A Boy in "Conservative" Rochester, NY: Part 2 of "The Old Conservatism"
Fast forward to election eve in November, 1976, and we have John Chancellor on NBC news reading various statistics about the vote in New York State. If President Gerald Ford wins New York, he presumably remains President. If Jimmy Carter wins, he will be President-elect.
What Chancellor said, and I remember it clearly, goes like this: "We've been almost ready to 'call' New York state for Carter, but there's an interesting twist. The very Republican areas in Monroe County [where Rochester is located] are going more than 90% for Ford, and that is making us hesitant to say that New York has gone for Carter." Eventually, Carter won the state by a narrow margin.
By 1976, I was living in Georgia, where Carter was governor. Early on election day, like many Georgians (although not enough), I had voted for Ford. At the time, my friend Newt Gingrich was going down to defeat against entrenched Democrat, John Flynt, mainly because Carter had drawn out the "Yellow Dog" Democrats. (They were Southerners who would vote for a "yellow dog" before they'd vote for a Republican.)
John Chancellor's remarks about Monroe County made me smile. I'd gone to school there, first at St. Salome's elementary school, later at Rush-Henrietta Central School, and eventually at the University of Rochester. I knew that on election day my very conservative sister in Rochester had gone to a 6 a.m. rally that drew thousands of get-out-the-vote Republicans. My sister said later, "Steve, at the pep rally they even had cheerleaders in uniform!"
The Rochester area -- especially the suburban communities like Pittsford, Brighton, Greece, and Henrietta -- were very Republican. There were very few community organizations that labeled themselves "Democratic." Heck, it was hard to find anyone who admitted to being a Democrat.
What about the larger picture, the state of New York itself? Older Americans think of the ghosts of New York governors past, especially people like Thomas Dewey and Nelson Rockefeller (with an occasional Democrat like Averill Harriman). Were such people truly conservative by modern standards? Not really. They were "moderate liberals," which essentially means they were LIBERALS.
They were not bad men. We associate Dewey with fighting organized crime and losing, unexpectedly, to Truman in 1948. We associate Rockefeller with ceasely promoting New York state and running unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for President. Neither one of them was averse to raising taxes and advocating social programs. In the state, taxes have been so high for so long that it's the norm. The state (now) has a death penalty on the books but of course never enforces it, which is a typical New York compromise.
In the case of Rochester's Monroe County, it was conservative into the 1980s, but mainly in a 1950s sense -- a "Father Knows Best" form of conservatism. The people worked hard, many of them at companies like Eastman Kodak and the emergent Xerox, went to bed early and showed up consistently at the ubiquitous fish-fries on Friday. (It was a very Roman Catholic area, with many Germans, Italians, and Irish.)
Rochester Roman Catholics are not staunch advocates of the separation of church and state. They do appear to be supporters of the separation of the teachings of their church from the practices of their own lives. Thus, the clergy will speak out against contraception and abortion, and most of the people attending church will ignore what they hear. (I'm not being anti-Catholic. In fact, I AM Catholic.)
In short, the apparent conservatism there was mainly a reflection of middle-class values, which didn't get seriously challenged until Viet Nam and after. I heard a few people call the my alma mater, the University of Rochester, "the atheist school," but in my seven years there I never heard anyone -- faculty or student -- make a serious advocacy of atheism. There were many Christians on the faculty, including Shakespeare scholar Sherman Hawkins and medievalist Stanley Kahrl, not to mention "liberal" Catholic (and father of 8) William Gilman, who was one of my favorite professors.
Cited as "atheists' were Professor Eugene D. Genovese, Marxist author of books about the Civil War era (Roll Jordan Roll being the most famous), and his wife, Kitty Fox-Genovese, a noted feminist. In a development that almost brought tears of joy to my eyes, Gene and Kitty later converted to the conservative-to-a-fault Russian Orthodox faith! Not exactly a militant atheist type of action.
The Republicanism of Monroe County has waned signifcantly. I believe that happened because it reflected a form of conservatism in search of a compelling idea -- and perhaps more than one idea. It was a practical form of conservatism -- reflected by Monroe County's Kenneth B. Keating -- who until 1964 was a U. S. Senator from Brighton. He, like the people he represented, advocated the status quo, largely because they benefited from it. Keating lsot to Robert Kennedy in the LBJ landslide of 1964, when Johnson won NY by approximatley 2.5 million votes.
When more ideological conservatives emerged -- such as State Rep Fred Eckert from Greece, New York -- they tended to worry voters. Generally, they got defeated eventually by Democrats. Some Rochesterians seemed to think of conservatives with ideas as somehow representatives of the dreaded "Radical Right."
For a modern illustration from Pennsylvania, consider the fate of Rick Santorum, a man of many ideas and a ferocious debater. He lost to "Mr. Bland," Bob Casey, a bald man with fewer ideas than he had hairs on top of his head. The problem for a man with ideas is that, by taking stands, he makes himself vulnerable on specific issues.
Of course, the problem for candidates who have no ideas is that they are vulnerable to a man or woman who has some. In Monroe County, we had two congressional representatives, Barber Conable and Frank Horton.
As for Conable, he was "an expert on tax matters." That's not exactly a specialty, valuable as it is, that's going to inspire a generation, especially "the young and the restless" (like one Steve Maloney). Conable is reminiscent of John Kasich, former Ohio congressman, also an expert on tax matters. Hearing Kasich debate issues with a heavyweight like Newt Gingrich is like watching a dachshund being beaten with a bullwhip -- not a pretty sight.
Our other congressman was Frank B. Horton (yikes, I even remember middle initials). Most people saw Horton as a moderate liberal, which of course assumes he actually had at least at embryonic philosophy of government, which I doubt. He "looked like a congresman," which meant he looked something like Robert Young.
He won re-election with great regularity in the in the 70s. He never really campaigned for office. Instead, he ran incessant TV ads that featured his picture but not his voice. Every two years, they would use the same jingle, concluding: "Make Frank Horton your c0n-gress-MAN." In short, he gave new meaning to the phrase "little note nor long remember."
Eventually, national politics became more assertive and divisive, products largely of Viet Nam and the Nixon Era, and the moderate Republicans began to disappear.
Eventually, Monroe County voters decided they didn't want Frank Horton types to be their "con-gress-MAN." Rather, they wanted a staunch liberal like Louise Slaughter (who's still there) to be their "con-gress-WOMAN." A cynic would say they wanted something rather than nothing.
As 50s-type sitcoms disappeared from the TV, 50s-type candidates either retired or, with increasing frequency, lost their offices. Ironically, one of the factors pushing out the bland Republicans was the Goldwater movement of 1964. His book (ghostwritten by Republican speechwriter Vic Gold), The Conscience of a Conservative, had a great effect, pointing out as it did that even conservatives should have a conscience.
I went to a lecture at the University of Rochester by Senator Goldwater (probably 1963). At least 600 people, mostly students, were there, and he received a good reception. He was actually stating ideas, one people could agree with or not, to an audience starved for some intellectual and political red meat.
Things were also going on "behind the scenes." William F. Buckley, Jr. found his National Review in 1955 -- and stayed there as editor-in-chief for 35 years. I remember a humorous, illogical line from the time about someone "filling a much-needed void." In Buckley's case, he filled a real void -- and had a tremendous influence on American politics.
People respond to ideas, and they respond especially to the emotional penumbra that surrounds the concepts. Bland representatives, symbolized by Horton and Conable, may offer some kind of comfort to voters, but they don't inspire them. Voters get tired of tiresome elected officials.
A few years ago, I was watching the funeral of Ronald Reagan. After the ceremony ended, an aging but still vital William Buckley, came down the cathedral steps, and the network news anchor (CBS?) took note of his presence: "There's William F. Buckley, Jr."
I thought at the time -- and will always think -- without WFB, there would have been no Ronald Reagan as we knew him, the inspirational leader par excellence. Without WFB, there would not have been the intellectual momentum and the political foundation to elect Ronald Reagan.
In an earlier column, I mentioned that WFB was almost run off the stage of Jack Paar's show. Hugh Downs, the apotheosis of the status quo, called Buckley "inhuman." By the 1980s, however, Buckley would be center stage in American politics -- and people like Hugh Downs would be left wondering where the status quo ever went.
Part III of "The Old Conservatism" will appear tomorrow, and Part IV will be available no later than Sunday. By the way, I wrote my first "national" article (based on an interview with George H. W. Bush, for Buckley's National Review. He and his sister, Priscilla, played major roles in my writing career, for which I'll always be grateful.