Roads to Damascus

Believe it or not, I had never noticed the similarity between Saint Augustine, the 5th-century archbishop of Hippo, and Michael K. Deaver, the late-20th-century presidential adviser and media consultant. But both men are interested in conversion narratives -- stories about how people leave one set of beliefs for another. Saint Augustine's conversion, of course, was from paganism to Christianity. But conversions aren't always religious; they can be political, too.

Readers will find plenty of political conversion narratives in the pages of Deaver's new anthology, Why I Am a Reagan Conservative (Morrow, $24.95). Deaver asked more than 50 Republican politicians, writers and political activists what makes them conservative -- what brought them, in other words, to the Republican Party.

The answers contain some surprises. Author Michael Barone writes about his experiences in the summer of 1967 as an intern in the offices of Detroit's mayor, Jerome Cavanaugh, a liberal Democrat and a champion of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society. Barone had just finished his first year at Yale Law School and was "enamored of the idea that city governments could transform the lives of their poor residents." But the race riots that swept Detroit that summer shook Barone's faith in the ability of government programs to produce social harmony. "Whatever could be said for the liberal policies I favored," Barone writes, "they had not prevented the deadliest urban riot of the 1960s." You could argue that Detroit has never recovered from the '67 riot -- and neither has Michael Barone. By the late 1970s, he had cast most of his liberalism aside and embraced "low taxes and freer markets."

He isn't alone. Orrin G. Hatch, the senior senator from Utah, tells us he "used to be a union card-carrying Democrat" who spent his youth working "with metal lathers." But as he grew older and "saw the difference in the lives of people who counted on handouts" and "those who struggled to stay independent," Hatch replaced his "Democratic mantra" with a Republican one.

It's dismaying, however, that so many of Deaver's contributors have to fall back on cliches. Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman writes that he's a conservative because "I believe in freedom" -- as if liberals do not. Illinois Rep. Henry J. Hyde writes that he's a conservative because "I believe America is worth defending" -- as if liberals do not. Paul M. Weyrich, president of the Free Congress Foundation, writes that he's a conservative "because I want to live in a society that works well" -- again, as if liberals do not.

This is sloganeering, of course. But slogans also offer a glimpse into how contemporary "movement" conservatives look at the world. Movement conservatives place a priority on "freedom" -- by which they typically mean the freedom of business from government regulation and taxation. Then there's the tendency among movement conservatives (and movement liberals, I'd argue) to think the worst not only of their opponents' arguments but of their intentions as well. And movement conservatives, trying desperately to balance the policy prescriptions of libertarianism with those of social conservatism, still have not reconciled the fundamental tension at the core of their philosophy: that an explicitly pro-business politics that places the private good above the public interest leads to the coarsening of civic and spiritual culture that moralists everywhere argue against.

Pro and Neocon

For years, conservatives of all stripes have struggled to find balance between the promotion of freedom and the preservation of virtue. But the problem has been of particular interest to the neoconservatives -- the group of New York intellectuals who, led by Irving Kristol, moved steadily from liberalism to their own brand of conservatism in the 1960s and '70s. They're the subjects of the late Murray Friedman's The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and Public Policy (Cambridge Univ., $29). The author of several other books, Friedman was the director of the Myer and Rosaline Feinstein Center for American Jewish History at Temple University. He was also, not incidentally, an incredibly productive historian, and this book is a gusher of information -- so much so that by the last chapter, readers are likely to feel as if they're drowning.

Which is a shame. Friedman has a noble goal: to challenge the idea, as he puts it in his introduction, that "liberalism has been bred into the bone of American Jewry, as would appear to be the case from Jewish voting patterns since the days of the New Deal." Rather, Friedman writes, "there has always been a strand of conservative Jewish thought that has been little noticed."

Until now, of course. Since 2002, media outlets and even some national politicians have credited contemporary neoconservatives with masterminding the 2003 invasion of Iraq. For some, the tag "neocon" is a slur; for others, it is a badge of pride, a label describing those who support linking American power to American ideals. Whatever your definition, Friedman takes pains to point out that the neoconservatives' original interest was not in foreign affairs but in domestic policy -- an arena in which they proved just as influential. Tax cuts and welfare reforms were both originally championed by neoconservatives, as were the crime-fighting methods that Rudolph Giuliani put to use in New York. And so the neoconservatives are not only responsible for much of the platform of the modern-day Republican Party; they are also responsible for that party's modern-day success.

The weakness of Friedman's argument, though, is its limited focus on the neoconservatives' religious background. Yes, the early neoconservatives were for the most part Jewish, but so were some of the first editors of the more traditional conservative National Review (Will Herberg), as well as many of the most influential libertarians (Milton Friedman). And there were -- are -- plenty of Catholics and Protestants who could be called neoconservatives (Michael Novak jumps most quickly to mind). In fact, the neoconservatives explicitly reject religious and ethnic identity politics. The story of neoconservative ascendance is the story of the children of immigrants embracing the American idea with open and loving arms.

Hannah Arendt Is Back

The neoconservatives emerged from the vibrant culture of the New York intellectuals -- writers and critics in the middle part of the 20th century who weren't afraid to take on the Big Ideas like Art, Truth, Being and Freedom. They wrote massive, serious books meant for a wide audience, unlike many of today's academics, who all too often scribble jargon-filled sentences that only a few hundred people read.

The German emigre and political philosopher Hannah Arendt was a constant inspiration for the New York intellectuals. She wasn't afraid of Big Ideas, and she wasn't afraid of big audiences, either. Her controversial 1963 book Eichmann in Jerusalem, in which she coined the phrase "the banality of evil," was an international bestseller. She's due for a revival.

Schocken Books, the publishing house where Arendt worked from 1946 to 1948, has unearthed another of her unpublished manuscripts, entitled The Promise of Politics (Schocken, $25), edited by Jerome Kohn. For a thin book, it's a weighty tome: The pages are filled with discussions of Socrates, Plato, Hegel, Marx, Montesquieu and Nietzsche. The essay on Socrates is littered with ancient Greek. It's not beach reading -- or maybe it is, if you hold a chair in Aristotelian philosophy. I don't, so I was lost by the second clause of the first sentence: "What Hegel states about philosophy in general, that 'the owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk,' holds only for a philosophy of history, that is, it is true of history and corresponds to the view of historians."

Eventually, I found my footing. Arendt has much to offer: intellect, grace and wisdom. And while previously unpublished material from a long-gone author presents certain challenges -- one wonders whether Arendt would have liked to further revise these essays, for example -- today's reader can still learn much from passages such as this:

"In the Socratic understanding, the Delphic 'know thyself' meant: only through knowing what appears to me . . . can I ever understand truth. Absolute truth . . . cannot exist for mortals. For mortals the important thing is to make doxa [opinion] truthful, to see in every doxa truth and to speak in such a way that the truth of one's opinion reveals itself to oneself and to others."

Reading Arendt, who was open to the possibilities of persuasion, we are reminded that democratic politics is an unfinished argument, not a war between incompatible ideologies. This is something today's partisans -- both liberal and conservative -- would do well to remember. *

Matthew Continetti is a staff writer at the Weekly Standard.