Tuesday, October 11, 2005

Lieberman, Buckley, and Fraternization With the Enemy

I wasn't inclined to comment on the relatively-little-noticed topic of Joe Lieberman's attendance at the 50th anniversary dinner for National Review. But my colleague The Moose has more or less challenged my mammalhood or Murrowhood if I fail to weigh in, so I will.

Let me warn you: this is going to be one of those long posts that probably depress this site's traffic while offering up easy targets for people who will stop reading once they hit a bump in the argument. But stick with it if you can; it's an interesting subject when you dig a bit deeper.

For those of you who missed it, Atrios went after Lieberman for his prominent position at the NR dinner, citing a 1957 National Review editorial that defended the South's efforts to ban voting rights for African-Americans on grounds that it was defending a "superior" civilization. Markos linked to Atrios, but appeared to simply (and rather mildly) deplore Lieberman's action on the usual fraternization-with-the-enemy grounds. The Moose demanded an apology for Atrios' implicit argument that Lieberman was endorsing racism, or at least hanging out with known racists, given Joe's own sterling civil rights record. Steve Gilliard fired back, arguing that Joe is dishonoring his own personal history by hanging out with racists, adducing NR's recent comments on Katrina as fresh evidence of its racism.

These folks are obviously talking past each other, but the exchange does raise some important points about acceptable and unacceptable opposition viewpoints; about history, memory, and forgiveness (or unforgiveness); and about the moral dilemmas involved in appearing in "enemy forums." More to the point, it raises three questions:

1) Is William F. Buckley a racist with whom no self-respecting Democrat should fraternize? By way of full disclosure, I grew up reading National Review and Buckley's columns and books (along with a lot of other pundits ranging from Frantz Fanon to Joseph de Maistre), and like many people from all points of view, enjoyed his acerbic style of writing and debate on purely aesthetic grounds. (I have also published one article in NR, making the case for a Democratic House win in 1998, along with several election-prediction-and-analysis gigs on their web page, though not recently). That did not mean I agreed with or even found acceptable his underlying political philosphy, but sometimes you just had to LOL.

An example (most of WFB's material is ungooglable, so you'll just have to trust my prodigious memory for this kind of trivia): On some late -1960s talk show, the actress Shelley Winters (as ubiquitous on the Talks back then as Charo and Monty Rock IV were in later years) was asked why she was a Democrat, and she replied that as a child growing upon in the Depression, "Franklin Roosevelt gave me a hot bowl of soup while Herbert Hoover hated me." Commented Buckley: "Really, Mr. Hoover was a man of extraordinary foresight."

Another: when Eleanor Roosevelt said she was never under any circumstances cross a picket line, Buckley called on "patriotic citizens to immediately post a 24-hour picket line around Hyde Park."

And still another: during his Conservative Party bid for Mayor of New York in 1965, Buckley was asked what his first action would be if he won. "Demand a recount," he said.

And one more, which is relevant to the current controversy: confronted with claims that open racists were supporting his mayoral candidacy, Buckley said: "Look, you, whoever you are, I don't want your vote. Go back to your fever swamps and find somewhere else to peddle your nonsense."

On other occasions, Buckley penned extraordinarily eloquent explanations of conservative cultural impulses that are still very relevant today. In an agonized column on his visceral reaction to the post-Vatican II vernacular mass, he wrote that it was like "entering Chartres Cathedral and finding the stained glass replaced by pop art posters of Jesus sitting in against the slumlords of Milwaukee."

Believe it or not, I'm not old enough to have read the late-1950s editorial that Atrios cited--and which managed to shock me, as it would probably shock Joe Lieberman--but I do remember NR's and Buckley's various rationalizations for supporting Barry Goldwater's opposition to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Worse yet, a few years ago I ran across a collection of Buckley columns from the late 1960s that I had bought decades ago which included several about Dr. Martin Luther King. They were not racist according to the commonly accepted definitions of that term, but exhibited a moral obtuseness that is now breathtaking.

Yet Buckley later recanted about civil rights, not abjectly or systematically, but still definitively. I distinctly remember a column observing that for African-Americans in a Jim Crow society, the refusal to dignify the laws and political processes that sustained that society was the only true option.

The most compelling argument (as The Moose reminded me today) for rejecting the idea that fraternization with Buckley is sinful is the history of his 33-year television show, Firing Line. Buckley's very first guest was Norman Thomas, the venerable American socialist leader. And that was typical. As one obiturist for the show when it finally expired put it:

''Firing Line'' became a necessary stop for the leading liberal figures of the era. Muhammad Ali, Allen Ginsberg, Jesse Jackson, William M. Kunstler and Murray Kempton, among others, all made appearances. Mr. Buckley was helped by close friendships with liberals like Mr. Galbraith and Ira Glasser, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union.

I vividly remember another show where the guest was then-Congressman Ron Dellems (who's now mulling a comeback run for mayor of Oakland), who was a national hero for what would now be called Progressive Caucus Democrats. One of Firing Line's regular features was a panel of younger politicos, from the U.S. and the U.K., and from the Left and Right, who shared in the questioning and debate; American participants included Mark Green and Michael Kinsley. For decades, the show was Crossfire with a much higher I.Q.; more genuine diversity of opinion; and more actual debate.

Now, you can argue that all the liberals and even socialists who hung out with Buckley on the air (much closer than we are to the racist editorial of 1957) were themselves morally obtuse. But it is very clear that treating him like he's David Duke misses much of why people have paid attention to him and his magazine and television show over the years.

If this sounds a bit like the Ezra Pound Defense (an appreciation of the stylist's contributions trumping his obnoxious views and even his contributions to historic wrongs), so be it. Maybe to young bloggers Buckley is nothing more than one of the original and most extreme architects of the Noise Machine, but back in the day, he was much more, and was acknowledged as such by just about everybody. That's the point E.J. Dionne was making in his column today about Buckley. Presumably, that's a lot of what was being celebrated at the dinner Joe Lieberman attended.

2) Are there new rules about fraternization with the Right? I suspect some young-and-angry Democratic readers will react to what I've said, and what E.J. said, by responding: This is the problem with all you old bastards in Washington. You don't recognize the enemy when you see him, and you value your insider connections to the enemy so much that you don't know when he's cutting your stupid throat.

Well, personally, I don't have that many insider connections to much of anybody; don't get invited to anybody's big dinners; and am aware that my own ever-increasing partisanship in the Age of Bush has certainly cooled my casual email relationships with conservatives, including those at National Review.

But unless we just want to talk to ourselves, it's important that we figure out where in the "enemy camp" there's an openness to actual give-and-take debate. (This was the subject of an open question posed by Markos on August 24, so it's not just a "centrist" concern). And in my own experience, there are two kinds of Republicans, who cannot be sorted out by ideology: those who would be perfectly happy living in a one-party dictatorship (Karl Rove and most of the White House and RNC staff, Tom DeLay and most House Republicans, Rick Santorum, James Inhofe, Grover Norquist, Jack Abramoff, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, Bill O'Rielly, Britt Hume and much of the Fox News Staff, etc.) and those who would hate to live in a land with no debate or controversy.

I'm reasonably sure the National Review folks--and for that matter, those at The Weekly Standard, with the possible exception of the once-reasonable Fred Barnes--fall into the latter category.

Hell, National Review named Daniel Patrick Moynihan its Man of the Year in 1975--one year before he took away the Senate seat of William F. Buckley's brother Jim.

And while I'm not going to any dinners celebrating any right-wing publication or personage, I do have to say that engaging conservatives who are willing to engage honestly and on a relatively high plain (both conditions that must be insisted upon) is something progressives should welcome, not deplore.

So: have the rules of engagement changed? Yes, but only so far as the Right has changed them. Where they haven't, we should pick up our intellectual cudgels and have at it, and yes, express a little comity with those relatively few conservatives willing to play by those rules. Eating their food is no big scandal if it gives us the opportunity to eat their lunch.

3) Has Joe Lieberman defected to the opposition? This question probably gets to the heart of The Moose's complaint. He says some of our blogger buddies are engaged in a "McCarthyite attack" on Joe; I don't agree. But I do think there's a half-conscious effort to attempt a Zell Millerization of Joe Lieberman.

To be clear, I personally am not the adoring Joe fan that I was five years ago; I have lots of issues with what's he's said and done since then, especially in terms of the Homeland Security debate, and his original and more recent postures on Iraq. But (and here comes a line I've been saving up for a while) I knew Zell Miller and worked with Zell Miller, and Senator Joe Lieberman is no Zell Miller, not by a very long shot.

Lieberman votes with and sometimes leads Senate Democrats on a wide variety of issues. He was the loyal running mate of our 2000 candidate, and loyally supported our 2004 candidate. On some issues (e.g., heath care and tax reform), he was arguably the most progressive presidential candidate last year. Reading him out of the party, which a fair number of bloggers have talked about recently because they (sometimes erroneously) suspected him of heresy on this issue or that, makes no sense. If, as some have suggested, he's too "conservative" to represent a blue state like Connecticut, then the Democratic voters of Connecticut have every opportunity to turn him out.

Lieberman's appearance at the Buckley/NR dinner, which everyone knows represents a personal bond going back to WFB's endorsement of Joe in his first Senate campaign, is not that different from the decision by his Connecticut colleage, Chris Dodd, to vote against the party line for John Tower's confirmation as Secretary of Defense back in 1989 (Tower had voted against a Senate censure of Dodd's father). I don't recall any big partisan recriminations towards Dodd for supporting a man whose credentials on civil rights and a lot of other subjects were arguably worse that Buckley's, without all the mitigating circumstances I discussed earlier. It was personal, and everybody respected that.

My bottom line is this: let's all of us de-escalate this controversy, and use it to bring light, not heat, to the many questions it raises.
-- Posted at 6:44 PM | Link to this post | Email this post

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