'How The Right Went Wrong"

Professor Emeritus Jeffrey Hart '51 doesn't lack for conservative credentials. But he's never been on board with the Bush administration.

by James Panero '98

Jeffrey Hart ’51 has the personality of a sportsman. A retired professor of English, now in his late-70s, Hart still attends every Dartmouth football game, he says, “until it gets freezing.”

Nearly 60 years ago, when he first arrived at Dartmouth as an undergraduate, Hart set out from his room in Topliff (“a god awful dormitory,” he says, “it’s like a prison”) for a round of tennis across the street.

“I saw a student waiting there. Nobody around. So we played a set. Not a real competitive set. I beat the guy. Turns out he was number one on the varsity. The coach showed up while we were playing. He said ‘You ask me before you go on the courts.’ I said, ‘You weren’t here.’ He said, ‘You wait until I'm here.’ Our relationship went downhill from there.”

This episode turned out to be a problem for the coach, who “played tennis in his old army trousers and black socks,” according to Hart, then ranked on his Junior Davis Cup squad but not yet a member of the Dartmouth team. “To be fair, I was not lacking in self confidence.”

After two years at Dartmouth, Hart transferred to Columbia, where he became one of Lionel Trilling’s best students. Diana Trilling, the wife of the literary and social critic, calls Hart one of the “Who’s Who of the gifted undergraduates of the thirties, forties, and early fifties.”

Hart also joined the tennis team at Columbia. “Playing number one at Columbia, I won my match at Dartmouth during Green Key Weekend, and was pleased to be congratulated by the Dartmouth coach,” he says. “I was polite when the coach congratulated me. I felt like saying a few other things.”

Hart retired in 1993 as one of Dartmouth’s most admired professors of English—and one of its fiercest. In that year he taught his final course, on Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and T.S. Eliot, to a roomful of 600 students. “It was given in Spaulding Auditorium,” he complains. “I had to use a microphone. I felt like Fidel Castro addressing a mob.”

Today Hart lives with his wife, Nancy, in a former schoolhouse in Lyme, New Hampshire, that was once owned by his father, Clifford (class of 1921). Nancy uses a corner of the house, by the stove, to keep the antique embroidery and quilts she sells at a stand in Quechee, Vermont. The other corners are filled with old paintings, mainly of ships. “Franklin Roosevelt’s personal sailboat is up there,” notes Hart, motioning toward the paintings.

Also visible are some less expected items—a manuscript called “Our Era Defined: Contempt for Fact,” and a dossier on “WMD Claims.” Hart’s dining room table displays an official-looking document called “The Constitution in Crisis: The Downing Street Minutes and Deception, Manipulation, Torture, Retribution, and Coverups in the Iraq War,” produced by the “Investigative Status Report of the House Judiciary Committee Democratic Staff.”

“I do my homework,” Hart mutters.

Typing away at his computer, Hart is now engaged in the game of his life, and his opponent is an unexpected one: George W. Bush.

A former speechwriter for Nixon and Reagan, Hart does not lack for conservative credentials. He has advised National Review longer than anyone except its founder, William F. Buckley, Jr. During his teaching days he flew to New York City every two weeks to attend editorial meetings as the magazine’s senior editor. He still holds the title but the frequent trips have ended. A mentor to generations of Dartmouth students, Hart has also seen a small army of them graduate and settle into the conservative circles of Washington and New York. They have landed jobs at National Review, The Wall Street Journal and in Republican administrations, including the George W. Bush White House.

The conservative Dartmouth Review—“Dartmouth’s school of journalism,” as Hart calls it—was founded upon Hart’s suggestion in his own living room in 1980. Hart continues to serve as the newspaper's advisor, lunching regularly with student editors at his new favorite restaurant, The Canoe Club on Main Street.

Yet in 2005, not long after Bush’s reelection, Hart fired his first volley against the administration. In the galley copies of “The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times,” his history of the magazine, Hart included the following statement in his final chapter: “Bush will be judged the worst President in American history, from both a conservative and a liberal point of view, finding a consensus on the bottom, at last, and so achieving a landslide victory that evaded him in 2004.”
Hart’s strong words put him at odds with the editorial line of the magazine he was writing about and representing. His statements complicated plans to tie the book into the magazine’s 50th anniversary celebrations, part of which Bush was scheduled to take part in that fall—not as the “bottom among American Presidents,” but as the magazine’s honored guest.

Hart has always held certain views outside of the conservative mainstream. An advocate for stem-cell research, Hart debated another National Review editor on the subject in 2004. Early in 2005, Hart wrote a long editorial for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called “The Evangelical Effect.” Finding fault in Bush’s evangelicalism—in 2000, Bush declared that Jesus Christ was his most influential political philosopher—Hart wrote: “The Bush Presidency often is called conservative. This is a mistake. It is populist and radical, and its principal energies have roots in American history, and these roots are not conservative.”
When his book finally appeared in hardcover at the end of 2005, after a rewrite, the Bush attacks were expunged, but a number of other position statements—on abortion, stem-cell research, and Iraq—still contradicted National Review’s editorial line and the line of the Republican Party. It was of little surprise that Hart’s book remained absent from his magazine's anniversary celebration. But Hart was only emboldened by the experience. By the end of 2005, he was engaged in the most controversial political match of his career.

After the episode over his book, Hart wrote an editorial on the conservative movement for The Wall Street Journal. Called “The Burke Habit,” it traced a line of conservative thought from Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) to Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind (1953).
Drawing on Pascal’s statement that “man is neither angel nor brute, and the misfortune is that he who would act the angel acts the brute,” Hart wrote: “The Conservative Mind, most of the time, has shown a healthy resistance to utopianism and its various informed ideologies. Ideology is always wrong because it edits reality and paralyzes thought.”

Point by point, Hart used this definition of conservatism to attack Bush and the Republican party platform for not being conservative enough, on the grounds of their “ideology.” He knocked the Republican record on the environment, suggested that a ban on abortion would never succeed, and lamented Bush’s neoconservative approach to Iraq. “Conservatives assume that the Republican Party is by and large conservative,” he concluded. “But the party has stood for many and various things in its history. The most recent change occurred in 1964, when its center of gravity shifted to the South and the Sunbelt….The consequences of that profound shift are evident.”

Reaction to the editorial was swift. In a little more than a week, Peter Wehner, director of the White House’s Office of Strategic Initiatives, a special staff unit that reports to Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove, e-mailed to journalists a five-page rebuttal titled “Responding to Professor Jeffrey Hart.”
Hart called Wehner's response "a worthless regurgitation of 'democracy is breaking out all over the world.' Abstractions, abstractions."

Hart had more to say in a letter to Michael Ellis '06, a former editor of The Dartmouth Review who now works with Wehner in the White House: "First of all, everything Reagan attempted succeeded. Everything Bush has attempted has failed. Social Security, prescription drugs, budget, Iraq, Katrina. More 'ownership society' bunk is coming up in 'medical accounts.' On the policy of preemptive war in Iraq: "In contrast to Bush, Reagan was very cautious in his use of force... As Margaret Thatcher said, he destroyed the Soviet Union 'without firing a shot.' That was a major achievement. Iraq is a disaster."
Even while falling out with his party, Hart relishes the sport of his latest engagement, as expressed in a more recent series of editorials, including one for the left-wing Washington Monthly that ran in October. He also appeared on National Public Radio denouncing Bush on stem-cell research, and he used a book-signing at the Dartmouth Bookstore, which aired on C-SPAN, to attack Bush on national TV.

“Like the Whig gentry who were the Founders, I loathe populism,” Hart explains. “Most especially in the form of populist religion, i.e., the current pestiferous bible-banging evangelicals, whom I regard as organized ignorance, a menace to public health, to science, to medicine, to serious Western religion, to intellect and indeed to sanity. Evangelicalism, driven by emotion, and not creedal, is thoroughly erratic and by its nature cannot be conservative. My conservatism is aristocratic in spirit, anti-populist and rooted in the Northeast. It is Burke brought up to date. A ‘social conservative’ in my view is not a moral authoritarian Evangelical who wants to push people around, but an American gentleman, conservative in a social sense. He has gone to a good school, maybe shops at J. Press, maybe plays tennis or golf, and drinks either Bombay or Beefeater martinis, or maybe Dewar's on the rocks, or both."

While Hart has won some supporters on the right, conservatives such as George Will, Francis Fukuyama, and Buckley have questioned the prosecution of the Iraq war but have largely restrained from commenting on Hart’s broader claims of Bush’s evangelical ideology.

Hart’s former students have different perspectives on their teacher’s latest game.

“Bush has been fortunate in his enemies,” notes Joe Rago ’05, a former editor of The Dartmouth Review and now a member of the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal. “That’s not the case with Jeff Hart. His critique of the Bush administration, whether one agrees with it or not, is probably the most rigorous, utterly principled, and intellectually stimulating ever set down.”

Alston Ramsay ’04, a former editor of both The Dartmouth Review and National Review who now works for Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, disagrees: “There is no doubt that Hart's encyclopedic knowledge of literature could make even the lousiest argument take on the sheen of verisimilitude. But in his recent writings the willingness to ignore contradictory evidence, the monopolistic way he defines his terms, the baffling dislike of Evangelicals—it all adds up, and even his legitimate points become hard to discern through the haze of his own internal contradictions. About the only thing Jeff Hart has convinced me of recently is that ‘conservatism’ is what Jeff Hart says it is. No more, no less.”

Hart’s young colleagues at National Review have been equally unsympathetic: “In every generation,” wrote Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru in the magazine, “some conservatives will lose the intramural debates, and it will be only natural for them to feel that they have lost them unfairly. They will maintain that they alone have stayed true to the faith. Liberals will, in turn, be delighted to tout these scolds as exemplars of a good conservatism.”

The amusing affectations of Hart’s teaching days—the meerschaum pipes, the “TR for President” buttons—are now notably absent, replaced by the resolve of a sportsman intent on a win. He has sworn off alcohol. His daily schedule takes him from writing editorials in the morning to Baker Library, where he conducts his research, to answering letters and sending e-mail in the afternoon.

Hart has just completed a manuscript of essays called “The Living Moment: How Literature Matters.” During the fall term, he audited Robert Hollander’s class on Dante. “He’s a major scholar in Dante, probably the best in the English speaking world,” Hart says of Hollander. “Very demanding.”

And Hart’s next project?

He’s considering a memoir, among other things. “I don’t know whether to do that next or whether to write a book called ‘How the Conservatives Committed Suicide by Forgetting Burke and Backing Bush.’ I'm going to see if I can get an advance from an agent on that,” he says. “I’ve got to do that quickly before it’s banal.”

It may not be match point, but Hart is clearly content to run the President, and the conservative movement, all over the court.
James Panero ’98 is managing editor of The New Criterion and co-editor of The Dartmouth Review Pleads Innocent (ISI), an anthology of the conservative student newspaper.


Jeffrey Hart responds:
December 17, 2006

Dear James,

I think your article in the Alumni Magazine is very good, and it’s fun to have it there. It does make me more colorful than I feel, so maybe I’ll have to ramp up my act a bit to live up to it. Though, in a recent Blog Andrew Sullivan did refer to me as a “legend at Dartmouth,” before approving of something I’d published.

In your article you use the tennis analogy very nicely, making it into a larger metaphor, and the whole piece works together like an especially skillful New Yorker Profile.

I may take out a “New York Contract” on the life of the illustrator who did that cartoon. There go my chances of displacing Brad Pitt.

I think your article will be very good for The Dartmouth Review, among alumni especially, since as you say I have been associated with it from the beginning, and my conservatism is of the common sense kind, or, as Jim Burnham used to say, a conservatism that depends upon “fact and analysis.”
“Fact and analysis” are not the strong suits of “conservatives” who back Bush.

The work you put into the article made it good, and also calls for some comments and information from my direction.

One word I’d have changed in your article is “expunged.” My first-draft analysis of Bush II contained criticisms that were not “expunged” during the editorial process but rather “softened” by being changed into questions rather than conclusive statements. This change might well have made the book more hospitable to many readers.

Buckley did object to my conclusion that Bush had been the worst American president in that earlier draft. He thought it too categorical, and, at the time I was writing, he was right. That was soon after the 2004 election. But much of the evidence now is in. And I’m sure that somewhere James Buchanan is throwing a champagne party. He’s no longer the worst.

One paragraph, however, did disappear altogether from my text; and I did not notice this until I looked at the printed copy. I had been commenting on the approval by California voters of $4 billion for stem cell research, and on the laboratories that were proceeding without federal funds, I said that the argument about stem cell research is over “for all practical purposes.” I meant “political” purposes, a large majority in Congress reflecting a large majority of Americans favoring the research and federal support. That paragraph disappeared. About the stem cell issue, more in a moment.

However, though softened, as I say, my analytical criticisms of Bush were clear enough for many reviewers, including George Will, who noticed them in his New York Times review.

I was amused by the statement you quote from Jonah Goldberg and Ramesh Ponnuru that I’m among the conservatives who have lost the “intramural” argument about what conservatism in fact is.

What they are maintaining is that Bush now defines conservatism, and that to deny this is to lose the “intramural” argument.

To be sure, Bush claims to be a conservative, and the media generally take him at his word. But the media are what Marshall McLuhan called “low differentiation” in terms of communication.

Bush is not a liberal, and he is not a conservative. He is a right-wing ideologue whose abstract imperatives across the board are characteristically disconnected from actuality. That is precisely the reason why he is a failed president.

Moreover, I would insist that the definition of “conservative” has been clear since Burke evolved it (if I’m still permitted to use that verb) in his Reflections (1790) and his Thoughts on French Affairs (1791). In the first, Burke was struggling against “ideology,” as we would say, or as he called it “metaphysical politics” or “abstract dogma.” That is, thought disconnected from actuality, and destructive of social institutions, which he saw as the habits of society. In the second appraisal (1791), Burke recognized that, quite apart from the philosophes’ abstract ideas, the Revolution had been inevitable. Too many intractable problems had accumulated. In 1790, Burke was centrally concerned with social structure, in the latter with social process. ( Russell Kirk grasps none of that.)

I would call Burke an analytical realist, despite a few operatic passages such as the one on Marie Antoinette (his friend Philip Francis warned him against those.)

Getting back to Goldberg and Ponnuru, and the “intramural debate” I’m supposed to have lost.

Reagan economic advisor Bruce Bartlett called his book on Bush economic policy Imposter. And rightly so. But “imposter” also describes Bush comprehensively insofar as he claims to be a conservative.

Goldberg and Punnuru are certainly correct in saying that I have lost the “intramural debate” among the ignorami who agree that Bush is conservative.

I certainly was not aboard that Ship of Fools, so-called “conservatives” as well as “neo-conservatives” – more correctly neo-trotskyites – who sailed with Bush right over Niagra Falls and smashed to pieces on the rocks of reality below.

Of course, Iraq has been the centerpiece of Bushism, but it’s not the only disaster.

Iraq was Wilsonian democratizing ideology plus Rumsfeld Blitzgrieg. There were no WMD, the claims were dishonest, and the war has been the greatest strategic blunder in American history. The Middle East is and has long been more important to American interests than Indochina could possibly be.

The “conservatives” and neo-trotskyites made no analysis of Iraqi history, failed to examine the fractured religious culture of Iraq, or its resistant culture generally – paid no attention to all of those Burkean considerations of social structure. And failing to do so they have been the architects of disaster. Abstractionists, “democratizers” in the teeth of history and fact, they have resembled, mutadis mutandis, Burke’s enemies the philosphes.

Far from being a democracy, Iraq is now in a Hobbesian state of nature. The only regime Bush changed was his own, in the 2006 election. He did not effect “regime change” in Iraq, because there’s no regime there at all now. Bush broke it, and he can’t fix it. And he may have destabilized the entire Middle East, as Iran backs the Shiites and the Saudis the Sunnis.

The real-world result of Bushism, what Goldberg and Ponnuru call conservative, is that Bush’s overall approval rating is 31% while Cheney’s approval rating is lost in the carpet. And 27% actually approve the war. Who the hell are they?

If Goldberg-Ponnuru have won the “intramural argument” among the ignorami, their boy Bush has lost the argument with actuality.

I wasn’t the only one who got off that Ship of Fools. So did Colin Powell, but only after he had been suckered into using bogus intelligence to sell the war to Congress and the American people.

Iraq has not been the only problem with Bushism. On signature issues:

1. According to a CNN/USA Today Poll, 65% of the American people oppose the repeal of Roe vs. Wade, less than half, 29% favoring its overthrow.

2. 82% of the American people were opposed to the intervention of the Republican Congress and Bush in the Terri Schiavo case. When there was a spike in the demand for “living wills” because of the intervention, Ponnuru in NR declared such will should be invalid as tantamount to suicide. Somehow even the Tom Delay Congress never took up that idea.

3. Embyonic stem cell research is supported in the nation by almost 2-1, 58% -- 31%. This year, before the November electoral blowout the Senate voted 63-37 for federal funding. Bush was there with his veto. The socially conservative state of Missouri approved Proposition 2, pro-stem
research. How the new Congress will vote remains to be seen.

While the $4 billion voted in California has been tied up in the courts. Governor Schwartzenegger, confident of legal success, has loaned laboratories $150 million to proceed.

South Korea, Japan and Singapore push ahead, while China is cooperating with the EU on stem cell research.

I would say that on this issue my assertion that “for all practical purposes the argument is over was completely correct, indeed self-evident.

What is not self-evident is why NR continues to beat a tin drum on this issue.

Never to be out-extremed, Ponnuru declared editorially in NR that a single embryo (e.g., fertilized egg) “must not be destroyed no matter how noble the cause.” No matter how noble the cause. In other words, the single cell is to be absolutized over every other consideration. WHHHHeeeeeeee! Even curing bubonic plague. Even end of the world!

It is a very peculiar kind of conservatism that values life only in utero.

In her article on stem cells in The Dartmouth Review, Emily Ghods-Esfahani quoted Professor Lee Witters (Biology, Medicine) to this effect:

“If you had a child with Diabetes Type 1 (debilitating, life-altering) and I told you I had a few cells that could cure her, would you turn this down?”

In the world of common sense there is only one answer to that question: “of course not.”

4. On the Evangelicals, I have cited numerous examples of where evangelical influence has been ideological and destructive, on bogus teachings of all sorts by “faith-based” groups on condoms, the notion that AIDS is transmitted by sweat, on and on; and we could add the corruption of the FDA on “Plan B” or the “morning after pill,” delaying and delaying until the Senate threatened to block a new director.

One of my favorites is the book on sale in federally-owned bookstores at the Grand canyon, telling tourists that the Canyon was caused by Noah’s Flood.

For the whole Evangelical influence I will use a synecdoche: Bush has said that “Intelligent Design should be taught along with Evolution.” “Along with” I suppose means in Biology Class.

Wow. I guess I really have lost the “intramural debate,” if Bushism is what “conservative” means.

We will have to look for another word to designate the reality-based view of the world heretofore called conservative.

Thanks again for the very fine article. It brought forward a great deal that deserves to be more generally realized.




UPDATE 12/22: National Review's Ramesh Ponnunu has also written a response, which I have posted here.