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The Greatest Conservative Generation

ADVANCE EDITORIAL from the December 31, 2012 - January 7, 2013 issue.

12:00 AM, Dec 21, 2012 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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“There were giants in the earth in those days.” The death on December 19 of Robert Bork—superb legal scholar, preeminent constitutional thinker, principled public servant—calls to mind the other giants of American conservatism who have left us in the last decade: Bill Buckley and Irving Kristol, Milton Friedman and James Q. Wilson, Richard John Neuhaus and Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan and Jack Kemp. They were the greatest conservative generation. They rode into the valley of liberal orthodoxies and emerged sometimes triumphant, always unbowed. When can their glory fade? They left our nation stronger and better for their efforts.

robert bork

Those who knew them do their best to carry on the fight. Inspired by their example and effort, by their boldness and wisdom, remembering the uphill struggles of the early years, they do their best to keep the banner aloft and moving forward. But what of the next generation?

It’s been almost 60 years since Bill Buckley and his colleagues founded National Review, standing “athwart history, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it.” Those of us concerned with the perpetuation and success of American conservatism might consider what Abraham Lincoln said a little more than 60 years after the American Revolution, on January 27, 1838, at the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois.

The whole speech is, needless to say, worth reading—and worth rereading. But for our purposes, consider one aspect of the 28-year-old Lincoln’s treatment of the question of “the perpetuation of our political institutions.” Why, he asked, “suppose danger to our political institutions? Have we not preserved them for more than fifty years? And why may we not for fifty times as long?”

One reason, Lincoln explains, is that “the scenes of the revolution .  .  . must fade upon the memory of the world, and grow more and more dim by the lapse of time. In history, we hope, they will be read of, and recounted, so long as the Bible shall be read;—but even granting that they will, their influence cannot be what it heretofore has been. Even then, they cannot be so universally known, nor so vividly felt, as they were by the generation just gone to rest.” 

Lincoln suggests that, even for the generation after the Founders, these scenes were a kind of “living history.” But for Lincoln’s generation, “those histories are gone.” And “unless we, their descendants, supply their places with other pillars, hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason,” we will lack “the materials for our future support and defense.”

The materials for the future support and defense of conservatism will have to be forged by a generation that remembers not the Founders. In a way, this can be an advantage. Young men and women today, interested in the perpetuation of our political and civic liberty, will understand they can’t coast on the Founders’ efforts. They’ll also be less intimidated by the Founders’ example. They will be open to fresh thinking “hewn from the solid quarry of sober reason.” Such fresh thinking has never been more necessary.

But as they think anew, they’ll also look back to Bob Bork and his compatriots. Their work is the point of departure, a source of invaluable lessons, both substantive and strategic. Yet the generation that now ascends to center stage shouldn’t be intimidated by their daunting example.

The best revenge for Edward Kennedy’s slander about “Robert Bork’s America” would be to help advance the cause of what is truly Bob Bork’s America—a nation of constitutional liberty and self-government. Bob Bork would have enjoyed the well-deserved encomiums he is receiving. He’d be even more pleased by the young men and women coming forth to say how inspired they have been by his example. 

—William Kristol

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