Michael Novak’s Liberal Origins and Friendships

UnknownYesterday I gave an overview of Michael Novak’s superb new memoir, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative (Image: New York, 2013). For me, a teenage in the 1960s, this wonderful memoir seems like a political and economic account of an extraordinary life well-lived through a time of social and political turbulence, the times in which I was coming of age and growing older.

Walter Isaacson, the former managing editor of TIME, and certainly no social or political conservative, says, “Whether or not you always agree with him, you will see in this book why Michael Novak is considered one of our most profound thinkers on the relationship between democracy, capitalism, and freedom. The memoir of his intellectual odyssey is both a compelling personal narrative and a provocative intellectual history of our times” (italics are mine, taken from the back jacket of the book). Another intriguing endorsement, one which reveals why I like Novak as a person and as an intellectual of deep importance, comes from Tom Fox, the publisher and former editor of the (liberal) National Catholic Reporter. Fox says, “Yes, we parted political ways–deeply–but politics is only a little of a person’s humanity, or so Professor Novak taught me years and years ago. We remain very close in each other’s heart.” To be honest this is the kind of endorsement, rooted in these kinds of personal relationships, that I desire to mark my own life. As much as possible this is the case with me and Michael Novak has helped me to understand how to do this, both in personal conversation, public discourse and through this amazing memoir. Rare is the author who engages such controversial matter with such an array of friends who praise  his life and thought at the same time. Disagreement, Novak would agree, is important to democracy and he respects it profoundly as this book shows so profoundly well.

This memoir is really about the political and economic upheavals the troubled America between the years 1960 and 2005. Novak says, in the prologue, “This is not just my story, but the story of hundreds of thousands, even millions. Many more are likely to join us over the next decade. Reality does not flinch from teaching human beings hard lessons” (xi).

One of Novak’s first political involvements was to suggest the “New Frontier” as a theme for a Democratic aspirant to Congress. It appears the Kennedy team may have found the phrase deeply appealing since they also adopted it. During the turbulent 1960s Tom Hayden and the Students for a Democratic Society used an article of Michael Novak’s from Harper’s alongside their new founding documents (xi-xii). Then in 1965 Novak was an assistant professor at Stanford just as the Berkley liberals were beginning to take center stage in American society. In 1968 the first person Bobby Kennedy wanted to meet with in California, before he entered the primary in that state, was Michael Novak. A Novak article, titled “The Secular Saint,” had moved Kennedy to seek him out. Novak admired JFK and also attended Vatican II, where he was present when he heard the news of JFK’s assassination. He was at Stanford the night Bobby Kennedy was shot in Los Angeles and should have been in the hotel with his friends that evening but had chosen not to go. He says of these years, and of the assassinations, that these six years (1960-65) were “awful” (xiii).

Then Novak, a longtime supporter of Hubert Humphrey, heard Humphrey’s speech on the War in Vietnam (in support of LBJ’s policies) and decided he could never endorse him. In his own words he says that he “internally moved left of left” (xiii). He would eventually work with Sergeant Shriver, who he describes as a “truly good, large-hearted . . . even saintly man” (xiii). Novak went on to write speeches for George McGovern and Sergeant Shriver in the 1972 campaign against Richard Nixon. He says that McGovern and Shriver were both “war heroes . . . modest, not self-promoting” men (xiii). For those who do not recall, or who are too young to remember, George McGovern was trained to be a Methodist minister and was a serious Christian man. Shriver, married to a Kennedy sister, was the best of them all, deeply thoughtful and godly in his life according to Novak.

Novak then describes how candidate Jimmy Carter sought him out in 1976 and spent a day with him in Queens. Novak then wrote a piece that turned out to be the first national coverage of the former Georgia governor. Because of their differences on foreign policy he did not support Carter in 1976 but opted to stand with Senator Scoop Jackson, who lost to Carter in the primaries. It was the failed economic policies of Jimmy Carter than “opened” Novak’s eyes to ask questions about ideas like “stagflation” and “malaise” (xiv). The turning point for him would come as he began to listen to Ronald Reagan lay out his case for freedom and a new economy in the late 1970s. Friends like Jack Kemp, William Simon and Jeane Kirkpatrick all influenced Novak as he journeyed from left to right. Whether you agree with this direction his story is very well-told.

During this era I was longing (idealistically I now realize) for a “new” kind of leader in America. I was taken by Jimmy Carter. I was sick of Nixon and the whole politic of destruction and corporate control. I despised the Nixon crowd for their lack of integrity and callous way of treating the poor. I had voted for Nixon and have repented of that vote for many years! Watergate was unfolding on television while I was working out of my home and planting my first church as a very young man doing graduate education. Carter seemed so honest, so fresh, so hopeful. I lived to regret that vote against Gerald Ford, one of the most decent, and capable, men to ever occupy the White House. But even in 1980 I was fearful of Ronald Reagan. The idea that he would be bellicose, and lead us into a nuclear war, troubled me. My swings were away from conservatives, or at least those who said they were conservative. This is one reason why Novak’s memoir was hard for me to put down. (I read whole sections twice!) It explained things that I had always wondered about. It actually helped me see George McGovern, Sergeant Shriver and Bobby Kennedy in a whole new (more favorable) way. At the same time it helped me to see how the failed Carter presidency had led the nation to a canyon that almost ruined us before Reagan brought a new sanity to the political scene.

I know many of my friends will have trouble understanding all this but I lived through it and this is my story. Novak is telling his story, one which involved people I did not know or understand from my distance as an American voter and citizen. Novak was changing and so was I. We did not get to the same place but we were on the same path and when I met Michael in the 1990s he was a man that I already admired deeply.

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