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Politics Foreign Affairs Culture Fellows Program

C. Boyden Gray: The Passing of An Uncommon American Conservative

Gray’s breaks with the Republican establishment were as significant as his points of support for it.

C._Boyden_Gray
Official portrait of C. Boyden Gray as U.S. Ambassador to the European Union (Public Domain)

The New York Times titled its obituary for C. Boyden Gray “Lawyer for the Republican Establishment.” In one sense, that title is apt. For those old enough to remember the Northeast Republican establishment, Gray had impeccable credentials for it. But in another sense, as is so often the case with the mainstream media that the Gray Lady (no relation to Boyden) epitomizes, Gray, like so many other establishment Republicans, was a man out of step with the current Republican Party.  That’s what made him an ideal colleague for those of us associated with The American Conservative, the Island of Misfit Toys for conservatives like Gray who are no longer fully clubbable in the eyes of today’s Republican establishment. 

To be sure, the Times was not completely off-target in placing Gray among the old Republican Establishment. He was the son of Gordon Gray, President Dwight Eisenhower’s national security advisor, and educated in the WASPy environs of the Bay State at St. Mark’s School and then Harvard University. He was also close to former President George H.W. Bush, a Texas transplant who began life in the Northeast as the son of Connecticut Senator Prescott Bush; Gray served as Counsel to the Vice President during both of Ronald Reagan’s terms and then as White House Counsel during 41’s one and only term as President. He served two stints overseas as an ambassador, first to the European Union and then as the George W. Bush administration’s Special Envoy for Eurasian Energy. When not in government or serving the country abroad, Boyden was a partner with one of the quintessential establishment white-shoe law firms inside the Beltway, Wilmer Cutler & Pickering (known today as WilmerHale).

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But the Times’s obituary also disclosed, but did not acknowledge as such, the elements of Boyden’s background that do not fit the Republican establishment mold.  To begin with, he was born and raised in the South, in North Carolina, and despite his Northeast education, he earned his law degree from the University of North Carolina. He was then a Democrat, going on to clerk for a liberal icon, Supreme Court Justice Earl Warren. Unlike many Dixiecrats who jumped ship to the GOP for Richard Nixon in 1968, Boyden only left the party during the Carter administration. 

To be sure, in some respects Boyden’s political agenda coincided with the Reagan Revolution, which was, and remained, the center of Republican politics in the 1980s and early 1990s. He was, for instance, one of the leading strategists in the conservative consolidation of the Supreme Court. He played a key role in helping Clarence Thomas weather a stormy confirmation process and also piloted Justice David Souter’s nomination through more placid political waters.   

But the Times’s insinuation that Boyden always sailed close to the changing winds of the Republican Party misses important instances in which he tacked against them. I would point to two of them: Despite the increasing dominance of the neoconservative foreign policy agenda within mainstream Republican circles, Boyden seemed deaf to the post–Cold War siren song with its increasingly bipartisan refrains of American as an “indispensable nation” that, after 9/11, had a mission to “seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world." Indeed, while he kept lines of communication open with mainstream foreign policy organizations such as the Atlantic Council, he was also a founding member of the Committee of the Republic, which hosts regular salons dedicated to the proposition that the United States is a republic, not an empire.

But his most subtle divergence from the Republican mainstream consensus was his principled critique of “crony capitalism,” one of the most important issues that drew him to TAC. Long a critic of what he saw as the American government’s inexorable tendency to over-regulate the private sector, Boyden not only highlighted the problems from the government side, as many mainstream Republicans did, but he also emphasized how individual businesses took advantage of the meddling of the administrative state to advance their own interests, often to the detriment of economic efficiency and that threatened to bankrupt the workings of what should be a free market. It seems to me that especially in his battle against crony capitalism, Boyden showed himself to be less of an establishment Republican, whatever that might mean at any given time, and more of a classical liberal who understood that forever wars were a potent stimulus to the centralization and expansion of government power and that the administrative state not only impinged on the free market directly through over-regulation but also indirectly by creating incentives for some economic actors to game that system.

I had the privilege of serving with Boyden on the Board of the American Ideas Institute, the not-for-profit that supports The American Conservative, for many years.  Boyden not only contributed his treasure to TAC; he also devoted a lot of his talent to helping the magazine craft a distinct intellectual and political niche that sometimes seemed in lock-step with the mainstream of the Republican Party but often took an important, and principled stance, against it.  

He was, to be sure, a charter member of 41’s “tennis cabinet,” a Bush family institution that his father Gordon joined at the behest of Prescott Bush. Indeed, I have fond memories of playing a set of doubles with Boyden at the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport. I played badly, but we still won because Boyden gave us all a master-class of serve-and-volley in which he dominated the court with his lanky 6’6” frame. He looked awkward and bent between points but came alive straight and vigorous during them. Tennis may not be as much of a metaphor for life as many of us weekend warriors think, but I am tempted to see a bit of Boyden’s unique political approach in his performance of the windy court that day: well-established principles coming from surprising angles and delivered with unexpected zest and verve.