Writing from Left to Right:
My Journey from Liberal to Conservative
By Michael Novak
Image Books, 2013
$24, 336 pages
To order: RandomHouse.com
At the ripe age of 80, Michael Novak has written a new book, Writing From Left to Right: My Journey From Liberal to Conservative
Although the author probably would not agree, his book is both a memoir and a conversion story. In the decades ahead, it may rate a spot beside Thomas Merton’s Seven Storey Mountain and Whittaker Chambers’ Witness as capturing a certain political and spiritual moment in the United States.
Novak’s era incorporates the last half of the 20th century and the early years of the new millennium.
As Novak puts it, “At eighty, I look back over the events I have witnessed, and I revisit the lessons I learned the hard way. Events and facts forced me to change my mind about ideas with which my education imbued me.”
A little background for those who are not very familiar with him: Though not easy to categorize, Novak prefers to be described as “a social philosopher.” What this means becomes clearer as you read the book. Since the ’60s, he has played a prominent role in American political life, writing on everything from the ethics of the free market and welfare reform to the faith of the Founding Fathers. He has taught at Harvard and Stanford and held chairs at Syracuse, Notre Dame and, most significantly in recent decades, the American Enterprise Institute, a leading free-market think tank. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.
To suggest the gamut of people he has known and worked with through the years, I culled this selection of names from the index:
Both Presidents Bush, President Jimmy Carter, President Bill Clinton (for whom he has some surprisingly kind words), Gov. Michael Dukakis, publisher Steve Forbes, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Czech politician Vaclav Havel, Sen. Scoop Jackson, President Lyndon Johnson, Rep. Jack Kemp, the three Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King Jr., French philosopher Gabriel Marcel, Sen. Eugene McCarthy, President Richard Nixon, Gov. Edward Muskie, Father Richard John Neuhaus, politician pundit Norman Podhoretz, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, American ambassador Jeane Kirkpatrick and President Ronald Reagan.
However, this A-list roster does not make Novak an elitist. A native of Johnstown, Pa., he early identified himself as a proud ethnic (Slovak) Catholic Democrat — and retains all of those allegiances, except for the Democratic part.
I spoke earlier of Novak’s gradual “conversions,” which are somewhat related. His background and early years made him a union man, an ethnic Democrat in the Roosevelt/Truman mold. Through experience, observation and study, he came to adopt the conservative economics of the Austrian School of Friedrich von Hayek, perceiving that a free-growth economy benefited not only the entrepreneurs, but the general population, since, as the saying goes, “A rising wave lifts all boats.” In the 1970s and ’80s, he became an ardent supply-sider and Reaganaut, much to the surprise and, in some cases, anger of his Democratic liberal friends.
The second conversion, which he might not call by that name, was from National Catholic Reporter, Commonweal and America “Catholicism” to a more traditional understanding of the Second Vatican Council — personified by his fellow Slav, soon-to-be-canonized John Paul II. He recounts in detail his relationship with Pope John Paul in the final chapters of this stimulating book.
I heartily recommend this fine memoir of the religious, political and economic events of our era, concluding with a man who comprehended them all, John Paul the Great.
Father C. John McCloskey is a Church historian and research fellow at
the Faith and Reason Institute in Washington.