between the fun of playing around in my head with certain profoundly radical ideas about life and their future well-being. By the time the older ones reached adolescence, it began to dawn on me that there were marauders out there just waiting to ruin their chances of enjoying a satisfying adulthood. Those marauders were also out to bring down the country that was so generously giving them houseroom, and all around me were fine liberal people hemming and hawing and surrendering.
Put it all together, the politics and the culture, and it spelled warfare. As Jeane Kirkpatrick had signaled on that cold morning, Ronald Reagan would be the obvious political beneficiary of this warfare. So, in turn, would she. But sometimes I think that in my own peculiar way I was the one who benefited from it most of all, for I would at long last find something that sent me singing into the office every day: my very own battle station, called the Committee for the Free World.
"This Is the Free World?"
The idea for the committee had in a very tentative way been brewing for a couple of years. A European friend named Leopold Labedz and I would meet from time to time and say, "Why don’t we . . ."—that sort of thing. Many years before there had been a big, well-heeled international organization called the Congress for Cultural Freedom, made up primarily of writers and intellectuals and artists, dedicated to fighting off the influence of the Communists, who (as few remember) after World War II had been strong enough in Western Europe to be truly menacing. The congress engaged in exerting cultural influence, becoming, as it were, a central clearinghouse, holding conferences and also publishing magazines in several languages. The entire enterprise came to an abrupt end when a former employee of the CIA published an article revealing that the Congress along with other groups had in fact been funded all along by the agency through the use of certain foundations as fronts. Whereupon, overnight, the whole thing collapsed, the unwitting Europeans rushing to profess their outrage at having been used and the witting ones insisting, unsuccessfully, that they, too, had been ignorant about where their funding came from.
By the late 1970s, the situation in Europe was very different. Indigenous communism was not a threat, but Soviet missiles, those ever-useful tools of political blackmail, were. And there was a new peril, this time in the United States—the demoralization brought on by the seizure of national self-hatred that had spread like typhus from the sixties radicals into the major institutions of the culture. So, Leopold and I would repeatedly say, it was time to reconstitute something like the old congress—only this time, of course, without a single penny of support from the United States government or any other.
But how to go about it? Leopold, a learned and brilliant man who was a tried-and-true veteran of the cultural wars against the Soviet Union, could not even find his own way to a store to buy a dozen eggs, let alone put together an organization. I had been in on the founding of the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, but all I had learned from that was a negative lesson: how not to bring about anything. Then one day at lunch with an acquaintance, a longtime anti-Soviet activist among the labor unions, I asked him what one must do to create a viable organization; without blinking an eye, he said, "You must first find someone to be its executive director." "What actually does an executive director do?" I asked further, and he kindly and intelligently answered my question in very concrete detail. That night I tossed and turned, unable to sleep, and in the morning I sat bolt upright in my bed and said, "That’s me! I am the executive director!"
By the 1970s there was a new peril in the United States—the demoralization brought on by the seizure of national self-hatred that had spread like typhus from the sixties radicals into the major institutions of the culture.
I kissed my publishing job good-bye, after which it took three or four months to apply for a tax exemption from the Internal Revenue Service, find an office and an assistant, and put together a board of advisers. The organization was called the Committee for the Free World, in conscious defiance of the sneer with which a large number of people in public places in those days would intone the words "the free world." I drew up a strong statement in support of both political and economic freedom and in opposition to all forces everywhere working against those freedoms and invited primarily intellectuals, authors, academics, and scientists to sign it. If they signed, they were members; if they objected to this or that, there would be no room for them. Since we regarded ourselves as being at war, and words were to be our only weapons, we had no intention of watering down our purpose by making ourselves a large tent. In the end, we had about eight or nine thousand "members" in the United States and another thousand in the rest of the world. We knew that to begin with there would not be vast armies of us, but we thought of ourselves as being like the U.S. cavalry in an old western fort surrounded by Indians, lighting fires and shooting off guns and moving from one side of the fort to the other to give the enemy the illusion that there were many more of us and that we were a force to be respected if not feared.
I suddenly discovered that in a certain leftist circle I had been dubbed the Dragon Lady. Could there be any greater happiness than that?
We met together just about every year at what we called a "conference" but was actually a convention whose main purpose was to keep us all in touch with one another (a very serious purpose indeed since committee members tended to feel isolated in their respective communities). And we put out a monthly eight-page publication, called Contentions, which provided analyses by four regular contributors of the nonsense or lying in articles that had appeared in newspapers or magazines or documentaries on public affairs television during the previous weeks. In addition to these analyses, we carried two other squib-length features without comment, one of them called "Where the Money Goes," reprinting descriptions of grants made by the major charitable foundations, and the other, called "$20,000 a Year," which simply reproduced course descriptions from the catalogs of a number of the country’s major private universities. It was great fun to produce and, as people all over the place kept telling us (and tell me to this day), fun to read.
There was a certain amount of anxiety connected with all of this because it naturally required the raising of money, and raising money was work at which I turned out to be, shall we say, less than brilliantly effective. The principle of taking no money from the government paid off very well, spiritually speaking (not that the government was banging down my door to give me any). For instance, as soon as we went public, the leftist magazine The Nation predictably rushed into print with the allegation that we were being sponsored by the CIA. So I called the editor, Victor Navasky, someone I had known in my youth, and put to him the following proposition: He could come at any time and look at my books if I could come over afterward and look at his. He never called or mentioned the subject again.
Despite my lack of great success, I learned many useful things from my stint as a fund-raiser. For one, that with only a few notable exceptions, the American business community had little interest in defending the American system, probably assuming that, one way or another, whoever was in power, they would find a way to get along.
In any case, I responded to the need for money in a typically housewifely (and probably unwise) way, that is, by economizing. Our office was a sad sight indeed. It was small and by the standards of the neighborhood very cheap, in a scruffy building at a good address. For most of the time, four of us worked there, though in the last year only three. At some point our office manager out of sheer disgust bought some rugs and drapes, but that didn’t fool anyone, least of all ourselves. Once a television crew arrived to interview me, and I could see the shock in their eyes as they tried to figure out where to place the camera. Another time the editor of a dissident Polish magazine with whom we had been in correspondence came to New York and dropped in for a visit. He, too, could not conceal his shock. "This," he asked me, "this is the Free World?" I suppose I should have worked harder to raise money and put on the dog a little more, but the truth is, I was having too much fun and didn’t want to take the time.
The Dragon Lady
During these years, a certain kind of affirmative action gave me great joy, which was being chosen to play the role of the right-wing militarist monster on a variety of television and academic panels devoted to talking about foreign policy. In order to feel that they were being properly liberal-minded, the organizers of such discussions always felt that the hard-line position had to be represented, so they would invariably arrange that on a panel of five or six there would be one person to represent what they considered the extremist position. Since some of my comrades were frightened, and others annoyed, by the thought of upholding the side all alone against a totally skewed set of opponents, I was often the one left to do the job. In fact, I usually relished doing it, for three reasons: First, because it was one of the things I was paying myself to do; second, because the smugness of my opponents tended to weaken their capacity to argue their case; and third, because being alone against many usually guaranteed a certain amount of sympathy from the audience whether or not they were in agreement. Then one day I discovered that in a certain leftist circle I had been dubbed the Dragon Lady. Could there be any greater happiness than that?
Legacy: A Battle Worth Fighting
Sometimes in retrospect I ask myself, did the Committee for the Free World actually accomplish anything important along with all the pleasure we took—and, it seems, gave? I honestly don’t know how to answer. By going to cultural war and taking no prisoners we seem to have made far more noise in the world than our sheer numbers would have suggested. And, more important, we seem to have made a lot of people feel better and less isolated in their political attitudes.
Another thing we can perhaps chalk up as an achievement of a kind was our habit of offering the use of our somewhat laughable facilities to our friends who were seeking out advice and/or help for some project that we deemed important. In general, it seemed to me that since the committee would never have the wherewithal to tackle every symptom of Western intellectual and cultural self-hatred, it was our responsibility to help in whatever way we could anyone who had come to join in the battle. Sometimes this meant only writing a letter or making a phone call; sometimes it meant effecting an important introduction over lunch or dinner; and now and then it meant writing a (necessarily) small check.
I would sum up the accomplishment of the Committee for the Free World as having provided a gathering place for people in a distinct political minority to feel that they were not isolated but rather the members of a cheerful if rather far-flung community and also, with Contentions, to know that they had the best of the argument.
To this day I run into people who say, "Why don’t you start that committee thing up again?" For in 1990, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, I shut the organization down. It had been put together specifically to deal with a very particular set of issues, and only by faking it, I felt, could I stretch our mandate to cover the problems of the post-Soviet world.
When the Berlin Wall came down, some of us literally wept for joy. And when the communist regime in the Soviet Union gave way, we were beside ourselves with the kind of hope it would be difficult for anyone who had not spent his adult life keeping an eye on the evil uses of Soviet power to understand. Although freedom and democracy were a long, long way from universal, and might never be so, they seemed to me nevertheless to be ideologically no longer in question.
By going to cultural war and taking no prisoners, we seem to have made far more noise in the world than our sheer numbers would have suggested. And, more important, we seem to have made a lot of people feel better and less isolated in their political attitudes.
Now what we need are two things: First, someone to clean up the mess that has been littered all over American education, from, you might say, top to bottom, and, second, someone to press the president and Congress of the United States into taking responsibility for defending this country properly, from antimissile defense to a well-trained army and navy. Both of these, I think, ought now to be turned over to younger and more muscular hands.
Adapted from the new book An Old Wife’s Tale: My Seven Decades in Love and War, by Midge Decter (Regan Books/HarperCollins, 2001).
Available from the Hoover Press is More Liberty Means Less Government: Our Founders Knew This Well, by Walter E. Williams. Also available is Barbarians inside the Gates and Other Controversial Essays, by Thomas Sowell. To order, call 800-935-2882.