Saturday, September 11, 2004

Always a Republican, sort of....

It was the fall of 1983. The 1984 presidential campaign cycle was already underway. I was seventeen years old, a senior in high school and intensely interested in the numerous Democrat candidates for President: Walter Mondale, Gary Hart, John Glenn, Jesse Jackson, George McGovern and others. A subscriber to an intellectually lazy utopian socialist viewpoint, I hoped one of these Democrat candidates would defeat Ronald Reagan in the 1984 general election. Anticipating that I would turn eighteen in August 1984, three months before the election, I believed I would be one of the voters who would assist in Reagan's defeat.

Initially impressed by George McGovern, my father, best described as a swing voter who had voted for Reagan in 1980, informed me that McGovern had led the Democrat party off of a cliff in 1972 and would probably not get the party's 1984 presidential nomination. I was also influenced by one of my high school history teachers who warned his students that Reagan's anti-communist policies in Central America could lead the nation into another Vietnam.

I saw the world as a conflict between the powerful rich and the exploited poor. I thought communism represented an alternative, perhaps morally superior, economic system, rather than a threat to the free world. I was exposed to some conservative opinion. My politically astute father encouraged me to read syndicated columns by George F. Will and to watch Firing Line, a political talk show aired on public television.

I also began to think about what a Leftist version of society would look like. Uninspired by the Soviet Union, I began reading a history of Vietnam, believing that the communist takeover of Vietnam was evidence that many people of the third world preferred communism and its promise of equality while rejecting America's inhumane and unfair capitalist blueprint. The left of center author of that history, Stanley Karnow, did little to persuade me otherwise. But I was still left unsatisfied by Karnow's interpretation of events following the communist takeover of South East Asia.

One chapter was titled "The war that nobody won." It described the crushing poverty faced by communist Vietnam, hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese refugees, the communist reeducation camps and Cambodian genocide. I hoped that the Sandinistas of Nicaragua were a better breed of socialist. But my doubts multiplied when, in a dinner table conversation with a liberal friend of my father's, I mentioned Khrushchev's "secret speech" in which Khrushchev denounced Stalin's mass murder. I hinted that perhaps both the Soviet Union and the communist system could be successfully implemented by those who learned from Stalin's bloody history. My father's dinner guest said confidently, "They are all guilty."

Still a potential Walter Mondale voter after he won the Democrat presidential nomination, I went to see a new movie titled "Red Dawn" in the early summer of 1984. The plot was straightforward. Central America succumbs to a communist takeover. The United States is flooded with refugees and communist saboteurs. In this movie, Americans do not have the option of flying a helicopter out of Saigon in a humiliating defeat. The communist threat attacks the homeland. "Red Dawn" was a fictitious movie and perhaps a mediocre one at that. But it accurately communicated to me the harsh realities of communist hegemony. Utopia was nowhere to be found. I began to realize that my socialist worldview was more imaginary than that of the movie I had seen.

A few months later I turned eighteen, registered to vote as a Republican and in November of that year I joined a large majority of my fellow citizens in voting to reelect President Reagan. During my years as a college student I became more knowledgeable about the conservative worldview in the fields of economics, social policy and national security. In my senior year I joined Young Americans for Freedom, a college based conservative organization founded by William F. Buckley Jr. in 1960. Years later I read an essay by David Horowitz titled "My Vietnam lessons." Horowitz grew up as a communist and became a conservative activist. This essay described his change of mind, which seemed similar to mine.

The conservative conversions of David Horowitz and myself culminated in the same presidential election and both of us voted for Ronald Reagan in November 1984 as a result. But my conversion to conservatism occurred just prior to my reaching official adulthood. Horowitz's more eventful and interesting road to conservatism can be read in his autobiography, "Radical Son," still one of my favorite books.

When people ask me, "Have you always been a Republican?" I am tempted to give a Clintonian answer: That depends on what you mean by the word "always."