BLOOMINGTON – R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. found himself alone backstage at the Indiana University Auditorium April 25, 1968. Before him stood U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, campaigning before a full house in the midst of the frenzied Indiana Democratic presidential primary. Behind him was an open door leading to RFK’s waiting car, and no one else.
Eight years prior, Tyrrell bought into Sen. Barry Goldwater’s sensational tome, “The Conscience of a Conservative.” But on this day, as RFK finished his speech, he turned to Tyrrell, figuring him to be on the campaign’s advance team. “Where do we go?” he asked. And it was this unlikely pair who would emerge out the auditorium’s back door to his left as Kennedy continued on a whirlwind last six weeks of his life. The iconic senator turned to Tyrrell. In the exchange, Tyrrell said, “In his hand, I put a Ronald Reagan for President button.”
RFK responded with a laugh.
It was a moment when establishment liberalism was confronted with the brash movement many believed was vanquished in the 1964 Lyndon B. Johnson landslide over Sen. Barry Goldwater. A dozen years later, it would be Ronald Reagan taking the oath as president. Or as Tyrrell described it, it is the “longest dying political movement in history.”
“Since 1964, conservatism’s obituaries have been filed with timely regularity – and I don’t know about you, but I am actually feeling pretty good,” said Tyrrell. “Still conservatism is more often reported on for its fragmentation, frailties, dissension and rigor mortis, than for its vitality.”
Tom Charles Huston, the IU Law graduate who drafted the controversial “Huston Plan” that President Nixon briefly installed to confront the student anti-war movement, said during Paul Helmke’s Civic Leaders class at IU that from the defeat of President Hoover in 1932 through the 1960 election, not only did liberalism dominate university faculties, but the even the GOP. “The Republican Party was controlled by Wall Street bankers, the Dewey/Rockefeller wing of the party,” Huston said.
The Goldwater era launched a movement at IU, spawning a array of acolytes, with Tyrrell, Baron Von Kannon, Steve Davis and Lou Ann Sabatier establishing and then propagating what would become The American Spectator and later The Weekly Standard, to others like Jim Bopp Jr. who would transform U.S. election law and embolden the right-to-life movement. “Goldwater was the indispensable person around whom a viable political movement could be organized,” Huston said. “Nobody is running as a Rockefeller Republican these days, and that’s a big change.”
In the book “Conscience of a Conservative,” Goldwater argued, “The root difference between the Conservatives and the Liberals of today is that Conservatives take account of the whole man, while the Liberals tend to look only at the material side of man’s nature.”
Indiana has always been a conservative state. As IU history Professor James Madison observed in his new book, “Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana,” “Many Hoosiers remained wary of government at a distance, as they had been in pioneer times. Government’s powers to tax to restrict freedoms continued to be worrisome. The possibilities for improving the general welfare conflicted with the deep traditions of small, low-cost government.”
Why is Indiana one of the most unhealthy states in the union with high smoking, obesity and infant mortality? The Trust for America’s Health ranks Indiana 50th in the nation in per capita health spending.
“For pioneers, the federal government had removed Indians, surveyed and sold public lands and boosted economic development,” Madison writes, but said of Hoosiers, “From the onset they tended to distrust government, particularly at a distance from Washington.”
The state grew rapidly during President Andrew Jackson’s two terms in the 1830s, and his distrust in centralized government became a Hoosier mainstay political component that continues to this day.
In 1947, Indiana House Concurrent Resolution No. 2 passed, reading, “Indiana needs no guardian and intends to have none. So we propose henceforward to tax ourselves and take care of ourselves. We are fed up with subsidies, doles and paternalism. We are no one’s stepchild. We respectfully petition and urge Indiana’s congressmen and senators to vow to fetch our county courthouses and city halls back from Pennsylvania Avenue. We want government to come home.”
Gov. Mike Pence is the face of Hoosier conservatism today. Pence grew up as a Democrat with the Kennedy brothers as heroes. But when he arrived at Hanover College, and later IU Law School, “That was when I turned my attention to more conservative thought,” Pence said.
Pence was inspired by Russell Kirk’s book “The Conservative Mind” and U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp. “I became aware of Jack Kemp when he was in the Congress and found him to be an extraordinary champion of free market economics and pro-growth politics and a strong national defense,” Pence explained.
Pence now governs in tandem with two conservative legislative super majorities.
In the governor’s mind, it comes down to this: “Conservatism works every time it’s tried. When you balance budgets, when you let people keep more of what they earn, keep red tape to a minimum and expand choices from consumers, including parents and their schools, markets work. Freedom works.”
The columnist publishes at www.howeypolitics.com. Find him on Twitter @hwypol.