God bless Norman Podhoretz; I, too, prefer those first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book

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Here's a passage that is likely to be the talk of the Right for a good while. It's from Norman Podhoretz's delightfully pointed oped in today's edition of The Wall Street Journal, shockingly entitled “In defense of Sarah Palin:”

“Much as I would like to believe that the answer lies in some elevated consideration, I have reluctantly come to the conclusion that the same species of class bias that Mrs. Palin provokes in her enemies and her admirers is at work among the conservative intellectuals who are so embarrassed by her.

“When William F. Buckley Jr., then the editor of National Review, famously quipped that he would rather be ruled by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book than by the combined faculties of Harvard and MIT, most conservative intellectuals responded with a gleeful amen. But put to the test by the advent of Sarah Palin, along with the populist upsurge represented by the Tea Party movement, they have demonstrated that they never really meant it.”

Therein lies the unspoken dividing line on the Right. There are those of us – generally from flyover country – who take it as axiomatic that Madison, Hamilton, et. al., especially when speaking from the voice of Publius in The Federalist Papers, would choose the Boston phone directory names as more suited to a commercial republican regime than the faculties at Harvard and MIT.

These we might call Middle American Rebels, or “MARs populists” for short, because they view conservatism mainly in terms of opportunity, individual liberty, family and faith, and patriotism.

Then there is a much smaller coterie among us – who tend to be concentrated geographically and professionally in positions that amplify their voices far beyond their actual numbers – who talk the talk of being conservative, but who will walk it only so far and only along a narrowly proscribed route that never, ever veers to the side of the railroad tracks where most of those Boston phone directory residents live.

These are the Tories. They view conservativism as a means of preserving ancient privileges and duties, with government's prime purpose being the preservation of order.

This division is not a new thing in American conservativism. Contrast Willmoore Kendall's enthusiastic defense of legislative supremacy and the impetus to self-governance that Americans feel “in their bones,” with¬† Russell Kirk's stately “The Roots of American Order,” with its emphasis on the European and classical influences on the Founders.

The great service of Podhoretz, I believe, is to provide us today with a convenient method of putting any individual proclaimer of devotion to conservatism to the fiery trial – Would you really prefer the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book, knowing it includes Sarah Palin, over the faculties of Harvard and MIT?

Podhoretz is, of course, with Irving Kristol a Sage of Neoconservatism, so I have no doubt there will be soon be dark suggestions of nefarious intent on his part, much as was said back in the day when the two supported Ronald Reagan.

But that, too, will be of a piece with the attitudes among more than a few of our Tories that gave rise to Podhoretz's decisions regarding Reagan then and Palin now, which he describes thusly:

“It's hard to imagine now, but 31 years ago, when I first announced that I was supporting Reagan in his bid for the 1980 Republican presidential nomination, I was routinely asked by friends on the right how I could possibly associate myself with this 'airhead,' this B movie star, who was not only stupid but incompetent.

“They readily acknowledged that his political views were on the whole close to ours, but the embarrassing primitivism with which he expressed them only served, they said, to undermine their credibility. In any case, his base was so narrow that he had no chance of rescuing us from the disastrous administration of Jimmy Carter.”

Among Reagan's great strengths was his determination to speak the truth by, for example, calling the Soviets the “Evil Empire,” and reminding us that “if no one among us is capable of governing himself, then who among us has the capacity to govern someone else?”

Palin has a similar capacity for speaking hard truths directly and without equivocation. True, she lacks the tempering and experience that Reagan received in two major presidential campaigns, as governor of California for eight years and in his time with GE on the rubber chicken circuit.

But tempering and practical wisdom come from a variety of paths in life and Palin's has certainly not been one of privilege or ease. She is closer to the plain-spoken Truman than to the eloquent FDR who inspired the younger Reagan. Her wisdom, such as it is, may not be profound but it clearly has been hard-earned. That may be exactly what is needed in a troubled nation headed toward that rendezvous with destiny of which Reagan spoke so often.

To read all of the Podhoretz oped, go here.

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