Excerpt from Encounters: My Life with Nixon, Marcuse, and Other Friends and Teachers by Paul Gottfried (ISI Books, 2009).
As I think back to the 1970s and 1980s, five figures seem to have been particularly important for my thinking during that period. Eugene Genovese (1930– ), Christopher Lasch (1932–94), Peter Stanlis (1919– ), Robert Nisbet (1913–96), and M. E. “Mel” Bradford (1934–93) came to exert a special influence on me between the time of my arrival at Rockford College in 1973 and my Washington years in the late 1980s. In 1981, Gene, Peter, and I all wrote letters supporting Mel, then a professor of literature at the University of Dallas, when he was under consideration for the chairmanship of the National Endowment for Humanities. After his candidacy foundered following published attacks on him as a pro-Confederate critic of Abraham Lincoln, we continued to defend Mel’s reputation in print as both a principled Southern conservative and a genuine literary scholar. Peter, who was then my older colleague at Rockford and who had worked for my appointment at the college, later teamed up with Mel and Gene a second time. Each of them rallied to my aid after I had become a candidate for the NEH chairmanship in 1986.
It was a strange alliance (exemplifying what the Germans call a Schicksalsgemeinschaft, an alliance of fate) that united me to Gene, an avowed Marxist at the University of Rochester, and his equally Marxist wife Betsey; to Mel, a Southern agrarian; and to Peter, a Catholic Burkean, all at the same time. But these assorted friends showed no perceptible qualms about cooperating with each other, at least not on my behalf. Indeed, by then Gene had become one of Mel’s closest friends. The two stayed in touch through letters and through their membership in the same Southern-based historical societies. Unlike the less generous but more conventional Marxist Eric Foner, who had gone about tarring Mel as a Southern racist, Gene expressed shock that President Reagan would pass over an outstanding Southern traditionalist loyalist in looking for a reliable public servant.
All of my senior advisors wrote letters of advice to me while I was still a live candidate for the chairmanship, that is, before my candidacy dissolved and Lynne Cheney went on to capture the prize. These advisors stressed the need for me to keep a low profile and not to grant compromising interviews if I made it onto the short list. Above all I should not appear to be on the far right—or else I would be taken apart by the staffs of Ted Kennedy and the other liberal Democrats in the Senate. Besides, the neoconservatives, who had helped bring down Mel, would not hesitate to beat my hide just as badly, particularly if they had their own horse in the race. The fact that they had managed to move their point man William Bennett from the NEH up to the post of secretary of education did not mean they had no interest in the lower office, which they had controlled since 1981. Peter was particularly insistent that I should never lose sight of the enemy, having already spent several years on the NEH board fighting skirmishes with the “neocon politicians.”
A widely published author on Burke, natural law, and his onetime teacher at Middlebury’s Bread Loaf School of English, Robert Frost, my colleague at Rockford could not forget the war wounds he had sustained in confrontations with other board members. Gene dwelled on the same themes in pungent language and with references to the organizational skill of the Mafia, a group that he held up as a model for the Old Right. He was convinced that I was too soft for my impending battles, although it was hard for me to figure out how making friends on the Hill and lining up recommendations drafted by senatorial staffers was like the bloody imbroglios engaged in by the leaders of organized crime.
It was Gene who wrote for me the longest and most absorbing description of the infighting for the NEH chairmanship, a narrative that concluded with this fateful warning: “For God’s sake, keep your mouth shut. Bradford was ruined by being sucked into an interview with the Washington Post.” In his unforgettable description he explained the existing alignment of forces in this way:
The word on te street is that Buckley and the neos are pushing for [Robert] Hollander. I know people who like Hollander and tell me he’s a good chap. No doubt. But between his being soft on liberalism, apparently centrist, and under the gun of the rightwing mafia, I am not sanguine. I suspect that the old guerilla fighter, Buckley, has worked out a modus vivendi with the Neos—to speak bluntly, the NY Jews—and that Hollander is the compromise. Somehow I smell—no evidence—the supporters of our estimable Vice President in all of this. But Hollander has some good supporters, and I think you should stay cool, even if it kills you. If he gets it, some mutual friends may well convince him that you are to be placated—in which case you may be able to swing some weight at the NEH. Business is business.
What now strikes me about this text, only a small part of which I have quoted, as well as about the very long letters that I received from Murray Rothbard, is the minute analysis that these texts bestowed on strategic problems. Contrary to expectations, the winner was Mrs. Cheney, someone whom most of the other candidates had not regarded as a front-runner. At the time of Gene’s letter, Robert Hollander, a Dante scholar and professor of English at Princeton, seemed to have been the neoconservatives’ preferred candidate, but he later dropped out of the running. The forces that stood behind him were probably the ones enumerated in Gene’s letter, although there is little chance that if he had prevailed, Hollander and his supporters would have sought to “placate” me or allow me to throw around my “weight.” For their part, Mrs. Cheney and her staff set out to placate the neoconservative power brokers but never as much as allowed me to referee a single project. The only NEH staffs that ever approved of any application from me were Democrats. Despite his tough, eloquent talk, Gene did not perceive how hostile the sides in the already raging conservative wars were by 1986. Nor did Mel understand the depth of the strife; he continued to grasp at the straw that “Podhoretz and Bill Buckley” would “encourage” the Reagan administration to appoint him as Librarian of Congress in 1987. I’ve no idea whether Mel got very far in the selection process, but I’ve no doubt that if he had made it through the first round, his old enemies would have taken the field against him once again.
It was Peter Stanlis who among the subjects of this chapter best grasped the tenacity of his adversaries, a skill that Mel, a truly gentle soul, utterly lacked. “We’re in for a helluva fight with these SOBs” was Peter’s blunt assessment whenever he came back from a meeting with the NEH board. The two occasions when he told me that I would succeed in achieving a specific goal—my appointment at Rockford College and my winning of a Guggenheim Fellowship—had been accurately predicted. Significantly, my protector played critical but hard-to-trace roles in both situations.