Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk

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Herein lies one of my greatest failings as a book reviewer:  I am too slow.  Too slow to get the books read.  Too slow to get the reviews written.  Sometimes, too slow to understand what the books are about.  On the other hand, I am quick at starting books.  A few pages in and I often find myself saying, “This is great.”  I want digress into yet another problem which is that I am too easily pleased, informed, amused, and enamored by the books I read.  I don’t have enough critical faculties to dislike the books I review, and I usually avoid picking and reviewing books I suspect I will dislike.

This brings us to Imaginative Conservatism: The Letters of Russell Kirk, edited by James E. Person, Jr. and published by the University of Kentucky Press.  I have tried to make myself race through this book.  I have attempted to be like the high school or college student who has procrastinated but now must get the book read before the upcoming test.  But I cannot.

This book is divided into six decades from Kirk’s life.  He lived from 1918 to 1994, but the letters cover the decades starting with the 1940’s.  We get glimpses of Kirk’s experiences and thoughts during World War II.  He was far from the fronts, for he was located in the American west, but he did comment on events from that time.  From there, we see Kirk as a student in Scotland and a teacher in Michigan.  Over the years, he was constantly corresponding with literary figures, publishers, and political thinkers regarding upcoming writing ventures and book reviews.

Just as we often don’t want our children to grow up too fast, I don’t want to get to the end of this book too fast.  I am at a point where Kirk is not yet close to William F. Buckley, Jr., but that bond will be starting soon.  Letter by letter, the man who wrote books on conservative thought and who became one of the key leaders in the conservative movement is in the process of “becoming” as the book develops.

Let’s pause here and look at the bigger picture for a moment.  Now is an important time for reading, thinking, and teaching people to grasp something of the conservative movement.  Don’t think that conservatism is what you hear on talk radio, what is represented by the Trump Administration, what is broadcast on Fox News, or what the Republican Party embraces.  Granted, there are conservative aspects found in all of the above.  But what passes for conservatism that is loved by many and hated and caricatured by others is not to be strictly identified with the conservative movement that Kirk adhered to.

For example, popular (or populist) conservatism tends to be solely consumed with politics, elections, and fear-mongering conspiracies.  Who are the great literary figures we associate today with conservatism?  Brad Thor?  (I like Brad Thor’s Scot Harvath novels quite a lot.)  Great conservative man he is, but not a great literary figure. Who are the great political philosophers we associate with conservatism today?  Rush or Glenn Beck?  (Please stop laughing.)

Russell Kirk rightly associated conservatism with literary figures like T. S. Eliot, with whom he was a friend and of whom he wrote a book about.  Kirk’s pantheon of political philosophers included men like Edmund Burke, Sir Walter Scott (also a literary figure), John Randolph, Richard Weaver, and Cicero.

Conservatism was not a set of bullet points.  Nor was it a series of panic-driven conspiratorial links, blogs, and radio hosts.  Conservatism was deeply rooted in thought and tradition.  And it wasn’t a uniform list of approved and accepted voices from the past.  Conservatives from that era disagreed sharply over which figures of the past they should embrace and which they should eschew.

The breadth of thought, the exceedingly wide range of intellectual interests, and the mental explorations of meaning are what made men like Russell Kirk so valuable in their time.  It is what makes them still challenging and rewarding to read.  Add to that this feature, these were men and women of the full range of life.  Kirk enjoyed food, drink, travel, conversation, art, beauty, and life.  While it was later in life that he joined the Catholic Church, he recognized the centrality of a moral order rooted in the God of the Bible.  While it was relatively late in life that he married, he delighted in family and home life.

His story is aptly and enjoyably told in the book Russell Kirk: American Conservative by Bradley Birzer.  It was one of the best books I read in 2017.  This collection of letters gives yet another biographical look at the man, in this case through his own words.  Both books are published by the University of Kentucky Press.  Both are real gems.

Russell Kirk wrote quite a few books over his lifetime.  Some are in depth studies of topics (conservative thought, the Constitution, economics, etc.) or individuals (such as Eliot or John Randolph or Edmund Burke). He also wrote ghost stories and other fiction.  Gone now for over two decades, his wit and wisdom are still much needed today.  In an age of unimaginative conservatism, we need Kirk–the Imaginative Conservative.


John Fea’s Books on History and Politics

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There is just never enough time and energy to read all the books we want and need to read.  For those of us for whom reading is a passion, we are utterly unable to understand people who are content with never or rarely reading.  None of this is said to demean other worthwhile activities ranging from church work to sports to watching movies to visiting friends.  But reading, for me and maybe you, ranks right up there really close with eating and drinking.

History, to no one’s surprise, is the closest and most long-term delight that I have as a subject for reading, writing, and teaching.  There are several periods of history that are more consuming than others, and high on the list is political history.  Just last night while visiting a bookstore, I gazed longingly on a book about the 1968 Presidential election and another about the 2012 Presidential election.  In a fit of showing off, I walked my students through all the Presidential elections in American history by naming and describing a bit about both the winners and the losers.  (For about ten minutes, I could not remember Horatio Seymour of New York who lost to Gen. Grant in 1868.)

So far, I have read only one book about the amazing, weird, quirky, disgusting, and yet thoroughly enjoyable 2016 election.  The book I read was P. J. O’Rourke’s How the H*^# Did This Happen?  I thought the title explained a lot even for those of us who seek to guard our language more that PJO.  That book, as is typical of O’Rourke, was incredibly funny, sneakily brilliant, and very timely.  While whole tables full of books have appeared both celebrating and bemoaning the results, I am restraining from even looking at most of them.  (Sad to say, Hillary Clinton’s What Happened?  will probably never appear on my reading list.)

But I have now purchased a book on the election with the intent of reading it very soon.  Pictured above, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump is by historian John Fea and is published by Eerdmans.  Dr. Fea is a professor of history at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania.  Because of his reputation as a Christian and a historian, I bought the book.  Because of my puzzlement at the marriage of convenience between evangelicals and then candidate Trump, I bought the book.  Byron Borger, owner, operator, and book reviewer at Hearts and Minds bookstore, tipped the already leaning scales in favor of me buying the book and buying it from his store.  (More about that later.)

Something went far awry in the 2016 election.  The Republicans had a bench full of incredibly apt and experienced Presidential candidates.  Some very fine men proved to be inept candidates, such as Jeb Bush (who seemed hollow and plastic), Lindsay Graham (who was totally unconvincing), Rick Perry (who missed his chances in 2012), and others.  But there were some really worthy men running.  My favorite was and still is Sen. Marco Rubio.  Sen. Ted Cruz, minus his awkward facial expressions and irritatingly preaching speaking style, was also top rate.  John Kasich, who eventually became a bore, was very gifted.  Even Dr. Ben Carson was appealing if one could accept having a President who knew nothing about the job.  (Note the hint of irony there.)

The shocks of the primary season were unending.  But for me, the biggest sign that something was crazy amiss was when the so-called Christian right, the old voting groups that used to be called the Moral Majority, and the faction within the Republican Party that was labeled as evangelicals completely ignored evangelical heroes of the past, like Huckaby and Santorum (who appealed to evangelicals even though he is Catholic) and of the present like Rubio, Cruz, Kasich, and others.  Donald Trump stated that he was Presbyterian, although he never demonstrated even the least bit of familiarity with any Presbyterian doctrines or practices. (One could digress into the Presbyterian/Calvinistic/Reformed teaching about total depravity, but will not.)  Mr. Trump even denied having any need to seek forgiveness.

It all still seems like a weird dream.  The party that welcomed the evangelicals and religious right into its ranks during the Reagan years, the party that was absolutely appalled at the moral degradation that Pres. Clinton brought to the office and name of the Presidency, the party that was extremely cautious about the moral and upright but Morman Mitt Romney, suddenly embraced and gushed over a man who had been twice divorced (for less than biblical reasons), who ran gambling casinos, who was rude, uncouth, and uninformed, and who seemed vacant minded about most moral issues.

Of course, the story is more complicated.  The Democrats borrowed the old and often failing Republican playbook.  That is, they nominated an old party worker who had tried and failed to capture the nomination once before.  (The last time that had happened was 1968 and it failed then as well.) And it nominated a person whose campaign skills were on the level of an accountant, whose personality was tree-like, whose energy level was sloth-like, whose debate skills were less than those of Dan Quayle.  And the Democrat candidate was so heavy laden with personal scandals, outright and bizarre lies, and her husband’s infidelites, that she stood almost no chance of winning anything beyond the millions of old time party machine votes.

2016 revealed some real and underlying currents of anger, unrest, econmic fears, and resignation among the American public.  Why did we not see this when Iowa was showing up in the Trump electoral camp in all the polling early on?  Of course, experts, news people, and (most important) political bookies (people who set betting odds) missed it.  I knew something was wrong or right and different when Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, and even Virginia were still up in the air on election night.  Candidate Trump carried three of those four states that Pres. Obama won twice.

After Wisconsin got called for Trump at about midnight, I knew it was over.  Candidate Clinton would have had to win nearly all of the remaining states to clinch the victory.  As a spectator sport, election night 2016 was the superbowl plus.

Some disclosures are in order:  About a half hour before my wife and I went to vote, I finally made up my mind to vote for Candidate Trump.  Arkansas was nowhere near being a swing state, so my vote was not going to “make a difference,” as we often say.  I would have and could have never voted for Mrs. Clinton.  To put it nicely, I did not think her health or energy level would enable her to ever be anything but “the first woman elected President.”  I was constantly surprised that few reporters commented on how little campaigning she did.  The “most qualified person for the Presidency” (as then-Pres. Obama called her) spent days and days preparing for three debates that she lost or at least failed to gain ground from.

I debated the also-ran candidates.  The Libertarian candidate was a nut and a man operating on no information.  Evan McMullin who ran on the “I am a little like Mitt Romney” ticket was not worth taking time for. The parties that are only on four or five ballots across the nation are not even considered.  So, I decided to vote for Vice President Mike Pence and his running mate.

A year and a half later, I am thankful for many changes I see in the government and the country.  I am surprised at many good decisions that President Trump has made.  I would not be surprised if future decisions are not agreeable.  Many of his tweets and comments are embarrassing and shocking.  I no longer tell kids to study hard and learn because they might be President some day.

Whatever the case is after four to eight years of President Trump, the election of 2016 will remain a puzzle for lots of reasons.  One of the parts I hope to understand better is what created “the evangelical road to Donald Trump.”

Other books from my library by John Fea:

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Very good book that I am currently reading.

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Post Script:  A word or ten concerning Hearts and Minds Bookstore in Dallastown, Pennsylvania.

I buy lots of books from Amazon and Books-A-Million.  But those are companies, not people.  Independent bookstores struggle to survive, but they offer a product that cannot be found in the big operations.  Byron Borger posts reviews every month or so highlighting a number of books that thinking and reading Christians should consider.  These reviews appear under the section called Booknotes.  

Often I will read about a book that Byron likes that I would never ever ever ever want to read.  Then right after that, I will read about a book he is recommending that I suddenly cannot live without.  If he and I were neighbors (along with being Christian brothers), we would always be going from delightful shared ideas to mean-faced arguments about differences.  That’s what I like about him.

Support independent bookstores.  You may end up paying a bit more in some cases, but you get better services and personal attention.  The big chains will sell Bibles if Bibles are hot items, but they will just as readily sell pornography.  Books are a number in a warehouse to them.  Independent bookstore owners are finding matching orphaned books on the shelves with homes where they will be loved.

I bought Believe Me from Hearts and Minds.  The service is fast.  If ever I end up going into Byron’s store, I fear I will never come out.

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Byron Borger, bookseller: He sells them if he believes what they say is good, true, and beautiful.


Confounding Founding Father: Thomas Jefferson

I frequently come across people today who say, “Have you ever seen a President being attacked like this one is being attacked?”  These people are usually supporters of President Trump who have been angered by the government, politicians, and the media for years.  Pres. Trump, better than any politician in the last 36 years, was able to tap into that anger and surprise everyone in November of 2016.  The President’s actions, words, attitudes, and tweets have continued to create a firestorm of protests, complaints, and anguish.  The election results shocked the nation and embarrassed the pollsters.  Efforts to calm the raging storm for the past eleven months have been few.

But let’s go back to the question:  Has any President ever been so viciously attacked? The answer is yes.  The President to start with is George Washington.  The first President is iconic and marble-like that it is hard to fathom how mean-spirited and cruel some of the attacks were on him.  The short, unhappy presidency of John Adams was a time of immense criticism for the chief executive.  Adams’ support of the Alien and Sedition Acts didn’t do much to deflect such criticism.  He could, on occasion, be his own worst enemy, but he had no lack of other enemies snapping at him.

Thomas Jefferson also endured a long string of attacks over the course of his career.  A survey of attacks on presidents could cover the whole gamut of men who served in the Oval Office, but we will focus on Jefferson.  The book Confounding Father:  Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time by Robert M. S. McDonald is about Jefferson’s dealings with the press, his image, and the spin give on his actions on the American political scene.

On the one hand, Jefferson was statesman like in his bearing, his labors, and his overall contributions to America.  It was his pen that produced the Declaration of Independence.  He served in a number of political posts, both elected and appointed.  Just dwell over his resume:  Member of the Continental Congress, member of the committee to draft a Declaration of Independence,  governor of Virginia, foreign ambassador to France, first Secretary of State, Vice President, President, and founder of the University of Virginia.  Most of these posts are associated with great accomplishments.

“We hold these truths to be self-evident:  That all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are .”

“We are all Federalists.  We are all Republicans.”

“I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past.”

These quotes, and many more could be added, testify to Jefferson the statesman, Jefferson the scholar,  Jefferson the philosopher/king.  He truly had some real nobility in his actions and devotions to the things he believed.

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One the other hand, Jefferson was one canny politician.  In the legendary Kenny Rogers’ song “The Gambler,” it says, “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run….”  That wisdom has its own application in the political world.  Jefferson could cut an enemy without ever weilding a weapon himself.  He used newspapers, friends, and circumstances to advance himself and detract from his opponents.

One of the more unusual traits of our politically ambitious founding fathers was their ability to appear totally disinterested in political office, such as the presidency.  Presidents Washington and Jefferson were both masters at that ploy.  Maybe they would have been perfectly happy never to have been the President, but one suspects they wanted the job as much as candidates do today who seek the office.  But mouthing about ambition was not acceptable in their time.

Jefferson ably presented his better side to the voters.  There were troubling issues, largely personal.  Frequently, Jefferson was attacking for cowardice (fleeing from the British during the War for Independence), for having a slave mistress, and for not being an orthodox Christian.  He did, in fact, flee from the approaching British army (led by Benedict Arnold) while he was governor of Virginia.  It was perhaps more prudence than cowardly.  The question of a slave mistress (namely Sally Hemings) was not broached by the man himself.  Due to a tendency among southern plantation owners to be involved with slave women, it was not a touchy issue in the southern states.  Jefferson was not the raging atheist who threatened the Christian religion, but he was not orthodox either.  To a large degree, he let his enemies vent on these matters without engaging in what we call “gutter politics.”

Comparing the past with the present is always a risky matter.  Putting Jefferson side by side with the four most recent Presidents creates some weird mental vibes.  At the same time, Jefferson–for all his indisputable brilliance–was a man of his time.  He owned slaves; he very likely had an adulterous relationship with one of his slaves;  he naively fell for much of the rhetoric of the French Revolution;  he was not at all loyal to President Washington; and he played political hardball.  In terms of wily political maneuvering, he was the equal to or superior to either Franklin Roosevelt or Lyndon Johnson or Richard Nixon.  In terms of being a man of distinction, he deserves all the honors that have come his way through the decades.

Perhaps what was most stunning to me as I started reading this book was the fact that Jefferson’s authorship of the Declaration of Independence was not widely known for years.  Can you imagine any modern politician–or his campaign managers–missing out on such a “photo and media op”?  It was a different world, a different playing field.

Confounding Father: Thomas Jefferson’s Image in His Own Time is a wonderful way to enter that world so much like our own and so different from our own.

Voting For and Voting Against or Not Voting

4 Political Books - The Making of the President: 1960, 1964, 1968, 1972 - Theodore H. White - American Politics - USA Presidency From the sidelines, from a distance, from the vantage point of books, I have been studying and watching and reading about politics nearly all my life.  The evenings back in the late winter and early spring when the Presidential Primaries were taking place were to me like Monday Night Football to other people.  I have to take care not to do my morning devotionals on

This is not normal, and neither am I, and certainly this political year is not normal.  Democrats do not nominate aging re-runs.  They stopped that trend back in 1960 when the meagre forces for nominating Adlai Stevenson for a third time fizzled out.  Republicans don’t nominate businessmen with no political experience since the “Win With Wilkie” signs from 1940 were torn down.

The two parties are nominating candidates with more baggage, more negatives, more damaging sound bites, and more scandals than ever before.  Plus they are nominating the two old candidates.  To my total surprise, I will once again have a choice (?) of voting for two people older than I am.  I thought those days were over.

Imagine this–if you know enough about political history to chime in with your thoughts–this election year would be something like the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon race being held in 1984.  In 1960, Kennedy and Nixon were both young Presidential candidates.  In 1984, both would have been hovering around the 70-year old mark.


In 1960, Nixon was a bit tainted with hints of scandal and character flaws, but by 1984, the Nixon legacy was thoroughly tarnished as a result of Watergate, the profane Presidential tapes, and a number of other blemishes.  In 1960, Kennedy looked young, healthy, tan, and intellectual.  For about 30 plus years after his death, many Americans maintained a combination romance/bromance with the legacy of Camelot.  JFK was a filthy talking, perverse, immoral, reckless, and sick man.

Imagine, however, if it were 1984 and the Republicans nominated an aging Nixon that we knew was crooked, scheming, and devious.  Imagine that the Democrats nominated an aging and very unhealthy Kennedy that was known for his mistresses, Mafia connections, lies, and deceit.

Unthinkable, and yet, we are seeing the two most flawed candidates in political history being nominated.  (Attention:  James G. Blaine and Lyndon Johnson, your historical-political makeover is now underway.)

That is my first, and unoriginal, political point.  Here’s my second:  Hillary’s “damn emails,” to quote Sen. Sanders, continue to gnaw at her flimsy political capital and haunt her campaign.  It is a moral disgrace that the Democrat Party has been frolicking in the park, happily voting for Hillary in the primaries, feeling goosebumps over nominating the first woman for President, and haven’t registered a single troubling doubt about this scandal.  “There was nothing criminal,” they say, and thus ignore what the FBI chief did say over what he didn’t do.

With the reminders of Bill Clinton’s moral infidelities and abuse of women, with the Benghazi fiasco, with the troubled Obama administration, with the Clinton Foundation’s corruption, and with flip-flops on all manner of issues, Hillary can bark like a dog and win Democrat votes.

The Republicans have been given a most enviable race to run.  Unfortunately, they squandered a half dozen or more good and decent candidates to pick the worst candidate in their history.  And yet, I am slowly being convinced that he might just win.

Now for my third point:  I could never vote for Hillary.  If I could stomach her scandals, I could not agree with her views on social, economic, and governmental issues.  If I could overlook Benghazi and the emails, I could not willingly submit to hearing that scratchy, grating voice for four years.  If I could tolerate her lies, I could not tolerate her when she is telling the truth, which probably does happen on occasion.

I also find myself unable to vote for Trump.  Believe me, Trump can do a little bit to change my mind while Hillary can harbor hope of making me a Trump voter.  But I think Trump will be devastating to the Republican Party, the Conservative Movement, and the nation.  I also think he will govern erratically by veering both to the extreme left and the extreme right on occasion.  Whether he will surround himself with wise men and women and heed their counsel can not be known.  His entourage of political allies, such as Crazy Sarah Palin, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, misguided Ben Carson, and Newt Gingrich doesn’t give me much hope.  (Governor Mike Pence is a step in the right direction.)

Trump’s positions on issues, his stupid tweets, his awful debate performances, his horrible lifestyle, and his concealed tax returns all prevent me from re-uniting with the party I supported since I first voted for a President in 1976 (Ford, Republican, although I preferred Reagan, whom I supported in the Texas primary that year).  Trump has made statements that I felt certain would capsize his campaign.  Most seem to have either done no damage or maybe even won him more support.  Even though I never felt comfortable supporting Ted Cruz, I did give him my affirming nod after Marco Rubio dropped out of the race.

But when Donald Trump implied that Ted Cruz’s father was associated with the Cubans behind the Kennedy assassination, I boiled over.

So, for the fourth point:  If I don’t vote for Trump (and certainly not for Hillary), does that mean that my vote is actually helping Hillary win?  Concerning this, there are good reasons to vote for a particular candidate as a way of preventing a worse candidate from winning.  We often refer to it as voting for “the lesser of two evils.”  I remember a fellow in college named Ellis Mills, long since forgotten, who referred to it as voting for “the evil of two lessers.”

What really matters most in the upcoming Presidential election is not who I vote for, but what state am I living in.  Often, Americans get irritated at the Electoral College.  It is theoretically possible, for a candidate to win the eleven largest states by one vote each and win the Presidency even if that person loses all 39 of the other states by huge margins.  More specifically, if only one person in each of those 11 states voted on election day, those 11 people could offset the wishes of millions of other voters.


While that wildly hypothetical possibility exists, it is a weak argument to use against the Electoral College.  Read George Grant’s excellent book on the topic.  We can discuss the details later.

I live in a Red State–Arkansas.  That means that Arkansas votes for Republicans at the national level.  It was one of the last southern states to get in line with the Republican Party.  The days of the Solid Democrat South, of the Yellow Dog Democrats, and of the one-party south are over. The bibliography here is extensive, but a fun starting place is the book The Natural Superiority of Southern Politicians by David Leon Chandler, a good but terribly outdated read.

Arkansas squeaked toward the Republicans in 1980 when Reagan was running.  Before that, it went for Johnson (Democrat) in 1964, George Wallace (independent) in 1968, Nixon (Republican) in 1972, and Carter ( a southerner and Democrat) in 1976.  Since then, it turned to Republicans except when its own child-prodigy Governor Bill Clinton ran in 1992 and 1996.

Four years ago, evangelical based Arkansas went overwhelmingly for Morman Mitt Romney.  (Remember how the media said that evangelicals were too narrow minded to vote for a Morman?)  Two years ago, in the mid-term elections, Republican Tom Cotton trounced incumbent Senator Mark the Lackluster Pryor even though Pryor was from a prominent Democrat family.

Here is the final and key point:  If Hillary Clinton and her campaign has any chance of carrying Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, or Oklahoma (and we could add some more southern and western states to that list), the race is over.  If Hillary and her cohorts are devoting time, attention, expensive television ads, and staffing to trying to pick up a state as Red/Republican as Arkansas, she already has the Presidency won.

All Hillary has to do is hold MOST of what Obama won against Romney in 2012.  President Obama won 332 electoral votes to 206 for Romney.  That means that Hillary could lose two large battleground states, such as Florida and Ohio, and still have a safety net of 15 electoral votes.

By the way, for Hillary to win the popular vote will be even easier with the large popular vote in states like California and New York going Democrat.

If Hillary can pull even in just one slightly red state, and the two more likely candidates are North Carolina and Georgia, it will be a hard race to win.

I think she is beatable, but only slightly so.  Her scandals, record, views, and obnoxious personality matter little to most rank and file Democrat voters.  The demographics favor her.  If I lived in Florida (nice thought) or Ohio (hmmm), I would have reason to worry about my vote.

That’s politics.  The books shown above are all good.  But one might do better to read other books on politics.  Theodore White’s series on the Making of the President were good reads in their day and are still worthwhile.  Robert Caro’s volumes on Lyndon Johnson are outstanding, and Edmund Morris’ 3 volumes on Theodore Roosevelt are unsurpassed, unlike his failed effort at writing about Ronald Reagan;

Here are just a few more favorite books on politics:


Jack Kemp: Bleeding Heart Conservative–Postscript

I recently finished reading the book Jack Kemp: The Bleeding Heart Conservative Who Changed America by Morton Kondrake and Fred Barnes.  Long portions of the book deal with the details of tax and economic legislation from the 1980s.  Numerous times, the authors highlight flaws in Kemp’s personal habits, speechmaking, campaigning style, organizational skills, and policy thinking.  While the tax laws may be less than interesting (at least to me) and the personal flaws a sad reminder that Kemp was human, there is something about this book that is far more troubling.  There is something about this book that makes me wish it could go away.

Here’s the big problem:  Jack Kemp should have been either the 41st, or 42nd, or 43rd President of the United States.  This book should have been a biography of a President.

Jack Kemp was a member of Congress from 1971 to 1989.  He represented a district in New York that was traditionally a working class Democrat district.   He rose to leadership in the House largely through his dynamic personality and strong economic convictions.  During the Reagan years, he had his greatest influence on policy, and that laid the groundwork for his 1988 run for the Presidency to succeed Reagan.  Failing miserably in the primaries, he was appointed Secretary of HUD (Housing and Urban Development) during George H. W. Bush’s Presidency.  Kemp’s last major role on the national scene was his running for Vice President on the Dole-Kemp ticket in 1996.

I want to focus on 5 Key Take-Aways from this book.

First, Jack Kemp was a reader.  His first claim to fame was as a college and later professional football player, a quarterback.  He was not, however, a scholar-athlete.  He was an athlete that became a scholar.  It didn’t happen overnight, but even in his football days, he was reading Frederich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, and Milton Friedman.  Reading became a life-long pursuit.  He read to learn and to then apply.  He read deeply and thought about what he read.  His obsession with economic policies did not spring from polling information or political fads, but from deep rooted convictions after reading.

Second, Jack Kemp was a teacher and evangelist for economic and social issues.  The book’s subtitle says that Kemp changed America.  He did this by changing the thinking of key people.  The 1960s-70s produced a number of threatening issues in America.  The conservative movement was slowing formulating answers and even more slowing being heard.  Kemp, along with some other House and Senate members and people in other governmental roles, being seeing the advantages of supply-side economics.  Winning converts to this way of thinking was difficult.  The Republican Party had to be won over first.  It never totally happened, but Kemp did manage to convince a few, such as Ronald Reagan.

Kemp’s love for policies continued with him as a passion throughout his life.

Third, Kemp understood how to lead.  If anything, he may have been too nice to opponents, too unwilling to burn bridges, too willing to seek bi-partisan leadership.  He butted heads with people in both parties.  But he also worked to build alliances, coalitions, and working agreements.  One of his long-time friends and allies was Democrat Senator Bill Bradley of New Jersey.  Kemp clashed many times with Ronald Reagan.  Reagan’s diaries contain numerous complaints about Kemp’s hard-headedness, and yet Kemp was one of Reagan’s greatest admirers.

Any idea that a real leader could transform America by imposing a conservative agenda on the whole nation is unachieveable.  Making enemies in Congress might be admirable to some, but it is not leadership.  America has two major parties and dozens of variations of beliefs and convictions within those two parties.  Leadership is coalition building.  Leadership has to involve compromising.  Leadership involves doing things that offend the most adamant ideologues.  Kemp, like Reagan, understood that.

Fourth, Kemp had a vision for Conservatism and the Republican Party.  Too often, conservative “purists” tout themselves as being the “true conservatives,” while belittling opponents as being sell-outs, RINOs, and even moderates or liberals.  Conservatism, as understood by such people as William F. Buckley, Ronald Reagan, and Jack Kemp, is not a nice neat square package with sharp corners.  Remember that Reagan had such people in his circles as Democrats Jeanne Kirkpatrick and Patrick Monihan and Republicans such as Richard Schweiker.

Kemp wanted to see the Republican Party drawing lots of votes from African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities.  He transformed the Department of Housing and Urban Development by his vision of actually using government to help the poor and needy to help themselves.  He really had a desire to reach out to people of different backgrounds, levels of education, and political affiliation.  Sadly, the Republican Party has stagnated on this kind of appeal.  It is currently re-defining itself as a white working-class party, after having been a more white upper-class party in previous years.

Kemp’s football career gave him lots of firsthand experience with working alongside black athletes.  It also exposed him to white prejudice.

Fifth, Kemp exemplified what a conservative Christian candidate for high office would look like.  There are, no doubt, many conservative web-sites and writers who scoff at the idea that Kemp was a conservative, or certainly was not a “true conservative.”  We expect Abraham Kuyper to suddenly emerge without having the groundwork for such a leader.  And, most Calvinists I know would oppose Kuyper for being a sell-out.  A Christian politician has a different ministry than a Christian pastor or theologian.  The church is to protect sheep against wolves, while the government often has to be a coalition of all kinds of animals.  Politics is not for everyone.  Kemp was a Presbyterian with definite Christian beliefs personally and convictions on a public scale.  He never aspired to become Theologian-in-Chief or Pastor-in-Chief.  He was, like all believers, weak in some areas of understanding and practice.  Some of his views needed a bit of fine tuning.  But he was a man of true faith and desire to serve God in the field of public service.

A final and less important point:  I had always wished that Jack Kemp had been elected President because my wife’s maiden name is Kemp.  Maybe I could have benefited from that connection!


The Enduring Two Party System

This is part 1 of 2 posts about third parties in American politics.  This part concerns the history of the two party system as it usually functions.  The next article will address attention to our current dismal prospects.

My high school government teacher, Gerald Pinkham,  once told us to find the section of the Constitution that deals with political parties. We went scrambling through the document while he watched from his professorial perch in the front of the room. Being a diligent student of government, I wanted to claim the honor, but like all the other students, I failed.

The Constitution, I learned and never forgot that day, says nothing about political parties. George Washington warned against political parties and factions in his Farewell Address, but he, himself, had sided with Alexander Hamilton and against Thomas Jefferson numerous times in a series of recurring political divides.  That was the background to the first two political parties, which were the Federalists, who claimed Washington and elected John Adams, and the Republicans, the party of Jefferson and James Madison.  The political tensions between Washington and Jefferson are the subject matter of Thomas Fleming’s excellent book The Great Divide: The Conflict Between Washington and Jefferson That Defined a Nation.

James Madison was closer to the realities of political life when he discussed the inevitability of avoiding political factions in Federalist #10. Madison says that “faction is a part of human nature.”  While factions create strife in the body politic, the suppression of factions or differences is far worse.  If a student were to read and study only 1 of the 85 essays in The Federalist, number 10 would be the best choice.

Madison’s successor as President, James Monroe, enjoyed a brief political respite known as “The Era of Good Feelings” in 1820 when there was no opposition to his re-election.  One lone elector did refuse to cast his vote for Monroe on the grounds that he believed only President Washington was deserving of a unanimous electoral vote.  The unity and political harmony of this time was not to last.  It was, as the saying goes, the calm before the storm.

Four years later (1824), four men contended for the Presidency in one of the most bitter elections ever.   The candidates represented different sections of the country.  John Quincy Adams was from New England.  William H. Crawford was from Georgia, while Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson both represented the growing political power of the west.

Jackson, who could just as easily face a man in a duel as in a political race, won a plurality of popular and electoral votes.  Adams came in second, while Crawford was in third place.  Henry Clay was fourth, but he managed to play a key role in the post-election day events.  No candidate had won a majority in the electoral college, and the matter was then sent to the House of Representatives.  According to the Constitution, the House would chose from the top three candidates.  Crawford was basically ruled out due to being in third place and due to a stroke he had suffered.  Jackson felt confident that he was the true winner, but after the matter went to the House, Adams emerged as the winner.

In what was referred to as “the corrupt bargain,” Jackson accused Adams and Henry Clay of conspiring against him.  Clay held the powerful position of Speaker of the House, and then was picked by Adams to be the Secretary of State.  At that point in time, J. Q. Adams was the fourth President who had been Secretary of State. John Quincy Adams’ victory, with an assist from Henry Clay, gave him four unhappy years in the White House.

The 1824 loser, Andrew Jackson, basically restructured the party of Jefferson which morphed from being the Republican Party (not to be confused with the later party of the same name) to the Democratic Party.  The power base of the party shifted from the east coast to the west.  The farmers and workers of the country found a voice in the Indian fighter and the winner of the Battle of New Orleans.  Jackson’s populism won the hearts of much of the laboring and farming folk.

Jackson had the pleasure of crushing both Adams in 1828 and Clay in 1832 in further elections. At that point, the opponents of Jackson called themselves Whigs, which came from the British political party that stood in loyal opposition to the King’s Tory party.  As a political party, the Whigs were largely united only by their opposition to King Andrew, as they called Jackson.  For most of the elections from 1828 to 1856, the two parties were the Democrats and the Whigs.

Elections either changed the country, or more likely reflected or corresponded with changes already surging.  On occasion, when the two major parties overlooked a political hot spot, other parties would rise up.  In ante-bellum America, nativism, which was an opposition to foreign immigrants, attracted enough support to field some candidates in a party known as the Know Nothings (who had one of the most apt names in political history).  After periods of division, the recurring pattern was always the return of the two party system. Although not in the Constitution and often challenged by events, the system is as much a part of the American way as are elections themselves.

This is because elections are always two-party events. You have a winning party and a losing party. You have a majority and a minority. All countries with elections end up with those in power and those out of power. One person once described the multiparty system in totalitarian countries as being one party in power and the others in jail.

Many European countries have multiple political parties. Those with parliamentary governments, often modeled after Britain, then have their prime minister and his or her cabinet chosen by a coalition that pulls together a majority vote. Coalitions are made up of different groups who agree to come together for limited specific purposes. Coalitions are inherent in human nature and society.

When one part of the coalition breaks with the other, elections are called for and a different coalition takes office.

The two main parties in the United States are the Democratic and Republican Parties. This has been the case since 1856. Prior to that, it was the Democratic and Whig Parties. The Republican Party of today arose out of a coalition of Free Soilers, opponents of slavery (including both abolitionists and those who mainly opposed the spread of slavery), Know Nothings (who had the neatest name in political history), and northern Whigs. (In 1860, a group of southern Whigs, known as Cotton Whigs, competed in the election by running John Bell for President.) The Whig Party itself was a fragile coalition of interests that only elected two Presidents, both of whom died in office. Their greater leaders, like Henry Clay and Daniel Webster, never won the high office. Interesting side point:  Both Robert E. Lee and Abraham Lincoln were Whig party members in the years before the Civil War.

Both the Democrat and Republican Parties are coalition parties.

                                                Democrats have a coalition of African-Americans, union members, certain ethnic groups like Jews,                                                                                    and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

                                           The Republican coalition consists of conservative evangelicals, pro-business conservatives, supporters of a strong military,                                            and ideological zealots for minority causes and issues.

This next point is not original, and I am not sure from whom I learned it: In Europe, political parties form coalitions and govern after an election. In America, political parties form coalitions before an election.  This forming of a political coalition is what is fought out during the primary and caucus season.  The conventions in the summer are designed to further meld the coalitions together.  Party unity is a prime feature of both parties’ election plans and hopes.

For these reasons, political Presidential candidates play the primary roles in uniting their parties. Much of this coalescing comes in the choice of a Vice Presidential candidate. In 1960, John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts chose Texas Senator Lyndon B. Johnson to help keep the south in the Democrat column. In 1968, Richard Nixon chose Spiro Agnew to help cement southern conservative support. In 1976, Jimmy Carter of Georgia, then a moderate, chose the more liberal Water Mondale. Reagan the more western and ideological outsider chose George H. W. Bush, who had strong ties to the more eastern and establishment wings of the party. Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts chose Lloyd Bentson of Texas, hoping to replicate JFK and LBJ’s 1960. Bob Dole chose former political rival Jack Kemp, more of a favorite of Reaganites. Barack Obama, with his ties to the more liberal wings of the Democrat party,  chose Joe Biden, whose strengths were found in the traditional labor union, blue collar Catholic Democrat voters.

In painful contrast to those examples, Senator Barry Goldwater, having won the nomination in a fractious convention, chose the unknown conservative Congressman William Miller for his Vice Presidential candidate.  He should have chosen George Romney of Michigan or William Scranton of Pennsylvania.

While Presidential candidates might prefer choosing a political clone, they often look for the person who in some way balances the ticket geographically, temperamentally, or ideologically. For this reason, voters are often more happy with the Vice Presidential candidate than with the Presidential candidate, or visa versa. It’s not just politics; rather, it is smart politics.

This brings us back around to the place of third parties. There have been a number of third parties that have impacted elections, but none have won. (One might argue that the newly formed Republican Party won in 1860.) Often third parties threaten to deny any candidate a majority in the electoral college and thus throw the election to the House of Representatives. (Go back to the election of 1828 to see how that works.) If a third party candidate gets enough votes to deny either major party the 270 electoral votes, then the House picks a winner. Each state gets one vote, and with the Republicans in control of the House currently, the winner this year would most probably be the Republican candidate.

In American election history, third parties have usually divided the votes between the two candidates who are closest and given the election to the remaining party. In 1912, William Howard Taft, Republican incumbent, and Theodore Roosevelt, former Republican President then running on the Bull Moose Ticket, split the Republican votes and gave the election to Woodrow Wilson, Democrat. Wilson won the election with fewer votes than the previous and losing Democrat candidate had received.

In 1968, George Wallace appealed to enough southern voters to threaten Richard Nixon’s chances of winning the Presidency. Enough voters who leaned toward Wallace feared that a vote for him would put Democrat liberal Hubert Humphrey in the White House. In 1992, many Reagan Republicans defected from their party to support Ross Perot’s independent bid. While Bill Clinton might have won without the Perot candidacy, it sure didn’t hurt him.

Most third parties, such as Ross Perot’s American Party, fizzle out after an election or two and their main issues are absorbed by one or both of the main parties. This, by the way, is what zapped the Socialist Party in America when Franklin Roosevelt came to power.  Richard Nixon worked hard within the parameters of his Southern Strategy to pick up the vote in 1972 that went to Wallace in 1968.

If a third party gets traction, one or both of the major parties pick up on the issues that are getting attention.  The result is usual the quick death of the third party, or its being reduced to irrelevancy.  Once again, the pattern continues.  In America, we build political coalitions before an election.  In Europe, the coalitions are formed afterwards.

Voting Patterns

This map shows Red States (typically Republican), Light Red States (tends to be Republican), Blue States (typically Democrat), Light Blue States (tends to be Democrat), and Purple States (Swing States).


I find it almost impossible to believe that many people get and go to work each day, living basically normal lives, without knowing the significance of the 1968 Democratic Primary race in New Hampshire. In this political season, it reminds me of how little most people know of the overall process of picking political candidates. This is not a matter of people being ignorant, but rather of them focusing on other areas of life.
American political history has been an interest, more a consuming passion, of mine ever since 1964 when I was an LBJ Democrat.  Let me explain that: I was a third grader living in the rural south. The only political book in our house was None Dare Call It Treason and the book title scared me.

Right now we are in one of the most bizarre political seasons in history. Democrats typically nominate a fresh new and relatively young candidate. It looks like they will be nominating an old, re-run, with lots of miles and baggage and with a lawsuit threatening. The alternative is an even older self-proclaimed Socialist.

The Republicans assembled the most talented field of governors and senators as candidates that the party has ever witnessed. There were also three non-political candidates. Some twenty contests later, the field has narrowed to four candidates with the front runner being the most unpredictable, uninformed, brash and unorthodox candidate ever. To paraphrase Barry Goldwater, extremism in defense of extremism is no longer a vice.

To get the nomination, a candidate must win a certain number of delegates. This process is usually accomplished through primaries and caucuses. The parties then hold conventions in the summer. In the distant past, conventions battled over platforms and candidates. In the past, sometimes a political would announce that he was seeking the nomination just prior to the convention. Now conventions are orchestrated events that rubber stamp both the Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates.

In the fall, there is the real campaign. Both parties slash away at each other with the goal of winning the magical 270 electoral votes. Basically, they seek to accomplish two things in the fall: Mobilize the party’s base and pull in enough swing votes in a few battleground states.
Winning a party nomination and winning the general election in the fall are two totally different kinds of contests. Imagine if a sports team had to first win a season in the NBA in the spring and then win the Superbowl in the following winter. I am not sure any analogy captures the differences, but that one will have to do.

Let’s consider some specifics: The Democrats have won more votes than Republicans in 5 of the last 6 Presidential elections. Republicans won a majority (over 50 percent) of the vote in 2004. The time before that when they won a majority was 1988. Voting trends and patterns favor the Democrat Party at this time.

In 2012, President Obama won about 3.5 million fewer votes than he won in 2008. Mitt Romney won nearly 2 million votes more than McCain won in 2004. Still, the Republicans lost. By the way, Romney in 2012 won some six and half million more votes than Ronald Reagan in his landslide victory in 1984.

Winning primaries and caucuses in the spring and winning states in the fall have little correlation. Romney lost many of the deep south races to Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich. He won that same states in November with hefty majorities. At the same time, Romney won the Florida and Virginia primaries and lost both states in November.

To push this a bit farther, Romney won the midwestern states of Illinois, Michigan, and Ohio in the primaries. He won Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Connecticut in the race for the Republican nomination. He lost all those states in the fall. He was not even competitive in Illinois (Obama’s home state) nor Michigan (Romney’s birth state) or Massachusetts (where he had been governor). The Romney strategy never even involved winning some states such as California or New York in the fall, even though he won there in the spring.

This is not a Romney fault. It’s political reality. Hillary Clinton has swept a host of southern primaries in her race against Sanders. She will lose those states in the fall. Trump won the Massachusetts primary, but he will get trounced there in November. Political planners know these things and work around them.

This leads to a big question: What states could a Trump candidacy put in play either positively or negatively?

Trump claims that he can win New York against his fellow New Yorker Hillary. That will not happen.

Neither will he win California.

Most absurd is talk about his appeal to African-American voters. Some may have listened to him and liked him, but as a voting block they are intensely loyal to the Democrat Party, the Clinton’s , and Pres. Obama. They would not cross over to vote for Trump or even for Ben Carson. Likewise, the only way I would vote for Hillary was if she was already in prison and she had picked Marco Rubio as her running mate. Ain’t gonna happen.
(You can run for the Presidency from a jail cell. Just ask the late Eugene V. Debs, a Socialist from the past.)

Can a Donald Trump flip a few swing states like Florida, Ohio, Nevada, New Mexico, Virginia, and Colorado? Assuming he won all of the 206 electoral votes that Romney won, those 6 states would give him an additional 80 electoral votes. But the chances of him winning Florida, with its Hispanic community, elderly voters, and Democrat strongholds, are very slim.

New Mexico? Won’t happen. Nevada? Not likely. Colorado?  Wouldn’t bet at one of Trump’s casinos on that happening.

Virginia. Nope.

Ohio? Maybe, if Kasich is his running mate.

Will Trump win Millennials, Mormons, Mexicans (and other Hispanic people), Military, and Minorities? No way.

The Jewish voting block (which is unexplainably Democrat)? Impossible. Asians-Americans? Why?

In the primaries, candidates sometimes pull only a few percentage points. They may place in single digits. Some of those losing candidates survive to win in the fall. Barring a viable third party (viable doesn’t even imply able to win), both Democrats and Republicans will pull in about 45 percent of the vote each. The lowest any of the major parties got in the general election was when George H. W. Bush netted 38 percent in 1992. The Democrat candidate Bill Clinton won with 43 percent of the vote. (Ross Perot got the middle 19 percent in his pre-Trump “elect a businessman” campaign.)

The system is not rigged. The party establishments are not in cahoots. Foreign cartels and devious multi-billionaires are not calling the shots. It gets down to people voting. In the years following the Civil War, people voted the way their fathers shot. Meaning, northerners were largely Republicans and southerners were Democrats. After Hoover won some southern states in 1928, the Great Depression determined voting patterns for nearly 50 years. Things changed again in the early 1980s. Since 1992, we have been locked in a relatively tight blue state/red state battle.
Anything can happen in politics. And weird things are happening this year.

But a Trump win in November? Don’t bank on it.