A Firing Line conversation with Frank Meyer biographer Daniel Flynn
There are times in the affairs of men when you need a Frank Meyer. This may be one of them.
Meyer, an editor of this journal from 1956 until his death in 1972, was the man who more than any other was responsible for the shape — the intellectual contours — of the modern conservative movement. His approach was called fusionism, by which he intended that conservatives should fuse their two rooted and irrepressible impulses, the one a love for tradition and the other a hunger for personal liberty. To Meyer, these were not impulses in conflict. Nor were they just traits that might be expected to exist congenially within a conservative temperament. Meyer believed that they cohered: that in combination they could produce a rounded and synergistic codependence, and thereby become a guiding disposition for conservatives of different stripes.
Meyer came to fusionism at the end of a long and twisted road. He had spent his youth — misspent, if you insist — as a Communist. In the cold eyes of his party bosses, he was a good Communist. He could mix it up with the best parlor dialecticians even as he out-hustled them on the streets and out-organized them in the beer halls. Meyer was still in his twenties when the CPUSA handed him responsibility for training all cadres in Illinois and Indiana. But then came the Hitler–Stalin pact, and the ideological whiplash it produced, followed by credible reports of horrific conditions inside the Soviets’ workers’ paradise. Meyer was shaken, and then stirred to deep reflection.
When they broke with the party — Frank’s wife, Elsie, was also a well-lettered and committed Communist — the Meyers feared reprisal from hit squads and retreated to a rural area in the mini-mountains north of New York City. Frank withdrew his modest inheritance and bought a house in the small Catskills town of Woodstock. (A master tactician, Meyer was not at his best in this instance. Woodstock, a notably progressive town, was home to more than a few Communists.) Frank stood guard at night, slept with his rifle during the day. Elsie stayed close to home, grew her own vegetables, made do. Soon they had a son, John, and eight years later a second son, Eugene, named for Frank’s drinking buddy, Eugene O’Neill Jr. Before anybody had thought to coin the term, the Meyer boys were homeschooled. The family survived.
After an anguishing transition, Frank began to thrive in his new, ex-Communist life. (Nobody had thought to coin the term “working remotely,” either.) He spoke, he wrote, he argued. If an ideological tussle broke out anywhere on the right, or the near-right, or even the conceivably-right, Frank Meyer could routinely be found in the middle of it. He networked in the Meyer mode — feverishly. And he soon made a place for himself at the upstart National Review, both as a featured columnist and as editor of the culturally influential back-of-the-book section.
That was his day job. Along about midnight each day, he took up his real job of building out a national political movement. His chosen instrument was the telephone, and his long calls in the small hours of the night were both urgent and unavoidable. If there was a right-leaning scholar, journalist, or activist anywhere in the country for whom he did not have a home telephone number, it was probably because Meyer reckoned he or she could not help the coalition “get to 51,” which was the central objective, indeed the obsession of Meyer’s life: the piecing together of an electoral majority for fusionist conservativism. (Raising a young family at the time, I confess that I once congratulated a senior ATT executive, himself a closeted NR fan, for “solving the Frank Meyer problem.” Ma Bell had just introduced caller ID.)
For those in Meyer’s constantly expanding circle, the question in moments of ideological mayhem . . . moments such as the current one, we might add, in which so many of us seem to have contracted a case of what gymnasts call the twisties . . . for us on the conceivably-right the question was always “What would Frank say?” I ask that question still.
In Frank’s absence, I have turned to the best-informed source on all matters Meyer. Daniel Flynn is by now two years into research on a full-length Meyer biography. A decorated author and widely published journalist, Flynn is perhaps best known these days for his crackling daily newsletter for The American Spectator. (If your own mornings are insufficiently caffeinated, you might give it a try.) What follows is a lightly edited version of our exchange.
Disclosure: Daniel Flynn’s book on Frank Meyer will be the third in a series of biographies I have financed of “first generation” leaders of the movement. The first, on William A. Rusher (If Not Us, Who? by David Frisk) and the second, on L. Brent Bozell Jr. (Living on Fire by Daniel Kelly), have been published in recent years. The Meyer book, as well as forthcoming volumes on M. Stanton Evans and Willmoore Kendall from different authors, are works in progress. I note for the record that, beyond serving as an occasional source, I have no editorial involvement with these books.
Freeman: Just as a scene-setter: What would Frank, returned to Earth, think of our current unrest, and especially of the urban dystopia? Would he think he was seeing the Sixties all over again?
Flynn: Frank Meyer of Woodstock, an early exemplar of urban flight, would see the slow destruction of cities by criminals and their enablers as a declaration of war. The Sixties likely caused a reassessment of his 1958 observation, “Never, perhaps, has the intellectual imagination been held so tightly within a straitjacket as in these enlightened times.” Our current Carrie Nation approach to tobacco, for instance, would likely inspire Frank to return to the Sixties, or to any age when one could enjoy a cigarette with a Scotch at the bar.
Freeman: Agreed on both counts. Smokes and adult beverages were necessities of his life. Let’s talk a little politics. Would Frank be despairing of America’s future, or hopeful that he could work his fusionist magic once again?
Flynn: Fusionism defined the conservative movement from, say, the Sixties to the Nineties, and it translated into political success. It does not now. Looking at the expansion of government, one is tempted to shout, “Fusionism: Now More Than Ever.” One imagines that Frank would see much of what passes for conservativism today as more heresy than principle. [Meyer’s long-running NR column was slugged “Principles and Heresies” — NBF.]
Freeman: Frank was an eminently practical idealist. How would he craft a winning fusionism for today’s environment?
Flynn: Frank and Elsie homeschooled their children. One could see critical race theory animating the Meyers the way it does so many suburban parents. Nor can one imagine a man as under-socialized as Frank Meyer responding obediently to the commandments of social justice. And although I see a man educated at Princeton, Oxford, and the London School of Economics rebuffing conspiracy theories, I cannot picture him wearing a mask in his study. A winning fusionism today probably still centers around the broad themes of libertarianism and traditionalism. It would just need to address the changing situation.
Freeman: You mention that Frank was the product of elite educational institutions, to which I would add the University of Chicago. Why then, in your view, was he so in tune with, and so confident in, the plainspoken wisdom of Middle America?
Flynn: The elite educational institution that attuned Frank to that plainspoken wisdom was the U.S. Army, which he joined against the wishes of his Communist bosses. Realizing that the proletariat he encountered in the barracks did not conform to the proletariat he encountered in Communist theory accelerated his break from the party.
Freeman: Then I have to ask: In recent months several prominent Republicans have said that the GOP should become “the workers’ party.” After Frank had gagged on his cigarette, how would he have responded?
Flynn: I think Frank essentially wanted a freedom party. When the Republican Party represented something other than that in New York, Frank stood with the Conservative Party. When Nixon met Frank’s dim expectations for him, Frank became one of the Manhattan 12 [who withheld support from Nixon in 1972 — NBF]. Frank supported the Republican Party when it served as a vehicle for conservative ideas.
Freeman: It has become settled lore within the NR circle that Frank was the man of principle and his archrival, James Burnham, the man of pragmatism. Burnham himself said of Frank that “he was never one to confuse truth with popularity.” After full immersion in the period, will you be rejiggering the settled lore?
Flynn: The fact that Burnham came to conservatism as a Trotskyite intellectual and Meyer as a Stalinist Jimmy Higgins helped shape them as shapers of the postwar Right. Burnham seemed more at home writing and editing. Meyer, in almost Forrest Gump fashion, shows up in almost every conservative group formed during the Sixties. If Frank could be cantankerous and argumentative, he also showed himself to be gregarious in a way that Burnham, described as “standoffish” by many I’ve interviewed, did not. Frank did serve as the Right’s, and NR’s, conscience in those years. Burnham, a more persuasive talker and achieving greater prominence long before he entered NR’s circle, held profound influence over Buckley and the magazine. Frank, in his own way, did, too. And ultimately, his influence on the movement fostered by the magazine proved far greater than Burnham’s.
Freeman: For those who want to know more about Frank, what’s the place to start? I know that he was proud of his book In Defense of Freedom, and on some occasions, at least, regarded it as his magnum opus. Buckley certainly did, once saying that “it goes further than anything I have seen to develop a conservative metaphysic.” Good place to start?
Flynn: Yes. In Defense of Freedom served as a guidebook for conservative thinking more than any other book of the post-war renaissance save The Conscience of a Conservative. Frank deftly threaded the needle that stitched together freedom and virtue, by essentially saying that the former served as a precondition of the latter. “Unless men are free to be vicious they cannot be virtuous” strikes me as a difficult argument to rebut.
Freeman: Would Frank have preferred to be governed by the first 2,000 names in the Boston phone book or the faculty of Harvard University?
Flynn: Some might wonder if, given the choice between Harvard eggheads and Sean from Southie, Frank would want to be governed at all. In his slim magnum opus, he identified protecting individuals against force and fraud, adjudicating disputes, and national defense as proper functions of government. “But since this institution must possess a monopoly of legal physical force,” he writes, “to give it in addition any further power is fraught with danger; that monopoly gives to the state so much power that its natural functions should be its maximum functions.” He believed in government, limited government. As the Sixties unfolded, his muted “law, order, and tradition” side became more pronounced in the NR column. One imagines Frank recognized that the ambitions for government of both Harvard Yard and the L Street Gym went beyond his own.
Freeman: I knew Frank only for the last decade of his life, but my own regard for him was captured perfectly by Buckley when he said, “The old man has held his ground, and enough years have gone by to encourage a feeling towards him which lies somewhere between admiration and reverence.” I know it’s too early for you to draw final judgments, but are you tending in that direction?
Flynn: If you do not search for the good in a subject, you risk writing about caricatures rather than characters. I always try (sometimes I aim to strive to try to attempt) to find something admirable in the people I write about. When writing from a 1,400-foot mountain about another conservative who wrote from a 1,400-foot mountain, the effort to identify does not prove as difficult. A conservative researching Frank Meyer conducts genealogy as much as biography. Meyer’s presence at the creation of so many institutions — National Review, Young Americans for Freedom, the Conservative Party of New York, the Philadelphia Society, American Conservative Union — that made up the skeletal frame of the conservative movement means that he lent his political DNA to those who followed. People revere the ancestors, right?
Freeman: Thanks, Dan.