You are here

I Was a Teen-Age Reactionary

I have an embarrassing confession to make: in 1972, I cast my first ever presidential votes - primary and general - against Richard Nixon, because he wasn't conservative enough.
Doug Henwood

Issue #36, February 1998

I have an embarrassing confession to make: in 1972, I cast my first ever presidential votes — primary and general — against Richard Nixon, because he wasn't conservative enough. The final straw was wage and price controls, a statist defilement of the market's purity.

I wasn't always a right-winger. My eighth-grade world history teacher, who was in all other respects a classic coach-style teacher, devoted a full period one day to a sympathetic lecture on Marx. When I got home, I announced to my parents that I was now a Marxist, and, supplemented by a bit of reading, thought of myself as one for the next four years.

But sometime in my senior year in high school — in 1970, when the world was largely in rebellion — I had a collision with one of William Buckley's collections and Milton Friedman's Capitalism and Freedom. Subscriptions to National Review and the American Spectator soon followed. By graduation I was a raving libertarian.

In those days, "movement" conservatism was pretty tiny. It's hard to believe that now, when undergrads convene in Ayn Rand reading circles and it's considered respectable to quote Hayek. Right-wing think tanks now fund and promote positions that were considered loony and antediluvian in the early 1970s. I had no idea I was joining what in retrospect looks like a vanguard; then we thought capitalism was doomed, but there was something honorable about a last stand.

The moment I got to college, I joined Yale's Party of the Right. The POR was founded by Chairman Bill himself, along with a few others, which gave it lots of cachet. Buckley, like Reagan after him, was able to finesse some of the tensions in conservative thought and politics — the traditionalist vs. libertarian schism. Unlike the European Catholic right, which hated the market's destabilizing, anarchic, dynamism, Buckley loved capitalism unreservedly and yet embraced Catholic social disciplines. After 25 years of study, I still haven't figured out how right-wingers can tout Trad Vals at the same they tout the market; capitalism destroys tradition and recognizes only monetary values.

In 1971, Yale's "traditions" were under siege not from capitalism but from broad social rebellion, much of it anticapitalist. For a kid from an undistinguished suburb who (briefly) wanted to join the ruling class, this was sad; the POR served as a repository for the Old Blue heritage. And what a repository it was.

On one of my first evenings with my POR comrades, I watched as they paged through the freshman face book, The Old Campus, commenting on the anatomy of the women. Not their anatomy in the Heffnerian sense, but in the Nazi biologist's sense: what the shape of their skulls, particularly the brow line, told about their intelligence and character.

With any right-wing movement, the Nazi Question is never far from the surface. Publicly, most of U.S. conservatism, given its market-libertarian bent, is anti-Nazi, because fascism is that worst of all things, statist. It's also suspiciously European; though the POR, like most U.S. right-wing formations, was full of Anglophiles, the Continent is thought to be deeply "unsound" (a favorite POR word, as was "sound"). Privately, though, many right-wingers (non-Jewish right-wingers, of course) are titillated by Nazis. Nazi jokes and mock self-identification as a Nazi were part of the POR discourse. One evening a delegation of us went to the language lab to watch a German Department-sponsored screening of Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will. There were about three German students there and ten right-wingers.

But more of our time was spent on discussions of Burke and Calhoun (always "John Caldwell Calhoun") and party rituals than transgressive Nazi games. Meetings were held in Yale common rooms, with their hybrid Old World/men's club decor, with port and sherry, and the Traditionalist faction in ties. No dresses to speak of; in 1971, there were only a few women at the fringes of the Party; I think there are a lot more of them now. The induction into the Party, after a brief novitiate, was held in a particularly dark pseudo-Gothic room, and was offered "for life at least."

Barry Goldwater Monthly meetings were held at Mory's, the Old Blue hangout, and involved collectively drinking a giant silver cup of a green cocktail. The twice-yearly investiture of a new chairman — I witnessed two — involved drinking two green cups while the chairman recited the kings and queens of England from memory.

The POR was a party within the Yale Political Union, a pretty threadbare group in the early 1970s whose remnants envied their Oxford counterpart — especially the Anglophilic POR. Political Union events, debates and guest speakers, often attracted crowds, but since most people were sitting in the street to protest the war or getting high, the ranks of the hard-core politicos were pretty thin. Into this vacuum stepped the POR, which, through packing meetings and parliamentary cleverness, was able to win elections, and put the Union on record as taking right-wing positions that couldn't have gotten 10% of a fair vote.

Thanks to one of these maneuvers, I was elected secretary of the Political Union in the spring of 1971 for service in the fall. That spring, the Union tried to give an award to Secretary of State William Rogers, but when Rogers came to campus to pick it up, protesters were so thick he quickly retreated to Washington. That fall, the new group of officers inherited the privilege of delivering Rogers' award, so we took the train to DC to give it to him. The right-wing contingent — there were a couple of liberals and one George Bush Republican (he was from Bush's district in Houston, and urged us all to watch this guy) — complained about having to take the "socialist" railroad. Rogers fed us lunch in his personal dining room, showed us around a bit.

That was the high point of my flirtation with the empire. My conservative faith began to waver, I hated the work of the Political Union secretary, shirked the duty of writing press releases saying that the Political Union (in one of its stacked votes) had endorsed some horrid position or other. Watergate was breaking, and sitting in streets and/or getting high began to look a lot more attractive. Soon it was back to my eighth-grade Marxian roots.

My ex-comrades in the POR did nicely in the Reagan years. The authoritarian Catholic chairman who engineered my election as Political Union secretary picked federal judges for Reagan and then went off to be governor of American Samoa, which he promised to make the most pro-life jurisdiction in the world. Another became Dan Quayle's advisor on tort reform (the business agenda of limiting citizen power to sue corporations). Another spent part of the 1980s as a landlord's enforcer on the Lower East Side; he had gotten thrown out of Yale for gun possession. (The university had let it slide when he was busted for manufacturing speed.) And another was briefly the Republican candidate for governor of Massachusetts, but he was dropped when it emerged that he like to hang around nude in his office.

Since I am still a member of the Party of the Right — a status even death couldn't deprive me of — I still get invitations to their annual January banquet. Every year I think I'm going to go to check them out and maybe write up the experience. But then I think of having to sit through the dinner and throw the invitation away.

Doug Henwood is a contributing editor at The Nation. He also publishesThe Left Business Observer. His most recent book is called Wall Street (Verso Press). He can be reached at

Copyright © 1998 by Doug Henwood. All rights reserved.