Quit Redefining Conservatism

As CPAC continues its right-wing celebration this weekend, The Daily Beast’s Christopher Buckley (politely) takes on his first cousin, Brent Bozell III, and the other signers of the Mount Vernon Statement, for trying to redefine conservatism by updating his father’s original manifesto—when all they’re really doing is bashing Obama.

Cliff Owen / AP Photo

To paraphrase Ross Perot, whom I oddly find myself missing these days, that giant sucking sound you’ve been hearing these last two days has been issuing from a series of conservative hootenannies in and around Washington, DC, in the ninth circle of right-wing hell.

Cousin Brent has a razor-sharp mind and a greyhound-quick tongue, but in reading his announcement accompanying the release of the Mount Vernon, I found myself quietly murmuring, “Block that metaphor!”

The first came from Mount Vernon, where 80 prominent conservatives gathered to sign something designated, appropriately enough, the “Mount Vernon Statement,” a call for a return to “Constitutional conservatism.” What is it—one wonders—about conservatism that it seems to be in need of re-prefixing every decade? Last time around it was “compassionate conservatism.” What followed for eight years could have been more accurately called “Incontinent conservatism.” In any event…

Christopher Buckley: Conservatives, Fired UpBrent Bozell III: Buckley’s Real Problem with the Conservative MovementHootenanny No. 2—ongoing as I type—is the annual Conservative Political Action Conference, held in the same hotel—I just can’t resist mentioning this deliciously inconvenient truth—where the late Senator Joseph McCarthy used to hang out when not in West Virginia holding aloft lists of State Department commies.

One of the speakers at the conference, a Jason Mattera, called the gathering “Our Woodstock” and then proceeded to launch into an extended and somewhat witless diatribe on the theme of Barack Obama’s “snorting cocaine.”

So there you have it: the Sermon on the Mount Vernon and the Conservative Woodstock. At least now when we Google “conservative” and “Woodstock,” it won’t come back with “No matches.”

Much was made by the signatories and promulgators of the Mount Vernon Statement about its being an updating of The Sharon Statement. Here I must cop to serial co-sanguinity. The promulgator-in-chief of the Mount Vernon Statement is my first cousin, Brent Bozell III, president of the Media Research Center. The chief articulators of the Sharon Statement were his late father, Brent Bozell, Jr., and my own late dad, William F. Buckley, Jr.

Before I proceed to make Brent grind his molars, let me shout it—sincerely—from the rooftops that I deeply love my cousin and consider him as fine and decent a fellow as any I know. He is stalwart and indefatigable in the service of the principles he holds dear. But it must be said that he and his fellow signatories, the roster of whose names reads like a Who’s Who of conservative elders, have produced a document that bears the same relation to the Sharon Statement as Edward Everett’s two-hour long speech at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, bore to the two-minute-long speech by the other speaker on the program that day: Abraham Lincoln.


“The change we urgently need, a change consistent with the American ideal, is not movement away from but toward our founding principles. At this important time, we need a restatement of Constitutional conservatism grounded in the priceless principle of ordered liberty articulated in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.” (Mount Vernon)

Compare and contrast:

“In this time of moral and political crises, it is the responsibility of the youth of America to affirm certain eternal truths.

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“We, as young conservatives, believe:

“That foremost among the transcendent values is the individual’s use of his God-given free will, whence derives his right to be free from the restrictions of arbitrary force.” (Sharon)

If you’re out of Ambien or Lunesta, you can call up the Mount Vernon Statement in its entirety at themountvernonstatement.com. You could also Google The Sharon Statement, and then decide for yourself whether conservative manifestos have improved over the years. (I note, weirdly, that the Sharon Statement was signed on Sept. 11, 1960. Nostradamus, call your office.)

I thought to ask Sam Tanenhaus what he made of the Mount Vernon Statement. Mr. Tanenhaus can be considered authoritative on the subject by virtue of his varied credentials: as noted biographer of Whittaker Chambers, editor of the New York Times Book Review and Week In Review, and biographer of William F. Buckley, Jr. His most recent book, The Death of Conservatism, is required reading for any serious student of the current conservative crackup. He emailed back:

“My question is: Where are the youngsters? The Sharon Statement launched the Young Americans for Freedom college kids, for the most part. The new/old submission seems more like Geriatrics Against Obama. Also, what happed to brevity? The Sharon Statement set forth concise principles. The new one seems a windbaggy Cliff’s Notes on The Federalist Papers.”

Cousin Brent has a razor-sharp mind and a greyhound-quick tongue, but in reading his announcement accompanying the release of the Mount Vernon, I found myself quietly murmuring, “Block that metaphor!”

“If there is a silver lining,” he said, “to the policies the Obama administration has tried to shove down the throats of Americans, it’s that more and more of them don’t want any part of it.”

Here, though, Brent at least arrives at the nub at the heart of the gravamen (sorry—couldn’t resist) of the Mount Vernon Statement, namely that it’s really all about Obama. One might then logically ask, wouldn’t it have been simpler, and more honest, to issue a J’Accuse Obama! instead of a windy yadda-yadda about first principles and why are liberals wiping their arses with the Constitution?

I have some thoughts about the growls and yips emanating from the podium and—ahem—Teleprompters at the Marriott Wardman Park Hotel, where CPAC is holding its auto-da-fé, but in the tradition of Sharonesque brevity, why don’t we leave it there until tomorrow.

Christopher Buckley's books include Supreme Courtship, The White House Mess, Thank You for Smoking, Little Green Men, and Florence of Arabia. He was chief speechwriter for Vice President George H.W. Bush, and is editor-at-large of ForbesLife magazine. His new book is Losing Mum and Pup, a memoir. Buckley's Daily Beast column is the winner of an Online Journalism Award in the category of Online Commentary.