Today (Churchill’s birthday, by no coincidence) our long-time friends at the Claremont Institute are launching a new video project entitled “The American Mind,” hosted by Charles R. Kesler, editor of the Institute’s indispensible journal, the Claremont Review of Books. The Institute kindly gave Power Line a preview and first crack at announcing its launch.
Is this just another think tank video venture? On the surface, it appears the answer would be Yes. But underneath, the deeper answer is No. (I can hear it now: There you go, making a Straussian joke right out of the box!) The American Mind will be different because . . . the Claremont Institute is different. It’s always been something different from its peers, and remains so. And therein lies a tale.
If this were really a Steve Kroft-voiced, VH1 “Behind the Music” look at the “Claremont Institute Project,” it would have to be called something like “Graduate Students Gone Wild.” Like “Behind the Music,” you need to appreciate some background to get the whole story arc. And the story might start with the fact that the Claremont Institute emerged spontaneously from among a group of like-minded graduate students for the remarkable reason that the Claremont Graduate School’s (CGS) Government department in the 1970s and 1980s was the most unsuccessful and incompetent graduate department in America.
That’s not literally true, of course; in fact, quite the opposite. It may have been the best department in the nation. I mean by that provocation that very few of the many conservatives who came to study government at CGS in those days went on to conventional academic jobs at colleges and universities. Most took up ambitious public careers of a different kind—in government, non-profit activism, media, and law. It is an astonishing cohort from that time, with some reaching very senior reaches in their respective fields. The few who did end up at universities generally arrived through circuitous routes. This outcome was not because of ideological bias against hiring conservatives, though. Most of us simply didn’t want academic jobs, which is ordinarily the track for which graduate school exists. But if you’re not going to go into academia, why bother getting a Ph.D., which seemingly has little use outside academia beyond helping to snag better tables at restaurants? What could possibly be happening in Claremont seminar rooms that dissuaded students from academic ambition?
The direct answer to this will perhaps seem naïve or ingenuous: one came from the day-to-day study of politics at Claremont with the sense that the political problems of our time are too serious and too urgent to be remedied with an academic career. We took seriously one of the many things Harry Jaffa told us in class: “If the dominant reputations of the future—in scholarship as in politics—do not differ from those of the present, it will be an ill time for the fate of freedom.” To remain in the ivory tower, many of us concluded, was to fiddle while Rome burned. What to do, though?
The immediate answer was to found two new organizations to help organize the words and deeds of this restive community of audacious grad students, one to reach the broader public by placing op-ed articles in underserved community and suburban newspapers (Public Research Syndicated) and a second to influence the intellectual world, The Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy. (I’ve included photos of a few of the founders and leaders of the Institute nearby.)
While the roots of what became the Claremont Institute actually reach back to the late 1960s, it didn’t take shape until the late 1970s, which was a time of rapid growth for conservative intellectual and activist organizations, most of them based in Washington. Even then Claremont stood out as something unusual and unique. The form of the Claremont Project cannot be understood without some reference to the substance and method of the thought behind it. If you think the Institute’s full name is ungainly, you should take in the description of its purpose as expressed at the time: to promote “the scholarship of the politics of freedom.” (Today the Institute has a more approachable mission statement: “to restore the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life.”)
Claremont Graduate School’s history and government departments were academic outliers in those years in rejecting the dominant tendency toward methodological reductionism in the study of political life, which both trivializes political phenomena and deprecates actual political figures along with the high ideal of statesmanship itself. This heterodox outlook was true even among many of the liberals on the faculty, who, unlike most academic departments today, generally welcomed conservative students in their classrooms. In other words, this cohort of conservatives were less interested in bringing to the public square the practical arts of policy analysis, but rather the impractical—or at least rarely attainable—arts of statesmanship.
Lots of people misunderstand Claremont chiefly as the Vatican of “West Coast Straussianism,” which, in one crude and inadequate sentence, may be said to be the view that America represents the closest feasible achievement of the classical ideal of the best regime, and from which battle is brought to the decadent “East Coast Straussians,” who supposedly view America as a wholly modern (and therefore defective and unfixable) modern regime. There is some substance to the intramural argument, which often manifested itself in fights between Harry Jaffa and . . . just about everyone. (As Bill Buckley famously wrote, “If you think it is hard to argue with Harry Jaffa, try agreeing with him. It is nearly impossible.”) And although the contested issues are important, they are really something of a sideshow; the differences between the East-West camps tend to dissolve when attention turns to the battle with the common enemy on the Left.
This broader commonality can be best understood in a comment Walter Berns made to me just a few months ago. Walter was rightly suspicious of me, knowing my Claremont background, when I arrived at AEI a decade ago, and he dealt with me warily at first.* But we became fast friends at AEI (it helped that we both like single malts), and he flattered me by becoming a fan of my work there. A few months back he expressed hope that I’d continue work like my Reagan books because, he said, “the proper method for the study of politics is biography.”
That puts the finger on exactly why the Claremont community was so different from most graduate courses of study in politics, and the approach behind which the differences over our understanding of the place of Hobbes and Locke in understanding America dissolve. Claremont was heavy on biography because that’s the best way of illuminating the real problems of politics and the intersection of thought and action.
So Jaffa’s lectures on Churchill and writing on Lincoln found their complement with William B. Allen’s teaching about why George Washington deserved to be taken much more seriously as a political giant. Leonard Levy—an old New Deal liberal—nonetheless thought Jefferson and Madison immensely important here and now, while Harold Rood illuminated strategy and intelligence by drawing from biographical details of Patton, Churchill, Mahan, Napoleon, and so forth. A little later Charles Kesler arrived, not merely a successor to Harry Jaffa but sort of a synthesis (fusion would have been the term once used) of Jaffa and Harvey Mansfield. In the tradition of Claremonsters before him, Kesler has shocked both liberals and some conservatives by arguing that Barack Obama’s large ambitions for transformative statecraft need to be studied and taken seriously rather than reduced to just another form of personal fulfillment or patronage politics.
There is something subversive about the Claremont Project to the broader conservative movement, though. The kind of political engagement Claremonsters embrace stands in contrast to the apolitical aloofness of libertarianism, the anti-political disdain of certain brands of traditional conservatism, and the compromising ambivalence of some aspects of neoconservatism. American conservatism—and its primary vessel, the Republican Party—have their grave defects and limitations, but the fate of the world depends on their health and success, so it is necessary to be part of the fight to make both more wise and effective. The Claremont Institute is about as remote from Washington as you can be and still be in the continental U.S., and while “Claremonsters” are not closely involved in the daily Beltway strategy sessions, when you survey the alumni of the Institute and its programs you find senior aides to Cabinet secretaries, Senators and Congressmen, and corporate CEOs. In his recent attack on Charles Kesler in the New York Times Book Review, Mark Lilla nonetheless described the Claremont Institute as “an increasingly influential research group,” and the Claremont Review of Books as “one of the better conservative publications.”
The media adjunct of the Claremont Institute, the aforementioned Public Research Syndicated, placed articles in more than 1,800 newspapers at its peak in the 1980s. I was its editor in chief for a time, in between classes and chasing girls. But PRS was ultimately absorbed into the Claremont Institute and scaled down as changes in the media world, and the rise of quality imitators, made its business model redundant and obsolete. Today changes in technology, obvious to everyone, make possible new media ventures like The American Mind video series. The name, as Charles explains in an introductory video, plainly harkens to Jefferson’s famous letter to Richard Henry Lee, remarking that in writing the Declaration of Independence, he “intended [it] to be an expression of the American mind, and to give to that expression the proper tone and spirit called for by the occasion. All its authority rests then on the harmonizing sentiments of the day, whether expressed in conversation, in letters, printed essays, or in the elementary books of public right, as Aristotle, Cicero, Locke, Sidney, &c.” (Note, by the way, two ancient and two modern authors, along with the suggestion that they can be “harmonized.”)
So the conversations that will compose the new series will not be the usual wandering interview format with smart thinkers or book authors. Charles Kesler will be pressing his discussants to apply their work to the possibilities of statesmanship in our time—a time of “mass effects,” as Churchill called them, that make statesmanship difficult or impossible. I’ll actually turn up in a future video as a guest host conversing with Charles about I Am the Change (since a host can’t really interview himself). The first complete conversation is with Diana Schaub of Loyola University. (There’s a brief and simple log-in you’ll need to do first, but it’s quick and painless.)
So have a look at The American Mind, and especially the short introductory video from Institute president Brian Kennedy. This only scratches the surface of what can be said about what I’ve called here the “Claremont Project.” Perhaps I’ll make this a new Power Line series, with future chapters about particular questions and a few old war stories, though come to think of it, that’s kind of what I do here already.
* Leonard Levy once told me a great story about the Jaffa-Berns feud, which ran hottest in the 1970s and 1980s. When the chairmanship of the Government department at Claremont came open, Levy wrote to Berns to inquire whether he’d be interested in the position. Berns wrote back: “Thank you very much for your consideration. But at the present time, 3,000 miles separate me from Harry Jaffa. I am not interested in diminishing that distance by a single inch.”