Michael Novak and Charles Krauthammer: Two liberals who blessed the conservative movement with their conversion

Published by Noemie Emery in the Washington Examiner on December 31, 2013  Beginnings and ends of the years are for counting our blessings, and this year we have two -- Michael Novak and Charles Krauthammer -- who have given us books, Writing from Left to Right: My Journey from Liberal to Conservative and Things That Matter: Three Decades of Passions, Pastimes and Politics, both of which are about things that do matter, and both of which track the same starboard swing.

 Each came to politics from a different profession (the priesthood and medicine), each lost a brave brother (to murder and cancer) and each began his career as a liberal writing for Democrats, only to end as a conscience for the modern conservative movement, a transition detailed in these works. 

Now 80, Novak, who calls himself a "conservative temperament pushed to the left" by the Vietnam War and governmental mendacity, worked in 1968 for Robert F. Kennedy; in 1970 and 1972 for Sargent Shriver, and through him George McGovern, whom he admired more than the campaign run around him, which he found "disturbing" and a sign of the trouble to come.

 In 1976, he supported Scoop Jackson, as did Charles Krauthammer, about 15 years younger, who a few years later would leave medicine for The New Republic (then the best political magazine in the country), leave TNR to write speeches for Walter F. Mondale, and then, when Mondale lost office, for TNR again. 

He began his new gig the day Reagan took office, and, describing himself as a "Cold War liberal," spent his time there trying to infuse the spirit of Truman and Kennedy into the post-Vietnam War party, which he gave up as a lost cause soon after, loyally refusing to vote against Mondale but secretly hoping that Reagan would win. 

He was four years behind Novak, who in 1980 attended a dinner of defense-minded Democrats at which Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan asked who was thinking of voting for Reagan, and nearly everyone raised their hands. Krauthammer and Novak put little trust in our "vacation from history" from 1989-2001, when we seemed to be without enemies, understanding that it was anti-historic and would certainly end, as it did. 

"How do you go from Walter Mondale to Fox News?" Krauthammer says people ask him, and his answer is, "I was young once." 

What he means is that liberals' plans, which work well on paper, seldom work well when put into practice, which tends to emerge over time. Krauthammer says he succumbed to "empirical evidence," meaning the change between Carter and Reagan, which Novak describes in detail: "The facts of America's rapid revival forced me to change," Novak tells us, from the Democrats' nostrums of welfare and handouts to the conservatives' goals of new jobs. 

He saw the social good brought by the small business explosion, the technology boom, spurred by the capital gains tax cuts, the tide that, as Kennedy promised, lifted all boats. The numbers of the poor fell off and incomes rose, among them those of married black families. Social goals came about through sound fiscal policies. This wasn't supposed to grow out of conservative theories. But then it did.

 Democrats, Novak says, speak more often and better of the needs of the poor, but since the mid-1960s, their efforts to help have frequently been counterproductive and the conservative methods of job growth plus the efforts of civil society have worked better. Small-state conservatism began with Goldwater, who lost, and didn't begin to win big nationwide until it won over those who supported and voted for Johnson, who gave up on the liberals' means of enactment, but didn't give up on their goals. Listening to these former liberals, now when it matters, just might help it win big again.

Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families." 


Noemie Emery, a Washington Examiner columnist, is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard and author of "Great Expectations: The Troubled Lives of Political Families."