Bill Steigerwald Bill Steigerwald, 4/3/2008 [Archive]

Al Regnery Conservative Idea Man -- A Column


Ideas have consequences, as conservatives always like to say. And Alfred Regnery, more than most conservatives, knows from experience that books are probably the best way to spread and empower ideas.

Regnery, 65, and now publisher of The American Spectator magazine, is the son of the late but still iconic conservative publisher Henry Regnery, the wealthy intellectual businessman who published some of the classic books that inspired and incited the conservative movement after World War II.

The Fox News Channel of a virtually all-liberal 1950s publishing world, Henry Regnery Co. of Chicago never sought or achieved corporate profitability.

But it hit political and cultural pay-dirt by publishing important conservative books like "God and Man at Yale" (1951) by young William F. Buckley Jr. and Russell Kirk's seminal "The Conservative Mind" (1953).

Henry Regnery's original company -- now called Regnery Publishing, now part of Eagle Publishing and still very conservative -- also published works by Albert J. Nock, James Burnham and James J. Kilpatrick, plus books by John Birch Society founder Robert Welch and poetry by T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound.

The story of Al Regnery's father and his dissident publishing house is found in Al Regnery's new book, "Upstream: The Ascendance of American Conservatism" (Threshold Editions), a readable, personalized survey of the conservative movement and its intellectual and political heroes.

"Upstream" follows conservatism's growth from the dark days of the late 1940s -- when FDR-style liberalism at home and socialism/communism worldwide both seemed unbeatable -- through the Buckley/Goldwater/Reagan/Gingrich eras to the watered-down conservatism of George W. Bush.

Last week, I asked Regnery to name the most important early books of the conservative revolution, in terms of intellectual and political impact.

He listed Friedrich Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom" (1944), Buckley's "God and Man," Whittaker Chambers' "Witness," Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" and Milton Friedman's "Capitalism and Freedom."

Though it sold about 500,000 copies via mouth-to-mouth advertising, Regnery said, "Capitalism and Freedom" got virtually no newspaper or magazine reviews.

Many of the other important books were widely critiqued -- and mostly trashed -- by the mainstream press, which was as liberal then as it is now.

A few received a huge amount of attention in those simpler media days, Regnery said. For example, in 1953 Time magazine didn't just review Kirk's "The Conservative Mind" -- it went ape over it.

"Time was relatively as big as it is now," Regnery said, "and its book section was extremely prestigious. Kirk was an instructor at Michigan State. Nobody had ever heard of him before, but it was such a formidable book that Time devoted its entire book section to it. That brought it huge attention."

Despite the competition from today's electronic and digital media, Regnery believes books aren't going to disappear anytime soon or lose their persuasive power.

"They will always have a considerable impact. Books are basically the things that formulate and disperse ideas and ideas are what make the world go round.

"There's a quote in my book from John Maynard Keynes that I liked and that I think says a lot. It's on Page 25: 'Ideas are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. ... Sooner or later, it is ideas, not vested interests, which are dangerous for good or evil.' "

Books still get those big new ideas off the ground and flesh them out and probably always will, said Regnery. But it's not necessarily the blockbusters that have the most impact, he said. It's often smaller books like "The Conservative Mind."

"It's probably sold 350,000 books at the outside," he said, "but it's changed a lot of lives." And it and other great conservative/libertarian "idea" books are still doing so. Their "long tails" -- in terms of both their continuing annual sales and their un-attenuated powers to persuade -- appear to be virtually eternal.

"The Road to Serfdom," for example, has been printed in 40-some languages. Its timeless message -- that freedom and markets are morally and practically superior to government coercion and planning -- is still changing lives, and minds, in every corner of the world.

Bill Steigerwald is a columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. E-mail Bill at© Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, All Rights Reserved.

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