From Blowing Rock, N.C., to Mobile to Atlanta, Highlands, Asheville, Chapel Hill and Lexington, Va., I did lectures based on my recent memoir to attentive, friendly, mainly older audiences.
On its face, my story doesn’t appear to be a compelling one for conservative audiences: A narrative of how a small-town Alabama boy developed a liberal outlook as he encountered history in the civil rights movement and from knowing some of the major figures of the past 50 years.
In fact, the friendly chairman of the Blowing Rock Country Club lecture series scoured the membership list to identify people he suspected might be Democrats. He found six and put them in the front row to give the author comfort.
The audience of largely Republican retirees was one of the biggest crowds who listened intently and asked thoughtful questions. Since the body of the book represented a long, dramatic period in the lives of the audience, they were reliving their own lives through the eyes of a front-line observer. Revealed history discourages partisan feelings.
I can imagine Republican giants such as Dwight Eisenhower, Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, Secretary of War Henry Stimson and the administrator of defeated Germany, John J. McCloy, being comfortable with a similar lecture in the Blowing Rock club.
Later in life, McCloy used the Latin word “Gravitas” to describe the kind of men worthy of the public trust. “Gravitas,” he said, ‘‘did not imply…least of all, a style or school of thought. It means a core, a weight of judgment and honest appraisal.”
Weighty judgment and honest appraisal vs. ideology? Hmmmmm.
These men were chosen for positions of high public trust — not to mollify the party’s so-called base — but for qualities of character and solid judgment. Stimson served as secretary of war or secretary of state for Republican and Democratic presidents.
As the tour went on to more liberal audiences in Chapel Hill, Highlands and Asheville, there was an elegiac tone to the questions as if those audiences had possessed something rare and admirable that is lost.
Their solemn mood was in reaction to a series of radical actions by a Legislature that seems to be dominated by a Tea Party psychosis. They call themselves conservative but they seem more bent on tearing down than conserving.
The Republican majority has cut one-half billion from education, removed the protection of tenure, freezing creativity and controversy in the classroom; they have restricted voting rights where Democrats were competitive, threatened punishment for parents who allow their children to vote in liberal college towns such as Chapel Hill, and formally denied science by making It unlawful for the state to use data on coastal hazards from a panel of marine scientists, geologists and engineers.
All this was transpiring against a backdrop of the deal Tea Party Republicans in the U.S. House were offering: deny health insurance to 30 million people or we’ll shut down the government.
That is where the country and the Mid-South were as we headed to what we were told was one of the most conservative campuses, Washington and Lee. It was a high point due largely to the well-organized charm of Pam Luecke, director of the Journalism Department.
These are the self-described values of the university:
“Washington and Lee University provides a liberal arts education that develops students’ capacity to think freely, critically, and humanely and to conduct themselves with honor, integrity, and civility. Graduates will be prepared for life-long learning, personal achievement, responsible leadership, service to others, and engaged citizenship in a global and diverse society.”
Another fine tradition of W&L we experienced immediately, friendliness; no one passes another person without speaking. Josephine and I knew we were in a friendly place within the first hour on campus.
When we visited the popular, sharp youngish president, Kenneth Ruscio, I told him I experienced there a sense of high conservatism, one that knew exactly what values were worth preserving and why.
He and I agreed that only conserving would make the university a lifeless museum. He put it in an interesting phrase, “You’ve got to adapt. If you want to keep things as they are, some changes will have to be made.”
As an example, this “very conservative” campus has a well-funded, interdisciplinary program on poverty.
Leaving a campus named for two men who knew what they were conserving, Washington and Lee, I concluded that there is high and low conservatism.
The U.S. House and the North Carolina General Assembly as well as the Alabama Legislature could benefit from the high conservatism of W&L.
H. Brandt Ayers is the publisher of The Star and chairman of Consolidated Publishing Co.