Lee Edwards: When the ‘New Right’ Was New
Despite the unexpected political events of the last year, conservative historian and scholar Lee Edwards isn’t afraid for the future of conservatism. He has worked in Washington, D.C. for decades, observing the highs and lows within the movement, and he assures me: we’ve seen worse.
In the 1950s and ’60s, the Republican Party was run by eastern elites, and conservatism was an intellectual movement without much clout or voice in the halls of the nation’s capital. Communist fervor was overtaking Europe, eating into the policies and rhetoric of many within Washington. And, although Russell Kirk’s The Conservative Mind was published in 1953 and National Review’s founding followed two years later, conservatism’s revival in the political and popular sphere was just beginning to gather steam.
It was at this pivotal moment that Edwards began lending his voice and talents to the fledgling conservative cause. The son of Willard Edwards, a noted political reporter for the Chicago Tribune, young Edwards grew up surrounded by political powerhouses in Washington, D.C. Richard Nixon and Senator Joe McCarthy were frequent guests in his childhood home.
“My first impression of Joe—he encouraged you to call him by his first name—was that of a shoulder-squeezing, joke-telling politician who drank but not any more than the average Irishman,” Edwards writes in his new book, Just Right: A Life In Pursuit of Liberty. “He was serious about one thing—communism.”
So was Edwards’s father: from the late 1940s through the mid-’50s, Willard Edwards worked extensively with ex-communists and anticommunists in Washington. Through this network, he met Freda Utley, author of The China Story, who escaped from the Soviet Union with her son Jon in 1936. Jon’s father, Arcadi Berdichevsky, was arrested and executed during the Soviet purges of the 1930s.
Jon Utley remembers meeting Edwards when Utley was still a teenager, long before he began his own career within Washington’s conservative world. Now publisher of The American Conservative and a commentator for various publications, Utley remembers that era as foreboding and frustrating for conservatives. When he finished college, Utley feared the communists would win the Cold War. He left for South America, where he worked in insurance and finance before becoming a foreign correspondent. “When I came back in 1970, people like Lee Edwards had stayed and fought,” he recalled, adding that anticommunist prospects seemed brighter with the emergence of Ronald Reagan and other likeminded conservatives.
For Edwards, the anticommunism of his father’s generation became real in Europe in 1956, with the Hungarian uprising against the Soviet yoke and the plight of young anticommunists in Budapest. He had gravitated to Europe after graduating from Duke University and was living in Paris, where he hoped to pen the next great American novel. Instead, the events in Hungary pulled him back to his father’s cause.
Edwards heard the pleas of freedom fighters on his Paris radio, begging for help from America and its allies, and he was infuriated by the passivity of the Eisenhower administration. “As the number of fallen freedom fighters passed two thousand and tens of thousands of Hungarians fled their once-again-communist country, I took an oath,” he writes. “I resolved that for the rest of my life, wherever I was, whatever I was, I would help those who resisted communism however I could.”
Edwards abandoned his novel-writing dream and moved back to Washington, D.C. There he joined the D.C. Young Republicans and became press secretary for Maryland Senator John Marshall Butler.
In 1960, Edwards helped found Young Americans for Freedom, a group that embraced the fusionism of the burgeoning New Right. Its members incorporated libertarian and anticommunist themes into their determinations, building a platform that emphasized economist Friedrich Hayek’s philosophy and a strong foreign policy alongside traditional conservative values. “We were rebels against the zeitgeist,” Edwards recalls with a smile.
He served as editor for YAF’s monthly magazine, New Guard, for the next few years, and acquired a new job with a Washington public relations firm. In 1963, he became news director for the National Draft Goldwater Committee, which emerged in anticipation of Senator Barry Goldwater’s expected presidential run the following year.
Goldwater’s rise in the Republican Party was deeply important to the New Right, and his book The Conscience of a Conservative (ghostwritten by Brent Bozell) had a considerable impact on Edwards. In those early years, before JFK’s assassination, there was a good deal of excitement amongst Goldwater’s followers. He had, after all, a strong populist following with grassroots conservatives across the nation. His principled conservatism and staunch anticommunism appealed to many.
But with President Kennedy’s assassination, Goldwater knew he couldn’t win the presidency. Friends and advisers urged him to run anyway—not to win but to galvanize conservatives, especially young conservatives such as Edwards, who had been inspired and encouraged by Goldwater for years.
It was not an easy campaign for Goldwater—or for Edwards. While their populist following was passionate, the GOP candidate encontered vehement media hostility. Due to his strong foreign policy messaging, many suggested that Goldwater was dangerously belligerent. Lyndon Johnson described him as a “ranting raving demagogue who wants to tear down society.” Fact magazine published a special edition just before the election arguing that the senator was mentally unfit to be president.
Edwards looks back on many of these events with a sense of déjà vu, especially following the events of last year’s presidential election. While Goldwater and Donald Trump aren’t at all similar—“Barry Goldwater was the product of a movement,” notes Edwards, “whereas Trump isn’t that, he’s a businessman”—both tapped into the populist fervor of the “forgotten America” many eastern elites disdain or forget about. Goldwater’s “Forgotten American,” Ronald Reagan’s 1980 “Moral Majority,” and the Tea Party all had one thing in common: they were grassroots movements, galvanized by rhetoric that was anti-establishment in many ways.
“To our amazement, Trump understood and applied that, and won an impossible victory,” Edwards says. “I believe the populist movement is always there and engaged in this debate. They will be there in 2020 and beyond.”
Goldwater’s loss brought dark days to the conservative movement in Washington and throughout the country. “It would’ve been easy to give up,” Edwards says. “Our ideas were defeated.” Writer and intellectual Frank Meyer brought hope to Goldwater’s supporters, however, by writing in National Review that 27 million voters—those who had supported Goldwater in the presidential election—could form a solid conservative coalition.
From that hope, Edwards says, the movement struggled on, forming new alliances and organizations, working to tap into the grassroots fervor that Goldwater had encouraged. “Liberals were saying that was the end [for conservatives],” Edwards says. But in reality, as Utley noted during our interview, “Goldwater’s campaign led to the conservative resurgence. It was the start.”
Edwards went on to work with Bill Buckley, Milton Friedman, Richard Viguerie, and other prominent figures of the New Right. He started his own public relations firm and wrote for Readers Digest and Conservative Digest. But perhaps most notably, Edwards began chronicling the lives of the many renowned conservatives he had worked with, including Reagan, Buckley, and Goldwater. Through this body of work, he became known as a leading historian of American conservatism.
Edwards did not stop working within the anticommunist movement. But whereas many of his fellow anticommunists dedicated their energies to fighting terrorism after 9/11, he worked to create Washington’s Victims of Communism Memorial, which he cites as the greatest accomplishment of his career. After years of fundraising and bureaucratic red tape, the 10-foot Goddess of Democracy statue was dedicated by President George W. Bush in 2007, surrounded by champions of the anticommunist cause and survivors of communism. Edwards saw it as the fulfillment of his Paris vow, made so many years before.
Utley sees Edwards’s anticommunist work as the most important of his career. “My son asks me, ‘What was the big deal? The communists collapsed like a house of cards,’” he says. “But it didn’t look that way in those days.”
That isn’t to say that times aren’t still challenging, albeit in different ways. Edwards is troubled by a Millennial generation that, according to a poll conducted by his memorial foundation, are 50 percent more comfortable with socialism than with capitalism. He has also seen, as a professor at Catholic University, an uptick in the distractibility and shortening attention spans of his students. America’s youth have grown up in a different culture, one that encourages attitudes of entitlement and instant gratification. Trump’s tweets, he suggests, are the perfect symbol of this culture. Such an environment can make it difficult to instill the ideals of Russell Kirk and Edmund Burke, to revive and renew a movement inspired as much by virtue and philosophy as it is by history and policy.
Yet despite this, Edwards remains hopeful. “I’m an optimist. That’s how I’ve managed to survive in this town,” he says. Edwards sees many “young, brilliant, charismatic politicians” in the political arena, citing Mike Lee, Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and Ben Sasse. He’s observed the healthy activity of groups such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, the Fund for American Studies, YAF, and Students for Liberty, all working to bolster conservatism’s future. He’s also observed the birth and growth of conservative colleges such as Hillsdale College, The King’s College, and others. All in all, he says, conservatism is “not a dying movement, but a clamoring one.”
Edwards’s new autobiography serves to highlight both the perils and excitements of the New Right’s early years—chronicling the frustrations of the Goldwater campaign, the fears and struggles of the Lyndon Johnson and Jimmy Carter years, and the exhilarating hope of Reagan’s presidency. But perhaps most of all, Just Right encapsulates the tenacity of a movement that has refused to die, despite adversity—largely due to the work of men such as Edwards, who have remained faithful even in those inevitable times of hardship and defeat.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and the Washington Times, among others.