I WORKED FOR CLYDE PRESTOWITZ AS EVP of the Economic Strategy Institute for two years. We did great things together during that time, but we also didn’t see eye to eye on everything.
However, we do see the world the same way on this powerful and convincing essay that has been posted on the Kerry-Edwards blog titled “The Conservative Case for Kerry.”
When Clyde Prestowitz began to get a lot of attention in the media as a “true conservative and die-hard Republican” who was supporting Kerry, I cringed a bit. I had a knee-jerk reaction because my experience with him made me feel that he was pretty politically ambidextrous, very pragmatic, solutions-oriented, and interested in getting back into government, no matter which party was at the helm.
I am pretty much the same — which means that I didn’t really buy the notion that Clyde was theologically conservative.
But I have had some time to reflect on this, and I think that my original reaction to Clyde’s coming out for Kerry was wrong and that he is braver than I once believed — and indicative of a very important strain of thinking among ‘classic conservatives.’
To make my case, I need to share a few anecdotes that illustrate some of my points of tension with Clyde, but I think that they really show how he has evolved since 9/11 and why what he writes in this essay is genuine, deep, and reflective that more than one conservative is feeling at odds with George Bush.
In October 2001, Clyde sent me a frustrating email after reading in French (he’s a great linguist) an article I had written and which appeared on the front page of Le Monde Diplomatique titled “United States: All Powerful — But Powerless” which was on the implications of 9/11 on U.S. foreign policy as I saw things immediately after the attacks. This piece appeared in October 2001.
Clyde commented that this article could be read by some as anti-American. He didn’t actually say that he read it as anti-American, but I believed the implication was there because that was the single line of his email. Later, Clyde wrote the best-selling book Rogue Nation, which in my view, follows a course of thinking not at odds with my Le Monde Diplomatique piece.
Via interviews with world leaders and many of his buddies from the Davos World Economic Forum meetings over the years, Clyde Prestowitz came to believe through empirical experience what I had felt before 9/11 — that America was out of touch with the negative perceptions many in the world had of our behavior and had no sense that there was an increasingly high cost for other nations in their dealings with us that was enhancing global resentment of American arrogance.
The point is that Clyde is no soft-power softy, but I think it took his own encounters with other world leaders and thinkers for him to clearly see how enormously wrong-headed American foreign policy had become. He clearly did not have that view right after 9/11. I thought that the piece I had written for Le Monde Diplomatique was actually one of the most patriotic I had ever penned.
I feel that over the years, I have gotten to know Clyde well — his strengths and weaknesses, and he certainly has come to know mine. But one thing that always interested me in Clyde was the fact that he was a Born Again Christian, big time. He did not proselytize in the office — but his religious predilections surfaced frequently. We even had his local minister, a great guy named Sam, working as the in-house editor.
My great grandfather was a traveling minister for the Church of Christ, was born in Kentucky, and moved his family to Bartlesville, Oklahoma in 1900 and was one of the first ministers there — but our family largely grew out of its deep fundamentalist roots. I have a bias that is perhaps inappropriate; I’m not sure. I don’t get on well with deeply religious people who can’t handle rationality and science and who find comfort in dogma.
But Clyde Prestowitz showed me that he, at least, could be devoutly religious but highly rational and intelligent, holding both impulses in his head together without subordinating rationality to faith.
There was a time when ESI’s staff was probably about 25% gay, and even more if you count those who would love to have been gay if it was in fact all a choice. In very private moments, Prestowitz might rumble this way or that about someone’s partner, or whether some outward display of sexual identity was appropriate or not. To his credit, I can’t remember Clyde ever confronting anyone directly about these occasionaly discomforts he might have felt — and each year, he’d host in his private home the whole, diverse ESI crowd at a holiday party.
I mention all of this because of the current furor over Mary Cheney, the play the RNC made with the homophobic mailer, and the obvious tension a lot of this has placed on Christian fundamentalists.
In his essay, Clyde Prestowitz talks about the fiscal and foreign crusade reasons not to support George W. Bush. He doesn’t go into the deeply moral questions — but after reading this, and also reading Bill Buckley’s piece today, I feel that Clyde is even on the edge of finding a lot of the faith-driven moralizing of President Bush over the line.
I won’t put words in Clyde’s mouth; he is perfectly capable of making his own case — which he has done brilliantly so far in my view.
Clyde almost gets there on the faith question, but he slams it home well enough anyway in these concluding thoughts of his on what those of faith would not do:
Before the current campaign, it might have been argued that at least in affirming the importance of faith and respecting those who profess it the administration had embraced traditional conservative views. But in the wake of the Swift Boat ads attacking John Kerry, even this argument can no longer be maintained. As an elder of the Presbyterian Church, I found that those ads were not at all in the Christian tradition. John McCain rightly condemned them as dishonest and dishonorable. The president should have, too. That he did not undermines his credibility on questions of faith.
Some say it’s just politics. But that’s the whole point. More is expected of people of faith than “just politics.”
The fact is that the Bush administration might better be called radical or romantic or adventurist than conservative. And that’s why real conservatives are leaning toward Kerry.
I have had an up and down relationship over the years with Clyde Prestowitz — and this is one of those up moments.
Congratulations Clyde Prestowitz.
— Steve Clemons