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It’s Nelson Rockefeller’s Party

     Listen here: I am presuming here to dispute a neglected question with William F. Buckley: whose GOP is this, anyway, gathered in convention at Madison Square Garden?

     Bill Buckley has been a writer and a player to be reckoned with in the Republican tong wars going back to Robert “Mr. Republican” Taft vs. Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952. He stood with Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan in battle with the Rockefeller faction of the party through the 1970s.

     So I asked him: How did the famously divided Republicans–Russell Baker once described them as a bird that was “all wings, and no body”–come to a simulation of unity behind George W. Bush? And just which tree do President Bush and this convention fall out of?

     Listen for yourself and judge whether Bill Buckley’s tone suggests triumph or disappointment in his heart of hearts.

     “It falls,” he responds to my question, “in the line of a Republican Party not fraught by any serious internal division, or even tension. It’s not Rockefeller vs. Goldwater or Reagan vs. Rockefeller. It is more or less: ‘whose turn is it?’ And in that sense it represents a party that really hasn’t found any missionary excitement of the kind that identifies the leader with a body of thought that’s either gestating or received as common wisdom.

     “In other words, I think that the Republican nominee of four years ago and this year is not an exciting ideological figure. He is rather a senior figure who prevailed in traditional ways. I don’t think Mr. Bush will be thought of as a Reagan or a Senator Taft.”

     That is not just putting it mildly, I reply, it’s getting it wrong.

     I volunteer to Bill Buckley that it seems clear in hindsight that the old casting of Rockefeller “moderates” and Reaganite “extremists” in the Republican party was a basic misconstruction, aided in no small part by the Rockefeller clout in the media and at the New York Times in particular.

     In real life we got to know Ronald Reagan as rather a gentle and available Main St. cowboy, a populist for the well-to-do, a phlegmatic character with quasi-isolationist “fortress America” instincts. He was open and clear about his anti-Communist foreign policy. Yes, he was a sneaky bully in Central America, but he was extremely cautious in action otherwise.

     It’s the Rockefeller instincts I never stop worrying about. Drawing on the power of oil and Wall Street with the personal entitlement that comes of almost infinite inherited wealth, the Rockefeller instincts are compounded with secrecy, overfamiliarity with nuclear weapons and the CIA, and a possessive outlook on the whole world.

     It’s the Rockefeller instincts, I argue, that led the bungling Bush administration into Iraq and fed the fantasy of an easy police action in a far outpost of empire. It’s the old Rockefeller instincts that are still trying to euphemize and legitimize aggressive blunders that Ronald Reagan would never have committed.

     Ronald Reagan’s “victory” in the Cold War and his emergence as a hero in Russia and Eastern Europe doubtless inspired George Bush’s crazy dream of being seen someday as the “liberator” of Arab Muslims. But Bush missed the point by a mile. Ronald Reagan never bombed Warsaw or Petersburg or Moscow. He’d have lost the Cold War if he had. And he would surely have cautioned George Bush: Well, son…you won’t win anything of value, even against Saddam Hussein, by bombing the Cradle of Civilization.

     I had my own odd epiphany about Ronald Reagan around the time of the Soviet assault on Afghanistan and the Iran hostage crisis in 1979, at the start of the 1980 presidential campaign. Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, a longtime Rockefeller protege, had posed with a rifle in the Khyber Pass, in effect warning the Russians not even to think about approaching the Persian Gulf. Other old Rockefeller hands, notably Henry Kissinger and James Schlesinger, were muttering hints at the same time that the United States might have to use to nuclear weapons to defend our oil lifeline. But Ronald Reagan had an altogether different and explicitly anti-nuclear line. We might have to quarantine Cuba in response to a Russian mischief in the Gulf, Reagan said. But wasn’t it wonderful, he added, that we had more oil under Alaska than existed in all of the Middle East! Reagan was being his fanciful Hollywood self, of course, about that Alaskan oil, but he was also revealing his continental and defensive reflexes about American power, altogether different from Nelson Rockefeller’s. A Bill Buckley anecdote confirms my sentimental weakness for the late Ronnie as a crypto-peacenik: Colin Powell remarked not long ago, Buckley says, that “of all the people he ever worked with, he never ran into anybody who despised nuclear weapons the way Ronald Reagan did.”

     I am remembering another epiphany as a New York Times reporter watching Nelson Rockefeller at a bizarre moment in 1976. He was a lame-duck vice president, having been chosen by the accidental President Gerald Ford, then dumped as a running mate in favor of Bob Dole. Late in the 1976 campaign, it was Rockefeller’s awkward and humilitating duty to show Dole around New York State. On a state university campus in Westchester County, students turned out en masse, not to cheer Nelson Rockefeller but to remind the world of his role as governor in the Attica prison massacre in 1971. “Attica, Attica, no matter how you figger, Rocky pulled the trigger,” the students kept chanting, drowning out host Rockefeller and his guest Dole. Finally Rocky, at the end of his rope, gave the kids the finger–first one hand, then two. I called the Times desk in some amazement to say that Nelson Rockefeller was melting down before scores of cameras. But this was a picture that was never to run in the New York Times, and a story not quite fit to be printed in the paper of record. Not about Nelson Rockefeller anyway.

     Rockefeller had power beyond imagining. His sway at Times was the least of it, perhaps, but we felt the vibrations, often with a chill of embarrassment. On Rockefeller’s sudden death in his midtown Manhattan apartment in 1979, the marvellous James Reston reduced himself to writing in a page-one obituary appreciation that it was fitting that his friend had died in quiet contemplation of his personal art collection, though it soon developed that in fact Rocky had his fatal heart attack in the saddle with a girlfriend. A great ex-Times reporter, Richard Reeves, tells of a time in the late 1960s when New York was ablaze with race riots and Governor Rockefeller was missing for weeks. Reeves finally located him on World Bank president Eugene Black’s island estate in the Mediterranean, whereupon Black, a member of the Times board, called the Times publisher to say: Governor Rockefeller was not to be disturbed! For the Times I covered Rockefeller’s elevation to the vice presidency in 1974. Dick Reeves’ joke at the time was: “Chris, don’t worry about ‘confict of interest’ issues–Rocky’s putting Venezuela into a blind trust.”

     I feel a resonance of that ancient history inside this tight little Bush bubble of a convention in the militarized bunker of Madison Square Garden. The atmosphere in New York feels to me Rockefellerish, in a word. It’s not so much that, as Kevin Phillips has written, “The Bushes’ ties to John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil go back 100 years.” It is rather the impenetrable and impervious arrogance of Bush power. (Kevin Phillips again, on the Bushes: “I get a sense… that this is not a family that has a particularly strong commitment to American democracy. Its sense of how to win elections comes out of a CIA manual, not out of the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution.”) It is also the deep insulation that most of the institutional media have given President Bush and his runaway misadventure in Iraq.

     It’s just a few Republican veterans who say incisively what has happened to their party.

     Ron Reagan Jr., for one, in Esquire: “Spin has long been the lingua franca of the political realm. But George W. Bush and his administration have taken “normal” mendacity to a startling new level far beyond lies of convenience. On top of the usual massaging of public perception, they traffic in big lies, indulge in any number of symptomatic small lies, and, ultimately, have come to embody dishonesty itself. They are a lie. And people, finally, have started catching on… My father, acting roles excepted, never pretended to be anyone but himself. His Republican party, furthermore, seems a far cry from the current model, with its cringing obeisance to the religious Right and its kill-anything-that-moves attack instincts. …Beyond issues of fiscal irresponsibility and ill-advised militarism, there is a question of trust. George W. Bush and his allies don’t trust you and me. Why on earth, then, should we trust them?”

     Kevin Phillips, for another: “as far as I’m concerned, what the Bushes represent is just totally at loggerheads with everything from Abraham Lincoln down to McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt, to Eisenhower who warned about the military-industrial complex.”

     And, clearest of all Pat Buchanan: “Under the rubric of conservatism, the Republican party of Bush I and II has been reinventing itself into what conservatives would have once recognized as a Rockefeller party reciting Reaganite rhetoric.”

     In a forthcoming book of which I’ve seen only excerpts, WHERE THE RIGHT WENT WRONG: How Neoconservatives Subverted The Reagan Revolution And Hijacked the Bush Presidency, Buchanan forecasts: “[A] civil war is going to break out inside the Republican Party along the old trench lines of the Goldwater-Rockefeller wars of the 1960s, a war for the heart and soul and future of the party for the new century.”

     The issue in that civil war, Pat, will be Empire. But that is a subject for another day.

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