Karl Hess was present at the creation of the New Right: he was a founder of National Review, a Goldwater speech writer in the campaign of 1964, a well-placed employee of the Republican National Committee.
Now, having been purged from the party after the Goldwater deluge, and going through a career as a welder, lecturer, technologist, tax resister, and other useful pursuits, Karl finds himself rather comfortably, though not elegantly, ensconced with his partner and wife, Therese, on a small parcel of West Virginia real estate in a self-built home. From this base of operations he and Therese edit a newsletter, Survival Tomorrow, go to country auctions in search of antiques for resale to wealthy Washingtonians, and practice anarchist living.
Free-lance journalist A. Lin Neumann sat down with a tape recorder and Karl Hess recently to talk about the state of the nation, the state of the right, and what Karl thinks about the current crop in the White House. As they talked, Neumann reports, Karl demonstrated his latest project: learning to print the English alphabet. Just print. It's part of a seminar he attended held by Volunteers in Literacy to America. It seems that when you teach people to read and write, script won't do and a typewriter is downright impractical. So Karl has laboriously relearned one aspect of his ABCs.
"The simplicity of printing," says interviewer Neumann, "contrasted with the difficulty of learning how to print, seemed an appropriate metaphor for the Hess message: it is easy to be free but often hard to exercise that freedom."
REASON: Karl, how did it all begin for you? When did you start to get involved in politics?
HESS: I remember when Roosevelt was elected and my mother, who was a switchboard operator, had the good sense to realize he was a social fascist despite all the good things he said he wanted to do, specifically for people like my mother. She was poor but had once been married to a very rich man. I guess she had views of both worlds. But she understood that he was going to do this sort of stuff at the point of a gun and generally speaking was going to make the middle class pay for it, all of which was true. She thought well; she didn't have access to much information, but she was a good thinker. So I was impressed. By the time I was nine years old I was living with a woman who was politically analytical. These were matters of great concern to her.
We talked about it a lot, and since she had the good sense to teach me to read and write, we read about it a lot. And she was a great admirer of H.L. Mencken, so I read Mencken when I was quite young. She was at the same time an admirer of George Bernard Shaw, so I read the English socialists and the American individualists at about the same time. For a young person, some of the idealism of socialism is very attractive; and if you're guarded by an attention to individualism, this idealism really can't hurt you. Then I read a lot of the then fairly popular anarchists, or libertarians—people like Frank Chodorov. My mother had always discussed with me the notion that the most important person on earth was yourself and this applied exactly to every other person too.
I really didn't like Roosevelt, that whole gang, my sense even as a kid was that he was an emperor of sorts, very elitist. I went to work when I was 15, and by that time I was an absolutely thoroughgoing Republican because the Republicans opposed Roosevelt. I knew that other people opposed him too, but it just wasn't convenient to be a Communist, mostly because I couldn't get to be one. I tried annually to be one, but they wouldn't let me play—too young, too suspicious, I suppose. Well, my mother was a working woman. Why should they trust anyone from a working-class family? And she hadn't graduated from high school, as I didn't.
I did get to be a socialist—a Norman Thomas Socialist. It was because I thought the ideals were just great, but when you go to a few socialist meetings and you discover that the ideals, which I thought had to do with the importance of the individual, are to be put into action by extinguishing the responsibility of the individual and replacing it with corporate power—corporate political power, in effect—then it's not so good. So I stopped being a socialist and just became a regular Republican but with very definite libertarian leanings. I thought they were shared by most Republicans, but they certainly weren't.
I went to work for the Republican National Committee—I forget how old I was then, but I was just a teenager. That was in the time of Dewey. It was mainly that anyone who opposed Roosevelt seemed pretty good. By the time I got to be an official grown-up, the Republican Party was pretty well divided into a tiny minority of old Taft-type conservatives and libertarians—people like Frank Chodorov and others—and the new big-business, Cold War faction of the party. By the time Eisenhower knocked off Taft, the idea of the Republican Party as pro-individual and pro-enterprise was pretty much over with. But by that time the Cold War was so popular that those seemed almost trivial matters.
I think you'll find in the progress of a magazine like National Review, which I helped found 25 years ago, that in the early issues there was a considerably stronger influence of libertarians. There was some room for individualism. But as the Cold War progressed, all of that ended. National Review, like all of the conservative movement, became a collectivist enterprise. Specifically, the national interest superseded the interest of the individual, and the definition of efficiency overpowered the definition of enterprise.
REASON: What were the ideals behind the founding of National Review and what's now called the New Right?
HESS: It was wholly anticommunist, and it still is.
REASON: The basis of your participation was anticommunism as well?
HESS: Sure, anticommunist. Anybody who doesn't dislike the Soviet Union is sort of dippy. It's a really detestable place, and it's easy to crank up a lot of dislike for them. It just sweeps you away, and after awhile you don't talk about anything else.
REASON: Who were the prime movers? Who really bounced things along in the early days?
HESS: I would say two, and only two, of any great interest. William F. Buckley, Jr., and William F. Baroody, Sr., the founder of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI). Baroody was probably much more important. He was actually more thoughtful and had more of a vision beyond anticommunism. AEI, which was founded in the late '40s, early '50s, is the fountainhead of the New Right and the most important part of it. It is also very serious; it's very reputable; it does good work. In other words, if the New Right is to have an intellectual base beyond the simple theology of hating the Soviets, or hating communists, or hating Marxists, it will come out of AEI.
REASON: In 1964 it was essentially AEI and company that captured the Republican Party?