The making of a Republican revolutionary

Say hello to the real driving force behind the GOP. And he isn't Bob Dole

Published August 12, 1996 10:15AM (EDT)

In October 1967, on the day the New Left stormed the Pentagon, Tim Carey began to think like a Republican. He was poor and Irish Catholic and from a family that had voted Democratic since the days of Al Smith. But as a military policeman on that afternoon, peering across a flimsy rope barrier at contemporaries who were smoking pot and burning draft cards while enjoying college deferments from the same draft that had captured him, he recoiled from liberalism.

It was a transformative moment for Carey, who is now a senior appointee in the Republican administration of New York Gov. George Pataki, and typical of a dynamic new breed of Republican. After his discharge, Tim attended the State University of New York at Albany, and fell in with a group of young Republicans who called themselves the State Street Gang. They were the children of a butcher, a janitor, a carpenter, a warehouse manager, a scrap-metal dealer and a farmer who doubled as a school bus driver -- of parents, in most instances, of unshakable Democratic loyalty. Carey's mother was a Democratic poll-watcher; his grandmother was a Democratic committeewoman.

Out of that cadre emerged men and women who would figure prominently in the conservative revolution, the field troops for Ronald Reagan and George Bush, Jack Kemp and Alfonse D'Amato. As a field representative for the Republican National Committee, Tim Carey would help elect Pataki as governor of New York, as well as Christine Todd Whitman as governor of New Jersey and Rudolph Giuliani as mayor of New York.

Surely, Tim Carey was not who the Democratic pollster Patrick Caddell had in mind when, during the Carter presidency, he espoused the idea of "generational politics." By Caddell's thinking, the millions of baby boomers radicalized -- or at least liberalized -- in the late 1960s would ripen into a voting majority for the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of Watergate, a brief reversal of the nation's conservative drift, it was possible to believe he was right.

And if the septuagenarian Bob Dole loses resoundingly, as the polls predict, to that quintessential boomer, Bill Clinton, it is tempting to misread history yet again. Every time the Dole campaign emphasizes their candidate's heroic record in World War II -- a conflict that ended 51 years ago this month -- it underscores that Citizen Dole is also Senior Citizen Dole.

But it is neither coincidental nor quirky that Dole's director of communications, John Buckley, was himself a rock critic for the now defunct New York alternative weekly, Soho News. And he worked with Tim Carey both in Lewis Lehrman's gubernatorial race against Mario Cuomo in 1982 and in Jack Kemp's 1988 race for the Republican presidential nomination. Two other members of Dole's inner circle, campaign manager Scott Reed and strategist Vin Weber, were also young protigis of Kemp's.

Win or lose in November, Dole will likely be seen as the last remnant of the quintessential, 1950s, small-town Midwestern Republicanism of Robert Taft. But the Buckleys and Webers and Reeds and Careys will remain -- the latest in wave after wave of young activists who have driven the conservative movement in the party and in the country as a whole. As controversial as the New Right's stands on certain social issues continue to be, its libertarian views on reducing government and cutting taxes now cross party lines in their appeal to younger voters.

That movement was born of insurgents in their 20s and early 30s. John Buckley's uncle, William F. Buckley, Jr., created the ideological base of the New Right with his magazine "The National Review," which he founded barely out of college. Two of his contemporaries, William A. Rusher and F. Clifton White, led a conservative ascendancy in the Young Republican Federation in the late 1950s. White, who led the successful campaign to draft Barry Goldwater for the GOP nomination in 1964, had an approach to politics that sounded more like Tom Hayden than Tom Dewey: "Power started in the streets," he wrote, "and filtered up to the top."

The Young Republican Federation served through the 1960s and 1970s as a training ground for conservatives, replete with camps, schools and internal elections. Rather than follow a messianic figure, as young Democrats did in the forms of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern, their Republican peers learned how to operate a political party, the better to seize its controls.

One of Tim Carey's comrades in the State Street Gang, Frank Trotta, attended a Republican camp for New Yorkers as a teenager. His counselors included Roger Stone, who would later hold leadership positions in the Reagan and Bush campaigns, and Terry Dolan, who later became the director of the National Conservative Political Action Committee. From them, Trotta imbibed a brand of conservatism so irreverent and audacious that it made being square seem positively subversive. To the tune of "Yellow Submarine," the campers sang:

"We all live in a welfare state

New York State, New York State

We all share a socialist fate

socialist fate, socialist fate."

The use of a Beatles tune for a conservative chant is instructive. Michael Kelly, writing in The New Yorker, characterized the GOP's 1994 sweep of Congress as the "revenge of the nerds." Indeed, the partisans of the State Street Gang acted conventionally during the counterculture -- joining fraternities and sororities, drinking beer instead of smoking dope, aspiring to marriage. This sense of being alienated from one's own generation has invested the conservative movement to this day with an underdog's impassioned sense of aggrievement.

At the same time, the New Right also learned from the New Left's tactics and rhetoric, particularly appropriating its distrust of government. During high school, Frank Trotta saluted an equally conservative classmate with a clenched fist and the cry, "Power to the individual!" A few years later, he printed buttons advising, "Make Love, Not Laws." The very forces of ideological purity tearing at the Republican Party, most notably on the abortion issue, resemble nothing so much as the uncompromising elements of the New Left, those that arguably cost Hubert Humphrey the 1968 election.

Even if Bob Dole meets a similar fate in November, it remains clear which version of the 1960s has prevailed. Yes, Norman Mailer received a Pulitzer Prize for writing a book about the siege of the Pentagon, a book that celebrated it as the day the anti-war movement threw off its "damnable mediocre middle." But that middle, so abruptly spurned, would soon be occupied and turned rightward by the Tim Careys of the country.

This is the first of three articles on the Republicans and Democrats by Samuel G. Freedman.

Quote of the day

Pissing in the wind

"This is really not a bad economy. It's nothing for the Guinness Book of Records, but it's not a bad economy. And it's sustainable. . . It's certainly performing in Clinton's favor."

-- Murray Weidenbaum, former chief of the Council of Economic Advisers under Ronald Reagan. (From "The Outlook: Brisk Economic Winds Blow in Dole's Face," in Monday's Wall Street Journal)

By Samuel G. Freedman

Samuel G. Freedman, a professor of journalism at Columbia University, has written for Salon since 1996. His new book, “Breaking The Line: The Season in Black College Football That Transformed the Sport and Changed the Course of Civil Rights,” will be published in August 2013.

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