In Washington, D.C., relationships matter. During my time in the White House, I learned there are many levels of such relationships, and I came to see there could exist a mutually beneficial professional bonhomie for advancing President Bush’s agenda while also rooted in the noble principles that fuel healthy friendship. These kinds of friendships are easily misunderstood. That’s because so many of them are formed and solidified through high-pressure, high-stress political situations. Those natural highs and lows of American politics burnish relationships.
During all my years in Washington, I have been the beneficiary of some fortunate friendships—people who I came to know, love, and trust, and who have become among the most important friends of my life. Some of these men and women were colleagues in the Senate, on various campaigns, in the White House, or in other perches in the administration. Still others were friends outside politics or public policy all together.
Two towering intellectual friendships of my life were formed long before I came to the White House. These men actually guided me in ways more important than I ever would have thought possible in the days when our friendships were new. I met Russell Kirk, one of the founding fathers of the American conservative movement in the years after World War II and the author of the magisterial The Conservative Mind, when I was a junior in high school in 1981. I met William F. Buckley Jr. during my early years working in the U.S. Senate, and ours solidified into a warm friendship almost immediately. His books God and Man at Yale and Up from Liberalism impacted my life powerfully.
With Russell, a fellow Midwesterner, I developed a friendship by letters, all of his typed personally and neatly and with nary an error, flowing as if each one was written for publication, so lucid and eloquent were they, word upon word. We exchanged letters on and off through the rest of his life, well into the 1990s, and we saw each other whenever he came to Washington, which was at least two times a year on average for lectures and speeches. The Conservative Mind had the greatest influence on me of any single book or poem I have ever read, and I eventually came to read all of his books and monographs. His remarkable wife Annette, whom he always referred to as “the beauteous,” became an equally cherished friend. After Russell’s death, she carried on his legacy in founding The Russell Kirk Center for Cultural Renewal in Michigan with the help of the indispensable Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Wilmington, Delaware, where Russell and Annette’s son-in-law Jeffrey Nelson, also a friend, serves as a senior vice president.
Russell changed my life by seeding my intellectual curiosity. I came to see that his external life was much smaller than his internal world, which was large, deep, and wide. He taught me to be wary of ideologues because they got in the way of a good life. He famously said that “ideology is anathema.” Conservatism, I came to see, because of the influence of Russell, was not an ideology but instead a way of life. There is no official or unofficial handbook for what constitutes conservatism, and in fact the conservative life is various.
Through all our letters, through our many conversations, through reading his prodigious oeuvre—both fiction and nonfiction (his ghost stories are remarkable)—I came to see I was not exclusively a social conservative, an economic conservative, or a defense/foreign policy/national security conservative. I was a conservative without prefix or suffix, one who believed, with Russell, that “the twentieth-century conservative is concerned, first of all, for the regeneration of spirit and character—with the perennial problem of the inner order of the soul, the restoration of the ethical understanding, and the religious sanction upon which any life worth living is founded. This is conservatism at its highest.” When I read those words for the first time in The Conservative Mind, I knew I had found a soul mate, even if we did not agree on all things. In fact, I once raised this point with Russell, and he was pleased that in fact we did not agree in all matters. He told me disagreement is a key part of conservatism, that there is no single document or manifesto that guides the conservative but that there are precepts rooted in transcendence, custom, order, and tradition that guide the thinking and faith of those who find wisdom in prescription.
When William F. Buckley Jr. once visited Russell in Kirk’s small ancestral Michigan village of Mecosta—Russell liked to refer to that part of Michigan as “the stump country”—and asked him what he did for intellectual companionship there, Russell pointed at the wall of books comprising his library. That is not an inapt description of how Russell’s friendship impacted my own public service in the Senate and the White House but especially the latter. Russell showed me it was important to live your ideas, that faith and action go together and not one without the other. He was a commanding public intellectual, deeply respected by men and women of the Left as well as the Right. I remember having lunch with the librarian of Congress, Daniel Boorstin, in the Senate dining room and asking him who had not only most profoundly shaped his intellectual life but effectively challenged it. He told me it was Russell Kirk; he said Russell was one of the most astute thinkers he had ever known. Arthur Schlesinger Jr. also had great respect for Russell, and both men shared a mutually high regard for Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, among many other things. During my years in the White House, Schlesinger invited me to his Sutton Place apartment and office in New York City. We spoke of Tocqueville, Emerson, FDR, and JFK. But when I told him of my friendship with Dr. Kirk, that is all Schlesinger wanted to talk about for the next half hour.
I remember spending a winter weekend with the Kirks in Mecosta. I drove to their home, which was about five hours from Fort Wayne. When I arrived, I thought it was one of the bleakest days of the year: The skies were grey; the fields and forests were cropless and leafless; and the bitter wind seemed endless. When I came into their village, I did not know precisely where their home was. Annette had said, “Just ask anyone when you arrive,” as it was a small village. So I stopped at the first place I found, a kind of combination gas station and gift shop. “Oh, the Kirks. Yes, they live in that haunted house down there,” pointing just down the street. I chuckled, but the woman gave me a lame grin as if to say, “Just wait. You’ll see what I mean.” The Gothic house was indeed a landmark in Mecosta. The original Kirk homestead burned to the ground many years before on Good Friday, but Russell and Annette built a beautiful Italianate home in its place. It was not grandiose or luxurious; but it had a remarkable personality, perfectly capturing its patriarch.
The highlight of my time with the Kirks was when Russell and I took a short walk down a snowy old lane to the former cigar factory that became his library. Thousands of volumes animated the place, but there were two focal points in the room: the desk where Russell did his writing, usually in the dead of night while his family slept, and a large, roaring, crackling fire in the fireplace that in those winter months was rarely extinguished. When we walked in, I felt a sense of serenity and warmth and even peace. So many of the books special in my life were written in that library.
The last time I saw Russell was on his final visit to Washington. We had tea on the rooftop of the old Hotel Washington where he stayed when he was in the city. It was a glorious afternoon, and the terrace where we sat overlooked the White House and the Department of the Treasury. I made a comment about the statue of Alexander Hamilton that stands just behind the Treasury, near to the East Gate of the White House. Russell began to expound on the key chapters of Hamilton’s life, the centrality of his role in the Federalist Papers, and was discussing the importance of Hamilton to America’s founding as if he, Russell, was literally sitting having tea in the eighteenth century. He was not lecturing or moralizing but rather discussing and evoking in the most remarkable fashion, from his great mind, one of the central characters of all of American history. Russell’s comments had a learnedness and vastness of knowledge that astounded me, and yet there was not a scintilla of pedantry in his approach. When I was with him, I always felt a sense of calm which was irretrievable, never fictive. He was a gentle man. He died, surrounded by his wife and four daughters, April 29, 1994.
Russell’s friendship, animated by the first postulates of the good life, guided me in practical ways time and again. His was a worldview animated by a realm of noble ideas, mysterious splendor, and the ways God affronted confusion, doubt, and fear. Russell taught me to embrace justice, mystery, and an orderly and stable universe which was God-ordained and true. He showed that literature and civilization matter to the man or woman who chooses public life and that being guided by those central, exciting ideas—truth, beauty, justice, goodness—was a wonderful way to navigate a good and meaningful life. In all of my letters, lunches, dinners, and time with him, he never once raised a political idea or discussion. With Russell there was never a time of punditry or current events. If I made a comment about something in the news, he might express an opinion, but by and large we discussed history, biography, poetry, philosophy, theology, or shared a bit of humor. Russell Kirk’s impact on me was indelible.
This excerpt is from The Man in the Middle (Nashville: B&H Books), © Timothy S. Goeglein. Reprinted by kind permission of the author.
Posted: November 9, 2011 in Essays.
The Voice of Michael Oakeshott in the Conversation of Conservatism
Wilfred M. McClay