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This past Saturday, I had a meaningful time with Vigen Guroian, Annette Kirk, George Nash, Doug Minson, and a number of very bright students from the University of Virginia and from Central Michigan University. After the best lecture that I have ever seen George Nash deliver (and, he’s always quite good), Vigen brilliantly led us through a nuanced discussion of four texts attempting to define the term “conservatism” in the 1950s and the 1960s.

Though many in Saturday’s group came from a more traditionalist conservative background—and, consequently, tend to value the meaning of culture over the importance of politics—it hit me rather hard how important politics really can be. Not that I ever denied this, and I teach parts of Aristotle’s Politics every fall. Rather, I realized just how important a dynamic political figure can be to rally a variety of disparate groups, giving them a cohesive symbol.

During the discussion at the Russell Kirk Center, Vigen mentioned the importance of his participation in the New York City Youth for Goldwater rally in 1964. As he began to describe the energy of the crowd, Annette cried from the back of the room, “I organized that rally.” This served as a Eureka! moment for all of us. As the two reminisced about the significance of the moment and of the Goldwater campaign, I could only think of the ways in which I thought of President Ronald Reagan. Then, I remembered how important a figure Senator Robert Taft (1889-1953) was to men such as Russell Kirk and Leonard Liggio (a classical liberal scholar I greatly admire).

Taft and Kirk, admittedly, have been on my mind recently. In August, while visiting Winston’s Center for the American Idea, I’d found that Transaction Press had recently reissued Kirk and James McClellan’s 1967 work, The Political Principles of Robert A. Taft. Though never in full agreement with the Ohio Senator’s political views, the two authors clearly admired Taft for his ability to gain respect from his opponents, pursue prudence in politics, and defend his own views rather than play to the perceived desires of the voter.

Most importantly, though, Kirk and Patterson believed Taft the best defender of what mattered most in America and in western civilization. “Taft spoke for constitution, self-government, private rights, the rule of law, security, peace, community, economic stability, the fabric of civilization. He contended against ideology, concentrated power, grandiose political designs, imperial aspiration, class hostility, economic folly, the rootless massage. What he had prevented being done mattered more than what he had himself accomplished.” [194].

Adorning this new edition from Transaction is Jeff O. Nelson’s masterful introduction. Nelson’s introduction alone is worth the price of the book. Well written, well-argued, and well-documented, Nelson not only puts the original project into a historical and biographical perspective, but he also very ably explains why the book and an understanding of Taft’s thought is as important today as it was 43 or 57 years ago. Because Taft spoke for transcendent things, his words carry a permanence to them, not subject to the whims or passions of the moment. Most important, Nelson convincingly argues, the Old Right—of true conservatives and libertarians—must be reconstituted if we are to survive the massive expansion of Leviathan and empire.

Almost certainly, Taft was the last great American spokesman for a real depth in politics prior to the TV and internet age. Indeed, because he abhorred ideological confrontation and sound bite communications, he would have certainly failed miserably in our day and age.

But, he once spoke for all that mattered, and, perhaps more importantly, he inspired those around him to do the same.

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore

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2 replies to this post
  1. Great post, Brad. I enjoyed your account of the conversation that night and wish that I could have been there to participate! A quick note on the end of the post–I'm learning how incredibly difficult it is to avoid soundbite politics in the day-to-day grind of politics. It's sad, but a reality that we have to deal with. The world of ideas has truly shifted away from politics until some unique figure, like Reagan (his flaws admitted), steps out from the fray and is able to define for us a particular point in history and its meaning for us beyond the gritty mechanics of political machinery. But, it almost takes that large of a stage to truly elevate the consciousness of a people in any meaningful sense. If anyone has seen otherwise, please show me! I wish it were otherwise. But, very few people have the patience to even listen to anything longer than a couple minutes. Not to mention the cost of conveying that message! (Thus, our commercials are measured in sections of 30 seconds at a time.)

  2. This book is a gem. I read it shortly after I had gotten to know Russell Kirk, and just after I had met Jim McClellan, and have had occasion to return to it many times. It is especially pertinent in these days for Taft’s measured, prudent, and wise thoughts on foreign policy. Jim was also one of the many people whom Russell helped at a crucial stage in his early career, and who later collaborated with Mel Bradford on important matters relating to the Constitution. This connection–northern and southern agrarians–is important to our common causes, and has been often neglected. Thanks, Brad, for giving this edition a boost.

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