Opinion: What ever happened to thoughtful conservatives?

Posted: Thursday, May 22, 2008

Don't read this column yet. First, I want you to do something. Google "Chris Matthews + Kevin James." This will bring up video of the latter, a conservative L.A. radio pundit, being questioned by the former last week on MSNBC's "Hardball." You "must" see this video.

For the Internet deprived, here's a recap: James goes on "Hardball" to comment on a speech President Bush gave before the Israeli Knesset in which he accused unnamed politicians - read: Sen. Barack Obama - of a policy of appeasement toward terrorists. Bush evoked the memory of Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister whose attempted appeasement of Adolf Hitler made him one of the more thoroughly discredited figures of the 20th century.

James goes off like fireworks, blasting Obama's willingness to talk to the nation's enemies and accusing him of policies detrimental to Israel. And Matthews asks him a simple question: What did Chamberlain do? You're defending a speech that equates Obama with him, so what was his sin?

James couldn't answer. He could bluster, sputter and spread fertilizer like a gardener, but he couldn't answer. This became painfully obvious each time Matthews doggedly repeated the question.

What Chamberlain did - he gave Hitler a chunk of Czechoslovakia in exchange for what he thought was "peace in our time" - is not some "Jeopardy!" obscurity. It is, rather, a pivot on which turned perhaps the bloodiest tragedy in human history. Yet Kevin James knows nothing about it.

If anything more aptly symbolizes the regression of conservatism since the age of Reagan, I am not aware of it.

Some will say it's unfair to paint thoughtful conservatives with the same brush one uses to tar this blowhard. I would suggest the very need to use that modifier speaks volumes.

There was once a day when conservatism was driven by principles: smaller government, less-intrusive government, strong national defense, fiscal sobriety. But in the years since that day, the putative heirs to Reagan have trampled not just those principles, but also principle itself.

The ideology that wanted small government now presides over expanded government, the one that wanted less intrusion now seeks to regulate bedroom behavior, the one that demanded strong national defense has run the military into the ground, the one that championed fiscal sobriety turned a $236 billion budget surplus into a $400 billion deficit. And if thoughtful conservatives see the disconnect, if they have the intellectual integrity to find it shameful, the newsflash is, thoughtful conservatives no longer predominate their ideology.

No, that honor goes to unthoughtful conservatives, the loud, proudly ignorant voices of talk radio, books and television of which Kevin James is now the poster child. Matthews kept asking him to explain the sins of Neville Chamberlain and he kept crying, "appeasement! appeasement!" clinging to the words like a drowning man to a raft.

That's what people like him do. They are geniuses at rhetoric ("War on Christmas," anyone?) that rouses the rabble and lets them feel aggrieved, while simultaneously having the intellectual heft of cotton balls. But they can no more step beyond that rhetoric than Gilligan could step off his island. There is no there there.

Still, every once in awhile, one is required to stand and deliver. His inability to do so says everything you need to know about James and his brand of conservatism.

During the MSNBC interview, his opposite number, Mark Green of the liberal Air America radio network, gave James some advice: "When you're in a hole, stop digging." James, whose station, KRLA, might want to rethink its slogan - "Intelligent. Conservative." - did not listen.

So I figure he's halfway to China by now. If we're lucky, he'll take the other unthoughtful conservatives with him.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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