UNTIL WE SAT DOWN FOR SEVERAL HOURS last December and talked about our separate views of America, my guess was that University of Dallas professor and political essayist Mel Bradford had cloven hooves and ate babies. What is one to make of an intellectual who despises Abraham Lincoln, believes that equality is a humbug, and compares the Ku Klux Klan of the nineteenth century with the French resistance of World War II?
I was curious about Bradford not because we were so different but because we had so many things in common. Our backgrounds are strikingly similar. We are exactly the same age, 57, and we grew up less than ten miles from one another: Bradford in the Riverside section of Fort Worth and I in Arlington. Bradford’s ancestors migrated to Texas from Alabama and Tennessee more than a century ago, the same as mine did; his mother’s family arrived in the 1830’s as part of the Robertson Colony, which makes him a sixth-generation Texan. For the most part, our lives were shaped by the same events—boyhoods infused with provincialism (anyone born north of Texarkana was a Yankee); heroic tales of the Texas Revolution, trail drives, and Indian wars; the unbridled patriotism of World War II; college and military service during the stridently anti-Communist fifties; careers launched at a time when the country was rocked by cataclysmic social changes—the most dramatic being the court decisions and legislation of the fifties and sixties that outlawed segregation. Yet I turned out to be a strong believer in equality and justice for all, a liberal of the fifties and sixties, while Bradford went in the opposite direction. Why had we come to such different conclusions about our country?
I knew a few other things about Bradford before we met. A professor of English and a Faulknerian scholar, Bradford is better known as a sort of gray eminence of the paleo-conservative movement. He is also an adviser to Republican presidential candidate Pat Buchanan. Bradford’s views on Lincoln created such a fire storm among neoconservatives in 1981 that the Reagan administration was forced to scrap plans to nominate him to chair the National Endowment for the Humanities, opting for the less controversial William Bennett. The media had a lot of fun with poor Mel Bradford during the NEH battle, poking its television cameras into his freshman class on Homer and accusing him of defaming the Declaration of Independence and of advocating a return to slavery—a charge Bradford goes out of his way to deny.
The bitterness of that experience lingers in some of Bradford’s essays and pronouncements. In a 1984 speech to a seminar of Lincoln scholars at Gettysburg (of all places), he took note of the fact that his views on Lincoln have been ridiculed by the media and concluded that “the press caricature of my view … is a confirmation of the case I make against the influence of the Lincoln myth.”
Bradford has published about fifty essays in Modern Age, National Review, and other conservative journals (many of which are included as chapters in his six books), savaging Lincoln, lamenting the fall of the Confederacy, and generally denouncing almost every new idea to come down the pike since the Missouri Compromise. His essays tend to be broad, dense, highly academic, heavily footnoted abstractions, with titles like “The Agrarian Inheritance: An Affirmation.” His central premise might be summarized in this sentence from the dust jacket of his book Remembering Who We Are: “The United States was not founded … with the idea of creating a society dedicated to either justice or equality, and all attempts to turn America in that direction have resulted in a perversion of the nation’s true origins.” Just last fall Bradford was involved in another ideological clash, when National Review refused to publish a review he wrote attacking a new book on Lincoln by James McPherson. Bradford protested by terminating his 25-year association with the publication.
To my surprise, I enjoyed my conversations with Bradford. Ideologues can have a certain charm. As long as they are not too stuffy or dogmatic, people who are convinced that they are right and everyone else is wrong can be disarming. Bradford even demonstrated an occasional willingness to see the other side. At one point he mentioned the movie How Green Was My Valley, a 1941 epic about the wretched conditions in a Welsh mining village, and told me: “You can’t see that movie and not understand why some people are attracted to socialism.” He also revealed himself to be a closet environmentalist. “I oppose any regulation of private property,” he said, “but when I see some developer clear-cutting one-hundred-year-old trees, I want to pass a law to pound the hell out of him.” The ideology so apparent in his political essays does not invade his literary criticism. He despises James Joyce’s view of art as religion—“dangerous nonsense”—but enthusiastically teaches Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man as a work of art. And although he hates almost everything about the modern world, he makes exceptions for air conditioning and medicine. “Modern medicine has made it possible for people to live and die with some dignity,” he told me. “And it prevents the loss of our womenfolk, dying from childbirth. Our great-grand-fathers had to have three wives for that reason.”
Bradford is an extraordinarily large man, at least six foot four, with a girth the circumference of a tractor tire—think of Sydney Greenstreet. His voice rumbles with conviction and, at times, seems almost a parody of Southern authoritarianism. When Bradford commanded the Dallas County George Wallace delegation at the 1972 state Democratic convention, he was overheard telling an anxious huddle of Wallaceites: “I have orders from Montgomery!” Reporter Lee Cullum wrote in the Dallas Times Herald, “No one had paid any attention to orders from Montgomery in over 100 years, but Bradford spoke the line in a spirit of high drama.”
This obsession with the Old South, which separated Bradford from me and most others of