Commentary: A lesson on important figures from the past

Usually when reading letters that I don't agree with, I just let them slide and do not give them much thought.

However, when one is personally attacked, then a response is in order. Recently, I wrote a piece (Mailbag: "Consistent conservatism," Sept. 5) making the point that conservatives have been on the wrong side of progress and change for the past two centuries, which is, after all, what conservatives do best; they oppose change by definition.

Juli Hayden of Newport Beach took issue with this and, to prove I was wrong, she accused me of citing events from the "Dark Ages" to make my case (Mailbag: "Conservative critic is incorrect," Sept. 9). She also threw George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Jefferson, Harry Truman and Winston Churchill at me.

I am compelled to rebut these points. First, The Dark Ages refers to a period of history that lasted from the Fall of the Roman Empire until, roughly, the Renaissance. I did not mention anything from that period of history.

As for the various presidents, I agree that Washington, as president, was no "liberal" in the classic sense, but in his earlier years he did help lead a revolution that conservative members of the Continental Congress initially opposed.

Lincoln was certainly no conservative. Nor was, for that matter, the Republican Party in those days. The 19th Century GOP was admittedly pro-business, not an exclusively conservative point of view, but it also championed abolition, civil rights, votes for women and other issues generally regarded as liberal or progressive — then and now.

To see how the GOP has changed its colors over time, all one has to do is look at a map of the 1896 election, when William McKinley was elected and that of 2004, when George W. Bush was re-elected. With very few states in exception, the red-blue color scheme is almost reversed with New England, the industrial states and the West Coast going Republican, and the South and the Farm Belt and mountain states voting Democratic. Republicans may be conservative today, but they have not always been so, at least on cultural issues.

Thomas Jefferson wrote the Declaration of Independence, a document which is the high point of liberal political platforms of all time. He also supported the bloody French Revolution, saying that a little "bloodletting" every 20 years or so was a good thing. His concept of small government may sound conservative today, but the conservatives of Jefferson's time denounced him as a radical who would destroy our country. Jefferson would roll over in his grave to hear himself called a conservative.

I can think of nothing conservative about Harry Truman — a sensible moderate perhaps. If he was so conservative, why was he not only regularly denounced by Republicans like Robert Taft and Joe McCarthy but also opposed by Strom Thurmond and the conservative wing of the Democratic Party? Most conservative Southern Democrats like Thurmond eventually switched to the GOP.

As for Winston Churchill, he was a chameleon of all political persuasions. For quite a while in his political career he was actually a member of the liberal party. His great achievement, and arguably his only really successful one, was opposing Hitler during World War II, a war which conservative leaders in this country initially wanted not to fight. Even then, Churchill's efforts would have probably failed but for the help of the great liberal American leader: Franklin D. Roosevelt.

I suggest that Ms. Hayden study history a little more thoroughly and perhaps with a more open mind, although that is, by definition, a very un-conservative thing to do.

LENARD DAVIS is a Newport Beach resident.

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