“Moderate Republicanism” seems to many people today to be a contradiction in terms. But during the 1960s and ‘70s, not only were moderate Republicans a force in electoral politics, but moderate Republicanism also became a significant political movement. The leading moderate Republican activist group of that era was the Ripon Society.
Emil Frankel co-founded the Ripon Society in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1962. In this podcast discussion, he relates how he modeled the organization after the Bow Group in Britain, which was a pragmatic research and policy group of young Conservatives. He describes how young Republicans in his era were influenced both by Dwight Eisenhower’s moderation and John F. Kennedy’s youth and energy. The sometimes contradictory impulses of the era came together in the formation of the Ripon Society. Ripon, named for the Wisconsin town that historically has been considered the birthplace of the Republican Party, also played a leading role in Republican support for civil rights legislation during the 1960s. This set it against the conservative movement led by Arizona Sen. Barry Goldwater in the struggle for the soul of the Republican Party.
Frankel also talks about his service as Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation and as Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation. He laments the disappearance of the moderate tradition in Republican politics but explains how remaining moderates are making common cause with some of their former conservative foes in the effort to preserve American liberal democracy.
Emil Frankel: So we need to find a way to preserve these values, to be committed to institutional preservation, the rule of law, but also to recognize that we need to develop pragmatic solutions to real public problems in a way that preserves institutions and traditions.
Geoff Kabaservice: Hello! I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled, moderate majority of Americans, drawing upon history, biography, and current events. And I’m delighted to be joined today by my friend Emil Frankel, who is a senior fellow with the Niskanen Center. He has had a long and storied career across a number of disciplines, but among his distinctions are that he was Assistant Secretary for Transportation Policy at the U.S. Department of Transportation from 2002 to 2005, Commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Transportation from 1991 to 1995, and co-founder of the Ripon Society. Welcome, Emil.
Emil Frankel: Thank you, Geoff. A pleasure to be here.
Geoff Kabaservice: I should also add that this is the first podcast interview I’ve done in person with anybody since the inception of “The Vital Center.” This has been very much a pandemic project to this point. I have to give a little bit of explanatory background about the Ripon Society. The organization still exists here in D.C. — and not to date you, but it’s coming up on its 60th anniversary — but it is a very different organization now from what it was when it was founded by you and John Saloma back in December of 1962. Basically, the Ripon Society in those days, when you founded it in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was a moderate-to-progressive Republican activist group, which is not the set of contradictions that it might now appear. And the Ripon Society was at the core of my book on the moderate wing of the Republican Party precisely because if you’re writing about politics, you need activists to give life and color to your account. And Emil, you in particular really informed my research and thinking about the Republican Party and moderate politics during the 1960s. It is no exaggeration to say that I couldn’t have written my book without you. So thank you again. Before we get to talking about the Ripon Society, can you just tell listeners something about where you came from and what some of your formative influences were?
Emil Frankel: First of all, thank you very much for doing this podcast and allowing us together to talk about the Ripon Society. You’ve written the definitive history as an important part of your book, and I can only add some personal notes in many ways to that. I grew up in Connecticut in Fairfield County — in Fairfield, Connecticut actually. And really most relevant to our discussion, I became quite interested at an early age in American history, American politics. And when I was in high school, I became involved, as a teenager, in the Eisenhower campaign. Dwight Eisenhower was a hero of mine, not only because as a military leader, but as I began to kind of learn and associate with that brand of Eisenhower Republicanism, it really came to characterize, frankly, the rest of my life and the rest of my involvement in American politics, including up to this day. He remains in many ways a beacon of the kind, not only obviously his unbelievable leadership during the Second World War as the commander of American forces in Europe, but really the kind of politics with which I was, for whatever reason, most comfortable.
When I went on to college, I majored in essentially American history, and I did quite a bit of work. As I think you wrote about, my senior honors thesis was about, if you will, what I’ll call the reform tradition in the Republican Party, obviously starting with its founding and Lincoln and T.R. and many other figures, Eisenhower and so forth. And as I became engaged in politics — in campaigns to some degree, but really more thinking about politics and trying to influence policy — this strand of moderate, Eisenhower, pragmatic, centrist Republicanism really came to characterize my whole approach to thinking about political issues.
Geoff Kabaservice: I can’t remember if I asked you this before, but how had your parents come to be in Connecticut?
Emil Frankel: Well, I’m the grandchild of immigrants — Hungarian Jews on both sides, actually. And I’m not sure exactly… My father’s parents ended up in Connecticut because my paternal grandmother, whom I never knew, had a family in Waterbury, Connecticut. Although they were primarily in Bridgeport, my father spent almost all his life, except for a short time in Waterbury, in Bridgeport. And my maternal grandparents ended up… My maternal grandfather, as I think I probably told you, was a baker, and a very smart and industrious man. And somehow or other, he ended up running a Hungarian-Jewish bakery in Bridgeport, Connecticut. And my parents… My mother essentially spent her entire life in and around Bridgeport. I mean, they moved to Fairfield, which was then a suburb of Bridgeport, if you will. But essentially my parents spent their entire life there as immigrant families by happenstance and family connections, I suppose.
Geoff Kabaservice: My mom grew up in Stratford, Connecticut. Bridgeport was the big city for her. It subsequently fell on hard times, shall we say.
Emil Frankel: Yes.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you went to Wesleyan University…
Emil Frankel: I did.
Geoff Kabaservice: Did you overlap there with Douglas Bennett, father of the current senator from Colorado, who later served as president of the university?
Emil Frankel: Yes, I did. We weren’t classmates. Doug was two years ahead of me at Wesleyan, and I knew him throughout his life. And I was on the board of trustees when he was selected to be the president of Wesleyan in the mid-to-late 1990s. He was an extraordinary man, as are his sons: James, of course, who’s a very distinguished journalist and Senator Michael Bennett. Michael actually was a student leader, I might say, at Wesleyan when I was on the board. And so my familiarity with Senator Bennett, who I think is one of the great senators currently, for many reasons. But my knowledge and personal connection with him go back to his days as an undergraduate at Wesleyan.
Geoff Kabaservice: You actually wrote a piece for the Niskanen Center website in September 2019 called “The Fall and Possible Rise of Moderate Republicanism.” And you echoed what you more or less just said, which was that the Republican Party’s “ethics and style in the 1960s were very much those of Eisenhower himself: civility, tolerance, and the ability to build strong coalitions across partisan ideological and social lines through negotiation and compromise.” And yet the Eisenhower presidency during the 1950s would’ve seemed to have had a kind of fuddy-duddy image, and perhaps be a force for conformity in American life. So you had actually mentioned that part of your Republicanism was also a sense of contrarianism.
Emil Frankel: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Can you explain a little more about that and how you reconciled the image of Eisenhower with your beliefs, which were those of a younger person?
Emil Frankel: Well, there were kind of two elements of that. Being contrary, I suppose, was… I’m not sure when it really formed. I don’t really remember whether it really formed in my high school and college years. But being Jewish, the association which remained so strong between the American Jewish community —75% of American Jews, give or take, consistently support Democratic candidates, Democratic presidential candidates — so being a centrist, pragmatic Eisenhower Republican was definitely out of the current. And that’s true for some other close friends and associates in our group.
This is in some ways responsive to the point you raised, the contrarianism. I think an important part, as we get into talking about the Ripon Society, is… As connected as I felt to the Eisenhower presidency and to the Eisenhower the hero of America, you’re right — I mean, it’s associated and still associated by historians with the silent ’50s, and suburbanization, and all the other things we associate with the 1950s. And there’s much truth to that. But one of the motivations of us in founding the Ripon Society, frankly, was not only to try to give meat and meaning to centrist or moderate Republicanism and that strain, if you will, but in some ways a reaction (almost consciously so) to the Kennedy presidency.
I think all of us, at least subconsciously, maybe not articulated, but really wanted to capture in a Republican context the style, the verve of Camelot, if you will. I don’t mean the substance of the Kennedy presidency and the new programs of the New Frontier, but really the style of Jack Kennedy, to give appeal to young people and a place that they could associate and people with whom they could associate within the Republican Party.
Geoff Kabaservice: So after Wesleyan, you went to Manchester University in Great Britain as a Fulbright Scholar, and it was there that you got interested in the Bow Group. Can you tell something about what the Bow Group was then?
Emil Frankel: Just to step back a little, my project — I assume it’s still the case — we all had to have projects, and my title more or less was “The Relevance of the Conservative Party to the American Republican Party.” So I was doing research, and essentially my studies at Manchester were primarily British political history, “modern.” Of course, “modern” for the Brits is anything since 1300, but I was really quite focused on the 19th– and 20th-century Tory Party.
In the course of doing my research, I became aware of the Bow Group, which as you have described in your book… The Bow Group was a group of younger Tories, some of them (but not all of them) MPs. Many of them subsequently became Members of Parliament. Young professionals, academics, business people whose purpose, maybe motivated in some ways… The leadership of the conservative party at that time had been essentially associated with the wartime leadership. The prime minister when I was a Fulbright scholar was Harold McMillan — one of my heroes, actually, but nonetheless, a little bit of the Eisenhower-era image in this country, although hugely successful. I mean, as we’ve pointed out, both of us, the Conservatives, although partly through wartime leadership, had been in power for quite a long period of time — 20, 30 or more years.
But they still, these younger Tories wanted to give meat to relevant programs and policies, all very pragmatic. I mean, it was a policy orientation, research, analysis, the development of pragmatic policies, which were relevant to the Conservative tradition — which of course one might argue is a tradition primarily of gaining and holding power, but nonetheless consistent with a conservatism of British politics, but in a pragmatic, activist kind of way. I interviewed several people who were leaders and active in the Bow Group, and it increasingly occurred to me that maybe this was relevant to the Republican Party, that there was an opportunity for a group like the Bow Group within the Republican Party to aim and try to achieve the same thing, as different as American and British politics are.
Emil Frankel: I might say, there’s a tradition… I think I’ve mentioned this to you before. One of my best and most memorable interviews actually was with Shirley Williams, who was then the executive director (or some similar title) to the Fabian Society, which was a much older group, obviously, but with a similar kind of goal within the Labour Party. Of course, she went on to a great career as a member of Parliament, as a cabinet minister, but very much associated with the pragmatic, centrist tradition — non-ideological, if you will — of the Labour party, of British social democracy. And she, of course, eventually broke away with three or four of her colleagues to form a new party.
Geoff Kabaservice: That’s right. Actually, some of the early chairman of the Bow Group were people who went on to positions in Tory cabinets, like Michael Howard, Norman Lamont, Geoffrey Howe…
Emil Frankel: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: Something that you wrote for Advance Magazine (which we’ll have to talk about) in March 1962, was about how the Tories were what you called, in the subtitle of this article, “The Conservatives Who Win.” And in fact, they were much better than American Republicans were at that point at being a popular party. And you had an interesting observation here, which is that in some sense the Conservative Party had created its own base by funding private housing — small but inexpensive housing — into which working-class people could move, and then that kind of made them into Tories. And it was sort of a combination of conservatism and innovation. But you also did say that the Bow Group was helping to make the Tory Party a group that was not just putting forward attractive candidates, but also a party that stood for something, that had a program that it could enact and went to voters with that program, and they could reject or accept it based on the strength of those policies. And that was not something that so much distinguished American Republicans at that time, let’s say.
Emil Frankel: Yeah. We’ll talk about this a little bit more. I know… Even though there were people in the Republican Party throughout the country who sought the same kind of goals… Tangentially, the housing, which as you said sought to turn working-class people into Tories, was in many ways the brainchild of Harold Macmillan. Before he was prime minister, he was housing minister and many other cabinet positions. And that very expansive housing program was very much associated with Macmillan…
Geoff Kabaservice: Macmillan and R. A. B. Butler.
Emil Frankel: Yes. They were contestants for the prime ministership, but nonetheless each in different ways representative of a tradition that, the more I learned about it, was kind of the tradition that I wanted and the kind of the purpose that I hoped we could achieve within the Republican Party — and with it, political success on a consistent basis. I mean, we were after all following eight years of the Eisenhower administration, but the Eisenhower administration was a parenthetical phrase in the midst of a long Democratic New Deal rule from 1932 essentially until 1968.
Geoff Kabaservice: And of course, although no one knew it at the time in the early ’60s, Republicans would not get a majority in the House again until the 1994 election.
Emil Frankel: Right. Exactly.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you actually wrote, like I said, for Advance Magazine. How would you describe what Advance Magazine was?
Emil Frankel: Well, I became aware of Advance when I was at Wesleyan. The leaders of Advance were Bruce Chapman, who went on to a very distinguished public career, and two suitemates at Harvard College, both of whom were key members, founding members of the Ripon Society, with whom I became associated when I returned from my year in the United Kingdom. They were Tim Petri — Thomas Petri — who was a longtime, 30-some-odd-year Congressman from Wisconsin later in his career; Gene Marans; and George Gilder, who also went on to — not necessarily a progressive Republican or moderate Republican career, but nonetheless… And Advance was the vehicle among young people for talking about exactly this kind of Republicanism. It paralleled very much the purposes that I had in mind even as an undergraduate at Wesleyan. And I came up to Cambridge and spent time with Bruce and Tim and Gene and George, and did some articles for Advance Magazine. And as we’ll talk about, I’m sure, Bruce was really in many ways the facilitator for putting people together that formed… Although he was not himself active in the Ripon Society, he was the person who really connected many of us who founded the Ripon Society.
Geoff Kabaservice: So you started at Harvard Law School in the fall of 1962.
Emil Frankel: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: And I understand that Advance actually relocated from the Boston area to Washington, D.C. at about that time.
Emil Frankel: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: So this left kind of a gap organizationally for people who wanted to be involved in a more moderate-to-progressive Republican party.
Emil Frankel: Yeah, I think that’s true, although we didn’t have a conscious sense that we were filling the gap or taking the torch from Advance Magazine. It had moved to Washington, for obvious reasons. And as I said, Bruce was not himself engaged in the Ripon Society, but he was absolutely critical. I mean, it was through Bruce that I met Jack Saloma, a brilliant young political scientist at MIT, who had his own relationships and may indeed… I’m not even sure myself, but he may indeed have done some writing, editing for Advance Magazine. But Bruce knew him, and Bruce put me together with Jack. I and Jack shared a lot more knowledge and imagination about the task ahead of us within the Republican Party, and equal commitment, and quickly adopted the goals that I hoped we could achieve by establishing this kind of a group.
Geoff Kabaservice: So Jack Saloma at least soon thereafter became a professor of political science at Tufts University. And he’s been gone now…
Emil Frankel: 30 Years.
Geoff Kabaservice: 40, closer to it, I would say. He died very young, comparatively speaking, of AIDS. How would you explain who he was to people who didn’t know him?
Emil Frankel: Well, as I said, he was a political scientist when I knew him. And in the early years of the Ripon Society he was at MIT, so we had proximity. Many of the rest of us were either Harvard graduate students (like Lee Huebner) or law students (like John Price, Tim Petri, and Gene Marans). And I remember going down and spending time in his office, and he had developed his own ideas about what… John Price just recently reminded me that Jack was much more aware of what was going on within the Republican Party. Again, as we’ll talk about, at the same time that we had the motivation to establish an organization like the Ripon Society — an American Bow Group, if you will — these were the really formative years of what I’ll describe as movement conservatism, which essentially captured the soul and mind and organization of the Republican Party over the next 20, 30-plus years.
Emil Frankel: Jack was very aware, very engaged in those issues. He had served here as not an intern but a research person on a congressional staff. He was very much connected with staff and some members of Congress particularly. And he may indeed have served on staff, on a visiting basis, with Tom Curtis, who was a wonderful, creative, pragmatic Republican Congressman from Missouri. So Jack was very, very much aware of that.
Geoff Kabaservice: He interned both for Curtis and also for Massachusetts Republican Senator Leverett Saltonstall, who was another well-known moderate.
Emil Frankel: Right, exactly.
Geoff Kabaservice: And so it would seem that there actually was a bit of a division even between you and Jack Saloma about what this new group ought to do. Because he was very much of the idea that there should be a political cadre organization working to push a moderate agenda to defeat conservatives, and your idea was more on the analytical and policy side, I think. Am I right about that?
Emil Frankel: Yes, absolutely. There was, I don’t want to say… It wasn’t in tension. You know, when organizations form like this, or groups form like this, there are differences, but they’re submerged in a sense of common purpose. And that was clearly the case. But Jack was always much more oriented, and there were others within the organization particularly in the second generation… I think it’s fair to say the first generation came to include Doug Bailey, another well-known figure, who went on to a great career as a political consultant. But the initial drive, I think, was more in terms of research, policy analysis, articulating policies. But there was a very strong commitment from the beginning, which I think became increasingly important as we went through the 1960s and into the 1970s, particularly with the second generation of leadership, much more oriented to activism, reforming the Republican Party. The Ripon Society later — not initially, but later — did quite a bit of work in terms of recommendations about reforms in party rules as well as other electoral reforms. And Jack was always much more oriented with that. And as you said, Geoff, he I think saw the Ripon Society as a place that would develop activists who would be involved in politics, seek office. And of course, some did — Petri obviously is the best example.
Geoff Kabaservice: Marty Linsky served in the Massachusetts state legislature…
Emil Frankel: Marty Linsky and others.
Geoff Kabaservice: Chris Bayley served in Washington State…
Emil Frankel: Right, Chris Bayley was active in Washington politics and became District Attorney for King County.
Geoff Kabaservice: So how did you and Jack Saloma write and then circulate the proposal for an American Bow Group?
Emil Frankel: Well, you probably know the answer to that better than I. I do remember this was even before copying machines, so I spent a lot of time typing and mimeographing. I can’t remember the actual formation. What I’m much more aware of, because I was quite engaged in it, was recruiting people, finding out that there were people who shared interests. And there was, if this doesn’t sound too elitist, a lot of people knowing other people. John Price sat behind me in my Civil Procedure class in my first year in law school, and somehow John and I got involved in a discussion and I found out he was interested and considered himself a moderate Republican, so I invited him to join us. As I said, Tim Petri and Gene Morans were early recruits, obviously, because of their connection with Advance.
And Bruce and Tim Petri had done Boys’ State and Boys’ Nation with Lee Huebner. And so Lee, who was a graduate student and went on to a Ph.D. at Harvard in history, was an early recruit. I got to know Marty Linsky through law school and his subsequent campaign for the state legislature in Massachusetts. So there was a lot of that. And I can’t remember… Somebody knew Doug Bailey, who was studying under Henry Kissinger. Kissinger actually was an early speaker to the Ripon Society. So it was a kind of set of… Chris Bayley, another one, people knew him from because Chris had been quite involved in Republican politics as an undergraduate at Harvard.
Geoff Kabaservice: Chris, in fact, had gone to war against Howard Phillips, who was a conservative whose proudest achievement at that point was to have pulled Fidel Castro’s beard when he spoke at Harvard in the early ’60s. And they both warred for leadership of the Harvard Republican Club.
Emil Frankel: Exactly. Anyway, so the organization was formed in that way. And Jack had a set of academic relationships and political relationships, and we drew people into the society in that way.
Geoff Kabaservice: Again, it’s probably worth pointing out that Harvard in December of 1962, when this group met for the first time, was widely identified with the Kennedy administration. Kennedy of course was a Harvard graduate himself and had drawn a lot of Harvard graduates and faculty into his administration — even in fact McGeorge Bundy, who’d been Dean of the Faculty at Harvard and was now his national security advisor. And also Harvard, at that point, was also in the first wave of — well, it was the folk music movement at that point, but clearly the counterculture was already present at that point, as were progressive politics of the kind that later would lead to the formation of Students for a Democratic Society. So again, there’s a bit of a contrary aspect to a Harvard Republican group at that point.
Emil Frankel: Yeah, no question. And yet there were these two strains. One was the contrarianism of being responsible, thoughtful, pragmatic, imaginative Republicans, which to a lot of people in and around Cambridge, Massachusetts seemed to be a contradiction in terms. But we were also, as I said earlier, very much at least subconsciously wanting to replicate the Kennedy vision, the Kennedy style within the Republican Party, believing that that was a way to attract other young people to the Republican Party as a political matter. And of course I think really we got our voice, and one of our very early and probably the earliest prominent statement we issued was in the wake of President Kennedy’s assassination, in which we articulated what we stood for and an association with what was lost with President Kennedy’s assassination in terms of a style of political leadership, that politics is a noble profession. And we also wanted to capture that, again in a Republican context. So there was, I don’t want to say an opportunity, but I think we felt a very, very strong need to speak out for the first time in a prominent way, very shortly after president Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963.
Geoff Kabaservice: In terms of the Harvard context also, a statement that appeared in a later Ripon publication was that “We were tired of apologizing to the world of ideas for being Republicans, and to fellow Republicans for being interested in ideas.” I think that captures it pretty well. Did you have any associations with Henry Kissinger at that point?
Emil Frankel: Well, I didn’t. Doug Bailey was, I don’t want to say a protege. I don’t quite know. He was studying under Kissinger. And as I said, Kissinger, I do remember, was invited, was an early speaker. We would meet over dinner at a particular restaurant in Harvard Square. And then we’d invite people to that. Sometimes maybe the Faculty Club even. But in any event, Kissinger was a speaker. I’m sure Doug had invited him. And of course, many — John Price in particular, but there were others who became more associated with Governor Nelson Rockefeller’s campaigns for the presidency in ’64 and ’68. And of course Kissinger, before he was Richard Nixon’s national security advisor, was Nelson Rockefeller’s foreign affairs advisor for many, many years. And so there was the Rockefeller connection with Dr. Kissinger as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: Pretty quickly the name “the American Bow Group” was dropped in favor of the Ripon Society. Where did that name come from?
Emil Frankel: Well, as I understand history, and you’re the historian, particularly of the Republican Party… Two places claimed to be the birthplace of the Republican Party in the 1850s. One was Jackson, Michigan and the other was Ripon, Wisconsin, in a schoolhouse in Ripon, Wisconsin. We quickly rejected the idea of being known as the Jackson Society…
Geoff Kabaservice: For obvious reasons, yes.
Emil Frankel: And of course, Congressman Petri… not yet Congressman, but Tim Petri and Lee Huebner were both from Wisconsin, and they urged that we adopt Ripon. Obviously we needed to move away quickly from the idea of the Republican or American Bow Group. So the Ripon Society name was adopted in honor of one of the claimed birthplaces of the Republican Party.
Geoff Kabaservice: I was interested to see, in the minutes of the very first meeting of what became the Ripon Society, that there was a rejection of the idea of trying to become a moderate counterpart to the conservative activist group Young Americans for Freedom that had been founded two years before. So already at that point there was a conscious step away from that model of conservative activism.
Emil Frankel: Yes, no question. And I’m not sure I would describe myself or even our initial group as “activists,” Although as I said this strain became much, much more important. I think Jack Saloma really felt strongly that we should. I don’t remember that particular debate. But there was a real focus on trying to articulate statements, which all of us shared, that we needed to be a voice of a pragmatic tradition, obviously going back to Abraham Lincoln. We again — it was wanting to adopt the style of Jack Kennedy and the substance of Abraham Lincoln.
Geoff Kabaservice: There was an interesting quote at the end of your 1962 piece in Advance Magazine on the Bow Group. And you said, “There’s another lesson for the Republicans to draw from the British Conservative Party. The Tories put the lie to the idea that a conservative party must merely obstruct or veto the proposals of others. A conservative party need not merely react, it can also act on its own initiative. Indeed it must if it is to survive as a viable force in its society.” And a conservative party, you said, “can formulate policy and move forward in a way that is to the best interest of the society of which it is composed. And perhaps only a conservative party can do so. For we live in a time when almost everything in society requires conservation in the face of the unprecedentedly destructive forces that confront mankind today. And I think in that context, it’s also worth remembering that this kind of idea of a one-nation Toryism was very compatible with the idea of a pro-civil rights Republican Party, which was the other main motivating factor of the creation of the Ripon Society in the first place.
Emil Frankel: Yeah. I would say first of all, in response to… My guiding principle, as I think back myself to when we formed the Ripon Society, was the great line from The Leopard: “To preserve, we must change.” That to me captures exactly what we were about, and really what, when it existed, this Eisenhower tradition of centrist-pragmatic, responsive and responsible Republicanism was all about. Again, as I think back, I’m not sure we consciously… Although this was the time of the civil rights movement, in the early and mid-1960s, I’m not sure that that was the reason we formed the Ripon Society. It quickly became obvious that it was one of the driving forces, and one of the major contributions we could make currently — not just over the long run in terms of changing the Republican Party, but really influencing Republican policies and actions currently. And of course, that built on the other part of this, which is the Lincoln tradition. For us, it was so clear that the Republican Party needed to be the leader in the legislative response — and the policy response, the governmental response — to the civil rights movement in the late 1950s and 1960s.
Of course, under President Eisenhower there had been important moves. In retrospect, some historians would say that Eisenhower wasn’t proactive enough in civil rights. But there were the first movements: the civil rights bill passed in the late 1950s, and of course Little Rock, the integration of Central High School in Little Rock, with President Eisenhower federalizing the national guard to protect black students entering Central High School. And so there were the beginnings. Herbert Brownell, who was Eisenhower’s attorney general, was deeply committed to civil rights and protecting civil rights and pursuing them as part of the Eisenhower tradition. So the combination of Lincoln/Eisenhower began to be a very, very strong influence in the work we did, and really ran through the statements that we made that were increasingly dominated by Lincolnian ideas of freedom. And books have been written about Lincoln and the second American revolution — the completion, as Lincoln put it, of the drive for freedom which is captured in the Declaration of Independence.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think you are correct that civil rights was sort of a sub-theme for much of the early Ripon Society. But it was there even in the formation of Advance Magazine, which to some extent grew out of Chapman and Gilder’s attempt to put on a Republican sit-in at the Woolworth’s in Boston in solidarity with the Southern sit-in movements. And actually Gilder and Chapman also went to Nelson Rockefeller to request funds for a Republican freedom ride, and were turned down. But there was some element of that there even then.
And also it’s worth pointing out that Tom Curtis, for whom Jack Saloma had interned, in October 1962 wrote what was probably the earliest version of what became the Civil Rights Act of 1964. And both he and William McCulloch of Ohio, the ranking Republican member of the House Judiciary Committee were extremely active in civil rights at a time when the Democrats mostly weren’t. And I’d like to quote from “Washington,” the memoir of Meg Greenfield, who was the managing editor at the Washington Post. She was writing about coming to Washington in the late ’50s and early ’60s, and said: “At that moment, the principal force truly committed to taking immediate action against the kinds of crude racial repression still officially in place seemed to be, of all things, a bunch of Republicans, many of them nationally unknown.” And there were some people like Jacob Javits and Clifford Case in the Northeast, as well as Tommy Kuchel in California, who were well known for speaking out in behalf of civil rights. “But far more intriguing and, frankly, at first incredible to me,” Greenfield wrote, “was that the effort’s most tireless organizers and/or communicants were a few generally conservative Midwestern House members, notably Tom Curtis of Ohio and Bill McCulloch, a white-haired, conventional Republican in his sixties from the small town of Piqua, Ohio.”
“And these people,” she continued, “were staffed by young men who were subsequently to take off in wildly different ideological directions and make their own names in public affairs and Republican politics: Bruce Chapman and Steven Horn and Lee Auspitz and George Gilder. But then they were mere kids with a cause.” And yet they actually believed and were fervent about acting in a way that even liberal Democrats were not at that point. And Greenfield concluded that “Their unrelenting pressure was wonderful and an invaluable help in keeping the subject alive and keeping some of those who should have been helping, but weren’t, at least fairly nervous. This small band of gung-ho Republicans did finally shame some of their Democratic colleagues into support. And decisively, when the tableau of Alabama fire hoses being turned on peaceful demonstrators changed the political landscape and civil rights legislation finally stood a chance, they were there and ready.”
Emil Frankel: Yes. I didn’t know him or work for him, but from my own knowledge of the period the great unknown hero of the civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s was Congressman McCulloch, a conservative Republican, as you said, from a small town in Ohio. And the civil rights legislation never would’ve gotten through without him. And of course we all repeat the obvious that both the ’64 and ’65 Voting Rights Act had more Republican votes than Democratic votes. Of course, I understand this was the time of Southern Democrats…
Geoff Kabaservice: The big asterisk is “proportionally,” as opposed to absolute numbers. But yes.
Emil Frankel: Right, exactly. But to go back to the Ripon Society… Although you articulated Bruce’s ideas, understandably, about activism and freedom rides and so forth, we were focused primarily… And Gene Marans really led this effort particularly. Lee Huebner and Jack Saloma really articulated it in many ways. Gene did the nitty gritty work of helping Republicans like Congressmen McCulloch and Curtis. And I think it leads to an understanding of how different the Republican Party of that time was. These strains between conservatives and “liberals,” if you will, within the Republican Party go back, some might say, to the beginnings of the Republican Party. The Republican Party in its formation — as, again, you know far better than I — was a coalition of interests and ideological impulses: Whigs and Know-Nothings and anti-slavery Democrats. So this idea of a coalition was built into the very beginnings of the Republican Party. Lincoln’s brilliance as a politician was the capacity to bring those interests together and to build a strong coalition around it, and that continued. There were tensions — T.R.’s tensions when he was president, and of course the victory of Eisenhower in the ’52 convention over Taft.
But there was a long, long list of Republicans — in the House, in the Senate, and governors — with whom we could work, and whom we could give support. I was fortunate enough to have worked for Senator Javits. He clearly was one of the great leaders of the civil rights legislative movement, but it included many, many others: Ed Brooke of Massachusetts; John Chafee of Rhode Island; Chuck Percy of Illinois; importantly, John Sherman Cooper and Thruston Morton of Kentucky; Tom Kuchel of California; McCulloch; John Lindsay of New York. One could go on and on. These were people we could connect to. They didn’t necessarily represent all the Republican Party, and they had their own tensions and fights which went on in the Republican Party, obviously captured in the contest between Goldwater and Rockefeller for the ’64 nomination. But that made a huge difference.
So in thinking about the Ripon Society and an American Bow Group, if you will, there were people we could look to and reach out to. I’m sure that was probably true of the Bow Group. I mean, Harold McMillan was the ultimate pragmatist and really was… Although people think of him as this kind of fuddy-duddy, old fashioned, aristocratic Tory, which he was, he was also quite “liberal” in his public policies and his political career going back to the late 1930s. So the Bow Group had people they could connect to, and so did we. That’s all gone. All gone, over a period of time. But it was very significant through the ’60s and ’70s and into the early 1980s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Most people of your generation remember where they were on November 22nd, 1963. Where were you?
Emil Frankel: Well, if the building still is there, I could take you to the table I was sitting at in the dining hall at Harvard Law School. We were a group of us. I can’t remember all of them: I think John Price, Ned Cabot (a fellow no longer alive), and others of the Ripon Society. We were planning on going the following weekend to New Hampshire to campaign for Governor Rockefeller in the New Hampshire primary for the ’64 nomination.
One of the people in our group left a little early and came back to the table to tell us that he had just heard President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas. We all quickly went out. Ned Cabot was handicapped — he’d had polio as a child — so Ned had a prized parking place right near the dining hall. And we went to Ned’s car and sat in and around Ned’s car as he turned on the radio. And we heard the news and heard the famous announcement by Walter Cronkite that President Kennedy had passed away. And so I have a very clear memory of that, as do other Americans who were alive on November 22nd, 1963.
It’s a subject of another discussion, but I’ve often thought that Kennedy’s assassination was a real turning point in American politics. It may or may not have been for substantive reasons; I mean, obviously President Johnson went on to enact the principles of the New Frontier and then the Great Society. But at least in a spiritual sense, to me, November 22nd, 1963 really represents a transition point in American politics. It’s never quite been the same for me, and I don’t know whether others would feel the same way.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think a lot of people would feel the same way. As you said, the assassination of Kennedy was a deep shock. But it also inspired Ripon’s major manifesto, which came out in December and was entitled “A Call to Excellence in Leadership: An Open Letter to the Next Generation of Republicans.” I like that manifesto, partly for its defense of moderation, which I guess Huebner and Saloma, principally the authors, defined as “not a full-blown philosophy proclaiming the answers to all our problems, but rather a point of view, a plea for political sophistication, for a certain skepticism to total solutions. The moderate has the audacity to be adaptable.” A great quote. But also running through that manifesto is a clear division with the emerging conservative movement, which was coalescing around Barry Goldwater’s presidential candidacy, which called for an absolute rejection of a Southern strategy that would sacrifice the Republican heritage of civil rights in order to get the votes of conservative white Southerners. And clearly that was what was going on nationally at the time as well.
Geoff Kabaservice: I did an interview with you 15 years ago, and it’s always very helpful when you’re doing a podcast interview if you can have prepared the groundwork 15 years earlier, so to speak. But you said then, “Our passionate opposition to Barry Goldwater was based almost entirely on his vote against the 1964 civil rights bill. It was a moment of truth, and Goldwater failed the test on a matter where the party had to take a moral stand.”
Emil Frankel: Yes. I think for many reasons, obviously in the wake of the assassination and your quotes from that statement, it really captured what we were about, which is this determination to achieve politically and morally, if you will, the pragmatism and responsiveness to real problems, the development of constructive policies with what appeared to be what John Kennedy represented, which was a style of politics; that politics was creative and innovative in a noble cause. And so I think both of those were captured in and heavily motivated that statement.
But as we went on, as I said, civil rights more and more became, first of all, a way for us to work and to issue statements in our own right and do research and analysis, but really to work with people in the trenches — people in Congress, in state houses — on advancing civil rights. And although I think many people came to think of us as just being against Goldwater’s “conservatism,” and there were other issues — national security issues and the future of Social Security. But as you said, quoting from our earlier discussion when you were working on your book, what really motivated us and what really we found unacceptable — in terms of Goldwater and the Goldwater support and what the Goldwater movement represented — was his opposition, his vote against the Civil Rights Act of ’64.
It’s interesting, and I would love to have a conversation with those movement conservatives… Bill Buckley — and you would know this better than I — I think later in his life said that he regretted his position against the civil rights legislation. I’m not sure that’s true, but I think there are probably some people who were associated with the Goldwater campaign or became movement conservatives through the 1960s and ’70s who, as they looked back, would regret the position they took on the civil rights legislation of the ’60s.
Geoff Kabaservice: Buckley did in fact say that that was his single greatest regret. He thought that the matter could be left to the states, and he was wrong; federal action was necessary to end the evil of segregation. I don’t remember if “The Call to Excellence in Leadership” actually quoted the oft-cited lines of William Butler Yeats: “The best lack all conviction while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.” But clearly there was a desire on the part of that manifesto to infuse moderates with greater passion and dedication. And there’s that famous line from the conclusion: “The question has often been asked, ‘Where does one find fiery moderates?’ Recent events show only too clearly how much we need such men.” (And this was a mostly male group at that point.) “If we cannot find them, let us become them.” And I think actually it was civil rights that gave fire to the moderate cause at that point, because actually this was an issue on which moderates, despite their reputation for compromise, were prepared to be uncompromising.
Emil Frankel: Yes. I wouldn’t say uncompromising, but…
Geoff Kabaservice: Dedicated to principle in a way that moderates often are not.
Emil Frankel: Yes, absolutely. Because it seemed so natural to us, and obviously to other leaders of the party, that the Lincoln tradition was so clear. That’s what the Republican Party was all about, really. And I think it did. Although there is a sense — and we were victimized by it in many ways — that moderates, when you think about it, are centrists. They’re pragmatic. We seek change to preserve, as I was saying, quoting from The Leopard. That doesn’t give a sense of purpose that an ideology, which is what the Republican Party we saw… The Goldwater movement was essentially seeking to make the Republican Party not a coalition of interests, not a pragmatic big-tent group that would seek solutions, pragmatic but preserving solutions to existing public problems, but really an ideology, a church, a theology if you will. Certainly the latter is what gives people motivation and drive and spirit. And it’s much, much harder to do that around a sense of pragmatic responses to existing public problems. Elliot Richardson wrote a book I can’t quite remember…
Geoff Kabaservice: Reflections of a Radical Moderate.
Emil Frankel: Yes, exactly. Richardson was another great hero to us for obvious reasons, and in many ways, as much as any person that I can think of, epitomized what we were about.
Geoff Kabaservice: The Ripon Society enjoyed considerable success in the 1960s especially. You created chapters around the country, although predominantly on the coasts, and got a ton of media attention, not just for manifestos but also for your white papers. And eventually a lot of those white papers found their way into the formation of actual policies in the Nixon administration. And although people tend to forget this, the 1960s were also great years for moderate Republicans. After the Goldwater wipeout, you actually had a big Republican resurgence in the ’66 midterms led by moderates. Yes, Ronald Reagan won the gubernatorial election in California that year. But then again, Ripon people had supported the candidacy of Ed Brooke, who became the first African-American senator elected since the end of Reconstruction, as senator from Massachusetts. The same could be said about a lot of other individuals and candidacies, some of whom you’ve mentioned. What do you think accounted for the success of Ripon during this time?
Emil Frankel: We had, as I look back and read your book, we had an influence far out of proportion to our numbers. And I think that was a function of three things. One, I’d like to think the quality, the substantive quality of what we were doing. Two, the connections that I talked about before — that Gene Marans could work closely with John Lindsay, and Mac Mathias in Maryland, and others to really work on the civil rights legislation. But also, the media I think — particularly one of the great political columnists of the last 50 or more years, David Broder — was very responsive. And there were others. Lee has talked about this recently, Lee Huebner, the connection with the Herald Tribune. There was a newspaper, if you will, of moderate Republicanism, the New York Herald Tribune, owned by John Whitney and published by Walter Thayer. Bill Paley of CBS… They all kind of adopted us, if you will.
I think they found they wanted to articulate… And I can’t speak for David Broder, obviously, but someone like Broder, who was the ultimate reasonable, balanced, thoughtful, insightful political commentator, wanted to be able to talk about these things in a more laudatory way. And Ripon’s statements gave him an opportunity, if you will, to articulate this kind of a perspective.
I think the organizational stuff was important as we attracted more people, as you said, at other largely university communities, not entirely so, but nonetheless to bring in people who later became influential. But the substance of our policies, partly because people like John Price, and you’ve I know interviewed John in a podcast on his recent book about the Nixon presidency…
Geoff Kabaservice: Which is a tremendous book.
Emil Frankel: Yes, a great book. And John, who worked with Pat Moynihan in Nixon’s domestic policy… Nixon’s domestic policy was, as John said, a liberal policy. I mean, health and childcare and food stamps… One could go on and on. The first real income support program was Nixon’s Family Assistance Program, which failed. His health proposals… Senator Ted Kennedy later went on to say that his greatest regret was that he didn’t support Nixon’s health proposals, which would’ve introduced a form of universality in health coverage in the 1960s and early 1970s, instead of waiting for 40 years before something was finally enacted. The move away from the draft to a volunteer army during and in the wake of the Vietnam War… All were Ripon ideas. All were adopted by the Nixon administration, by Nixon. The people… Elliot Richardson was among other things Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare. The leadership of the Justice Department during this period of time, again, associated with policies that we had been articulating and gave meat to.
And so I think it’s fair to say that really, for all the issues about Richard Nixon and his politics, which again, that’s another story which you know better than I and have covered… But Nixon’s politics, which were essentially adopting the Southern strategy, as Southern Democrats moved and conservative Southern Democrats moved away from the Democratic Party in the wake of the civil rights legislation… Nixon took a political advantage of that, so he’s thought of as a quite “conservative” president. But his policies — at least his domestic policies, and some would argue his foreign policies as well — were clearly in the Eisenhower tradition, if not in fact more progressive than what Eisenhower had articulated. So all of that gave us an influence, I think — I’d like to say not out of proportion to the substance of what we were doing, but certainly our numbers.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. Ripon had actually called for the opening to China that also became policy under Nixon. William Rusher, the publisher of National Review, was one of the leaders in the conservative movement and therefore somewhat hostile to the Ripon program. But funnily enough, he turned up at Ripon’s gala sixth anniversary party at the Plaza Hotel in New York. He felt that part of the secret of why Ripon was a strong and unified organization during this time was that Ripon people were what he called “lovely people, not the overload of scratchy nuts one finds in more extreme contexts.” And one of the qualities of moderation that you all enacted was that you could actually compromise and get along with each other, whereas that’s a real problem in activist groups on both the left and the right. And you actually, speaking of the draft, served in the military, didn’t you?
Emil Frankel: There was a program known as the six-month plan, and I did serve on active duty, went through basic training as part of the Connecticut Army National Guard. Some might say I avoided combat in Vietnam, but I did at least serve for some period of time in the National Guard.
Geoff Kabaservice: And you also, I want to say, were in some capacity in Housing and Urban Development?
Emil Frankel: Yes. During the Nixon administration, I came here. As I mentioned before, like many young lawyers coming to Washington, I worked first on Capitol Hill. I was blessed to work for one of the great United States senators of the last 50 years, Jacob Javits. After about three years with Senator Javits, I went to the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The secretary was another hero of this period, George Romney, Senator Romney’s father. So I served for about a year and a half or two years in the office of the secretary with an extraordinary man, the number two person. He was called undersecretary then, but he would be deputy secretary: Dick Van Dusen, who was a very close colleague of George Romney’s from Michigan. And I was always interested in the physical infrastructure and the connection between the physical infrastructure and social issues, political issues. So in that case, it was Housing and Urban Development.
Geoff Kabaservice: George Romney, if memory serves, also used the authority of his department as leverage against suburban communities that were refusing to desegregate.
Emil Frankel: Yes. I mean, he got involved in litigation. That’s another story that I won’t burden us with here, but there was tension within the administration — again, if you will, a tension between substance and politics —about how strongly to intervene in those cases, and between the then attorney general, John Mitchell, who was very much a political henchman of Richard Nixon, and George Romney, who was extraordinarily committed to civil rights. I mean, he was one of the real Republican leaders. Parenthetically I might note, I think Senator Romney, Mitt Romney, made the point when he participated in some of the demonstrations after the George Floyd murder here in Washington, that he was imbued by the memory of his father marching in civil cights marches in Detroit in the 1960s. And he felt very much part of that tradition, proudly so.
Geoff Kabaservice: The arc of the Republican moderate movement in the 1970s and beyond… I guess the best analogy is the gas slowly coming out of a balloon. To what would you attribute the conservative takeover? What were some of the big factors, in your view?
Emil Frankel: Well, you and I have talked about this a bit. For me, I think we were swimming against a tide — I would say swimming against a tsunami. To me, we were living through the beginning in the 1960s — I would mark it November 22, 1963, but certainly in the 1960s — of a massive political realignment in this country. Much of which — not all of which, but a big part of it — was the movement of Southern whites, conservative Southern whites, into the Republican Party.
The Republican Party demographically today is, among other things, a Southern and Plains states, Mountain states, and rural party. It was not through its entire life. That is not what the Republican Party was. It was part of the Republican Party. Today that is demographically the Republican Party, and so much more conservative, obviously. So I think that made it exceedingly difficult for a kind of moderate tradition, which after all candidly is associated more with major metropolitan regions throughout the country, not just in the Northeast and the Pacific coast. But it is also true — and I know your book talks about this a good deal — that we failed to build the infrastructure.
I mean, what the movement conservatives achieved, just in terms of substantive policy and ideology. It was also demographically successful in terms of capturing, as I said, this movement of Southerners to the Republican Party and shifting the base to the South. And also capturing the rise of evangelical Protestantism as a political power. It’s always been there in American history, of course, but never as an overt political power as it became in the last decades of the 20th century and now. So the religious right and evangelical Protestantism became one of the pillars — some might argue the most important pillar — of the Republican Party.
All this, I think, made it exceedingly difficult to maintain a tradition. Those people about whom I’ve spoken — governors, senators — they’re all gone, every one of them. There is no one like any of those people in the Republican Party. And as we saw as recently as yesterday, if there were, none of them could have survived. But it’s also true that we failed to build the kind of infrastructure, if you will, that the movement conservatives did.
You mentioned National Review… Eventually came the Weekly Standard, the think tanks, AEI, the Heritage Foundation, other publications. And importantly, of course, in the late 1980s and 1990s… The Herald Tribune for moderate Republicanism is somewhat dwarfed by the power of Fox News. So there were a lot of things happening within movement conservatism which were not matched by moderates. Whether they would’ve been successful is hard to say. I mean, the strain existed — again something you and I have talked about.
In some ways the success, the victory of movement conservatives was really capped by Governor Reagan’s election, President Reagan’s election in 1980. But nonetheless, even the Reagan presidency and continuing into the Bush 41, had elements of pragmatism. You know the famous scenes of President Reagan and Speaker O’Neill having a drink together after they’ve fought it out publicly and compromised. George H. W. Bush being Reagan’s vice president, James Baker being his chief of staff and secretary of the Treasury… I have recently read the great biography of James Baker by Peter Baker and Susan Glasser. And among other things, it is just inconceivable that the kind of pragmatism that Jim Baker, Secretary Baker represented in the Reagan presidency — Social Security reform, the last real income tax reform we’ve had, negotiating with Democrats and Republicans — it is impossible to imagine anything like that happening today in any meaningful sense. And so it did continue to some degree through the Reagan presidency, but then the flame, I think, totally went out.
Emil Frankel: I mean, I served in the Bush 43 administration, so it can be said there was still a place for centrist Republicans in Bush 43. And there were elements of that in President George W. Bush. But certainly the flame was flickering and the people leaving. And by 2010, let’s say, with the rise of the Tea Party and the full influence of Newt Gingrich and what he represented, that was all gone.
Geoff Kabaservice: Yes. In fact, you served in the Transportation Department under Secretary Norman Mineta, who was himself a Democrat…
Emil Frankel: Correct.
Geoff Kabaservice: …whom Bush had appointed.
Emil Frankel: Right.
Geoff Kabaservice: So there was still that capacity for bipartisanship at that point. In fact, Norman Mineta just died a few weeks ago. Can you tell us something about what it was like to serve with him?
Emil Frankel: Well, he had an extraordinary career as a mayor, congressman, cabinet member… Just an extraordinary politician who had a real common touch because he loved people and he remembered people and knew people. He was extraordinarily successful. He had a series… He did, as you said, not just by his appointment, but his whole career represented bipartisanship. I mean, his success in what’s now the T&I Committee, the Transformation and Infrastructure Committee in the House and its predecessors, his working with Republicans in that capacity…
He had, as I think by now everyone knows, this childhood relationship with Senator Alan Simpson, who’s a somewhat pragmatically conservative, wonderful United States senator from Wyoming. They became childhood friends, for reasons I think by now everyone understands, and maintained that relationship. Simpson probably was responsible for Secretary Mineta’s appointment because Senator Simpson was close to Vice President Cheney, who was running the transition for President Bush. I think that’s where the Mineta name emerged in the Bush Administration.
Geoff Kabaservice: I believe he’d also been interned…
Emil Frankel: Yes. I was going to say, without going into it, the relationship between Senator Simpson and Secretary Mineta developed as 12-years-old… The transformative experience for Norman Mineta was being incarcerated as a Japanese-American during the Second World War at a camp in Wyoming, where 12-year-old Norman Mineta met 12-year-old Alan Simpson and became friends for life.
Geoff Kabaservice: And fascinating that he was still able to be such a patriot after that searing experience.
Emil Frankel: Yes. He came out of it marked but not embittered, determined to serve his country. And he did. He went into the Army after the Second World War. And I have, as you know, in writing about him, and other people know this… For those who demanded that we do racial profiling at airports, at security gates at airports, President Bush has indicated that the reason — not the reason — but that he was strongly influenced by Secretary Mineta, under whom the Transportation Security Administration was established at DOT. And Secretary Mineta made it very clear that American Muslims were not to be treated in the wake of 9/11 the way Japanese Americans had been treated in the wake of Pearl Harbor. And that was the position of the Bush Administration, and Norman Mineta was absolutely critical, and his experience as a Japanese-American child was a key factor in that.
Geoff Kabaservice: Emil, you and I have talked about how the situation for Reaganite conservatives of the kind who drove moderates out of the party Is now being replicated, because these Reaganites are themselves being driven out of the party and labeled as RINOs by the populist-authoritarian followers of Donald Trump. So I wonder what advice you might give to those Reaganite conservatives based on your own experiences as a moderate with the Ripon Society.
Emil Frankel: Well, I’m not sure the advice would be particularly useful. I mean, it is kind of extraordinary, because as you’ve indicated, and as you and I have talked about, we spent 30 or 40 years fighting for the soul of the Republican Party. Ultimately the Reagan-Goldwater, Reagan-Buckley movement conservatives were successful, for many reasons. “RINOs” was a term that was developed by them to throw people like me and Jacob Javits and George Romney out of the party — “Republicans in Name Only.”
But I must say that now, facing the most extraordinary threat to American values and norms and institutions of American liberal democracy since the Civil War, that I welcome the opportunity to make common cause with people who we were fighting. Because as Jonathan Last of The Bulwark wrote a couple of months ago — a libertarian, movement-conservative, Reagan-conservative as a journalist… And he said, “Today I’m a single-issue person, and the single issue is the preservation of American liberal democracy.”
And so we have found common value, common ground, and I am enormously welcoming to joining arms with Bill Kristol and Sarah Longwell and the Bulwark and George Will. And I hope they will be similarly. Because this is a time we have to pull together a coalition. It is probably not so much in the context of what we tried to do with the Ripon Society of a reformation of the Republican Party and bringing it back to its traditions and its principles. But somehow building a new movement or set of movements in which dedicated conservatives — centrist, right-of-center conservatives, moderate conservatives, whatever you want to call us — we are committed to liberal democracy first and foremost. And we need to make common cause. And so far, while it’s not necessarily been terribly effective yet, nonetheless I think the beginnings of that are there. And I would hope we can continue to build on that.
Geoff Kabaservice: I think there’s a real parallel to the civil rights moment in the early 1960s when, as you said, it was a moment of truth and you were either on one side of that or the other. And I think it’s the same now. What we’re finding is that some conservatives like Mona Charen, like Bill Kristol, ultimately were conservative but devoted to liberal democracy. And others have not been.
Emil Frankel: Right. I think really, to me, as I knew them, the driving forces intellectually of movement conservatism have almost entirely adopted this principle and are making common cause with allies, including allies in the Democratic Party. I think those who have not are frankly driven by seeking political power without regard to principle. I can’t resist saying that the RINOs are the Trumpists. The Republicans in Name Only are Donald Trump himself and the people who are identified with and support Donald Trump within the Republican Party. They have nothing to do… what they articulate has nothing to do with the 150-year tradition of the Republican Party — not just me, not just the centrists, but as articulated through the Reagan presidency, for example. And there are those who would say, and others are in a better position to judge, that Ronald Reagan couldn’t be nominated today. Ronald Reagan probably would’ve been thrown out of the Republican Party by Donald Trump. So I think that’s important to bear in mind.
We may not be able to do it within the context of the Republican Party, because of the institution of the Republican Party. So we need to find a way to preserve these values — going back to the principles of the Bow Group, if you will — to be committed to institutional preservation and the rule of law, but also to recognize that we need to develop pragmatic solutions to real public problems in a way that preserves institutions and traditions.
Geoff Kabaservice: And as maybe a final question, Emil… What would you say particularly to younger people who are put off by the extremes of what they see on both the left and the right in politics, who might not identify as moderates but who do find themselves in the middle and who want to seek a positive way forward in politics?
Emil Frankel: There’s no easy answer to that. I’ve wondered about that and wondered to ask that question to other people. I’ve been closely associated with Wesleyan over the years, and there is a tremendous commitment on the part of college and university students throughout the country — and not just in private universities, but state, public universities, and so forth — to service. They are really committed to doing something about problems. But they’re doing so through nonprofits, service organizations, which I admire and compliment them for, while in most cases avoiding engagement in politics.
I guess I would urge them to think again about public careers, maybe through career service and at the federal and state levels, particularly the state and local levels. I hope that they would do that, but also that they would engage candidacies if they don’t want to engage parties. I mean, I would certainly understand that, but engage and support candidacies built around not necessarily the more extreme movements. And I know there’s a lot of appeal about so-called progressive movements and the AOCs and The Squad and so forth. But the answer and the preservation of our liberal democratic values will be found at the center of American politics. And I would hope that young people would associate with candidacies and causes and issues which really build around compromise, solutions, and centrist responses to the issues we face today.
Geoff Kabaservice: Emil Frankel, thank you so much for your life’s work and for joining me here today.
Emil Frankel: Thank you, Geoff.
Geoff Kabaservice: And thank you all for listening to the Vital Center podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform. And if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating, or send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Ingegnieri, and the Niskanen Center in Washington, D.C.
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