The man who opened my eyes to the claims of the great tradition is Dartmouth English Professor Jeffrey Hart. Professor Hart disabused me of my addled adolescent liberalism and smugness over the four years I was his undergraduate student. He was an incredibly generous teacher. Like so many of his Dartmouth students, I remain profoundly grateful and deeply indebted to him.
Having written an admiring book about National Review in 1966 — The American Dissent: A Decade of Modern Conservatism — Professor Hart joined the editorial board of National Review in 1969. Every two weeks for 35 years he traveled to New York for the magazine’s editorial meetings in addition to his teaching duties. In 1980 Professor Hart commenced his long service as godfather to the Dartmouth Review. Through his work with the Review he became mentor and guide to another generation of Dartmouth students, some of whom never even took a course from him. Last year Professor Hart returned to the subject of National Review in The Making of the American Conservative Mind: National Review and Its Times.
Somewhat surprisingly to many of his former students, Professor Hart now condemns George W. Bush as the worst president in American history. He condemns the Iraq war. He condemns Bush administration foreign policy in vituperative terms usually associated with the left and the far left. He condemns evangelical Christianity. He is friendly to abortion rights and government-funded embroyonic stem cell research. Invoking Edmund Burke and sounding a bit like H.L. Mencken, he renders harsh judgment on the mainstream positions of the contemporary Republican Party.
James Panero is the Managing Editor of the New Criterion, which has published some of Professor Hart’s finest essays. James considers Hart the closest of mentors. In a message to me this fall James wrote:
He’s followed me wherever I go: through the Dartmouth Review, to NR, to grad school in art history, to The New Criterion. As the chairman of the Dartmouth Review, and an editor here at the New Criterion, I now have the great pleasure of interacting with Hart in both a professional and personal way.
Sensing that the story behind Professor Hart’s current views would be of interest to a wider audience, and that he was in a position to tell it, James has written a profile of Professor Hart for the current issue of the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine: “How the Right Went Wrong.” The article — posted at James’s site Supreme Fiction — includes Professor Hart’s message responding to the article. James’s related post at Armavirumque has more of interest.
I was Professor Hart’s student from 1969 to 1973. It’s hard for me to reconcile the views of the Jeffrey Hart I observed with the one James Panero profiles. Early on, to take just one small example, I sought Professor Hart out in his Sanborn House office to ask him his opinion of Jules Witcover’s 1970 book The Resurrection of Richard Nixon that I was reviewing for the Daily Dartmouth. Professor Hart reached over to his shelf and handed me his manuscript Comeback, a book Reader’s Digest had commissioned him to write on the same subject. (Unfortunately, the manuscript was never published.)
In the introduction or first chapter of Comeback he wrote, as I recall, that in the spring of 1968 he threw his typewriter into the back of his “antique Volvo” and left his Vermont farmhouse for California to write speeches for Ronald Reagan’s nascent presidential campaign. After the 1968 Republican convention, Professor Hart went on to write speeches for Nixon. I recall him writing in Comeback quite dismissively of the Eastern Republicans, observing the shift in the center of gravity of the Republican Party from East to West. Whereas Nixon had found it prudent to give obeisance to Nelson Rockefeller and the Eastern Establishment Republicans by entering into the Pact of Fifth Avenue in the 1960 campaign, by 1968 no such ritual was necessary.
Professor Hart was clearly sympathetic to the power shift in the Republican Party from the Establishment East to the Wild West, or so it seemed to me. In James’s profile of Professor Hart, Professor Hart sounds to me like a Rockefeller Republican discoursing on the uncouthness of Barry Goldwater or, for that matter, Richard Nixon. (Coincidentally, I interviewed Barry Goldwater in the summer of 1969 while I was working as an intern for Walter Mondale and Senator Goldwater frankly expressed his view of God’s plan for the United States in terms akin to those Professor Hart attributes to President Bush.)
In any event, I found James’s profile of Professor Hart to be well done, interesting and informative. I thought that some of our readers would as well.
PAUL adds: I didn’t know Professor Hart at Dartmouth, but I once attended a lecture in which he quoted with derision and amazement a statement by Robert Kennedy which was a variation of JFK’s “bear any burden” comment, only stronger. I think Professor Hart is coming from the same place when he criticizes President Bush on the war and on his larger vision for the Middle East.
Personally, I don’t think Bush is in the “bear any burden” camp. He is bearing one burden based on a military action that most people thought was justified at the time in light of the intelligence about Iraq’s WMD program. The fact that, once in Iraq, we attempted to build the nation in a manner generally consistent with our values does not mean that Bush has opted for “nation-building” and “burden bearing” as a general matter. Neither does the fact that Bush does not want to be defeated in Iraq. However, I think I understand to some extent where Professor Hart is coming from.