The last year was rough in many ways, not least in that we lost many conservative heroes — and at least one rogue. It takes many components to build and sustain a movement, and conservatism suffered losses in many disparate categories: communicators, thinkers, politicians, funders, and entertainers. These individuals helped make for a vibrant, if raucous, movement that at times could reach outside of the conservative ghetto and make its points to a broad audience.
A prominent death that occurred early in the year was that of Rush Limbaugh. When he first appeared on the scene in 1988, Limbaugh helped reshape talk radio (and the conservative media landscape in the process). He galvanized opposition to the young presidency of Bill Clinton, so much so that a Democratic congressman ousted in the 1994 "Republican Revolution" congressional elections later told Clinton that "if you made a mistake, it was underestimating Rush."
Although Rush was a relentless critic of Democratic presidents, he did not go easy on Republicans who deviated from or betrayed conservative principles. As a result, Republican presidents took special pains to cozy up to him and his loyal listeners: George H.W. Bush had him visit the White House and even carried his bags in. George W. Bush gave him one-on-one interviews. And Donald Trump gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom on live TV during the State of the Union address, an unprecedented honor.
Limbaugh had multiple careers before he attained fame and influence as a radio host. G. Gordon Liddy, in contrast, had already attained fame, or more accurately notoriety, before he became a radio host late in life. Liddy's first headline-grabbing act was as an assistant district attorney, when he was involved in the arrest of counterculture guru and drug experimenter Timothy Leary. The Nixon administration hired Liddy as a junior Treasury official, which led to his involvement with the infamous "Plumbers" behind the Watergate break-in.
Liddy served 52 months in prison for his role in the scandal — Jimmy Carter commuted his sentence in 1977 — and then wrote a bestselling autobiography, Will, that was made into a TV movie in 1982. He did some acting, appearing as a villain on TV shows such as Miami Vice, but found his real second career as one of the many talk radio hosts who followed in Limbaugh's wake. He did not reach Rush's fame, but he had a gift for the outrageous, at one point saying that as a felon, he could not own a gun, "but Mrs. Liddy owns 27, some of which she keeps on my side of the bed."
Liddy's persona drew a great deal from his previous experience as a former administration aide. Other key aides who died in the past year include a trio of foreign policy giants: George Shultz, Donald Rumsfeld, and Colin Powell. Shultz, a Princeton-educated economist and former Marine, served as Cabinet secretary for four departments — one of only two people ever to do so. As Ronald Reagan's secretary of state, Shultz pursued a pro-freedom, pro-America agenda. When new ambassadors would come to his seventh-floor office, he would show them his globe and say, "I'm going to spin the globe, and I want you to put your hand on your country." Many an ambassador eagerly pointed out their posting on the globe, after which Shultz would explain, gently yet firmly, that their country was the United States of America.
Don Rumsfeld also served in many high-level posts, including White House chief of staff under Gerald Ford. In going to the Pentagon twice, decades apart, he became both the youngest and oldest man to serve as secretary of defense. Rumsfeld may have had occasion to question the second stint, as the Iraq War became a scar on his reputation, but he was a patriot who never regretted standing up for his country. He sparred with reporters and internal rivals with zest and always with a good sense of humor.
One of the people Rumsfeld jousted with was Colin Powell, who headed the Department of State when Rumsfeld was at the Pentagon the second time. Powell was not a classic conservative and drifted toward the Democratic Party late in life, but he served in some crucial foreign policy posts in three different Republican administrations. And if he was not a conservative by strict ideological standards, he was a conservative by values or temperament, believing in the U.S. military and in the American dream. His bestselling memoir, My American Journey, is imbued with these ideas. His "Powell Doctrine" for justifying the use of force, requiring politicians to answer questions such as "Is a vital national-security interest threatened?" "Do we have a clear and attainable objective?" and "Have the risks and costs been fully and frankly analyzed?", was also evidence of his small "c" conservative approach to matters of state.
Appointees can only make policy if there are elected leaders there to select them, and we lost some good ones in 2021. Somehow, the free-market conservative Pete du Pont was elected governor of Delaware twice, where he cut taxes (also twice) and presided over an economic boom. He tried to take his ideas national, unsuccessfully running for president in 1988 on a free-market platform. Losing did not discourage him, though, as he continued to advocate for conservative economic policies, writing regularly about those ideas for the Wall Street Journal, where he had a monthly column. As he said after bowing out of the 1988 race, "In America, we do not promise that everyone wins, only that everyone gets a chance to try."
Bob Dole, who died this month, served this great country in World War II and was severely wounded while fighting in Italy. He survived this brush with death to become a congressman and eventually a senator. Despite several tries, he never made it to the White House, either. Dole became famous for his humor and his sharp tongue. When his wife, Elizabeth, served as president of the Red Cross, Dole liked to say that "at least she's president of something, which is more than I can say."
Barbara Keating-Edh also ran for office, but unsuccessfully. She was the first woman to run for Senate in New York. William F. Buckley, who served as honorary chairman of her campaign, said of her, "She is a beautiful woman, so that right away, she violates a New York taboo, which steadfastly refuses to put beautiful women on the ballot, preferring [New York Democratic Rep.] Bella Abzug." Later, she served on the staff of Buckley's brother, Sen. James Buckley, and started a conservative consumer advocacy organization to counter the influence of Ralph Nader.
In order to be successful, conservatives need to build alliances abroad, and one such ally was the Conservative MP Dame Cheryl Gillan, who died in April at 68. The first female secretary of state for Wales, she was best known in the United Kingdom for her adamant opposition to the HS2 high-speed rail link, but she also supported the U.S.-U.K. military alliance. In 2001, she called out the "weasels" who "sit on Labour Benches" after the Tony Blair government appeared to mislead President Bush on England's support for missile defense.
Conservative communicators and politicians cannot exist without conservative intellectuals. Two foreign policy thinkers we lost in 2021 who had no patience for "weasels" were Donald Kagan and Angelo Codevilla. Kagan made his way from Lithuania to America, where he attended Brooklyn College. He eventually rose to become a revered professor of history at Yale and a recipient of the National Medal of the Humanities. His great work was his four-volume history of the Peloponnesian War, but he also had a huge influence on generations of students, especially those willing to question the reigning orthodoxies of the modern elite political campus. When asked how he managed to maintain his views in favor of free speech and the values of Western civilization on a campus that increasingly rejected them, he explained that his youthful baseball allegiances taught him to be a contrarian. As he told the New York Times, "I was the only kid in my neighborhood — and maybe the only one in Brooklyn — who was pulling for the Yankees."
Another foreign-born academic who helped shape conservative foreign policy was Angelo Codevilla. Born in Italy, he attended Rutgers, Notre Dame, and Claremont Graduate University. He was initially frustrated in academia and worked for a time on Capitol Hill for Sen. Malcolm Wallop, where he helped advance the concept of missile defense. From Congress, he moved on to the Hoover Institution and Boston University. The fiery Codevilla wrote 14 books, including one, The Ruling Class, that was championed by Rush Limbaugh. He died too young, at 78, from a car crash.
Conservatives lost consequential thinkers in other disciplines, too. We all mourned the loss of the Nobel Prize-winning macroeconomist Robert Mundell. Like Kagan and Codevilla, Mundell was a rock, willing to stand against the fads and fashions of left-dominated academia. He once defended his support for supply-side economics, saying that "maybe it is just a tiny sect, but how many Christians were there before Jesus Christ? How many Jews were there before Moses? How many people believed in electricity before Edison?" Upon receipt of his Nobel Prize, he acknowledged that his views were in the minority by singing Frank Sinatra's "My Way."
One of the ways that politicians get elected, and that academics and think tankers get to advance their ideas, is with the help of charitable donations. The conservative movement lost two giants of philanthropy this year, Sheldon Adelson and Foster Friess. Adelson grew up in poverty in Boston and had to deal with antisemitic toughs by making sure "to go to school with at least four kids, the Irish kids came out of the bushes and tenements with rubber hoses and chains and brass knuckles." He ended up making billions from a trade show and then later casinos, but his early brush with antisemitism helped shape his staunch support for Israel. Friess was born in Wisconsin, also in modest circumstances, and made his millions in investments. In addition to being a generous donor to the Republican Party, he also helped fund the Daily Caller, and gave away over $500 million in his lifetime.
Another driving force in a movement, although one that is a little harder to characterize according to ideological lines, are entertainers. Conservatives are used to finding that the field of entertainment is overwhelmingly liberal, so they find it refreshing when people in the entertainment sphere go against the prevailing orthodoxies. In fact, it's not only refreshing, it's necessary. When journalism, entertainment, and academia are predominantly of one point of view, it is the rare mavericks who enable people to hear a different perspective. Jackie Mason, Norm Macdonald, and Mort Sahl were three of these prophetic voices. You would not find them openly declaring themselves to be Republicans, or even conservatives, but all three were willing to make fun of everyone, on both sides of the aisle, which is very different from where too many comedians are today.
Mason was a descendant of rabbis who trained as a rabbi himself. He left the rabbinate to pursue comedy and achieved some early success on The Ed Sullivan Show, until he offended Sullivan and found himself blackballed for two decades. He reemerged in the 1980s with his show The World According to Me, which had a hysterical riff on all recent presidents at the time, equally eviscerating Democrats and Republicans. One of the funniest lines was his observation about America under Richard Nixon: "With Nixon, every day was interesting, every day with a new mystery, you didn't know what. I used to get up every morning to see if my furniture was still there."
Macdonald's comedy was also potent and adversely affected his career. As a Saturday Night Live "Weekend Update" anchor, Macdonald was merciless on O.J. Simpson during the Simpson murder investigation and trial. His bits were hilarious but not to NBC executive Don Ohlmeyer, a friend of Simpson. It was reported that this was behind Macdonald's firing from the show. But Macdonald was not bitter, saying years later that "I always understood that Ohlmeyer could fire me, because he was the guy who owned the cameras, so that didn't bother me." He did not identify as a conservative, although he did a terrific Bob Dole impersonation and also acknowledged that "I live in LA, where I'm always faced with the lunacy of the Left." What Macdonald really stood for was free expression, as he was staunchly against the cancel culture overrunning modern America. He told the Hollywood Reporter that "the model used to be: admit wrongdoing, show complete contrition, and then we give you a second chance. Now, it's admit wrongdoing and you're finished. And so the only way to survive is to deny, deny, deny. That's not healthy — that there is no forgiveness."
Sahl was no one's idea of a conservative. In fact, he was a liberal darling in the 1950s and 1960s, mocking Dwight Eisenhower and even writing some jokes for John F. Kennedy. Always a champion of free expression, he used to say of Sen. Joe McCarthy, "Joe McCarthy doesn't question what you say so much as your right to say it." His humor was so biting that Time once called him "Will Rogers with fangs." But when Democrats were in power, they did not like hearing Sahl's wit directed against them. As he put it, "My so-called liberal supporters have all moved in with the establishment. The same people who like jokes about John Foster Dulles and Goldwater suddenly freeze when they hear satirical humor about Vietnam or the war on poverty."
Sahl, however, was not interested in supporting one side over the other. He would end his shows by asking, "Are there any groups I haven't offended?" As he aptly put it, "If you were the only person left on the planet, I would have to attack you. That's my job."
Longtime Dodgers manager Tommy Lasorda wasn't a comedian, but he was a heck of a funny guy. Lasorda once said of his team, "Jesus! We had Danny Heep in the outfield. I told Danny Heep one time he's so goddamned slow, if he got in a race with a pregnant woman, he'd finish third." No one ever wondered where he stood, either. He was for his beloved Dodgers, "bleeding Dodger blue," first and always. But when it came to politics, Lasorda was definitively a Republican. He once attended a dinner with Bill Clinton where he said, "I'm a Republican, my father was a Republican, and his father was a Republican. So someone once asked me, 'If your father was a thief and his father was a thief, would that make you a thief?' I said, that would make me a Democrat."
He, like the rest of the conservatives we lost in 2021, will be missed, and they will all be remembered for their roles in shaping a movement.