op-ed

Whiplash! From JFK To Donald Trump, A Political Odyssey — Book Review

As a college student active in Republican politics, one of the first people I met was a contemporary, actually a few years older. Unlike me, Arnie Steinberg was not a New Yorker, but he had come to New York for what his conservative mentors in Washington had ridiculed as a futile effort – electing Jim Buckley, the brother of the legendary William. F. Buckley, Jr. to the U.S. Senate.

I guess that’s why Arnie saw the Trump election as plausible.  Starting with the ridicule he endured when he came to New York to set up Jim Buckley’s campaign, Arnie has done his share of long-shots.

The election of Jim Buckley, thanks to Arnie and others, inspired me, because it was not just a blow against The Liberal Establishment, but also a frontal assault against the so-called “moderate Republicans” exemplified by New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller and New York’s senior Senator Jacob Javits. Of course, there was plenty of intrigue: President Richard Nixon quietly directed money to the Buckley effort, and the go-between to Arnie, as revealed in the book, was Nixon’s White House assistant Lyn Nofiziger, who knew Arnie when Lyn was Ronald Reagan’s communications director in Reagan’s 1966 campaign for governor, and Arnie was just starting UCLA and was Reagan’s youth co-chairman.

All that seems like a long time ago, I’m sure for him, and definitely for me.  After my precocious entrance into New York politics, during the ensuing decades I became an activist in the national conservative movement and a campaign consultant and, for a time, a lobbyist.  Just as Donald Trump said that his background as a businessman who gave to both sides gave him the background to “drain the swamp,” I can also say that I worked for enough crony capitalists to develop a healthy contempt for them.  And I have come to regard the international/globalist wing of the Republican Party as not good for the party or the country, and I still have high hopes Donald Trump will dump the Republican “leaders” in the House and Senate and kick ass.

Long ago Arnie wrote two graduate texts that pretty much defined modern political campaigns.  But this book is different from many other “political” books because of its unique story-telling style, a personal and honest narrative that shows what I personally also found to be true, the great upward mobility in politics and in the conservative movement.  The author integrates his personal experiences with an ongoing discussion of political machinations, using some illustrative political campaigns, and also with his insights, he instructs about the ins and outs of political strategy, and he explains the intersection of people and policy, how some seemingly random occurrences can be game-changers.

While there is plenty I disagree with, I found much new information in the book. That’s saying a lot, because I’ve been deep in politics my whole life.  You’ll also find  a synthesis of traditional and libertarian conservatism, with an appreciation of Trumpian populist conservatism.  Make no mistake:  Arnie is no unqualified fan of Donald Trump, but he grasps the alienation of many Americans who feel that the economics of globalism has left them behind.   And the author recognized early on not only the deficiencies of Trump’s primary opponents but also the potential of Trump to win the nomination and even the presidency. Indeed, he provided off-the-record counsel to the campaign during the general election.

One reason for his understanding of the Trump phenomenon is that Arnie’s own history with the Republican party is one of rebellion. As the book explains, his roots are libertarian. At a young age he was involved in the Milton Friedman-inspired movement for a volunteer military, and then in the U.S. Senate, working with his boss Jim Buckley, he helped craft the legislative demise of conscription. He was part of Bill Buckley’s transformation from a tough-on-drugs mode into a skeptic and then opponent of the “War on Drugs” fiasco. And almost from the beginning of his career, he took on what we now call crony capitalists.  And he was never a fan of the Republican National Committee and the Republican bureaucracy.

Bill Buckley was one of my heroes.  If you want to know where Buckley would be today, Arnie gets it.   Don’t read National Review, the magazine he founded, with its high-brow, know-it-all-editors who are detached from real people and, besides, they know zilch about winning elections.  What President Donald Trump needs around him are people who have their head screwed on and are into policy, and  people who also are political and into strategy and tactics and are winners.  Arnie repeats that aphorism, that personnel are policy. In Washington we have some policy people and some political people.  This book makes clear that Arnie is that rarity – an intellectual policy guy who can outmaneuver the bad guys politically.

(Even before Congressman Adam Schiff decided to make me Public Enemy #1, Arnie had Schiff’s number long ago, when he defeated the great Jim Rogan. And two years ago Arnie properly ridiculed Schiff’s hypocrisy, as this lightweight partisan Democrat hack argued convincingly about the defects of the Iran deal and then backed it.)

I commend this book to you because of its fascinating tidbits, its use of campaigns to illustrate “how to,” and the way it mixes politics, policy and philosophy.  This is not a book for the casual reader. It is long, packed with information, synthesized but still with diversions.   But you can better understand where we are today, whether you’re looking at the battles in Washington, or on the campuses, or on the streets, by carefully reading how the author has put it all together.  Sadly, we are, in many ways, he points out, worse off now on the campuses than in the sixties.

It is a book by someone who values liberty and, unlike so many in politics and public life, shows a remarkable consistency. It’s clear that the author had hundreds of clients who may not have met his standards for integrity and values, and for them he did his best, usually rationalizing that they were preferable to the opposition.   But all the while, he remained that rarity among political professionals, someone who was in it not for the glory or the money but for ideas.


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