Anderson/Berns/Jaffa — A Tough Start to 2015


2015 may be less than a few weeks old, but already we have lost three of the most important intellectual figures in the modern conservative intellectual movement: Martin Anderson, Walter Berns, and Harry Jaffa. Many people, including Yuval Levin, Bill Kristol, Steve Hayward, and Ed Feulner have weighed in on their important ideas, but the three men also recognized the importance of bringing conservative ideas into the arena of government.

Anderson took this notion most seriously, working for multiple Republican administrations in his long career. Most prominently, he served as Ronald Reagan’s “one-man think tank” in Reagan’s campaigns for the presidency and in the White House. Anderson recognized the importance of both people and ideas in the conservative movement. As he himself once wrote, “ideas are the key to creating policy, but people are the key to implementing that policy.” Anderson recruited over 450 intellectuals to support Reagan’s 1980 effort. After Reagan’s victory, Anderson helped recruit many of those intellectuals to serve in the Reagan Administration.

Walter Berns was one of those intellectuals, serving as a consultant to the State Department and a member of the National Council of the Humanities during the Reagan years. He also understood the importance of ideas on a practical level from his time at Cornell, where he was one of the professors threatened by name during the infamous radical takeover of Willard Straight Hall. Along with Allan Bloom — another one of the threatened professors — Berns left Cornell in the aftermath of the incident, as did many other important figures in the conservative movement. Berns also famously feuded with Harry Jaffa, his former friend, and playfully referred to Jaffa’s work in a syllabus as “inciteful” rather than insightful.

Jaffa, like Berns, had many students who served in government. Jaffa was particularly proud of his influence on Clarence Thomas, who toasted Jaffa in 1999 “for recovering for us the true Lincoln and for helping us remember our sacred heritage: our nation’s founding devotion to the truth of human equality and liberty, a truth applicable to all men at all times.”

Jaffa’s interest in influencing those in power went back decades. Back in the 1970s, when Robert Goldwin served as Gerald Ford’s White House intellectual, Jaffa reached out to Goldwin, writing in a letter that he had heard “”rom Irving Kristol that you are in charge of moving intellectual ideas into the White House. I have lots of them. Should we get together?” To his credit, Goldwin responded with the only possible answer to this query: “Of course we should get together.”

Martin Anderson concluded his great memoir of his time in the White House, Revolution, by noting that Americans possess a great heritage, but “what we will do with that heritage is the great question of our lives.” All three of these men dedicated their lives to encouraging Americans to tend to and protect that precious heritage. They will be missed.

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  1. Josh FX Inactive
    Josh FX

    I wrote my Master’s thesis on conservative intellectuals’ interpretations of Abraham Lincoln. It became clear to me that among mainstream conservatives Harry Jaffa had played an enormous role in making Lincoln popular even central. There are still some libertarians and traditionalists that reject Lincoln and Lincoln’s contribution to the American tradition, and this would grieve Jaffa, but I argued that his side effectively won, for intellectual, cultural, and political reasons.

    In the late stages of my Master’s I hoped that I might be able to contact Jaffa. He had no voicemail or email so I had to time my call to catch him at home (dealing with the time difference, I was in New Zealand). I talked to him for about an hour and he was sharp and lucid. Jaffa was famous, utterly famous, for his vituperative academic rhetoric and his feuding. If you read any of his contentious papers this much becomes clear. But he was also a generous and friendly man. May he rest in peace.

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