The Problem With Being a Popular Conservative
In one episode of the 1990’s television show Friends, Monica, Rachel, and Phoebe sit on the couch at Central Perk, patiently enduring Ross’ atonal electronic keyboard stylings. As his avant garde noise drives away other customers, Phoebe complains that Ross is simply not appreciated in his time.
“I would give anything to not be appreciated in my own time!” she yelps.
To console her, Monica chimes in, “You suck, too.” Rachel adds, “Phoebe, you’re awful.”
“Aw, you guys,” Phoebe answers, hugging each of them.
Conservatives in the public sphere are well aware of Phoebe’s philosophy. In American popular culture, all flavors of right-wingers are treated with enmity during the years of their toil; it is only after they vanish that paeans to their service begin to fill column inches in the traditional media.
Take former President George H.W. Bush, who was nearly universally feted after his death late last year. In an interview that aired shortly before Bush’s death, former President Barack Obama even called Bush “one of the more underrated presidents that we’ve ever had certainly in modern times.” This is a long way from Newsweek openly opining in 1987 that Bush’s greatest challenge was to overcome the “wimp factor.”
In fact, much of the newfound respect for the elder Bush was simply a tool to contrast the “old-style” of Republicanism with the ongoing Trump takeover. Newspapers that would never have considered endorsing Bush in 1988 or 1992 suddenly published vivid prose about his mature brand of leadership.
In 2009, progressive columnist John Nichols waxed rhapsodic in The Nation about former congressman and vice presidential candidate Jack Kemp upon his death, attempting to score points against George W. Bush.
“Among the many tragedies of the contemporary Republican party”, Nichols wrote, “is that the partisans who will honor the memory of former Congressman, cabinet member and 1996 vice presidential nominee Jack Kemp have refused so consistently and belligerantly [sic] to embrace the man’s wisest political insight.”
Nichols said he “knew Kemp quite well, and liked him very much,” but a Lexis-Nexis search shows Nichols mentioned Kemp in 25 pieces he wrote for the Capital Times in 1995 and 1996, and in not one instance did he reference him favorably. He once mocked Kemp as the “pied piper of supply-side economics.”
Obviously, this “newfound respect” applies to political death as well. The second a majority of electoral votes were safely out of Bob Dole’s reach in 1996, he became lovable “Grandpa Bob,” everyone’s favorite grouchy old war veteran. Former presidential candidate Mitt Romney, once ridiculed for having an elevator for his cars, suddenly became a media darling when he shredded Donald Trump in 2016 for the GOP candidate’s intemperance. (Flash forward to the year 2048, when retiring Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh is praised by liberals when his replacement declares Franklin Delano Roosevelt was actually a highly-literate lemur.)
Perhaps the greatest image rehabilitation by an out-of-power Republican has been that of the aforementioned President George W. Bush. Once burned in effigy in the streets for his decision to go to war in Iraq, Bush has experienced a personal renaissance as progressives contrast his folksy style to Donald Trump’s oral pugilism. Now the erstwhile bloodthirsty warmonger has become an avuncular painter and author, doting over his wife and grandchildren and sharing cough drops with Michelle Obama.
Of course, the photographic negative of the Retroactive Republican is the Democrat who suddenly becomes safe to mock and ridicule. Only after the 2016 election were Bill and Hillary Clinton safe to criticize; once the #MeToo movement took hold, liberals miraculously realized the former president was a lecherous sleazeball. In 2017, a mere 16 years after Clinton left office, Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand told the New York Times she thought, in retrospect, that Clinton should have stepped down as president. Just in time!
But for most movement conservatives, the lesson is clear: Stick to your values, make your best arguments, and the second you don’t have any ability to make any actual difference, the media will recognize your contributions to America’s knowledge base. Among our country’s influential tastemakers, the only good conservative is a powerless one.
Just remember the words of director Orson Welles, who, when pummeled by poor press in the later stages of his life, told friend Peter Bogdanovich:
“They’re going to love me when I’m dead.”