tv History Bookshelf Bradley Birzer Russell Kirk CSPAN September 14, 2019 9:15pm-10:01pm EDT
million-copy bestseller, this book called "the conservative mind," which the timing was just right. it hit the market from a chicago publisher, ended up going hrough seven editions over its lifetime, and it really did give -- there were a number of disparate voices that i would just say were not leftist. they might be conservative to ome degree, libertarian to another degree, but there were a whole number of voices that i think kirk's book allowed some kind of forum for all of these voices to be able to speak right t the end of world war ii, right at the end of the korean war, so he becomes very important. we would never have had a very goldwater movement without kirk. we also would not have had a reagan movement later on without kirk. he did represent that strain of conservatism. john: and he helped coalesce
conservative thought. what is interesting, and what most people might not imagine, is that the milieu in which "the conservative mind" came out was very different than we kind of offer a shorthand for political thought at this point. we think about conservative and liberal, and we think about these things on the opposite extremes. we have pretty entrenched ideas about what those terms mean. bradley: right. john: they are convenient shorthand at this point that often lead to stereotypes, but at the time that "the conservative mind" came out, conservatism really was not a thing in america. bradley: that's right. and part of what kirk had to do was he had to bring together all of these disparate strands, and he had to give it some kind of coherence, so what he decided to do in his this occasion -- when e wrote the dissertation, he
had certainly longed to be a well published author. he never anticipated he would have the kind of success he did. the timing was perfect and he was a good writer -- a very good writer, and amazing stylist and a good anchor as well, but he certainly did not project this was going to change the world. even though -- and i think you are absolutely right that we have kind of forgotten, in this day and age, from about 1950 three to about 1964, and once goldwater fails in that horrific failure and the 1964 presidential election, kirk fails as well. he lives for 30 more years, and it takes him those 30 years to rebuild his reputation that to here it was before the goldwater debacle. but as you say, and it cannot be stressed enough, that kirk's conservatism was not political, i think that is fundamental to understanding the original
conservative movement. it became political with goldwater movement, but when kirk writes "the conservative mind," he is not thinking in terms of a political ovement. things aren't used for reagan. he's not thinking a large defense and free market -- he is in favor of all that, but his main idea of conservatism is really presenting a kind of western face against the soviets. so it was not just that we were ot soviet or we were anti-communist, but he actually wanted to try and figure out a way that we were something that as its own thing, and, yet, he did not want to be ideological, either. so a lot of his conservatism is very poetic, it is very literary. it has to do with art probably more than it has to do with tax subsidies or military policy. john: again, to set the stage, pre-1953, you think about conservatives not really having a place at the table. bradley: right. john: they were not really a
firm, cemented part of the spectrum with a definition behind them. keep in mind, the country is coming out of the great epression. the country has been experiencing the new deal for quite a while. you have got radical ideologies germinating abroad. you have got a giant war that had taken place abroad. there was probably a general feeling that government control, in ways bigger than ever before, was perhaps a little bit necessary, and that modernism was the inevitable path for mankind. then along comes kirk, who presents a different path. bradley: yes, and very anti-modern. he is very leery of this. one of the things i think we often forget, and, john, your question leads beautifully into this, is that modern conservatism comes out of two impulses -- number one, it comes out of the fear that there is a
ollectivization going on not just in government, so there's no doubt that conservatives from the beginning were fearful of big government. what we see radically abroad in the kind of terrorist ideological regimes that we see in russia, germany, italy, portugal, and other places prior to world war ii, and we see them in some ways decline during world war ii, and in others, we see them increase. it was not just a fear of that abroad, but that at home through what we call progressivism, that there was a desire to solve all problems through colossal institutions. gm, which kirk had no love for, huge universities, which kirk was fearful of huge universities, or government. he was fearful of the cult of the colossal around anything that seemed to be anti-humane. that was one of the impulses that i think was important for
all conservatism and libertarianism at that time in the 1950's, but the other impulse, which, again, we have gotten, and we have even seen modern "conservatives" -- i will put them in air quotes, but we have seen modern conservatives lambast this. people like robert nisbet, russell kirk, they believe very strongly that our true voice was the force of socrates and plato with cicero and augustine, and they saw that long line and believed, and i think probably correctly, that these things were being attacked, and it makes sense. i do not think we have to get conspiratorial here, but if national governments get
involved in funding universities, they are going to want things like science, which science is great, but they will use science for making larger bombs. to kind of round this question out, hopefully, it is tied to both the fear of what is colossal as well as the loss of liberal arts, that we are pursuing power without virtue. and kirk was absolutely horrified. in the book, i'm not sure how well i explain it, but i try to explain kirk's feelings about this -- he was horrified about the dropping of the atomic bombs on hiroshima and nagasaki. those two of events, one isn't put together, but the dropping of the bomb -- first of all, the development of the bomb, that physicists would even consider this thing. i think this was just too much for him. i go into this in detail, and i hope people don't take kirk as crazy, but he saw this as a very old stoics response, the kind of response that marcus aurelius might give, but he wondered as a member of the u.s. military if it was his duty to commit suicide, not because he was depressed or suicidal, but because our honor as americans have been so tainted by the attack on these cities that maybe it was the duty of a good american to actually have ecompense to pay for this in a
kind of purgatorial way. very interesting. it is obvious he did not commit suicide, but his letters and diaries were just horrified by this. john: i want to talk in a little bit more detail about kirk's brand of conservatism. when we think about liberals and conservatives these days, we almost cannot help but fall into the trap of stereotypes and caricature. we see almost a cartoonish pop conservatism or liberalism on radio and tv. you write that conservatism for kirk was served as a means, a mood, or attitude to conserve, to preserve, and to pass on to future generations the best of the humane tradition rather than to advocate a particular hilosophy, party, or genda.
very different than our shorthand version of conservatives right now. bradley: absolutely. john: could you talk about what his brand was of conservatism and why it set lots of minds on fire? bradley: well, as you said so well, john, there were not many conservative voices. robert nisbet and others, they were not unified by any means. a lot of these people were not coming out of the ivy leagues, which was interesting, too. a lot of these people were people who had been educated in smaller schools. i don't want to take this too far, but there is a bit of animosity towards not only corporate america, but towards east coast elitism and the ivys as well. i don't want to suggest that as a prime motivating factor, but they were kind of proud they could jab the east coast universities as well. the word conservative is first used in the american tradition
n the modern sense by a person out at one of the seven sisters schools. he uses it in an article in "the atlantic," and you would not get from reading this that it is political. e is really talking about t.s. eliot and remembering the great things in music and opera and so forth. it is not conservative in a political sense. it is not until after world war ii that the term starts getting bantered around. it is really kirk that does give that label some kind of gravitas, some kind of real trength. it is not a rallying cry for a party, because eisenhower, it takes him a while, for example, to call himself that. robert taft takes it on pretty quickly. of course he passes away in 953.
really, for kirk, that conservatism, he gives us six cannons in the book "the conservative mind," and he uses the term intentionally. he is kind of a quasi-atheist at this point. he will convert to roman catholicism but not until august 964. this is a long journey for him. he is 45 when he converts to catholicism. his really kind of an atheist agnostic for most of his life up to that point, and yet, if you read those cannons in 1953, they ound deeply religious. they start by arguing we should believe in a higher power, we should believe in the author of the natural law. we should believe in the dignity of every person. in his second canon, he actually sounds like vatican, too. what he says could have easily been written by someone in rome during 1952 and 1955 during the vatican council.
it is all personal and humane in the way he thinks about this, but i stress, and i think it is important to note that he uses the term "canon," because that meant a truth that was not asily defined. he is trying to avoid a marxian program or a fascistic conception of the state. he does not want conservatism to be an ideology or a party platform. it is a way of thinking, and that way of thinking is what we might call a stoic, almost agnostic judaism or christianity. it is good enough to have the ethics of socrates, really to have this as a way of moving forward, and we know, as the history of conservatism, of course, from its beginning is very catholic and very jewish. it is not protestant really until you have the revival of he new right in the 1970's, so the great movement is kind of --
it had those religious overtones, but it's not blatantly religious in the way we will think of it with jerry falwell or oral roberts or pat obertson later on. john: he puts out "the onservative mind" in 1953. it shows there is not only this other point of view, but that it also has this very proud anglo-american heritage that stretches back a couple of centuries, and he instantly became a spokesman for really hat became a movement. what did the book accomplish, and what was the reaction? it is still obviously in print at this point. it is very heady stuff, not your typical best-seller material, and yet, that is what it ecame. bradley: that is right. it went through seven additions during his lifetime.
the last was published in 1986, just about eight years before he passed away. even to the beginning, most likely, this would be the last revision. the revisions do matter. this is not just a change of a name here are there. in particular, each edition changes the last chapter, so it kind of looks more at what is happening. he original title, interestingly enough, was called "the conservative's route," because kirk thought all conservatism would be a rearguard action. he could not imagine anyone stepping forward and using this as a way to move into the future. it would always be a way of stopping radical progressives, holding them that to a certain degree, but he thought we would lose. that was not a typical. whittaker chambers, even though he leaves communism, is always convinced communism will win. he is joining the losing side. a publisher here in chicago, which we identify usually with conservatism, he actually had made his money by translating catholic theology in the late 1940's into english, so a lot of
german scholars and a lot of french scholars, he had translated those and made his money that way before it became known as conservatism, but when kirk publishes his book, it is in the english-speaking world. "the conservative mind" is published in every major periodical, every major newspaper. several newspapers review it twice, because it becomes so big that they feel they have to go back and look at it again and make sure they did not get it wrong. lmost everybody is laudatory. you find a few criticisms. some people will say kirk is a 19th-century man thrust into the 20th century. he is a romantic, which he was. here is no question kirk is an idealistic romantic. he would have enjoyed walking tours with wordsworth or coleridge, there's no question about that. he could have easily -- and he was a very eccentric person.
just as eccentric as they come. but yes, that word "conservatism" becomes the word, and it really brings in all of these disparate schools. it does bring together a lot of people, and one person who is absolutely taken with this book, strangely enough, is this pilot from arizona, barry goldwater, and that is a catalyst for him. john: and "the conservative mind" pretty much begins with edmund burke and his thoughts. talk about the importance of edmund burke, and talk about some of the other people in the book, the other litany of conservative saints, if you will. bradley: that is a great way of putting it, because "the onservative mind" is very much
a hagiography, looking at roughly 29 people, looking at their lives and what they contribute. they do not all agree, and that is important for kirk, that in the book, these 29 characters, some we know well, people like edmund burke, known well to at least academics at the time, people like alexis de tocqueville. a lot of these people we do not emember very well. in america, he is laudatory of irving babbitt and paul elmer ore. that i think are great guys but nobody picks up on them. john: there are others we know well. bradley: absolutely. he end the book with t.s. eliot. he and eliot become very good friends and shape each other's hought profoundly.
i don't think we could have had conservatism in america without eliot, who really sanctioned kirk. certainly, burke is important. kirk gives his bookends for "the conservative mind" starting with burke and john adams, the cheat of great conservatives as he sees it. he ends with t.s. eliot. he has these 26 figures in between. burke is important and is a great figure, and i have the great privilege of teaching founding of the american epublic. i get to teach it every two years, and i absolutely love it, but i always make sure that as the students are reading john dickinson or thomas jefferson, we also do a good deal of burke. part of that is because i like kirk, and i like burke as well, but a huge part of it is because burke was the leading mind in arliament.
he put his life on the line more than once, he was actually treasonous, at defending american life, and he did that his whole career. it was not just a political movement. burke truly believed that americans had inherited the very long tradition of common law, trial by jury, the right to be nnocent until proven guilty, habeas corpus. burke believed that we were the true englishman. and that was kirk's idea as ell. so there is a burkian sense that is important for our modern conservatism, but it is equally important, john, to state burke is not unique. he is one in a very long line of thinkers. even though kirk starts his book with burke, burke is the inheritor of socrates, plato, and aristotle, and all the greats through the western tradition. burke represents that. so for that idea to come orward, that is kirk's understanding that we as americans -- and i would even,
for the audience especially and those watching c-span, look at ronald reagan. if you go back and look at ronald reagan's speeches in 1981 and 1982, he will talk about the greatness of america, but what he talks about so importantly is america defending the greatness of the west. and he, like kirk, he draws that n. later, i think, reagan becomes a little more nationalistic, but in his earlier years, he is concerned with the western tradition and really the best of the western tradition. and that is why kirk picks burke as well. john: "the conservative mind" at the table for kirk's career. he was a writer who out his life, helped found "the national review," with william buckley, where he was a syndicated columnist, widely read across the country. several other books, important book on t.s. eliot, among thers.
a novelist, just a protean creative figure. if, for nothing else, he would e remembered for that. despite the fact that early on, he did not talk about conservatism as a party, as an agenda, as politics, he did get very much involved with politics, as you alluded to, with barry goldwater's candidacy in 1964. what prompted that shift, and how did things play out? bradley: yeah, that is an awkward subject in a lot of ways, simply because kirk really goes against his own rinciples. in many ways -- i will say in many ways, in every way i could find, kirk really was a man of integrity, and i'm sure he had his faults. i have seen he had a temper and o forth, but he really did try to live what he preached. e did make a lot of money, but
he gave it all away. we could talk about that. that is maybe a different story, but he had argued as early as 1953, and he takes this from one of the great writers. he said politics is for the poorly educated. bradley: it was not the nicest comment to make, but he believed eal change came by writing ooks, dealing with newspaper editors, it came by writing syndicated columns. he was truly a man of letters in that he believed a real intellectual presence, a real change would take at least 25 years. we do not go into congress assuming that if we get one law passed, everything will change tomorrow. he took a long view. he saw how civilization had risen and fallen. he knew the greats of western civilization -- people, again, i know i have mentioned them already a couple of times, but the three greats of greek society -- socrates, plato, ristotle -- they came at the end of greece, not in its heyday. hey were all nostalgic writing
about what they lost. the same thing with cicero and saint augustin. kirk thought we, too, were at the end of the west, and herefore our job would be like medieval monks, to transcribe and conserve, but then this young senator, who had a lot of charisma, and even though only about one-third of the population like him, that third eally liked him. and goldwater was, by all accounts -- and i am not a goldwater scholar, but by all accounts, it is hard to dislike him. he met with people and was totally honest. people used to talk about when goldwater and nixon would meet with donors, goldwater would never, ever placate a donor. if it was gm and they wanted a subsidy on tariffs, goldwater would say to their face, "no, i would never do that," and nixon would say "i think we could work something out." and again, i am not an expert on
goldwater or nixon, but i don't think any of us would think oldwater lied. he is just a guy who whatever he hought he spoke. i think kirk was pretty taken from that. goldwater calling him from washington, d.c., saying "my two favorite authors are you and friedrich hayek. i need to know what to say to make this work. how will i convince people?" i think a young kirk was pretty flattered by that. he became very involved. goldwater called him all the ime.
they met at times in places like florida. they with william f buckley strategized, "how do we take out the birchers? we we don't want these people on our side. how do we take out the radical right? none of these people should be a part of genuine conservatism." then the goldwater movement took off in different directions. kirk did not get involved much past 1964. and he was not good at it. he was good, if you want an honest politician, kirk is fantastic. if you want a winning politician, kirk is not that good. john: along the way, kirk supported reagan, supported gene mccarthy's run in 1976, pat buchanan later on. bradley: he loved norman homas. i think he was much more concerned with personality and who he thought was honest. john: you know, there's obviously a lot of names and influences that kirk enjoyed. it is very enjoyable in your book to go down all of those paths of all of these thinkers who influenced kirk's
thought. this probably more ideas per page in this book than a year's orth of ted talks. it is fascinating intellectual history. by this token, russell kirk, as you alluded to, was an interesting character. he was not just a writer off in a room somewhere. lots of eccentricities, a little bit of a prickly nature. talk about the man himself and some of those peculiarities. bradley: yeah, thanks, john. t is a great question, and i don't think you could ever walk away from russell kirk without knowing his personality. e was bizarre. my favorite story -- and my wife's favorite story as well -- my favorite story about kirk, he is a bachelor all the way up until 1964. e marries about a month before he turns 46. marries this beautiful
woman. annette kirk, she had been a model in new york. extremely intelligent. incredible person and they were a great team, but a year before he gets married, he always traveled the world, not as a young man, but once he went off and served in the military, became enamored with travel. he was a world traveler, throughout north africa, raveled throughout south frica, all of asia, traveled throughout all of europe. usually would just live on peanut butter. he did not mind poverty at all. whatever he had, that is what he had. money was only a means to an end. for kirk, that was another story. so in 1963, he and a hungarian scholar i can see walking all around africa and the winter. but they decide to pick the winter. they walk all across north africa. and everywhere where kirk goes because he's kirk, he always carries with him a portable typewriter. and his letters -- i'm 48. in all my years of researching,
i've never seen a body of letters that he never stopped writing. he could do 120 words a minute. he had a photographic memory. just amazing. he walks across the desert with this hungarian scholar. and he wears a three-piece tweed suit across the moroccan desert. he carries with him not only his typewriter but he has this huge cain that has a sword in it. t.s.a. wouldn't allow this. he usually carried a revolver with him. children follow him everywhere. this is bizarre character walking across. ends up in europe after this whole thing. gets to an opera in italy. i think he's in florence if i remember right. and they're late. he and his friend they show up in this opera.
he wore in addition to wearing his three-piece suit everywhere, he had a count dracula cape. he gotten the count dracula prize. and he loved wearing this high colored cape. he shows up late. the security guard would not letlet them in at all. we're late. the door is not opening. kirk says, this is russell kirk. e's the duke of macasta. and the security is like i the duke.w he was >> and this is a small town in michigan. was his home. >> yes. >> and he rebuilt his home in a rather grandiose manner. >> yeah, this is the other story about kirk we don't forget. frankly, if any of you end up reading the book, but if you do,
the one thing to take away that i think is so brilliant about kirk and i ended the book with this because i thought if i end with this no one will believe it. he did very well with his fiction. most people that know his horror fictions don't know he's the founder of post war conservatism. they don't know that he was a fiction writer. but the thing that was most impressive about him that when he died he was basically broke. he gave everything away. he and his wife used to drive to grand rapids. anybody who wanted to come from cambodia. ethiopia, anyone escaping from communism or fascism they opened their house to them. and so the daughters, they would wake up tomorrow morning. they knew never who would be at breakfast with them. at times there would be 18 ethiopians, vietnamese.
one of my closest friends ommism by the name of ivan pon grasic. he was brought out because of kirk. kirk truly lived this in every way. and one of the persons and this is what you're alluding to, john, one of the persons he met was an ex-con who was on parole from upstate new york who happened to be walking through michigan in the late 1960's through macasta. it was a main named clinton wallace. they thought he was fascinating. they loved him. and they invited him to stay. he called the parole office said we'll take care of this guy. clinton wallace ends up living there. on ash wednesday of all days 1975, he accidentally leaves the grite the fireplace open and they burn down kirk's home. and they have to rebuild it after that. and it's this beautiful ornate
italian structure there. here's what i think is beautiful in st. michael's cemetery and that was kirk's parish. they bury clinton wallace. he died around 1978. his tombstone is right next to russell kirk. it doesn't say hobo or ex-drifter. t says clinton wallace, knight k-n-i-g-h-t. he loved people. he loved stories of people. he was very forgiving. but this guy was interesting. so kirk liked him. and kirk was that ex-centric too. he just wasn't on the criminal side so -- >> john: let me ask you something kirk would imagine would happen these days i don't mean to put you in his mind but who better to ask than somebody who has put together this biography. what would he think about today's political environment?
>> he would be horrified. i think two things would have bothered him immensely. he spent the last three years of his life combating this he was right or wrong, he thought that george bush's foreign policy, first george bush was just against everything that america really stood for. he was very worried about the first gulf war. he saw this as our first faux ray into serious perman american empire. he spent the first three years -- i don't think he was really successful. he was run out of the conservative mume of movement and he made some remarks that were not judiciously. he thought bush had betrayed the entire reagan policies. you have a military, so you don't use it. he did not believe in any form of overseas expansion. so he would be -- the idea that we have troops now stationed in 150 countries out of 196,
something very different from what it would have been in 1991. he would have been very, very upset about that. he would not in any way recognize the people that we ll whether we're using it or not, neocons. he was worried about the possibility. but he also -- and think this is even more important. and i don't necessarily want to name names. but the idea that you have radio shows dedicated to conservatism as art -- i'm sorry let me rephrase that. not as art but entertainment. the fact that you would be selling conservatism as a radio show or tv show. his conservatism -- what we're doing is we're having a discussion and you're letting me talk one because you're very gracious, but what we're doing taking 35, 45 minutes and actually thinking about an idea, that for kirk was what we should be doing. he may have disagreed with say mcneill laire but that was the
proper way of doing news. eric severide show." kirk sat back. .e very much disagreed with her his brand was very different. it was very charitable. he let her talk. and then he just answered very calmly. and she was frustrated. he -- he just -- he was fine. when he does that -- he actually got along very well but with malcolm x. same kind of thing. half hour discussion. i think that was important for hill. sound bites. that wasn't his. >> so the discussion exchange of ideas a good thing and in closing here, we wanted to open up the -- the floor to any questions from the audience for professional birzer if there are any about russell kirk, his hought or this book?
going once. we've answered all the questions. one last question, and then we'll close in brief. russell kirk's legacy. > yes -- john, let me -- john: we do have one question. >> two questions. what would be his reaction to what happened in the 1960's? this is somewhat off the subject. but there's been a lot in the news lately about how conservative professors on campus are somewhat hounded and afraid to come out as conservatives. do you have any comment on that? thank you for coming. >> thank you. for both of those questions. kirk was confused by the 1960's. he did attack some radicalism on campus. he was willing to debate and engage -- one of my favorite stories and this is not
something i go in great detail partly because we don't have a lot of evident. s.d.s. sked to speak by and the black panthers. he got asked to debate tom hayden. this was a pretty radical group. but kirk was without question, he was a gentleman. and he treated no matter who he was talking to, he treated people with respect. and tom hayden came late. kirk because the event had to get started and hayden hadn't shown up, they allowed him to give a speech. hayden came from the back of the room at least as the story goes and he immediately started launching into kirk as a defender of corporate capitalism as a person who was defending the establishment. and the story goes -- and again, i've not been able to verify but even if it's not true, i think it says so much about what we remember about kirk and explains a lot.
there was a young man, african-american man in the front row who was a very convinced black panther. and as soon as hayden launched into kirk, this guy stood up and just started yelling at hayden and said, you have no right to do this. you didn't listen to this man. this man has more respect for us than you're showing now. and by all accounts kirk won the debate because whatever he said, he treated everybody well. it wasn't a show for him. this was serious conversation. and i think it's really important to note that kirk in his life would ever again modern conservative has become, kirk was always a defender of people who would have been called minorities in the 1950', always. he believed that the changes that were happening in the 1960's were necessary. he believed from the very beginning that he has an editorial, i think 1963 and this would not go over well with libertarians or hard core free market sites he felt one of the
ugliest things that had developed in american culture were big billboards. he had a newspaper that all good citizens should spend their time defacing billboards because they don't do anything for the beauty of america. and he rode on necessity of good architecture inside as well as out. he is a very interested -- and he planted. in his lifetime he planted thousands upon thousands of trees because he thought it was his duty to make up for the sins of his ancestors in. the media today we're espousing conservatism is not generally what we hear. as for your second question, sir, i can't really answer that. i know a lot of my friends who are conservative feel very oppressed. i'm teaching at a small college that is open. the last year i had a great blessing of teaching at the university of colorado at boulder.
i had one position there. i loved it. i'm sure people thought i was weird. but i had nothing but good experiences. so my own -- for what it's worth my anecdotal evident i've not seen that, but my friends who are conservative do not feel the way i do. maybe i've gotten lucky. >> you know, we have -- we have come to tend of our time. i wanted to remind everybody. the book is "russell kirk: american conservative." bradley birzer has been our guest here. thank you very much for this wonderful conversation. >> thank you. and thank you, everyone. >> and everybody enjoy the rest of the fest today. thank you so much. and thank you for attending today's program. his book will be sold just outside the door. and your feedback is important to us. so please visit printerroad, lipfest award. please complete the survey. thanks so much and have a fantastic day. [captioning performed by national captioning institute] [captions copyright national able satellite corp. 2019]
for president committee. this half hour campaign film follows the senator and democratic nominee as he meets a variety of hears from a bolt -- he from a baltimore steelworker, senior citizen, wisconsin farmer, unemployed engineer and wheelchair-bound vietnam veteran. mcgovern lost to richard nixon in a landslide that year, winning only the district of columbia and massachusetts. [film begins] >> waves of planes and helicopters, both american and south vietnamese, have made thousands of sorties. senator mcgovern: during the past year i have found that campaigning can be a lonely notness, airports, motels, seeing my family for weekst