Half a century ago, if a conservative wanted to publish a book, there was really only one place to go — the Henry Regnery Company of Chicago. Regnery, one of the founders of HUMAN EVENTS in 1944, returned to Chicago to set up his publishing company in 1947. At that time, conservative authors were worse than persona non grata in mainstream publishing circles — they were persona non extant.
Bill Buckley took God and Man at Yale to Regnery. Russell Kirk submitted The Conservative Mind to Regnery after Alfred Knopf told Kirk they would publish his book but only if he lobotomized it.
Freda Utley, William Henry Chamberlin, Jameson Campaigne, Sr., and other outstanding conservative writers turned to Henry Regnery, who published their works because he believed in them. If they sold well — both God and Man at Yale and The Conservative Mind were bestsellers — so much the better.
But today, conservatism dominates much of our politics — even a liberal Democrat such as Illinois Sen. Barack Obama publicly acknowledges the “transformational” influence of President Reagan — and conservative writers can pick and choose among leading publishers.
How fitting then that Alfred S. Regnery, a son of Henry Regnery, would write a splendid history about modern American conservatism and that it would be published by a premier New York house, Simon & Schuster. And why shouldn’t they? It’s a good book and good conservative books make money.
Reading Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism is like sailing through the Greek Islands on a luxurious private yacht — you don’t want it to end. The uplifting story of American conservatism’s rise to prominence is recounted in one smoothly written, meticulously researched book. Upstream is both history and biography, filled with mini-profiles of the philosophers, popularizers, politicians and philanthropists who, guided by principle, prevailed over countless obstacles to forge a mighty movement.
Regnery properly begins with Woodrow Wilson and the other progressives of the early 20th Century who laid the philosophical foundation for our welfare state. As a result of the Great Depression and the New Deal, plus the big government spawned by World War II, America by 1945 was politically liberal. There were a few conservative writers and small publications such as HUMAN EVENTS but nothing resembling a movement. Then came the miraculous birth of National Review in 1955 with William F. Buckley, Jr. as the brilliant, mischievous miracle maker.
Conservatives began coalescing and at last achieved a critical mass in 1964 when they nominated Republican Barry Goldwater for President. When President Lyndon B. Johnson crushed Goldwater in the general election — the Arizona senator carried only six states — liberals declared that conservatism had been decisively rejected by the American people and was finished as a viable political philosophy.
But as Regnery rightly points out, the 1964 election changed the conservative movement, the Republican Party, and American politics forever as 28 million Americans voted for an unabashed conservative despite the most vicious and sustained anti-campaign in modern politics. They were not ready to go into the night gently or any other way. Among those who decided to keep fighting for conservative ideas was a new political star in the West –Ronald Reagan.
Conservatism went bicoastal. In the East, there was Bill Buckley’s seemingly quixotic run for mayor of New York City in 1965. He stunned the establishment by receiving 13% of the vote and continuing what Goldwater started — capturing Democratic as well as Republican votes. Reagan won the California governorship the following year by pulling together, in Regnery’s words, “the conservative coalition that would become such a dominant force in American politics over the next 35 years.”
The next decade was at once “crucial and devastating to American conservatism.” It included the Great Society, the Warren Court, the drug-saturated counterculture, and a seemingly unending Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon, the man who “got” Alger Hiss, turned out to be liberal in his domestic policies (creating EPA and OSHA and imposing wage and price controls) and accommodationist in his foreign policies (signing treaties with the Soviets and having tea with the Chinese Communists).
Regnery describes how the New Right — led by fund-raiser extraordinaire Richard Viguerie — rose up in righteous anger in 1974 when President Gerald Ford picked ultra-liberal Nelson Rockefeller rather than Reagan or Goldwater as his Vice President. The author breaks new ground when he reveals that the Rockefeller choice was “much more Machiavellian” than people realized. Pat Buchanan, then a White House aide, memoed Ford that Rockefeller would be “acceptable” to conservatives, knowing naming Rocky would enrage them. “The whole idea,” Buchanan told Regnery, “was to put a stick of dynamite under the right wing, and that is exactly what it did.”
The 70s also saw the emergence of two vital parts of the conservative movement: the neoconservatives, stunned by the Democratic Party’s nomination of ultra-leftist George McGovern, and the Religious Right, no longer willing to leave politics to their liberal co-religionists. Regnery stresses the importance of the Moral Majority, fathered by the unlikely trio of Baptist preacher Jerry Falwell, Catholic political strategist Paul Weyrich, and Jewish activist Howard Phillips. Equally excellent is the author’s treatment of Phyllis Schlafly’s epic battle against the Equal Rights Amendment — he properly calls Schlafly “the most effective grassroots mobilizer in the history of the right.”
Following an illuminating chapter about the men of vision and means who funded the conservative movement — philanthropists such as William Volker, Henry Regnery, Harry Earhart, Henry Salvatori and Richard Mellon Scaife — Regnery takes up Ronald Reagan, under whom “the conservative movement came of age.” Until 1964, he points out, the conservative movement was a philosophical enterprise. With the Goldwater campaign it became a political enterprise. With the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, “the movement proved it was capable of governing” — and governing successfully.
The golden Reagan years were followed by the disappointing years of President George H. W. Bush, who “squandered” the inheritance he received from Reagan and ushered in Bill Clinton, who forced conservatives to sharpen their battle skills and launch a counteroffensive. Among the results were nine anti-Clinton best-sellers that Regnery, as head of Regnery Publishing (a division of Eagle Publishing, Inc.), saw to publication (prompting Hillary Clinton to include Regnery in her “vast right-wing conspiracy”) and then the historic 1994 capture of the House of Representatives by Republicans.
Upstream covers so much so well that one is reluctant but still compelled to say that it could have discussed in more depth the critical policy-making role of think tanks not only in Washington but in state capitals. It also skips over the essential contributions of the “leave us alone” coalition led by Grover Norquist and Americans for Tax Reform.
Regnery, now publisher of The American Spectator and a member of the board of directors of Eagle Publishing (HUMAN EVENTS’ parent company), dismisses the judgment of most liberals and some conservatives that the conservative movement is cracking up and headed for the ash-heap of history. He is optimistic about the future of American conservatism and offers as proof of its enduring influence how the movement, led by the Federalist Society, ensured the nomination of John Roberts as chief justice and Samuel Alito as associate justice of the Supreme Court and blocked the nomination of Harriet Miers. “The resources the conservatives used,” Regnery writes, “were all of those things they had learned in over 50 years of building a movement.”
Upstream is bracing reading, a tonic for downcast conservatives who need to cast off old-man pessimism, reflect on conservatism’s remarkable accomplishments of the last 50 years and realize — borrowing from Barry Goldwater — that saying conservatism is out of date is like saying that the Ten Commandments and the Constitution are out of date.