Conservatives got an inkling of how bad 2020 would be before the year even started. On Dec. 30, 2019, Gertrude Himmelfarb died. She was just the first of many conservative luminaries to die over the next 12 months — and it is worth remembering each one and what they contributed to conservatism and our country. As conservatism enters its next chapter, without a slew of great ideas or clarity regarding its future direction, learning lessons from these heroes of the past can potentially be a first step in discerning the way forward into the future.
Let's start with Himmelfarb, an eminent historian and also wife of the late Irving Kristol. She wrote scholarly and compelling works about anti-Semitism and the Victorian era that always had contemporary relevance. Even those who disliked her politics could not question her scholarship. As the New York Times acknowledged in its obituary of Himmelfarb, "she viewed the growing absence of footnotes in scholarly books as 'a moral lapse.'"
Owen Harries was another conservative who died in 2020. Harries was at the helm of the National Interest when it published the most famous article in its history, and one of the most famous articles in the history of any magazine, Francis Fukuyama's 1989 "The End of History?" I was a young think tank researcher in Washington at the time, and it is hard to overstate how widely read and debated the article was. Harries was essential to the article's origin story: He had asked Fukuyama over lunch in Beverly Hills to write up a talk he had given but to give it a more optimistic spin. Harries paid $1,000 for the piece, which may constitute the best $1,000 ever spent. Harries was also a talented writer in his own right. After reading a Harries piece on China, Henry Kissinger said, "I can't remember when I have read an article in which I have agreed with every word. I am only sorry I didn't write it myself, but I will plagiarize it liberally."
The writing world also lost Sir Roger Scruton, British conservative and author of more than 50 books. Scruton became a conservative in reaction to the 1968 student protesters, whom he aptly characterized as an "unruly mob of self-indulgent middle-class hooligans" putting forth "ludicrous Marxist gobbledygook." He was staunchly anti-communist, and Czech President Vaclav Havel gave Scruton the Medal of Merit for his pro-dissident efforts. He was also knighted in 2016. Scruton, in the words of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson upon the announcement of Scruton's death, was "the greatest modern conservative thinker" and a man who "not only had the guts to say what he thought but said it beautifully."
Knighted even earlier than Sir Roger was Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who died of pancreatic cancer at the age of 72. Rabbi Sacks was the West's leading defender of family, faith, and Western civilization itself. While for many years the chief rabbi of England, his wit and erudition gave his ideas wide purchase beyond just the confines of the Jewish world. As Sen. Joseph Lieberman said of him, "The old advertising slogan went, 'You don't have to be Jewish to love Levy's Jewish Rye.' Well, you don't have to be Jewish to benefit from Rabbi Sacks's writing." I once saw him just after reading his book The Home We Build Together, and I told him that I admired his use of a quote on tolerance from William James, "The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook." Without missing a beat, he said, correctly, "Easy to say. Hard to do."
I am generally loath to write about politicians in a piece about great conservatives since, as William Rusher often observed, politicians will always disappoint. But two conservative senators who died in 2020 merit mention here. Roger Jepsen of Iowa was an early supporter of Ronald Reagan and, more unusually, a supporter of Israel when that was not the norm in Republican politics. Jepsen was also early to recognize the power of the evangelical vote in advancing conservative policies. And of course, those last two were interrelated, as evangelical support for Israel has been instrumental for the Republican Party. This was not the case in Jepsen's time, but support for Israel is one of the few near-universal tenets of both the Republican Party and conservatism in our current divisive moment.
Another senator who belongs on this list is Oklahoma's Dr. Tom Coburn, tagged as "Dr. No" by friends and enemies alike for his refusal to go blithely along with massive spending bills. Coburn believed in conservative ideas and was willing to flout certain Senate traditions to show it, but he was always a gentleman. As American politics became increasingly less collegial in recent years, I noticed that the most hysterical anti-Coburn critics in his first years eventually came to appreciate his willingness to debate and befriend, if not compromise with, senators on the other side of the aisle.
The ill-fated 2020 also saw the death of Herman Cain. Cain was a businessman who aspired to serve his fellow citizens at the highest level but was unsuccessful in his runs for the White House and the Senate. He initially came to prominence as a business owner by publicly challenging Bill Clinton over his healthcare plan in 1994, saying, "If I'm forced to do this, what will I tell those people whose jobs I will have to eliminate?" This appearance helped launch a career as a talk radio host, newspaper columnist, book author, and presidential candidate. It was while pursuing the GOP nomination in 2012 that he touted his 9-9-9 tax plan.
Cain was not the only influential conservative radio host who died in 2020. New York City's Barry Farber, who reportedly spoke 20 languages, was also fluent in the vernacular of the disaffected urban intellectuals who left the Democratic Party. Farber ran unsuccessfully for office twice but scored a moral victory in his 1970 race for Congress by holding ultra-liberal Bella Abzug to only 52% of the vote in her heavily Democratic district.
Like Farber, the country singer Charlie Daniels, who died this year at 83, also tried to speak to regular folks. With lyrics such as "I ain't nothin' but a simple man, they call me a redneck, I reckon that I am," he showed an understanding of how to reach noncoastal Americans long before the recent interest in books such as J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy.
Author Abigail Thernstrom, who died in April at 74, tried to find a common-man approach on issues of race. She started out on the Left but migrated to the Right on the basis of data and analysis, moving away from her early days in a Marxist commune. The key insight that led to her migration, along with that of her husband, the historian Stephan Thernstrom, was her research-based findings that race-based policies had limited benefits for those they were supposed to help, and brought with them significant costs as well. She was never a staunch conservative and long had arguments with people on both the Right and the Left. But she was always winsomely iconoclastic. She used to keep a portrait of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas above her fireplace for a very specific reason: "to make reporters faint."
As if to punctuate 2020's challenges, this past month brought with it three more painful losses: Walter Williams, Bruce Herschensohn, and Ed Lazear. Williams was a libertarian economist who taught at George Mason but was better known as an author, syndicated columnist, and popular guest host for Rush Limbaugh. Like many of the other conservatives mentioned here, he started out liberal but moved in a conservative direction when encountering the realities of the world. As Williams put it, "I probably became a libertarian through exposure to tough-minded professors who encouraged me to think with my brain instead of my heart."
Herschensohn, like Cain and Farber, was a radio personality who was unsuccessful in his attempts to run for public office but successful in getting his message out. He was also a filmmaker, White House aide to Richard Nixon, and a nurturing mentor to younger conservatives such as Troy Senik. Senik recalled in a moving tribute that Herschensohn got him his job as a White House speechwriter by forwarding a paper Senik had written to George W. Bush's chief speechwriter. As Senik wrote, "If your only examples of conservatism in the 1980s were Ronald Reagan and Bruce Herschensohn, you could be forgiven for believing that all Republicans had a low resting heart rate, a quick wit, great hair, and a voice that sounded like God after a glass of wine."
Like Herschensohn, Eddie Lazear was a California conservative who went to work in the White House. He was one of America's preeminent labor economists — his colleague Paul Oyer even said, "He was born to be an economist." Eddie, dubbed "Stork" by his boss, George W. Bush, headed the Council of Economic Advisers during the economic meltdown of 2008 and helped steer the country through the crisis. After leaving the White House, he returned to Stanford, where he wrote compelling and influential pieces in the Wall Street Journal.
The conservatives examined above, scholars and amplifiers alike, can help provide a model for conservatism of how to build things back, and how to move forward. So much is written these days about the splits in the conservative movement, of which there are many. But as 2020 comes to a close, it's worth reflecting on the fallen conservative heroes from years past who helped build a movement — and hold it together.
Tevi Troy is a presidential historian and former White House aide. His latest book is "Fight House: Rivalries in the White House, from Truman to Trump"