Book Review: Politics as a Noble Calling: The Memoirs of F. Clifton White
“Few Americans, if any, have done more to hammer the high-test ore of conservative principles into the gleaming metal of political victory.”
~From “F. Clifton White, RIP,” National Review, February 1, 1993
Any conservative with an interest in political campaigns should learn from the master, Clif White. And there is no better place to begin than Politics as a Noble Calling: The Memoirs of F. Clifton White.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, William F. Buckley, Jr. gave conservatism an intellectual voice, but it was Clif White who turned conservatism into a national political movement aligned with the Republican Party.
Most famously, Clif White spearheaded the successful Draft Goldwater movement in 1964.
After the defeat of Richard Nixon in the election of 1960, the Republican Party fell into disarray with no clear leader. Nelson Rockefeller plotted to drag the Republican Party to the Left, but Clif White, a talented conservative political operator from upstate New York, had other plans.
Sen. Barry Goldwater of Arizona had just published Conscience of a Conservative, which was rapidly becoming the manifesto for the conservative wing of the Republican Party. Clif White gathered a number of prominent Young Republican friends and convinced them to back Barry Goldwater for president.
The problem? Sen. Goldwater did not want to be president. White and his friends huddled and decided that the conservative movement had no alternative but to draft Goldwater for president against his will.
They formed the Draft Goldwater Committee, with Clif White as full-time director, to force the nomination upon the reluctant Sen. Goldwater. On a shoestring budget, White pulled off one of the most spectacular feats of grassroots organizing in the history of modern politics and secured the Republican nomination for Barry Goldwater in July 1964.
Then came the shocking betrayal. Goldwater cast aside the entire Draft Goldwater Committee (save one) - including Clif White - and granted his “Arizona Mafia” pals total control of the campaign; he might as well have given whiskey and car keys to a teenage jock.
After the “glorious disaster” of the Goldwater campaign, Clif White looked around for a new leader of conservative Republicans, and he soon settled upon Ronald Reagan. At one point, White writes about how he tried to sell a skeptical Bill Buckley on Ronald Reagan - while flying down Manhattan on a motorcycle in the middle of the night.
In 1968, White managed Gov. Reagan’s presidential campaign. As the sitting governor of California, Reagan hesitated to even announce his candidacy, and Richard Nixon seized the moment to narrowly secure the 1968 Republican nomination. When the 1976 campaign began, Reagan’s California advisors shut out the New Yorker Clif White, who was forced to seek employment elsewhere. Somewhat ironically, as one of Reagan’s oldest political allies, White ended up helping the Ford campaign eke out a narrow victory against Reagan at the 1976 Republican National Convention. By 1980, the Reagan camp brought White back into the fold, and he lived to see the fruit of a lifetime of political activism: a conservative, Republican administration in the White House.
In addition to turning modern conservative ideas into tangible political power, Clif White invented the whole field of corporate public affairs in the 1950s as a way for businesses to counter the political activism of powerful unions. Later, White would also help to pioneer the field of political consulting. Although he often invented the cutting edge of political technology, White foresaw the dangers associated with the new tools of politics, such as political action committees (PACs), warning:
“As vehicles for funneling incredible amounts of money into the war chests of powerful politicians, the PACs have destroyed the very idea of good citizenship and become a threat to democracy. Voters have grown cynical because of that, becoming increasingly alienated from their own political system.”
By the 1980s, an elderly but vigorous White undertook a new venture: founding two of the premier organizations for the fostering of new democracies across the globe. He taught many emerging democracies the nuts and bolts of electoral politics, popularizing the iconic “inky pinky” as an easy and effective means of reducing voter fraud.
If this memoir has a flaw, it is that Clif White succumbed to cancer halfway through the writing process, forcing co-author Jerome Tuccille to finish without all of the wit and wisdom White would have undoubtedly bestowed upon the final draft. In several places, the memoir seems to be missing the typical vignettes and anecdotes that often form the juiciest morsels of an autobiography.
But overall, Clif White’s memoir is engaging, insightful, and even prophetic at times. Clif White was one of the shrewdest political operators of his day, but he was no political hack. White fully believed in the conservative vision of global peace and prosperity flowing from freedom and democracy, a world in which politics truly can be a noble calling.