How Mr. Kenilworth Got His Wings
The Elliott Abrams story, as told by Sidney Blumenthal in The Rise of the Counter-Establishment
Who are the young neoconservatives? "Well," said [Norman] Podhoretz, "there's my son-in-law." For Podhoretz, neoconservatism had become a family-run dry cleaners. There is his wife, Midge Decter, a one-woman lecture series on the evils of women's liberation, nuclear disarmament, and the sixties. ("As far as making the bed is concerned," she once wrote, "I plead guilty to thinking it right and proper a woman should do so.") Her blunt opinions lifted her to the board of the Heritage Foundation and the directorship of the Committee for a Free World, a neoconservative sect funded largely by the Olin Foundation. The committee's newsletter, Contentions, is edited by the Podhoretzes' son-in-law Steven Munson, the former public-relations aide to Ambassador [Jeane] Kirkpatrick. And it is characterized by ad hominem attacks on the Podhoretz family's perceived ideological enemies. Then there's Elliott Abrams, who... in the second Reagan term became Assistant Secretary of State for Latin American Affairs, where he became the chief promoter of military aid to the Nicaraguan contras.
"Norman tends to take positions in an extreme way," said [Nathan] Glazer. "He's a romantic. Neoconservatism's identification with a tough foreign policy is almost entirely Norman and Midge and their in-laws and relatives."
"Norman and Midge are the golden couple now," said Abrams, shortly after the 1980 election. "It's strange."
The shadow leftism of young neoconservatives like Abrams does not have its emotional center in the 1930s. Instead, they are obsessed by the sixties, when, unlike their mentors, they could withdraw into their own society. They could not escape their peers; but by attaching themselves to the Counter-Establishment they hope to defeat them.
"I'm sorry, but John Lennon was not that important a figure in our times," said Abrams a week after Lennon's killing. "I do not believe he created the culture of the sixties. Come on! I've actually formed a political opinion of this. Why is his death getting more attention than Elvis Presley's? Because Lennon is perceived as a left-wing figure politically, anti-establishment, a man of social conscience with concern for the poor. And, therefore, he's being made into a great figure. Too much has been made of his life. It does not deserve a full day's television and radio coverage. I'm sick of it."
Elvis's demise, of course, was hardly ignored by the press. Abrams's insistence that it was reveals his political assumptions, a parochialism characteristic of neoconservatives bred in certain insular New York circles and perhaps a resentment against perceived slights.
"My parents were strict," he said. "Everybody went to a movie, and I always had to call home at nine-thirty. I don't think I'm the worse for it. I went to my high school reunion and I saw wreckage. A startling number of talented people -- waiters, bookstore clerks. It's awful." Were these the people who didn't have to call home?
When Abrams graduated, he entered Harvard. (He later attended Harvard Law School, and during his second year he rented the top floor of Nathan Glazer's house.) He was on the cusp of his generation, precisely the right age to be fully affected by the fusion of politics and culture in the sixties and to be fully self-conscious about it, neither too old by a few years nor too young. In 1968 -- before the assassination of Robert Kennedy, before the harrowing Democratic convention, before the fall campaign -- you people chose sides against the Johnson administration. Many were attracted to the cool intellectualism of Eugene McCarthy, many were attracted to the heated existentialism of Robert Kennedy, and many disdained and despaired of all hopeful possibilities. Abrams supported Hubert Humphrey. He was, in fact, national chairman of Campus Americans for Democratic Action, founder of the Harvard chapter, and an ex-officio member of the national ADA board. "I quickly discovered that CADA was a paper organization, in which anyone could immediately rise to the top. So I did." after he declared for Humphrey, he attended his first national board meeting in Washington. "I arrived all excited and delighted and happy." As he recalled, the first person to approach him said, "Resign!" He was, he said, "diselected," booted out of office for the Humphrey heresy. "It didn't change my feelings about liberalism," he said. "It changed my feelings about liberals. I thought I was doing the right thing. The ADA liberals were doing something very wrong. I was one of the people to drop away from what we called the New Left. I was at that tender age in the vanguard. No sooner did I enter than I left. There was no sense of past loyalties or friendships gone. I was so new to it."
Yet his experience placed him in opposition to his peers, making him an outsider. "If you are my age, you broke with your generation," he said. "While everyone was up in arms over Vietnam and involved with the youth culture, you didn't share it; you reacted against it. I spent a good portion of my time in college working against SDS. There aren't many of us. We have a feeling of swimming against the tide. You feel isolated, embattled."
"Elliott's still living in the world of the 1960s, where Harvard is about to be destroyed by revolutionaries, who happen to be his fellow students," said one of his friends. "He has a deep and abiding resentment about what went on and he sees it in all sorts of inappropriate contexts. He sees about half of the Democratic Party as SDS taking over University Hall. I would describe it as a fication in the past. But Elliott's no lunatic. It's not a weirdness waiting for an ideology to happen. He just doesn't see how times have changed in any way. Why has he been fixated? I'm not sure. He was not the only person affected this way. It's a political ideology he became a part of."
Working for Reagan was something about which Abrams had no ambivalence. "I was especially for Reagan because he had a harder line than any of the others," he said. Abandoning the Democratic Party was no hardship. "The conclusion I come to is that the Democratic Party for the foreseeable future is not the right place for neoconservatives. The Republican Party is. Either the Democrats will stay with the big-government/weak-America policy or they will begin to say 'me, too,' rather than being on the frontiers. Neoconservatives will probably, most of them, end up as Republicans. There isn't any reason to stay in the Democratic Party these days."
His longest statement of principle was a contribution to a forum of young neoconservatives published on the eve of the 1980 campaign in The American Spectator. He wrote:
Grant that injustice, poverty, disease, and war are in part simply endemic to the human condition, and in fact the result of ignorant or mistaken or evil acts by individuals and a very different result emerges. Where liberals see "problems," neoconservatives see "conditions."
Problems can be solved, but conditions are a result of human nature, even perhaps conditions like human-rights violations.
On the cover of this special issue of The American Spectator was a cartoon of his father-in-law, Norman Podhoretz, clutching a saber and leading the charge.