Reflections on Turning Sixty(Reprinted from the issue of March 16, 2006)
In keeping with what has been called our superstitious reverence for the decimal system, I recently observed my 60th birthday. The worlds loveliest publisher, Fran Griffin, who has put up with me longer and more heroically than anyone outside my immediate family, made it one of the happiest days of my life by throwing the mother of all birthday parties.
I was so overwhelmed that when I blew out the candles I couldnt think of anything to wish for. I had it all. Thank you, Fran! And the food! Thank you, Sue Neff!
Among the gifts I received was a medallion of St. Thomas More, made just for me by the man I regard as the greatest sculptor of our time, Reed Armstrong, whom I hadnt seen for years.
Seeing dear old friends again was only one of the surprises; so was meeting a dear new relative, my six-month-old great-granddaughter, Christina. Needless to say, she was beautiful, and we seemed to hit it off very well.
Two of my children and five of my seven grandchildren came too.
Among the latter I must mention Elizabeth, now pushing ten. She is a mysterious dark little beauty, whom I feel I must already talk to like a grown woman. The quiet maturity of her speech makes me feel I should be listening instead of speaking. In her tender patience, she is like a second mother to her six brothers.
These were just the high points. By the time I got the last stunning gift, the complete works of Mozart on 172 compact discs, it was just the cherry on the whipped cream on the banana split, as I told some of our newsletter subscribers.
As far as Im concerned, old age is off to a flying start. Bring it on, I say!
The Real Enemies
Naturally, since the party Ive reflected on aging and the approaching end of my career, at least in its present form. At this point I expected to be fairly settled, but things are still up in the air. This is also my 20th year writing for The Wanderer, another source of much joy, but, as I am reliably informed, nothing lasts forever. I only hope to continue for a while, as I try to peddle my new novel and stay afloat. At my age you have to think about little things like health insurance, which I always had when I hardly needed it.
In these 20 years American conservatism has changed remarkably. In 1986 I had no inkling of what lay ahead. The Cold War was winding up peacefully and happily, thanks to Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II, and I assumed we could turn to the long-deferred business of restoring limited, constitutional government.
At long last, political life could get back to normal.
It seemed a modest enough hope, but yearning for normality soon came to seem as utopian as building socialism. When Reagan retired, the elder Bush found reasons for war on Panama and Iraq with the full support of conservatives who should have known better. Then came the Clinton years, then another Bush, who made his father seem like Millard Fillmore.
(And of course I mean that as a compliment to the old man. Dont make Millard Fillmore jokes around me unless youre prepared for a heated argument.)
One of the baneful side effects of the Cold War was to make peace sound like a left-wing cause and to identify conservatism with war. But warlike habits proved hard to break, and with the Soviet enemy gone, conservatives found new enemies who didnt threaten the United States at all.
The real threat, I firmly believed, was unconstitutional government, which always thrives on war. Our real enemies were not in Baghdad, but in Washington.
Alas, this idea, which Thomas Jefferson would have understood at once, was hard to sell to conservatives. To them, even the Polish Pope, whom they had once rightly hailed as Communisms deadliest foe, seemed suspiciously like a peacenik.
The Opposite of Conservative
And so, over these 20 years, I have gradually broken my ties with the conservative movement and rediscovered an older conservatism of peace. Todays conservatives, adopting the lingo of yesterdays liberals, curse that tradition as isolationism, and I have even found myself accused of being a liberal! A new experience for me.
But some people dont know what else to call someone who opposes a war. It hardly seems to matter what the war is about. People who used to damn Big Government up and down forget all their ancient reservations about it whenever Big Government makes Big War.
This is odd on its face. By its very nature, war is the opposite of conservative. It destroys.
I got one of the shocks of my life in 1981 when I visited Berlin and walked among some of the preserved buildings, where German civilians had once lived, that had been hit by American bombers.
I didnt become a peacenik on the spot, but it gave me a strange new feeling about my country not exactly shame, but not pride, either. Just a terrible regret to think of the innocent people who had died where I was standing.
In some obscure way I felt responsible. Not guilty, but responsible, in the sense that I must try to prevent such things from happening again, insofar as I could have any influence at all. In that terrible past I began to find my future.
I was 35 then, which seems very young now. The shock was quiet; I didnt feel like talking about it, didnt even know what to say about it, and felt no desire to recriminate. Blaming wouldnt help anyone; our duty now was healing old wounds and preventing a recurrence.
Even if fighting that war was a duty, how can anyone celebrate it without feeling pity for the millions who died in it? O horror, horror, horror! Tongue nor heart cannot conceive nor name thee!
If I can excite even a little horror of war in my fellow conservatives, I will feel that my long career has not been entirely wasted.
To this day, I find it impossible to look back on World War II with pride or pleasure, let alone admiration for the men who wanted it. I do venerate the two great Popes, Pius XI and Pius XII, who saw it coming and pled for peace.
They are the true war heroes. Blessed are the peaceniks.
For decades Americans have worried about nukes falling into the wrong hands, as if there were right hands for weapons of mass murder SOBRANS. If you have not seen my monthly newsletter yet, give my office a call at 800-513-5053 and request a free sample, or better yet, subscribe for two years for just $85. New subscribers get two gifts with their subscription. More details can be found at the Subscription page of my website.
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|Copyright © 2006 by The Wanderer,
the National Catholic Weekly founded in 1867
Reprinted with permission
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