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Book Review: Skirmishes by Neal B. Freeman

Skirmishes by my friend Neal B. Freeman, a longtime associate of the late William F. Buckley, Jr., is a chronicle of the battles fought and the conservative principles defended and advanced through Freeman’s many articles for National Review and other writings.

However, Skirmishes is more than a copious compendium of Freeman’s writing: It is an excellent chronology of Neal B Freemanthe development of the modern conservative movement and its ideas and the often-intense debates that helped define what movement conservatism means.

Skirmishes is also a delightful ramble through the wit and wisdom of Freeman’s boss, mentor and friend, the great William F. Buckley, Jr., since many of the debates that Buckley joyfully fomented often inspired or otherwise informed Freeman’s articles.

But Freeman is no mere interlocutor for WFB as he is referred to throughout the book – he has his own voice and his own vision that, while it very rarely conflicted with Buckley’s, says something important when it does.

One of those occasions of conflict was the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Buckley and the senior staff of National Review advocated the war – Freeman at great personal cost – opposed it and his explanation of why is an important reminder that even the wisest amongst us are subject to what psychologists call rational herding:

What struck me was that, over the course of the 18 months between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq, I never encountered a single professional who knew that the case for WMD had been established.

The editors of NR were unafflicted by such doubts. Along with the rest of the commentariat, right, left and center, they seemed to take it as a given that Saddam had built a serious WMD arsenal. When I would press them on this point at meetings, their impatience would show: “Oh please, he used them on his own people” or “Come on, why do you think he threw out the arms inspectors” or some other such non-responsive response. I wondered then and wonder still how so many people – all of them bright and journalistically trained people – could have been so trusting of secondary and partisan sources. My best guess is that it was an example of what psychologists call rational herding, which is the modeling of your beliefs on the beliefs of others whom you presume to be better informed. Rational or otherwise, there was much herding. By January 2003, as we rolled up the ramp to war, I was the only director [of National Review] who spoke against invasion.

Freeman courageously stuck to his guns and even went so far as to chastise his National Review colleagues for bashing fellow conservative Iraq war skeptic Robert Novak whom they characterized in a cover story as being “unpatriotic” for questioning the war.

Eighteen months later, Buckley recanted his support for the 2003 Iraq war and sent Freeman a copy of the column with “This one’s for you, Pal” scribbled across the top.

A more current column that also reveals Neal Freeman’s individual voice is his “What Trump and Trumpism Really Mean.” As Freeman recounts, none of National Review’s senior writers backed Trump during the campaign, and several of them remained “dyspeptically critical” of Trump in the early days of his presidency.

Freeman caught the zeitgeist of the 2016 electorate long before most other conservative intellectuals and summed it up succinctly in a few paragraphs:

I hung around long enough to get to know the Trump voters – most importantly, that the animating message of their campaign, delivered in the many indigenous dialects of our vast polity, is: “I don’t like what’s going on here.” The Trump voters sense American decline and cultural erosion and the evanescing of opportunity and, to them, much of it appears to be the result of conscious decisions by the Obama – Clinton coterie. The media call the Trump voters “angry.” That’s only part of it. They are heartbroken.

And later in the same article:

Trump voters are miles ahead of conservative intellectuals in appreciating the salience of political corruption at the IRS and the DOJ. When both the tax power and the police power of the state are turned against citizens for thought crimes, we have crossed a bright red line. In that circumstance, government, at least in its small-r-republican form, is unlikely to survive.

Here. Here.

Freeman also devotes a considerable section of the book to what he calls People: Appreciations, Intros and Obits and this is an exceptionally enjoyable way to recognize and memorialize many of the conservative leaders he came to know in his many Skirmishes.

I particularly enjoyed his articles on my old friends M. Stanton Evans and William Rusher, two giants of the conservative movement who rarely get their due these days.

Skirmishes is a must read for those who want to understand the many debates and intellectual battles – great and small – that helped define today’s conservatism. And who better to write about them than Neal B. Freeman who was – and remains – at the heart of many of those battles.

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