Question: It was much more clean when you were an anarchist. We knew what that meant. But Left-Conservative?
Mailer: I have to redefine the term for myself every day because on its face, we have an oxymoron. But, it does have meaning for me. I think there are elements in the remains of left-wing philosophy (which has not had all that many new ideas for the last 30 years), that are worth maintaining.
Question: Such as?
Mailer: The idea that a very rich man should not make 4,000 times as much in a year as a poor man. On the other hand, I am not a liberal. The notion that man is a rational creature who arrives at reasonable solutions to knotty problems is much in doubt as far as I’m concerned. Liberalism depends all too much on having an optimistic view of human nature. But the history of the 20th century has not exactly fortified that notion. Moreover, liberalism also depends too much upon reason rather than any appreciation of mystery. If you start to talk about God with the average good liberal, he looks at you as if you are more than a little off. In that sense, since I happen to be—I hate to use the word religious, there are so many heavy dull connotations, so many pious self-seeking aspects—but I do believe there is a Creator who is active in human affairs and is endangered. I also believe there is a Devil who is equally active in our existence (and is all too often successful). So, I can hardly be a liberal. God is bad enough for them, but talk about the devil, and the liberal’s mind is blown. He is consorting with a fellow who is irrational if not insane. That is the end of real conversation.
On the other hand, conservatism has its own deep ditches, its unclimbable walls, its immutable old ideas sealed in concrete. But lately, there are two profoundly different kinds of conservatives emerging, as different in their way as the communists and the socialists were before and after 1917, yes, two types of conservatives in America now. What I call “value conservatives” because they believe in what most people think of as the standard conservative values—family, home, faith, hard work, duty, allegiance—dependable human virtues. And then there are what I call “flag conservatives,” of whom obviously the present administration would be the perfect example.
I don’t think flag conservatives give a real damn about conservative values. They use the words. They certainly use the flag. They love words like “evil.” One of Bush’s worst faults in rhetoric (to dip into that cornucopia) is to use the word “evil” as if it were a button he can touch to increase his power. When people are sick and have an IV tube put in them to feed a narcotic painkiller on demand, a few keep pressing that button. Bush uses evil as his hot button for the American public. Any man who can employ that word 15 times in five minutes is not a conservative. Not a value conservative. A flag conservative is another matter. They rely on manipulation. What they want is power. They believe in America. That they do. They believe this country is the only hope of the world and they feel that this country is becoming more and more powerful on the one hand, but on the other, is rapidly growing more dissolute. And so the only solution for it is empire, World Empire. Behind the whole thing in Iraq is the desire to have a huge military presence in the near-East as a stepping stone for eventually taking over the world. Once we become a twenty-first century version of the old Roman Empire, then moral reform will come into the picture. The military is obviously more puritanical than the entertainment media. Soldiers can, of course, be wilder than anyone, but the overhead command is a major pressure on soldiers, and it is not permissive.
Question: Who in American politics is a value conservative?
Mailer: Someone like Taft would be a good example of a value conservative. Eisenhower, probably, a gentle value conservative. More recently? Reagan, I think, was not. I will say that I don’t think Reagan ever had an original idea in his life. I once sat next to him, as near as I am sitting to you, at a lunch for eight people. This was in 1972 at the convention that nominated Nixon for the second time. I spent the entire meal trying to figure out a tough question to ask him. I always found that if you meet someone’s eyes, a good question can come to mind. And for two hours he sat there, perfectly calm and pleasant and kept making jokes and talking. It was a lightweight conversation. The physical impression of him was that he had about as much human specific density as, let’s say, a sales manager for a medium-sized corporation in the Midwest. That kind of modest, mild, well-knit heft was in his bearing. During those two hours, he chatted with all six Time reporters at the table, and his eyes never met mine. I found myself unable to come up with that tough question as a result. It became a matter of decorum. The mood was too genial. It occurred to me after he became president that he probably, if he could help it, never spent time talking to anyone who was of no use to him. An instinctive climber who scaled the face of success with great skill: that was his gift, if you will. He was surrounded by people who had many powerful ideas and who illumined him to the point where they could wind him up and then he could do his special stuff. At the time, he had an enormous impact on value conservatives because they thought he was one of them. I suspect he had about as much to do with them as a screen star does with an agricultural laborer.