The man who opened my eyes to the claims of the great tradition is Dartmouth English Professor Emeritus 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 performing his teaching duties in Hanover.
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. In 2005 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 moved on to condemn George W. Bush as the worst president in American history, in part because of the 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 Professor Hart the closest of mentors. 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 profiled Professor Hart for the Dartmouth Alumni Magazine in “How the Right Went Wrong.”
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 and got to know with the one James Panero profiled. 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, his 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 his 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. In James’s profile of Professor Hart, Professor Hart sounded 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.)
The Valley News now reports that Professor Hart has gone the whole Monty and come out in favor of Barack Obama. Professor Hart finds Obama a candidate superior to Hillary Clinton on the ground of his greater purity on Iraq. Professor Hart professes to have discovered a Burkean quality in the speeches of Barack Obama. Given the trajectory of Professor Hart’s sentiments, I don’t find the endorsement of Obama surprising, but the story makes for an interesting case study in an interesting year.
JOHN adds: It’s a sad story. I took a freshman seminar from Professor Hart; he was a wonderful teacher. Sometimes in their last years, people become eccentric and betray, more or less, their mature views. I think we should view Professor Hart charitably in this light.
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