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Book Review

The Die-Hard Ninja Ideologues of Neoconservatism

GANG OF FIVE Leaders at the Center ofthe Conservative Crusade by Nina J. Easton; Simon & Schuster $27, 464 pages

August 17, 2000|ANTHONY DAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston was in striking contrast to last month's in Philadelphia. The conclave in Philadelphia was under the firm direction of George W. Bush, largely a bland parade of images of outreach to women, minorities and gays. But the Houston convention was, in the words of Nina J. Easton in "Gang of Five," "a strange tribal outpouring of hostility, the war dance of the modern conservative movement."

Easton's solid and intriguing study of five leading baby-boomer conservatives who emerged in the Reagan years suggests that the divisive, incendiary convention atmosphere and its tone of "[c]onfrontation [were] the calling-card of the young Reaganites." But what has happened to them today? Easton inquires. She asks an important political question of this group: "Do you intend to be leaders of the whole, or remain at war with half?" The passivity of the right-wingers at the Philadelphia convention, in the face of Bush's determined show of centrism, hardly signals a change of attitude, as Easton's astute book shows.

A former staff writer for the Los Angeles Times Magazine, Easton draws striking portraits of William Kristol, editor of the Weekly Standard; Ralph Reed, organizer of Pat Robertson's old Christian Coalition, who wants to build a modern "pro-family" movement; Clint Bolick, who fervently believes that the dominant civil rights leaders undermine the people they are trying to help; Grover Norquist, a conservative organizer who sees the world as divided into "them" and "us"; and David McIntosh, an Indiana congressman who rode the conservative movement into office and became a leader of the Newt Gingrich Revolution's class of 1994 in the House.

Easton's book is especially illuminating on the family histories of the five men and how their upbringings influenced their later opinions. Kristol, she shows, is the easiest to decipher. He simply continued the disputatious discourse in which he was raised by his well-known parents, the acerb, learned historian Gertrude Himmelfarb and the more strident Irving Kristol. The senior Kristol is the founder of Public Interest magazine and a vocal neoconservative, one of that group's more prominent members who, after a few years of angry left-wingism, settled comfortably for the rest of his life into querulous conservatism.

To the conservatives in "Gang of Five," ideas are useful chiefly as weapons. Kristol, the most intellectual and wide-ranging member of Easton's five, has always tried to move close to power. He made a mistake, however, when he picked Dan Quayle to be the new leader of the conservative movement, but regained his footing after press lord Rupert Murdoch agreed to fund the Weekly Standard. In it, Kristol has preached a brand of social conservatism that does not disdain the role of government altogether but finds that it can regulate clean air and water as easily as moral pollution in the movies and on the Internet.

The son of a naval flight surgeon often on the move, Ralph Reed grew up in south Florida and then in conservative northeast Georgia, Bible Belt country. In high school and college he was ambitious but fractious and made a lot of enemies. After college, Reed fell in with the College Republicans, "a place for hard-core ideologues," in Easton's words. The College Republicans were in part the creation of another member of Easton's gang of five, Norquist, son of a comfortable family of Rockefeller Republicans in Massachusetts.

When Reed was in the College Republicans, Easton writes, he made recruits memorize Gen. George Patton's ferocious, fictional speech in the film "Patton." They had to substitute the word "Democrat" for the word "Nazi": "The Democrats are the enemy. Wade into them! Spill their blood!" Easton points out that screenwriter Francis Ford Coppola "had intended his audiences to be horrified by Patton's antics, when in reality young conservatives fell in love with the tyrannical general."

Early in 1994, Norquist organized a regular series of Wednesday meetings on politics and policy attended by "a motley crew," Easton says, of all sorts of people eager to advance the conservative revolution. Norquist, who had an MBA from Harvard, was good at organizing and had an unquenchable confidence. He and his followers despised Republicans of more moderate views, whom they called the "squishes."

When the Republicans took the House in 1994, McIntosh acted, Easton writes, as if he were still a college debater at Yale. To him, every issue was all or nothing. In the ensuing two years, McIntosh and his more radical colleagues tried mightily to cut back the federal government on many fronts, and failed on nearly all. At the end of two years he was, Easton says, a chastened man, and a somewhat more moderate one in his politics.

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