Originally Written on March 7, 2003:
It began in 1981. Prior to that, I had only vague notions of politics and public affairs. As a 9 year old in 1980 I knew only that the President running for re-election shared my name and that I liked blue (the colour typically used by TV networks to denote states that vote Democrat) better than red (the traditional colour for Republican states), so I wanted Jimmy Carter to win.
But things changed in 1981. My awareness of current events increased watching the inauguration of a new President and the return of American hostages from Iran in my fourth grade classroom. Then in the spring of 1981 something happened that, to a 9 and a half year old, seemed unthinkable (but to any student of history since 1860 must have seemed almost inevitable with Lincoln, Garfield, McKinley, Harding, FDR and JFK all having died in office) – the President had been shot.
I remember in medical school reading a JAMA article about the President’s medical care after the records had been declassified. It was only then that I realized how close he had come to dying – and in fact might have if it had been 1960 or 1940. And surely would have in 1920, 1900 or 1880.
This president had a persona – a B movie John Wayne - vigorous, resolute, and larger-than-life. Unlike his major challenger for the GOP nomination, he hadn’t faced real bullets before public life – only the imaginary ones of Hollywood. But now, as president, he had taken a real bullet and he had done it with grace and courage. He told his wife that he was sorry he forgot to duck. He told his doctors he hoped they were all Republicans. Those comments did more than anything his doctors said (or didn’t say) to reassure the country. To make us believe everything would be all right. And, they gave the President a mythic persona that dwarfed the one he had on screen. It made him larger-than-REAL-life. To a young boy it was awe-inspiring and at that moment Ronald Reagan joined Brooks Robinson on my list of heroes.
And so began my life-long interest in (some would say obsession with) politics. And I began to see myself as a “conservative” or “Republican” like my hero. I had adopted what I will call the Tory position – what I mean is the political ground that is right of center, conservative in the traditional sense of being slow to change, the old guard, the traditional values – particularly with regard to law and order, nationalist, non-isolationist, pro-strong national defense. In America this was the position associated with manifest destiny. In Britain’s past it was the position associated with the maintenance of Empire.
Some of the conservative agenda was easy for me. My Catholic faith already taught me that abortion was wrong. My father’s job working for a defense contractor and my grandfather’s pride in his own military service made me inclined to support a strong defense. And I suppose, I just have a Tory temperament, that whatever part of my personality that is ingrained from birth is receptive to the conservative philosophy. I have a friend who was every bit as taken by Reagan as I was – and in fact still speaks fondly and admiringly of him – who is now a liberal Democrat…. Deep down inside, he just wasn’t a Tory.
So, I began to embrace the Reagan philosophy that he spoke so eloquently on, but delivered so poorly on, of smaller government and in so doing embraced the most traditional of American values – individual liberty. This is what made the U.S. different. Ours was a nation dedicated to equality of the individual – and equality of opportunity, not result. In the U.S., the individual is more important than the state. And the liberal position in America was tainted by its resemblance to the collectivist thought of the nations Reagan was waging a cold war against. And I began to read Goldwater and the Founders – Jefferson, Madison. These became my philosophical heroes. Later I progressed to the more modern libertarians like Friedman and Hayek. Those that espoused the views of the Revolution: all men are created equal and have innate rights. Government exists merely to protect those rights: law enforcement to deal with domestic threats to rights, and military to protect from foreign threats. The most fundamental of rights, of course, are private property rights – there is no social and political liberty without economic liberty. In short, I had adopted the philosophy of John Locke, mixed with a healthy dose of Adam Smith – which is where my embracing of Reagan’s Free trade philosophy led. Smith had been a visionary – challenging the notion of mercantile colonies and championing free and competitive markets as the key to expanding wealth. Edmund Burke echoed this sentiment when he argued, unsuccessfully, that Britain could have a more profitable relationship with independent American states when no longer saddled with the financial burden of defending American colonies. I, like Burke, wrote a paper in college arguing the same point about the British empire at it’s Victorian height entitled, “Britain’s Unprofitable Empire”. In the paper I compared the U.S. at the end of the 20th century to Britain at the end of the 19th.
But alas, I have always been a Tory. I never embraced Washington’s vision of remaining free of foreign entanglements. I have always supported a U.S. presence overseas – in Korea and Europe and certainly the Middle East. I thought the crime was not aiding Nicaraguan freedom-fighters against communist oppression but, rather, that Congress had passed a law forbidding it. On July 18, 1988 I wrote then Congressman Tom McMillen urging to support a continued US presence in the Persian Gulf to protect shipping from terrrorist attacks, even if there was a cease-fire in the Iran-Iraq war. Why? Because if we don’t do it, who will? No one? The Soviets? It was our duty and obligation to protect trade in the region. Our burden – or as Kipling put it in a less politically correct time, the white man’s burden.
I have been compelled to examine the origins of my own political views by this upcoming war in Iraq. A war that appears far more blatantly imperial and a war that, frankly, even an old Tory like me has trouble supporting. Don’t get me wrong, I think there are a number of good reasons for getting rid of Saddam Hussein and I don’t challenge anything the administration has said about him or the situation in Iraq. However, morally, I feel that wars should be fought because we HAVE to, not because we WANT to or would like to for whatever good intentions. We had to fight our revolution, it was clear colonists would continue to be denied the rights of Englishmen. As tragic as it was, our Civil War had to be fought to address the issues left unanswered by our founders – issues of slavery and of the nature of our Union. Certainly we had to fight World War II, a war in which the only criticism that can be leveled at the US is why didn’t we get involved sooner. And I still believe to this day we had to fight the first Gulf War. And most certainly, we had to go into Afghanistan. In our history, we fought with Mexico and Spain to acquire territory because we wanted to – and whereas the first list represents some of our finest hours, the Mexican and Spanish wars are some of our worst. And invading Iraq seems more like the latter than the former to me. The arguments for it are almost as hollow as Joseph Chamberlain’s defense of the Boer War a century ago. Attacking a small third world country (whose air space we ALREADY control) with little provocation seems to define the word “imperial” and almost validates the criticisms of us the Soviets made decades ago. It has been particularly difficult for me as I respect and admire President Bush – and have to try to figure out how to continue to support him and his other policies if he prosecutes this war… The only saving grace is the Democrats will likely nominate someone who also supports the war (all the front runners are doing the Lieberman-Kerrey-Edwards-Gephardt shuffle – we support the goal, just not the way the President is going about it. This position is particularly ludicrous for Lieberman has he has been calling for Saddam’s head since 9.12.01) and only Wesley Clark jumping into the race is likely to change that equation. But, it has forced me to think about that paper I once wrote and confront the dichotomy of my attack on the Pax Britannica while supporting all along the Pax Americana and to discover that despite my belief in drug legalization, perhaps my conservatism is more traditionally conservative and not quite so libertarian after all.
Which leads to wonder: despite my reverence for Jefferson and Adams, despite the picture of Jefferson and facsimile of the Declaration of Independence on my wall, despite my belief that the most amazing document of governance in world history is the U.S. Constitution, whose side would I have been on in 1776? Would I have been with radicals like Jefferson and John Adams – and their more firebrand colleagues like Paine, Patrick Henry and Sam Adams? Or would I have sided with the Tories?