We all had our youthful indiscretions that haunt or amuse us for the rest of our lives. Mine was conservatism. Sometime late in high school, I fell under the spell of Milton Friedman and Bill Buckley, and about the first thing I did when I got to college was join the Party of the Right (POR). I didn’t last long in the party, only about a year. I got tired of all the pompous rituals, and political sanity returned, bringing me back to the left from which I’d started.
Looking back, I can only explain it as a perverse form of adolescent rebellion. But since membership is “for life at least,” I’m still on their mailing list. For years, I’d been meaning to check out their annual banquet. When I joined in 1971, “movement conservatism” was marginal everywhere, especially on campuses. Now things are very different, with laissez-faire economics revered around the world and the United States run in a fashion that a National Review editorialist could only have dreamed of a generation ago. And since this was the POR’S fiftieth-anniversary banquet, it promised to be an exuberant affair. So last December I sent for a pair of tickets at $75 apiece, and circled February 1 on my calendar.
The POR is one of the parties within the Yale Political Union, a debating society modeled on its Oxford namesake. Most Political Union members are perceived by outsiders as earnest and even dorky, but the POR is the only party that achieves serious levels of weirdness. Not the kind of weirdness famously catalogued by Orwell, who lamented socialism’s appeal to “every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer” and the rest. Members of the POR wear black tie, not sandals, and the surroundings are posher than Orwell had in mind. But a POR meeting is something truly extraplanetary.
I’m getting ahead of myself a bit. The site of the festivities was the Quinnipiack Club, an establishment whose taste for oil paintings of hunting dogs was evidence of its Anglophile aspirations (despite its location in downtown New Haven). Pre-dinner drinks were unremarkable; I chatted up a few student members and some alums, who seemed quite happy with the Bush Administration (despite some reservations about civil liberties). But for a gathering of presumed political junkies, the conversations (even the overheard ones) were remarkably apolitical.
Even when we were seated at our assigned tables, politics still took a back seat to the awkward chitchat one makes with strangers. I spent much of the dinner speaking with the neighbor to my right (of course), an engaging painter whose favorite artistic subjects are bruised limbs and severed heads.
But things really livened up once the mediocre food was cleared away and the toasting session began. A POR toasting ritual is organized around a “green cup”–a large silver cup filled with a vile green punch. The first toaster is always the current chairman (so called even though the current officeholder is a woman), who began with the traditional reading of the speech given in 1649 by the party’s hero, King Charles I of England, just before his head was lopped off by an executioner. It’s strange enough that American conservatives would support a monarch against the claims of Parliament, but the speech is even stranger: “I must tell you that the liberty and freedom [of the people] consists in having of Government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in Government, Sir, that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clean different things.” Having performed her task, the chairman passed the cup to her right (of course), to another officer, who performed the ritual recitation of the British monarchs, starting with Egbert. So much for the Declaration of Independence.
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Rightward passage of the green cup continued, and the content of the toasts evolved from the odd to the repulsive. There were toasts to: the Catholic Church (inspiring some hisses from the Episcopalians); the “brotherhood” of the POR; the “possession of absolute truth,” which is one of the “incidental perquisites” of party membership; to the murder of Ben Linder, the American Sandinista sympathizer who was killed by the Nicaraguan contras in 1987. The toasting was interrupted to sing an apparently well-known song, “Stomping Out the Reds.” Toasts resumed: to the Crusades; to the “British empire and its American successor”; and to the prospect of building “a Basilica in Riyadh, and a cathedral in Mecca.” The last prompted a call from the audience, “What about Jerusalem?”
Which brings up another issue about the POR–its indulgent affection for some of the worst regimes ever. One toaster joked that the POR chairman when he first joined “really looked like a Nazi,” which provoked chortles. But the Nazi question is never far from the surface. During my time in the party, we all went to a screening of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Not that the POR sympathized with the Nazis, of course–it was all just good fun. But there was more fun to be had with Nazis. There was an old Yale song that people stopped singing during World War II, because its tune was a dead ringer for the old Third Reich favorite, “Die Wacht am Rhein.” But the POR sang it with a transgressive smile.
Another pet regime of the party was the Confederacy–for states’ rights reasons, of course. I recall frequent citations back in 1971 of “John Caldwell Calhoun” (the use of middle names is de rigueur in POR discourse)–as a political thinker, of course, not as a defender of slavery and owner of slaves. At the dinner, tablemates reminisced warmly about their undergrad fondness for tearing down the shantytowns that students had built as part of a campaign to get Yale to divest from South Africa-related stocks. Not that POR wreckers supported apartheid, of course–their objections were aesthetic. Shacks are so unsightly amid ivy and marble.
A lot of liberals and leftists think of the loony right as ill-educated denizens of the backwoods. But the POR is strong evidence to the contrary. Many members are scattered through the professions, where the harm they can do is limited. But many others inhabit think tanks, newspapers, judgeships and public offices. (Just a few examples from my era. Walter Olson is a Manhattan Institute fellow famous for spreading horror stories about the “excesses” of litigation, as part of the campaign to protect Corporate America from lawsuits by injured workers and customers. Author Richard Brookhiser poisons innocent minds with screeds like “Left-Wing Peaceniks Make Love To Saddam.” And the party boss during my era–a “sometime chairman” in POR lingo–Grover “Rocky” Rees, has just been posted as the first US ambassador to East Timor; during the Reagan years, he picked reactionary pro-lifers that Ron could nominate to federal judgeships.)
As one of the toasters vowed, at the dawn of the third millennium, the “international Party of the Right shall be the party of the human race.” Take a drink, and pass the cup to your right.