THE CONSERVATIVE REVOLUTION
The Movement That Remade America
By Lee Edwards
Free Press. 391 pp. $27.50
Reviewed by Robert G. Kaiser
Conservatives don't agree about everything, but on one point they seem unanimous: The world shows them insufficient respect. They may attribute this to a vast left-wing conspiracy, or to the prejudices of society's referees, or to stupidity, but whatever the reason, they know that the accomplishments of conservatives are ignored or undervalued by too many Americans.
About this they are undoubtedly right. In an essay published five years ago, before Newt Gingrich led the Republicans to control of Congress, Alan Brinkley, a liberal professor of history at Columbia, observed: "It would be hard to argue that the American right has received anything like the amount of attention from historians that its role in 20th Century politics and culture suggests it should."
Lee Edwards's fast-paced and engaging account of a half-century of American conservatism is a contribution to righting the balance, so to speak. It isn't dispassionate history, but rather unabashed cheerleading by a talented writer who confesses at the very end of his book: "Those seeking absolute objectivity will not find it here." He is, Edwards admits, "a conservative activist," obviously proud to have been part of a movement that shook to its foundations the orthodox liberalism he learned to detest as a young man.
But, he adds slyly, searchers for objectivity "will not find it in Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s history of Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency or William Manchester's biography of John F. Kennedy either." Edwards provides a survey of conservatism from the time of Robert Taft through the resignation of Newt Gingrich. He has read just about everything touching on his subject -- at least everything written from a conservative point of view -- and his book is rich with quotation and citation. His goal is to create a coherent narrative that tells a triumphant story of conservative progress. The reader watching him make the best of nearly every turn in the political road is reminded of Ronald Reagan's indomitable optimism -- a quality Edwards greatly admires.
But Edwards is too honest to skip over the potholes in the highway he is traveling. He does acknowledge that Sen. Joseph McCarthy went much too far, even as he gives him credit for accomplishments more dispassionate historians would dispute. He acknowledges the excesses of New Right activists in the 1980s who turned on Reagan time and again when he strayed from their version of the straight and narrow. He is critical of Newt Gingrich -- or, to be more precise, he quotes numerous conservatives who provide a litany of criticisms of Gingrich.
But the story remains essentially upbeat, as well it should. No liberals predicted what would happen after Lyndon B. Johnson burried Barry Goldwater in the 1964 presidential election. "Sometimes -- you win by losing," Edwards writes. In due course the conservative movement had taken over the Republican Party, celebrated Ronald Reagan's two landslide victories and finally exulted in Republican control of Congress. Even now, when many conservatives are demoralized by Bill Clinton's ability to survive and by their own disarray, they can take comfort from their continuing success in the policy wars. It wasn't a conservative who ended the entitlement to public assistance for poor families, it was Bill Clinton. Most recently Clinton has embraced a version of the Reagan dream of a missile defense. The conservatives really have moved the political discussion in America substantially to the right.
At the same time, less passionate future historians (if any pick up Alan Brinkley's challenge, as they certainly should) won't share all of Edwards's enthusiasms. A former public relations man himself, Edwards knows how to put a favorable spin on aspects of his story that won't look so good to others. For example, in his admiring portrait of Sen. Taft, he notes that the Ohio Republican wanted to cut the defense budget in half in 1947, just as the Cold War was becoming tense. He does not speculate on what might have happened if Taft's views had prevailed.
He credits Reagan with "presiding over the longest economic expansion in peacetime by defying Keynesian economics and cutting taxes and limiting the growth of government." This is a dubious sentence on all counts: The current expansion is longer than Reagan's six-year version, Reagan both cut and raised taxes, the number of federal government employees grew by one percent while he was president, and the huge deficits Reagan ran up were surely an example of classical Keynesian stimulus for the economy. Curiously, Bill Clinton really has reduced the size of government -- there are 15 percent fewer federal employees today than in 1993.
Edwards's optimism leads him to conclude that "the conservative revolution is here to stay," but he hasn't quite proven that a real revolution has occurred or that the conservatives can maintain their dominance in the Republican party, or demonstrate it in the country. But enthusiasts aren't supposed to make concessions, and Edwards truly does have a lot to crow about. Conservatives will love this book, and liberals can learn something from it.
Robert G. Kaiser is associate editor of The Post.
CAPTION: President Reagan with Sen. Barry Goldwater (left) at a White House ceremony for National Patriotism Week in 1981