Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Saul Friedman ( bio ) writes the twice-monthly Reflections column for Time Goes By in which he comments on news, politics and social issues from his perspective as one of the younger members of the greatest generation. His other column, Gray Matters, formerly published in Newsday, appears each Saturday.
There was a time when I was reporting on Congress, that I admired, respected and even liked some of the most stalwart conservatives in the Senate. But that was before the conservatives of the Republican Party metamorphosed into a rancid rabble of radicals who seek to cripple a president, the federal government and the Constitution of the United States.
The lawmakers to whom I refer were conservatives in the classic, dictionary definition of the word. They favored “traditional views and values, tending to oppose change...to conserve; disposed to preserve existing conditions, institutions; or restore traditional ones and to limit change.”
According to Wikipedia, the views of Edmund Burke, the philosophical patron saint of traditional conservatives, were
“a mixture of liberal and conservative. He supported the American revolution but abhorred the violence of the French revolution. He accepted the [then] liberal ideals of private property and the economics of Adam Smith...but believed that capitalism should be subordinate to the medieval social tradition...that the business class should be subordinate to the aristocracy.”
American conservatism, as I knew it in my reporting days, was based on the ideas of Burke and included respect for traditional institutions and public service along with the flexibility that life and politics demand and, yes, elements of liberalism and electoral pragmatism.
Although many of us may have disagreed with them, conservatives were, for the most part, people of principle who took their jobs seriously and believed in government. And with the National Review founder William F. Buckley setting the tone, conservatism had some intellectual heft.
With these criteria, I don’t believe today’s right-wing radicals should be called conservatives. They are know-nothing bullies.
One of my conservative heroes was Senator Sam Ervin, a North Carolina Democrat and former justice of that state’s Supreme Court. This generation might remember him best as the grumpy, drawling chairman of the select Senate committee that investigated Watergate. But he also took on the demagogic anti-communism of Senator Joe McCarthy, and he uncovered the U.S. Army’s domestic spying program called COINTEL. Today’s Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) was one of its results.
Ervin headed the Judiciary subcommittee on Constitutional Rights. And while he was a segregationist who opposed, as unconstitutional, the Earl Warren court’s 1954 school desegregation decision, there was no greater champion of civil liberties and the Constitution. He later changed his mind about the Supreme Court’s decision, but continued to oppose forced desegregation as excessive federal power.
But I came to know him in my first year on Capitol Hill, in 1966, when the segregationists of both parties sought constitutional amendments to set aside the court decisions on school desegregation and to make prayer compulsory in the public schools.
Indeed, in the wake of the court decisions and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, there was a great clamor for a constitutional convention, which Ervin saw as a great danger if, for example, the First and Fifth amendments were put to a popularity test.
Ervin was able to shut down the call for a convention because of his knowledge of the law and the Constitution, and because he was respected by his colleagues as an even-keeled, independent, conservative. He was “Mr. Constitution.”
That historic 1964 Civil Rights Act could not have passed without the crucial help of the Senate Minority Leader, conservative Republican Everett McKinley Dirksen, of Illinois, who had served in the House of Representatives from 1933-49, before coming to the Senate in 1951.
And during his tenure as leader, Dirksen served another, pragmatic conservative Republican, President Eisenhower, and he was leader of the loyal opposition, supporting the Vietnam War when Lyndon Johnson was president. But his defining moment came on June 10, 1964, when all 100 Senators were present and the longest filibuster in the chamber’s history was droning on.
In those days it took 66 votes to break a filibuster, and the floor had been held for 83 days by the southern segregationists led by Republican Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. A friend once asked his South Carolina colleague, Olin D. Johnston, a conservative Democrat, what moved Thurmond. He replied, “The trouble with ol’ Strom is he really believes that s—t.”
Late that morning, Dirksen rose to address the Senate. He had been working long hours helping to craft the bill with the help of the Johnson White House, fellow Republican Senator Thomas Kuchel of California and the Democratic leadership. He spoke 15 minutes. His florid style was gone and his voice was tired as he spoke:
“There are many reasons why cloture should be invoked and a good civil rights measure enacted. It is said on the night he died, Victor Hugo wrote in his diary, substantially this sentiment, ‘Stronger than all the armies is an idea whose time has come.’ The time has come for equality of opportunity in sharing of government, in education and in employment. It must not be stayed or denied.”
An hour later, the 67th vote was cast and the filibuster was broken with the help of Republicans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed the Senate by a vote of 73-27 and was signed a month later. With Dirksen’s help, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, broke the back of southern intransigence.
Unfortunately, as Johnson had predicted, Richard Nixon’s 1968 “southern strategy” campaign led the Republican Party down a dark path from which it has not returned.
One of the “nay” votes against cloture and the bill came from Senator Barry Goldwater, who held that the federal government was intruding into the rights of the states and interfering with the rights of private businesses to serve whom they wished. That position cost him millions of votes that year when he was overwhelmingly defeated for the presidency by Lyndon Johnson.
But the conservative movement rose out of the ashes and Goldwater was ”Mr. Conservative.” His partner and benefactor in that rise was Ronald Reagan who made a stirring, nationally televised speech, “A Time For Choosing,” on Goldwater’s behalf. Even among the far right, their conservative credentials cannot be challenged.
Yet Goldwater, who collected Kachina dolls and was a champion of American Indian rights, was also a supporter of abortion rights. He called himself a libertarian and in 1989, said the Republican Party had been taken over by a “bunch of kooks.” In a 1994 interview with the Washington Post, Goldwater said,
“When you say ‘radical right’ today, I think of moneymaking ventures by fellows like Pat Robertson and others who are trying to take the Republican Party and make a religious organization out of it. If that ever happens, kiss politics goodbye.”
A former officer in the Air Force, Goldwater was a strong defender of the military but criticized its ban on homosexuals. “You don’t have to be straight in the military; you just have to be able to shoot straight.” He told right-wingers:
“Do not associate my name with anything you do. You are extremists and you’ve hurt the Republican Party much more than Democrats have.”
In 1996, he told fellow Republican, Bob Dole, who had been trashed by the elder George Bush, “We’re the new liberals of the Republican Party. Can you imagine that?”
That year Goldwater, to the dismay of the Christian right, endorsed an Arizona initiative to legalize medical marihuana. As the Senate Republican leader Dole was another principled conservative who ran afoul of the right-wing, perhaps because he joined Senator Ted Kennedy in sponsoring legislation to provide for elementary school lunches for low-income American students.
There were other staunch conservatives who made the Senate work:
• Senator Robert A. Taft, of Ohio, who died before my time covering the Senate, was “Mr. Republican,” a powerful “isolationist,” an opponent of the New Deal and Franklin Roosevelt’s effort to go to war against the Nazis. But he was the son of a trust-buster, William Howard Taft and came to support Social Security, unemployment insurance, strict banking regulation and, after the war, the United Nations.
• Democrat Richard Russell of Georgia, a segregationist to the end, who nevertheless helped Lyndon Johnson become the Majority leader.
• Democrat Robert Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan, who defeated Ted Kennedy for a leadership post and became a fervent fighter against the growth of executive power to engage in wars.
• Republican Robert P. Griffin, of Michigan, who I knew, helped defeat Richard Nixon’s worst Supreme Court nominees, Clement Haynesworth and Harold Carswell, as well as Johnson’s attempt to make a political crony, Abe Fortas, the Chief Justice.
• Another staunch conservative Republican, Roman Hruska, defended Carswell, but contributed to his defeat by saying that even the mediocre need “a little representation.”
Although not in the Senate even Ronald Reagan, in partnership with then Senate leader Robert Dole, tempered his conservatism as he grew in office. A year after his sweeping tax cuts, one-third across the board, Reagan thought better of the growing federal deficit and reluctantly approved record tax increases.
After denouncing Social Security for years and trying to make it voluntary, Reagan presided over the rescue of Social Security in 1983 that has built its $2.6 trillion trust fund. And after declaring the then-Soviet Union the “evil empire,” his peacemaking and arms agreements with Moscow from 1986-88, helped end the cold war.
After his presidency, Reagan, who once hoped the United Nations would leave the U.S., became a champion of the United Nations and called for a humanitarian “army of conscience” to rescue the beleaguered people of Africa.
These conservatives were not like those radicals of today, pouncing on every opportunity to change the Constitution. Reagan was opposed to abortion, but did not press for legislation or a constitutional amendment to ban it. And as far as I know, after Ervin put the kibosh on the proposal for a constitutional convention, the drive to change the Constitution and the Bill of Rights has abated – until now.
And it’s more than ironic that people who call themselves “conservatives” and “strict constructionists” are seeking to end rather than “conserve” and “preserve” fundamental liberties.
Consider the differences between those traditional and flexible conservatives and the lockstep Senate Republicans under leader Mitch McConnell who are setting new records for filibustering to block virtually every presidential initiative and nomination.
Almost as one, they deny the science of climate change; oppose all abortions, even when rape or incest is involved; would cut taxes for the wealthy and deny that will increase the deficit; complain that unemployment insurance will keep the jobless from working; would repeal health reforms as a federal takeover.
Intellectual? Try Republican Senator Lindsay Graham, (SC), testing Supreme Court nominee Elana Kagan’s faith by asking her where she was on Christmas. Her glorious put down: “Like all good Jews I was probably at a Chinese restaurant.” Graham was one of the few Republicans who voted to confirm her.
Ben Evans, writing for The Huffington Post, counts 42 proposed constitutional amendments filed in this congressional session by the most right wing members. (In fairness, Democratic Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Illinois, has proposed a package of 27 amendments none of which would repeal any part of the Constitution, but would enhance voting rights and deal with congressional succession in a natural disaster.)
The Republican proposals, however, would limit freedoms as defined by Supreme Court decisions. They include:
• a flag desecration amendment, although the courts have said such acts pf protest are protected by the freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment
• an amendment to require a balanced budget, which would stunt all federal government growth and give the nation the problems the states are having because most are required to balance their budgets
• an amendment to require a super majority in Congress (two-thirds) to raise taxes
• a parental rights amendment giving parents the right to raise their children as they see fit
• a “human life” amendment, banning abortion
• a federal marriage amendment banning same sex marriages
• repeal of the 17th Amendment (1913) requiring that senators be elected rather than appointed
• an amendment, proposed by Tea Party activists, to repeal the 16th Amendment (1913) which gives Congress the right to levy taxes and spend money
• an amendment prohibiting government ownership of private businesses (as in the bank and automobile manufacturers bailouts)
• an amendment to limit the “commerce clause,” which from earliest days has given the federal government power to regulate “interstate commerce,” meaning the economy (as in the health reform requirement to have medical insurance)
• and an effort, supported by Republican leaders, who have long abandoned Lincoln’s legacy, to repeal parts of the 14th Amendment (1868) which, among other things, gave former slaves American citizenship to counter the notorious Dred Scott case in which the Supreme Court ruled that slaves were chattel and not persons
That current drive to repeal the 14th Amendment (one of three passed during post Civil War Reconstruction to expand American freedoms) move was prompted by hostility towards undocumented immigrants whose children born in the U.S. automatically become citizens (although their parents do not.)
This hostility was carried to ridiculous extremes by a Texas nut congressman who claimed the 14th Amendment would allow women to come to America to have “terrorist babies,” who would become citizens so they could one day attack America. The pity of this idiocy is that it is aided and abetted by the current Republican leaders and the most active and outspoken right-wingers.
The 14th amendment, if you don’t have a copy, also includes: “nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty or property, without due process of law.”
That has become the basis of the school desegregation decision, women’s rights, the right of an accused to have a lawyer and countless other advances in individual liberties. Once it is opened for change, can we trust these hard-shell Republican radicals to leave the “due process clause” alone?
Constitutional historian Richard Beeman writes:
“Perhaps the most significant and far-reaching amendment to the Constitution, the 14th Amendment,” is viewed by many scholars and jurists as the provision of the Constitution that has brought the principles enunciated in the preamble of the Declaration of Independence into the realm of constitutional law - life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Friko: The Briefcase