Goodbye to All That

'Writing from Left to Right'

Michael Novak is now eighty years old. For almost half his life and nearly two-thirds of his public career, he has been a leading apologist, in the proper, nonpejorative sense of that word, for American-style capitalism. Judged by this account, those decades have been highly productive, intellectually satisfying, and richly rewarding in terms of influence and acquaintance with the great and powerful. Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, the presidents Bush, and Pope John Paul II all make cameo appearances here.

But that does not explain the “journey” of his book’s subtitle. Michael Novak was a political radical, by his own dating, for four years, from 1967 to 1971, and except in some of his rhetoric a “guarded” (his word) radical at that, always insisting on nonviolence and never scorning electoral politics. Before that, he was a bright Slovak-American kid who entered the seminary in 1947, after eighth grade, and didn’t emerge until he was twenty-six. In January 1960 he set out to make a career as a writer in New York City. Less-than-happy spells doing graduate work at Harvard were interrupted by unusual success as a reporter and interpreter of Vatican II, which in turn led to similar success teaching religion at Stanford. It was there, in 1967, that he became a tribune of the student-led opposition to the U.S. war in Vietnam. His criticism of the war morphed into harsh judgments on the United States, its culture, economy, and politics. This did not keep him from passionate engagement in the presidential campaigns of Eugene McCarthy and Robert Kennedy.

At the same time, Novak was alert to the backlash against the ’60s among working-class and lower-middle-class white voters. In 1970, as a speechwriter for Sargent Shriver, Novak barnstormed the country for Democratic congressional candidates. Though the tour proved exhilarating, Novak witnessed the grassroots costs of Democratic association with cultural permissiveness and celebrity liberalism. He sounded an alarm with his 1972 book The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. By that time, Novak’s romance with radicalism was well behind him. Disillusionment had been clinched first by his 1968 migration from Stanford to the doomed utopian experiment of Old Westbury, a radical college on Long Island for radical students and faculty, a sinkhole of ’60s folly: Paul Goodman meets Lord of the Flies. For his refusal to conform to the regimented nonconformity, he and his wife were subject to death threats and worries about the safety of their children.

If 1967–71 framed Novak’s fling with radicalism, 1972 to 1977 was his period of withdrawal and recovery. For him, 1972 was less the year of Nixon’s victory than of McGovern’s defeat. (When Shriver replaced the unfortunate Thomas Eagleton on McGovern’s ticket, Novak plunged into the campaign as Sarge’s speechwriter.) Novak promptly signed on to the Coalition for a Democratic Majority, the emerging neoconservatives’ vehicle for taking the party back from the McGovernites.

The second trauma of 1972 was the reception of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics. Five years earlier, Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz had announced, at the close of Making It, that his book was “a frank, Mailer-like bid for literary distinction, fame, and money all in one package,” only to have his bid crash and burn. (Among the more notable reviews was one by former Commonweal literary editor Wilfrid Sheed.) Novak made no such boast, but he seems to have entertained similar hopes, with more concern about political influence than fame or money. Although his book was filled with in-your-face assaults on intellectuals and liberal elites, “secretly,” he records in Writing from Left to Right, “I wanted very badly in those days to be accepted by the cultural left, the gatekeepers all aspiring young writers must please if they are to be allowed into the national dialogue.” After all, he was only trying to steer progressivism and the Democratic Party back onto course. “Naïvely, I thought this difficult analytic effort would be greeted with gratitude.”

It didn’t happen.

Memory of what he experienced as “the fury of the Left” blazes up in one of the few angry passages in Writing from Left to Right.

I was thrilled when the New York Times Book Review called my publisher and said that my book was scheduled for a front-page lead review in two weeks. The great American gateway to literary fame! But when the scheduled issue arrived, my book was not on the first page. It was buried halfway through the magazine. And it was obvious why: It was a devastatingly bad review. Expecting to be exhilarated, I was crushed. Not only did that review not help my reputation; but the reviewer accused me of spreading hate (the insult our elites hurl when they are being unmasked).

This was “secular excommunication.” In an essay written fifteen years after the event, Novak mentioned a review so hostile that “I took to my bed until I could gain composure to get back to work.”

“The publication of The Rise of the Unmeltable Ethnics in 1972 marked my declaration of independence from the cultural left,” Novak writes. He found sanctuary as a columnist at Commonweal, where, to my occasional exasperation as a fellow columnist, he spent the next several years—with only fleeting attention to Watergate, continuing warfare in Vietnam, and vice-presidential and presidential resignations—rehearsing and refining his attacks on various “elites.”

However much those attacks mixed shrewd insights, personal resentment, and tiresome stereotypes, they were in keeping with Novak’s insistence that cultural divisions rather than economic ones had become uppermost for politics. Which made it somewhat surprising when, as he puts it, “in about 1976 or 1977 I was ready to ‘come out of the closet’ as a capitalist.” By 1982, with The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism, although nominally still a Democrat, he had become an enthusiast for Reaganomics and for every Republican administration to follow.

It may seem strange that Novak, at his age and eminence, should still be making his brief passage into and out of mild radicalism such a central drama of his life. But critics, like myself, cannot complain. We long waved the more inflammatory, dogmatic phrases from Novak’s radical phase or evoked that memorable 1969 photo of him in white turtleneck and love beads on the back of A Theology for Radical Politics to insist that the fervent radical turned no less fervent capitalist explain himself. After all, many activists and writers, though radicalized to a degree by civil rights and antiwar struggles, nonetheless rejected the excesses of student militancy, the counterculture, black power, and radical chic—and many of us from traditional religious backgrounds bumped up against the respectable prejudices and unexamined orthodoxies of academic or progressive elites—without reversing our political worldviews.

So how well does Writing from Left to Right explain Novak’s alternative path? It is, for the most part, a low-key, even bland book. There are interesting sections—on befriending the Catholic existentialist philosopher Gabriel Marcel at Harvard, on a perilous month as a journalist in Vietnam, on negotiating with the Soviets as ambassador to the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, an appointment Novak apparently got because of a pro-Reagan piece that Commonweal had asked him to write for the 1980 election. Those (like me) who have assumed that Novak was primarily a religious thinker pushed into political activism by the events of the time will be surprised to learn how early he evinced a desire to make a mark in politics, largely, as it turned out, as a speechwriter. Working with Shriver and speechwriter Bob Shrum, he learned the ingredients for a good stump speech: some facts, some laugh lines, a stretch of “tart mockery” evoking “the malignant presence” of the opposition, a “throat-tightener” or “one or two heart-throbbing episodes,” and a “punchy” close. Oh, and “a touch of ‘class’...a quote from a theologian, philosopher, or classic figure.” Novak declares that he never became very good at this while nudging us with examples of his success.

Much of the book, however, is spent exchanging handshakes and air kisses with all the great and near-great Novak brushed up against: the “almost saintly” Shriver, of course, but also Eugene McCarthy (“my kind of Catholic”); Robert Kennedy (“the more the pundits and the experts called Bobby ‘ruthless,’ the more I liked him”); Henry “Scoop” Jackson (“how I admired him!”); Jack Kemp (“an extraordinarily gifted teacher”); George McGovern (“a good, brave, and true man”); Karl Rove (“especially quick and adroit”); George H. W. and George W. Bush (“kinder and more considerate men never served in the White House”); Steve Forbes (“has never really gotten credit for the intellectual substance of his contributions”).

We meet Jeanne Kirkpatrick (“my friend and eminent colleague at the American Enterprise Institute”); “the brilliant Julian Simon”; “the careful historian Gertrude Himmelfarb”; Ben Wattenberg and Penn Kemble (“some of my best friends”); “my new friend Murray Weidenbaum”; “my brilliant and effervescent friend Michael Horowitz”; and so on.

Novak dinner parties include Bill Bennett, Charles Krauthammer, Mort Kondracke, Bob and Mary Ellen Bork, George and Joan Weigel, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz, Elliott Abrams, Henry Hyde, John McLaughlin, Pat Buchanan, the “great sociologist” Robert Nisbet, and Clare Boothe Luce (“perhaps our favorite guest”).

There is much of course on Ronald Reagan (“Gotta love the guy”) and even more on Margaret Thatcher (“as much a friend as I would ever have wished”) and, finally, on his fellow Slav, Pope John Paul II (“my dearest and deepest friend”).

Who cannot envy this capacity to find brilliance and friendship on every side? Unfortunately, it makes too many pages bring to mind Zelig or Forrest Gump.

Meanwhile there is virtually no account of the thinking that made Novak not only a cultural and political conservative but a man who expounded what he calls a “full-blown theory” of a good society, i.e. democratic capitalism, “composed of three interrelated systems: cultural, political, and economic, each dependent on the others; each checked and balanced by the others.”

Novak repeatedly testifies to his own lack of grounding in economics: “Economists may find me wrong in these musings.” “Maybe I am only an amateur.” In the debate over supply-side economics, “I didn’t yet know enough about economics [in 1980] to be sure who was right.” He drops the names of a few past masters of economic and social theory, but does not dwell on what he drew from them or even whether this reading predated or postdated his radical phase. Instead, he tosses out homey examples about his or his wife’s families and Slovakian or Norwegian forebears.

For all his claims about being “empirical,” Novak remains uninterested or oblivious to the empirical objections to supply-siding; what others called “voodoo economics,” he just calls “jujitsu.” To recent waves of disturbing data about economic trends, he responds either not at all or with the lightest sprinkling of statistical boilerplate. To criticisms of his “full-blown theory”—that it is ahistorical; naïve in arguing that under capitalism culture, politics, and economics are nicely checked and balanced; and ultimately ambiguous regarding the place of the good in a society defined by liberalism, pluralism, and the market—he says nothing.

Again and again, such objections are washed away in Novak’s animadversions against the left, socialism, and communism (too often lumped together) or in his recriminations against his earlier radical self or against those who turned against him when he moved to the right.

 

IGNAZIO SILONE FAMOUSLY wrote that the crucial choice in politics is “the choice of comrades.” One cannot help but feel that way about Novak’s journey. Moved by the plight of those opposing and those ravaged by the war in Vietnam, he briefly chose a radicalism that actually had less to do with any socialism than with dread of a kind of antihuman technocratic future, Max Weber’s “iron cage” of calculating rationality. In those days, he recalled in a 1987 essay, “my mind was stuffed with uncritically accepted information” that “very often exclusively derived from writers of the far left.” Then, repelled by the disdain for ethnic and other middle Americans that he encountered among lifestyle liberals in the Democratic Party, Novak cast his lot with the neoconservative defenders of the business class as represented by the American Enterprise Institute.

But did his modus operandi change? Novak’s writings since then are equally “stuffed” with information from the AEI and neoconservative sources. He repeatedly adverts to guidance from his colleagues there, especially Irving Kristol, who “was mentor to most of us.” Recalling an encounter when Margaret Thatcher momentarily paid more effusive attention to himself than to Kristol, Novak exclaims, “that made me jump over the moon”—merely “being mentioned in the same breath with one of the most brilliant, highly respected, wisest, and most commonsensical men I had ever known.”

It is possible that having learned his lesson, Novak approached his new comrades’ mentoring more critically than he had his former ones’. There is little evidence of that here. And despite the large range of thinking about economies, their dynamics, and their human impact stretching between Novak’s 1982 description of democratic capitalism and the socialisms he amalgamates and scorns, Novak apparently has had nothing fresh or striking to say about capitalism and its moral foundations over three decades.

He did have some influence on John Paul II’s Centesimus Annus. This has made scholars of Catholic social thought nervous. Were the encyclical’s positive words about markets and entrepreneurship an unsound innovation or, worse, one that somehow endorsed Novak’s “full-blown theory.” Only historians will settle this question, but I’ve never shared these worries about the passages at issue or the unlikely notion of endorsement. Novak’s account of his indirect contribution to the encyclical’s drafting strikes me as credible.

Two roads diverged in a wood, and Novak imagines that he took the one less traveled. Not quite. For reasons that I can sympathize with, he actually chose a well-trod route. Some of his consequent achievements are admirable, but they seem to me far less than they might have been. As a thinker, in particular, Novak turned out to be an excellent speechwriter.

Published in the May 2, 2014 issue: 
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Peter Steinfels, a former editor of Commonweal and religion writer for the New York Times, is a University Professor Emeritus at Fordham University and author of A People Adrift: The Crisis of the Roman Catholic Church in America.

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