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The Right Gifts
A new history of conservative philanthropy offers a timely message.
12 December 2008

Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement, by Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson (Regnery, 248 pp., $27.95)

Why did the late Paul Newman’s philanthropy get better press than Richard Mellon Scaife’s? Because liberal philanthropists are altruists, while conservative ones are shadowy puppeteers manipulating strings for their own self-interest. At least that’s what you might think if you compared the media’s leperlike treatment of Pittsburgh billionaire Scaife (who has bankrolled the likes of the Heritage Foundation, the Free Congress Foundation, and The American Spectator, among other institutions), with the glowing portraits of Newman, Ted Turner, Bill and Melinda Gates, and even George Soros. “A damaging blow is dealt by the media when other conservatives considering a donation witness how Scaife and others are treated,” Nicole Hoplin and Ron Robinson write in Funding Fathers: The Unsung Heroes of the Conservative Movement. “They are left wondering why they would take a chance in investing in a conservative cause.”

That “conservative philanthropy” strikes liberal ears as an oxymoron is one reason why a book on the subject has only now appeared. Another reason is conservatives’ own seeming distaste for the subject. Conservative intellectuals chronicling their movement’s past tend to concentrate on other conservative intellectuals, not funding. The definitive work on the conservative movement is George Nash’s The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America, while another, John East’s The American Conservative Movement, boasts chapters on professors Russell Kirk, Richard Weaver, Frank Meyer, Willmoore Kendell, Leo Strauss, Eric Voegelin, and Ludwig von Mises. This historiography is enough to make an uninformed reader believe that academia was the center of American conservatism. Where are the men of action? And where are the moneymen?

Funding Fathers gives credit to those who provided credit—and cash and checks. Through biographical sketches of the patrons of such iconic conservative institutions as the Heritage Foundation, Hillsdale College, National Review, and Britain’s Institute for Economic Affairs, Hoplin and Robinson present the overlooked stories of the money behind the men and the men behind that money. One of them, Clarence Manion, is usually remembered today not as a philanthropist, but as the dean of the Notre Dame School of Law, as a proto–Rush Limbaugh through his Manion Forum of Opinion, and as the man whose stubborn support of the Bricker Amendment limiting presidential treaty-making powers so alienated President Eisenhower that it cost the Catholic legal scholar a probable seat on the U.S. Supreme Court. Yet Manion’s behind-the-scenes work proves the authors’ thesis that one man with a large wallet can change the world.

Manion—a bestselling author, conservative Democrat, and backer of a hoped-for 1960 Barry Goldwater presidential run—believed it crucial that the Arizona senator write a book. He even suggested a title: The Conscience of a Conservative. After major publishing houses rejected the book, “Manion decided to move forward without a publisher and committed himself to do whatever it took to get the book done on time,” Hoplin and Robinson write. “He dipped into his personal resources and offered Goldwater an advance of $1,000. Then he personally filed paperwork to start a publishing company of his own, Victor Publishing Company.” Strangely, then, the most widely read American political tract of the twentieth century was published in Shepherdsville, Kentucky—no one’s idea of a publishing mecca—by a house that had never put out a book before.

Though the name William Volker isn’t mentioned in the same breath as Friedrich Hayek or Milton Friedman, the reach of those Nobel Prize–winning economists wouldn’t have extended so far without Volker’s generosity. Tagged “Mr. Anonymous” for giving away nearly a third of his annual income to the hard cases of Kansas City, Volker was writing checks “to more than 100 individuals monthly” by 1937. Though he voluntarily and anonymously parted with millions of dollars, the home-furnishing magnate once refused to hand over his pockets’ contents—a dime—to a robber, who then shot the hat off his head (after the industrialist belted him in the face). The same commitment to principle that wouldn’t allow Volker to forfeit ten cents to an armed highwayman compelled him to hand over nearly all of his life’s bounty to more worthy recipients who asked rather than demanded.

He broadened the scope of his Volker Fund from Kansas City to the world when he agreed to underwrite the travel expenses of Milton Friedman, Ludwig von Mises, Leonard Read, Felix Morley, Henry Hazlitt, and a dozen others to attend the inaugural Mount Pelerin Society meeting in Switzerland. Without Volker, in effect, there would be no Society. To gauge his importance, note that the Nobel committee has awarded eight of its prizes to economists who were Mount Pelerin members. The Volker Fund subsequently underwrote professorships for Hayek and Mises, funded a translation of Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, and paid for a series of lectures by Friedman that evolved into 1962’s Capitalism and Freedom. Volker, in a lesson that John D. Rockefeller and Henry Ford learned only from the grave, wisely ensured that his fund would spend itself out of existence before interests hostile to his own could hijack it.

One of Volker’s employees was William Regnery, whose rags-to-riches rise enabled him to purchase one of the boss’s companies, which in turn enabled his son Henry to launch the Henry Regnery Company. “The first three years the Henry Regnery Company published books, Henry lost $100,000,” Hoplin and Robinson tell us. “He had invested $275,000 of his own wealth (that is about $2.1 million today) and refrained from taking a salary or expense reimbursements. . . . In its first twelve years of operating, the Henry Regnery Company lost money in each year but two.”

William Regnery once told his publisher son, “If you ever begin to make any money in that business you are going into, you can be pretty sure that you are publishing the wrong kind of books.” Regnery is now highly profitable, and the elder Regnery’s words loom over such titles as Chuck Norris’s Black Belt Patriotism and Ted Nugent’s Ted, White, and Blue. Funding Fathers—itself a Regnery title—gives rise to an uncomfortable question for conservatives: Does the success of conservative philanthropy fly in the face of conservative philosophy? Put another way, did the conservative movement produce better thinkers, books, and activists when it depended on the kindness of benefactors than it does today, when its success in the free market makes such philanthropy secondary?

Funding Fathers prompts another question: Does the “conservative movement” that the authors so ably chronicle still exist? It’s not just that phrases like “Don’t Immanentize the Eschaton,” “Bricker Amendment,” and “Who Promoted Peress?” seem anachronisms on par with monocles and gentlemen’s duels; the very words “conservative movement” seem a relic of a bygone era, too. How would Dean Manion and Henry Regnery, two members of the America First Committee, view the Iraq War? What would Spike Hennessey, sugar daddy to Hillsdale College as it steadfastly refused government funding, think of the massive George W. Bush–championed banker bailout? The issues and the world have certainly changed for conservatives, but so too, it seems, have the movement’s principles. Whether one prefers yesteryear’s conservatism or today’s is secondary. What matters here is the discontinuity, which proves troublesome to historians tasked with making coherent the incoherence of the “conservative movement”—a label attached to chronologically and ideologically disparate causes.

Still, in this troubled winter of conservative (and Republican Party) discontent, a book honoring the altruism of the movement’s origins is timely indeed. Funding Fathers reminds us of a time when on-the-make political entrepreneurs didn’t flock to the conservative movement for what it could do for them; instead, wealthy altruists flocked to the conservative movement for what they could do for it.

Daniel J. Flynn is the author of A Conservative History of the American Left (Crown Forum, 2008).

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