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Radical Chic And Its Aftermath

Today marks the 35th anniversary of the infamous party that Leonard and Felicia Bernstein held in their Park Ave. duplex to raise money for the Black Panthers. Also attending was Tom Wolfe, who wrote the event up for an article originally published in New York magazine, called "Radical Chic". Later that year, it would be published in book form, along with his "Mau-Mauing The Flak Catchers", another article about similar (if more low-rent) shenanigans on the West Coast.

You could make a pretty good argument (as I'm about to attempt) that "Radical Chic" was the most influential, or at least most significant, magazine article of the past forty years--and that it foreshadowed the next 34 years of American politics.

It helped that the timing of Wolfe's article and book was exquisite. 1970 was the apex between two key presidential election years: two years after far left anti-war protestors attempted to disrupt the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and two years before its 1972 equivalent, where, as Ben Wattenberg said back then, "there won't be any riots in Miami because the people who tried to riot in Chicago are on the Platform Committee."

As Wolfe tells the story, he was visiting his wife-to-be while she was working at Vanity Fair, and noticed an invitation on journalist David Halberstam's desk to a cocktail party and fundraiser to be put on by the Bernsteins to raise money for the Panthers. Wolfe was intrigued, and called the number on the invitation to RSVP. A voice on the other end took down his name and told him he was added to the list. He arrived, the Bernsteins had some idea of who he was from his New York and Esquire articles, and in plain sight, he pulled out his reporter's notepad and ballpoint pen, and began to jot down the evening's events.

"I was openly taking notes", he recently said, "but they just assumed that if I was there for New York magazine it was because I must have approved of what they were doing.":

I just thought it was a scream, because it was so illogical by all ordinary thinking. To think that somebody living in an absolutely stunning duplex on Park Avenue could be having in all these guys who were saying, 'We will take everything away from you if we get the chance,' which is what their program spelled out, was the funniest thing I had ever witnessed.

By the time of the 1972 presidential campaign, the ultra far-left anti-American politics that Wolfe observed in miniature in the Bernstein's duplex would come to dominate the Democratic Party--to varying degrees, right up to the present day. As I wrote last month, that was the year where the wheels really came off the Democratic Party:

Radical chic and punitive liberalism became the norm, to the point where McGovern compared Ho Chi Minh to George Washington in a Playboy interview, and his aides took to wearing upside down flag pins on their lapels.

This was a very different Democratic party from the New Frontier of JFK and LBJ's Great Society which, while was a little too big government for me (particularly as it ballooned under LBJ), had lots of redeeming qualities: they were patriotic; believed in strong defense at home; trying to spread democracy abroad; had a vigorous space program; and at least with JFK, willing to cut taxes.

The election this past November may have been a watershed--the year that radical chic finally began to die. President Bush defeated a man who made first made his mark on the American stage in 1971 with a radical chic gesture of his own: as a Navy reserve officer excoriating US troops serving abroad, in front of the US Senate's Committee on Foreign Relations.

This is an extraordinary moment for the Democratic Party.

As Rich Lowry observes today in National Review, it was accurately forecast by Zell Miller in his 2003 book, A National Party No More:

Many of the things that Miller said in his book have now become nearly conventional wisdom among Democratic loyalists. All the Democrats who now say that the party has foolishly given up on the South, that it is unable to connect with religious voters, that it is too beholden to liberal orthodoxy on social issues, that Americans don't trust it on national defense, and that it doesn't speak the language of most Americans should take a deep breath and repeat after me: "Zell Miller was right."

This turnabout is extraordinary given the kind of criticisms that were lodged at Miller last year, especially after he amplified the arguments in his book in a humdinger of a speech at the Republican National Convention. An AFL-CIO official said Miller had "lost his damn mind." James Carville said Miller was being "cynically manipulated by people who are greedy to hold on to power at any cost." Well, Miller appears, in light of events, to have been the shrewdest cynically manipulated lunatic in all of human history.

"In the eyes of Middle America," Miller wrote of the Democratic party, "it has become a value-neutral party." That is almost mild compared with what other Democrats are now saying. Even Miller's battering of the party for being too extreme on abortion has gained a measure of acceptance. Howard Dean of all people — another candidate to lead the DNC — now says, "I have long believed that we ought to make a home for pro-life Democrats."

It's not just practical politicians who are sounding Zell-like. On national security, Miller worried how Democrats were getting tarred by their association with the most fervent anti-war elements of their party. The editor of the liberal New Republic has argued since the election for a "purge" — yes, a purge — of those antiwar zealots. Miller complained in his book about the influence of ham-handed consultants on the party. The liberal Washington Monthly just ran an article excoriating "a clique of Washington consultants who, through their insider ties, continue to get rewarded with business after losing continually." Miller defended gun rights and explained how gun-controllers were out of step with the American public. Liberal New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently declared, "Nothing kills Democratic candidates' prospects more than guns."

"What I was telling them was right and correct, if only they had listened to it," says Miller, who recently retired from the Senate. Democrats are essentially saying these days that they want a party in which someone like Zell Miller can feel comfortable. Alas, they used to have one. But, as someone once put it, today's Democrats are a national party no more.

Has radical chic run its course? Gestures such as this, this, and this don't lend credence to that theory. Certainly Teddy Kennedy doesn't sound like he's learned much from November's aftermath.

But the next four years will be interesting to watch, indeed. The wheels came off in '72. This might be their last chance to put them back on.