Conservatism, Journalism, and Pop Culture
The University Bookman is delighted to post this interview with John J. Miller, who will become the director of the journalism program at Hillsdale College in August. He is also a long-time national correspondent at National Review and the author of a series of books. Most recently, he has written a book titled The Big Scrum: How Teddy Roosevelt Saved Football.
John, thanks for joining us. Your first novel, The First Assassin, was set during the Civil War. Given that we are now in the first of several years’ worth of Civil War anniversaries, how do you think we as a nation should remember that war?
The war was a tragic necessity. It’s possible to imagine scenarios in which the fighting could have been avoided. It’s also possible to imagine scenarios that have worse outcomes than Lee’s surrender at Appomattox in 1865. Conservatives, of course, know better than to argue with the facts of history—we try to learn from them. So I hope that the sesquicentennial encourages people to take a fresh look at what happened 150 years ago.
One of way is to read my book! The First Assassin is a thriller set in the war’s opening weeks, as Lincoln arrives in the capital and Fort Sumter falls. The story involves a professional hitman who has been hired to murder Lincoln. (“An excellent book,” says Vince Flynn. “It’s like The Day of the Jackal set in 1861 Washington.”) My purpose in writing it was simply to offer an entertaining story. At the same time, I tried to make the tale as authentic and true to its time as possible. So I hope that as readers enjoy the book, they learn a few things about the period as well.
Tell us about your new book, The Big Scrum. What led you to the subject?
A number of years ago, I was paging through a book on the history of college athletics. In a throwaway line, the authors mentioned that in 1905, eighteen people died playing football. I had not heard this before. So I checked the footnote and soon found myself poring over newspapers on microfilm in the Library of Congress, which is literally across the street from the Washington, D.C. office of National Review. These sources began to teach me about the football’s astonishing brutality at the turn of the twentieth century and the surprising role that Theodore Roosevelt played in the game’s preservation. No book dealt with the subject comprehensively. Even the standard Roosevelt biographies overlooked this episode. A friend of mine says that authors write the books they want to read but cannot find. So I wrote The Big Scrum.
Is Theodore Roosevelt, in your opinion, a president conservatives can learn from?
Absolutely. He is of course controversial among conservatives for his embrace of progressivism, especially in the final stages of his political career. Yet there’s also much for conservatives to admire: He was deeply patriotic, totally incorruptible, and dedicated to his family. He understood the importance of manliness and appreciated the role that sports played in developing it—a twenty-first-century academic would want to send him to sensitivity training, which he would have flunked. When a group of progressives led by the president of Harvard, The Nation magazine, and others crusaded against football and urged its prohibition, Roosevelt stood up to them because he believed that rough sports were good for boys.
You have written pieces on conservative movies and identified top "conservative" rock songs. Do you think there are currents of conservatism in pop culture, which many conservatives have written off entirely?
A few years ago, I compiled a list of the top fifty conservative rock songs for National Review. It was tremendous fun to put together, especially as I worked with readers who wrote in with suggestions. The result was perhaps the most talked-about article I’ve ever written—not the most important or influential, but the one that produced the most conversation. It begins with the simple idea that conservatism can take root just about anywhere in pop culture, from novels to movies, and even in the most unexpected places. “Taxman” by the Beatles and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” by the Beach Boys are great rock songs. They also express conservative sentiments about the size of government and the value of marriage. That’s part of their special appeal.
We understand you have a new position, with Hillsdale College, running its journalism program. What's the goal of the program?
In August, I’ll become director of the Herbert H. Dow II Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. The purpose of the program is to produce high-minded journalists who appreciate American’s traditional liberties and the principles of the Founding Fathers. One of the great things about Hillsdale is that it doesn’t offer journalism as a major. Students must focus on real academic disciplines, such as history or chemistry. The college offers a few classes on journalism, but the students learn journalism by doing journalism, such as writing for the college paper and working at internships.
The conservative critiques of liberal journalism have gone on for decades. How will the journalism program at Hillsdale College make a difference?
Every time a student graduates from the program and takes a job in journalism or public policy, Hillsdale will make a difference. Over time, we hope to make this difference felt through a general improvement in the fourth estate.
Who are the journalists you read for good, nonbiased reporting?
As a practitioner of opinion journalism at National Review, I see the value in what might be called “biased reporting.” I don’t mean that opinion journalists should slant the truth—I mean that I see merit in journalism that approaches its subject from a certain perspective. My favorite source for news on the radio is NPR and certainly not because it’s “unbiased.” The important thing is to read (and listen) widely, exposing yourself to many points of view. If you’re trying to keep up with current events, it helps to read everything from the New York Times (which, for all of its problems, is still a great newspaper) to the editorial pages of the Wall Street Journal.
Posted: May 22, 2011 in Interviews.
Notes from a Smaller, Freer Island