On Friday, November 30th, Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels delivered the keynote address at the Buckley Program’s November 30th conference on the 60th anniversary of Whittaker Chambers’ Witness.
The text of his remarks is below. A video will be posted shortly.
Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels
November 30, 2012 Remarks
William F. Buckley Program Keynote Address
New Haven, Connecticut
I must apologize for my lateness in arriving. Oh, I was punctual for this evening’s program and, to my lasting benefit, for the exceptional series of conversations earlier today. But, in a different sense, I am sadly late, 46 years to be exact, in coming to New Haven.
I last saw this campus in the summer of 1966, as a public high school student from the Midwest. For reasons of no particular objective merit – Was it my preference for blue? The wood paneling in the law office of the alumnus who recruited me? I don’t recall – I was settled on the idea of attending Yale, and a gracious welcome when I came to visit fortified that resolve. A head-turning trip to a beautiful university campus not far south of here changed my mind and, in ways unimaginable, my life. At least most are unimaginable; it’s certain that I’d have celebrated a few dozen more football victories than my eventual choice supplied over the years.
As has happened often, I find myself again in one of those “What am I doing here?” moments. The task of assessing this masterpiece book, and the extraordinary person and life behind it, would be daunting under any circumstances. To appear in any forum associated with the immortal name “Buckley” is to confront inescapably one’s own inadequacies. But to attempt to follow the likes of Podhoretz, Evans, Abrams, and the other giants of the afternoon program, goes beyond daunting to the realm of scary.
It is said that a third-grade teacher in a Washington suburb was struggling to draw forth from the class a correct answer about the day’s lesson. The first student she asked replied, “Teacher, I didn’t hear the question.” The classmate behind him said “I heard it but I didn’t understand it.” A third young prodigy owned up that “I understood the question but I don’t know the answer.” The interrogation concluded when the Senator’s son in the back row piped up “Madame Instructor, I should like to associate myself with the remarks of all the previous speakers.” And so should I.
Whatever my apprehensions, I am deeply grateful to have undertaken this assignment. Whether I contribute an iota to the day’s edification, being sent to my library shelf for a second reading of Witness was a joy. My first intention, to skim back through it reading the many highlighted lines and margin scribbles with which I deface important works, lasted only a few minutes. Then it turned into an end-to-end rereading, and a rediscovery of the multiple qualities that render this particular book so worthy of a 60th birthday party.
By “rediscovery”, I mean several things. First, I was reminded where I first encountered several thoughts or direct quotes which have stuck with me through the decades: Tertullian’s “Credo quia impossibile” – I believe because it’s impossible - to explain the basis of his faith; “No land ever again has such power over him as that in which he was a child.”; “Looked back upon once a man has left it behind, all sin seems childish.”
I rediscovered likewise, even apart from its wisdom, what a remarkable piece of literature this is. I make no pretense to any skill in criticism, but surely the clarity and vividness of Chambers’ imagery stack up well with the authors one admires most: “What I had been fell from me like dirty rags.”; “The partisans of peace fell upon me like combat troops.”; the unique agony of “the saved man going back into the flames”. And this, when he risked assassination after leaving the Communist Party by postponing his flight to retrieve a small child’s treasured belonging from his abandoned home: “I could still faintly hear the telephone, exploding regularly in the empty house, like an alarm clock in a bucket.”
Though it was the most important non-fiction work of its time, Witness, if invented, would have made a splendid novel. Plot lines like the Ford roadster and the pumpkin hiding place would have done credit to a Raymond Chandler or, for that matter, Buckley the novelist. Its twists and turns, suspenseful action and even more suspenseful psychological anguish, make for a crackling good yarn.
Even without its compelling dramatics, it furnishes one of our finest philosophical travelogues, as the author comes painfully to terms with the evil of his original beliefs. And, without losing the intrigue of its captivating narrative, it delivered a legal brief that demolished the charade of lies with which Alger Hiss and his frenzied defenders tried to deny the plain facts of treason.
Yes, Witness is that rarity of the writer’s craft that seizes its readers by both lapels and the necktie all at the same time. But it is as a manifesto of freedom and anti-Communism that we celebrate it and gather to discuss its continuing relevance.
This room and rooms worldwide are filled with people in whom this book produced epiphany. My friend, the late Robert Novak, described the impact of reading it as a 22-year-old 2nd Lieutenant in Korea: “Without exaggeration, it changed my life.”
Most books with followings as passionate as this one are treatises of hope, uplifting works that inspire their readers with can-do exhortations and images of better tomorrows. Americans in particular have to this point been a forward-facing, optimistic people who, as George Will sometimes reminds us, have always located their Golden Age in the future, not the past. But Witness is a profoundly pessimistic statement.
My friend Herb London taught me that an optimist is someone who says “This is the best of all possible worlds” and the pessimist is he who responds “You’re right.” Chambers, in his introductory letter to his children, does claim that “(T)his… is also a book of hope.”, but this was a one-line departure from a foreword otherwise dominated by lines like “It is a terrible book. It is terrible in what it tells about men…it is more terrible in what it tells about the world in which you live.”
Whittaker Chambers’ courage and despair both were magnified by his staunch conviction that he had switched from the winning to the losing side. And, as desolate as he was in believing that the West would succumb to the Communists, he surrendered even more forlornly to the conclusion that Western man no longer had within him the stuff of freedom.
His witness to the facts of treason and totalitarianism was in some ways secondary. He wrote of “the two forms of witness that I had to bear”, the second being that of “the human witness.” Chambers accepted the assignment of martyrdom, standing alone and friendless for truths no longer generally embraced by those around him. Believing as he did, what posture but deep pessimism would make any sense?
Now the voice of pessimism is loud again in the land. Chambers’ lamentation about “this sick society that we call Western Civilization” is echoed today, more desperate and shrill in the wake of the recent election. Here’s a brief sampling from the last three weeks:
Ron Paul opined, “We’re far gone. We’re over the cliff.” The estimable Mr. Limbaugh announced “We’re doomed.” One Alan Caruba suggested that “the 2012 election was a vote to commit national suicide.”
And in the most florid of the genre that I found in a quick scan, one reads “The traditional American virtues – of liberty, hard work, free enterprise, private initiative and aspirations to moral greatness – no longer inspire or animate a majority of the electorate….Society is permeated with sloth, greed, envy and materialistic excess. It has lost its moorings and its moral foundations….the old America is gone. And, sad for the world, it is not coming back...America is not what it was, and will never be again.”
This last example was written by a rabbi from New York, which seems entirely fitting. The eponymous Old Testament prophet himself could not have produced a more gloomy jeremiad.
It is a frequent and reasonable conjecture that a mortally dangerous, militaristic and hegemonic threat like the Soviet Union would actually be preferable to the dry rot of internal decay. That, given a choice, Chambers himself might have seen taking on Communism as less hopeless than reversing cultural decline. In that view, “We have met the enemy and it is us” is a more dispiriting diagnosis than “The Russians are coming, the Russians are coming!”
The internal menace may well be a tougher adversary. It is certainly less susceptible to direct public action. We could catch spies, rearm the nation, embark on missile defense, and support freedom and freedom fighters elsewhere by straightforward policy decisions and the will of leadership; it will be far more difficult to rebuild national character if in fact it has eroded too much.
Of course, the worry that the character essential to liberty would prove ephemeral, indeed would be undone by its own material success, is as old as the Republic itself. Hence Franklin’s famous retort when asked what kind of government he and his colleagues had delivered” “A Republic, madam, if you can keep it.”
The death a month ago, after 104 incredibly productive years, of Dr. Jacques Barzun, sent me back to his great work, From Dawn to Decadence. There he taught “When people accept futility and the absurd as normal, the culture is decadent. The term is not a slur, it is a technical label.” By Barzun’s definition, it is tempting to look about us and decide that the label fits our times all too neatly.
And yet, the forces most irresistible in the modern world continue to lean in favor of individual freedom and against dictatorship, regimentation, and top-down control. Most obviously, each new breakthrough in technology makes individual empowerment and the evasion of state control more, not less likely. George Gilder foresaw a quarter century ago, “Rather than pushing decisions up through the hierarchy, the power of microtechnology pulls them remorselessly down to the individual. It applies not only to business organizations but to the very power of the state as well.”
At the outset of Modern Times, the book that struck me and formed my thinking much as Witness did Novak’s, Paul Johnson wrote “The scientific genius impinges on humanity, for good or ill, far more than any statesman or warlord.” The explosion of scientific knowledge now occurring in places like this great university and at the one I soon will serve, for all its dangers, seems more likely to confound rather than enable the wouldbe tyrants of our day.
Analysts of the recent election are pondering how, in defiance of computer models and most deterministic readings of political history, a candidate opposing such an objectively failed presidency could have lost. On top of a wretched national condition, one even worse than the most-watched official figures indicate, the losing candidate was rated more highly on both the supposedly decisive economic issues, and on “leadership”, normally the personal quality most valued by voters.
The candidate’s own explanation linked back to what many people, me included, believe to be the most critical moment of the whole dreary campaign. In one of those imaginary private occasions that no longer exist for people in public life, Governor Romney memorably discussed the 47% of Americans who, he said, are dependent on government and therefore would never vote for him. In his post-mortem after the election, he reportedly extended this theme, saying that too many people had allowed their votes to be bought with promises of someone else’s money.
I think he was right about the origin of his problem but wrong about its essence. Without doubt, we have a significant number of Americans for whom dependence and something for nothing have become a way of life. We have known for at least a half century that government policies were fostering such attitudes. And yes, some number of citizens surely did “vote their pocketbooks” in this self-interested sense. But they were far from 47% in number, and would have voted for the incumbent President under any circumstances.
I believe that the self-inflicted fatal blow of Mr. Romney’s statement came among Americans who find themselves in receipt of some form of government transfer, but reject or even despise the notion that they are permanent parasites for doing so. Think of people on Social Security earned through a lifetime of honest toil; of men thrown out of work by a reeling, mismanaged economy and desperately trying to find new employment while on unemployment insurance; of young families, including active duty military personnel, working hard but still accepting food stamps which, for the moment, they legitimately need to provide adequately for their families. I have met countless such people. They are my employers, and I have made it a big part of my job to seek them out and know them.
My take, as a practitioner, is that millions of Americans thought they heard Mr. Romney label them as parasites on society, and said not “Yes, and I deserve it” but “Hell, no, that’s not me.” Whatever he intended, the candidate deeply offended countless citizens whose self-image and ambition does not accept or admit to lassitude, or uselessness, or ongoing reliance on the charity of others.
The blunder was never corrected, and in fact was exacerbated, by a staggering tone-deafness to the language and the fears of average Americans. A chronic disease of the Republican Party is the insistence on speaking in abstractions, or worse yet in language that offers no clue, no argument that the principles of liberty are far better for people at the bottom than the statist alternatives. And in language that entirely overlooks and omits the most powerful appeal available: “We believe in you, and your ability to decide for yourself, and they don’t.”
Like most diseases, this one is totally preventable: exactly the same ideas and policies can be framed in terms of their superior outcomes for, and greater confidence in, the broad mass of the American people.
The incomparable Winston Churchill, in a time of far greater danger and desperation than anything the U.S. faces today, infused his every utterance with unshakeable affirmations of the character and capacity of his fellow citizens. Many believe that his trust, which detractors saw as mere bluster or wishfulness, was not only vindicated but was to an extent transformative.
Isaiah Berlin wrote of Churchill’s countrymen, “(I)n the end, they approached his ideal and began to see themselves as he saw them….(He) transformed cowards into brave men, and so fulfilled the purpose of shining armor.”
I have argued elsewhere that successful mobilization of Americans for the enormous changes that must come to our welfare state programs and to national economic policy must begin with a similar expression of trust in and affection for our fellow citizens. I have met very few people who, presented with the arithmetic facts of our indebtedness, would acknowledge that yes, they are quite comfortable spending borrowed money on themselves at the expense of the young. Starting from a negative presumption is often self-defeating, reason enough to avoid the practice. But stated positively: If we would summon the best from Americans, we must assume the best about them. If we don’t believe in Americans, who will?
Two weeks ago, for the 125th and presumably last time, I stayed overnight in a Hoosier home. What began as an exercise in thrift by a no-name, first-time political candidate became a practice I continued throughout 9 ½ years pursuing and holding elective office. The taxpayer and contributors’ money saved was secondary to the new friends made and insights gathered from these encounters with a myriad of typical citizens, virtually none of them politically active or previously known to me.
At family breakfast on a dairy farm near the tiny town of Stroh, I heard the story of Jody and Carlos. Since 900 dairy cattle are more than Todd, his brothers, and his young sons can handle alone, he has a few hired hands. Jody, a local fellow in his mid-30s, had approached Todd at church in search of work, and was brought on board. After a few weeks of tardiness, carelessness, and sometimes just plain laziness, Todd let him go.
Days later, Jody came around asking for his job back. Told that sorry, three strikes is three strikes, he left without appeal or complaint. Only later did an attorney friend clue Todd in, that undoubtedly his former employee’s conduct, from the initial application through purposely poor performance to through-the-motions second “job search”, was all calculated to qualify him for unemployment insurance. It’s the kind of story I have heard depressingly often, especially in the recent recession and non-recovery.
When I asked who Todd’s best employee was, he told me about Carlos. About 25 years old, with apparently authentic immigration papers, Carlos hails from Mexico. Individually, Todd told me, he is a tireless, self-starting worker, who keeps track of every hour and every penny. When the farm has an opening, Carlos is likely to show up with a promising candidate, for whom he evinces a sense of responsibility: “I bring you only good people, Mr. Todd.”
With savings from his earnings, Carlos has already bought a small ranch. He intends to raise his own cattle there as soon as his savings suffice. The American dream is alive and well in Stroh, if sometimes stronger in those for whom it is newest.
As Ronald Reagan reminded us so often, the dream is not solely American. It only bears that label because it first burst forth here, and it was here that government designed to enable and encourage individual freedom and fulfillment was first devised. My personal conviction, based on thousands of interactions with the people of a diverse and therefore reasonably typical American state, is that the dream and the will to pursue it are still dominant in the character of our countrymen. There are far more Carloses than Jodys, and most of them are native-born.
If history reveals that this one nation did, in fact, exhaust its store of virtue, then liberty will still prevail elsewhere, where it is not yet taken for granted and where its fruits have yet to be harvested. Unlikely and unwelcome as the thought is, perhaps freedom’s future will prove more promising in lands other than this, its birthplace.
But, like those safe haven investors who see the weakness of the U.S. economy but cannot find a better place to invest, my money is still on us, for all our faults. Freedom has been down for the mandatory 8-count before, and gotten off the mat to rally. In his preface to the 1987 edition, Chambers’ admirer Bob Novak lamented the “apogee of Reaganism” and said that Reagan would be leaving office with his anti-Communist doctrine “in tatters and the initiative in the hands of the Kremlin.” Twenty-nine months later, the winning side Chambers was sure he had deserted died.
Over the next few years and maybe just months, the debts we have accumulated and that this Presidency has doubled will begin to assert themselves. We must hope and work to see that an easily imaginable panic and economic ruin does not result. At best, economic circumstances will remain difficult.
Even if reserve currency status and the absence of alternatives continues to protect us a while longer, the Obamacare legislation will take effect. Its implementation will likely be a nightmare of missed deadlines, public confusion, inconsistent exceptions, and dashed expectations. Every claim made for the bill will be shown to have been false: health care costs will go up, not down; government spending and debt will go up, not down; the economy will be injured, not benefited; people by the millions will in fact lose the health insurance they have and like. Indeed, these calamities are already evident.
These failures, abetted by the natural tendency of Americans to swing the pendulum every so often, set the stage for a powerful restoration of an architecture of liberty. Freedom’s friends must be ready, not just with cerebral prescriptions for better policy, but with a moral argument that affirms the God-given dignity of each of us, that says “Yes, you can” to everyone, including and in fact especially the famous 47%. And with a vocabulary that invites and welcomes, with the forgiving grace Whittaker Chambers extended Alger Hiss, every American to become a part of our national reconstruction. That places at the dead center of our concern the young, the poor, the yet-to-haves, the millions of Carloses, active or latent, who remain the large majority in our nation.
In 1980, a Wyoming single mother mystified a New York Times reporter by stating that yes, absolutely she supported candidate Reagan’s proposed income tax cuts. “But, why?” the reporter spluttered. “You don’t make enough money to pay income taxes!” The woman’s reply was “One day I will.” Freedom’s friends must shape their words and actions, when the opportunity for action arrives, in ways that say emphatically “Yes, you can” and “One day you will.”
Were Whittaker Chambers with us tonight, he might well dismiss me (politely, I’m sure) as naïve or wishful or both. He might celebrate that he was dead wrong about which side would win the Cold War, but tell me that the fundamentals had not changed, that Western civilization was still terminally ill. I would have nothing conclusive to offer in response, except some anecdotal observations from my last ten years of field research, and the kind of faith that sustained him throughout his time of trial and agony.
I suppose I could just tell him: Credo quia impossibile.