Right, but Wrong

In his memoirs, archconservative state GOP chair Tom Pauken refights the cultural wars of the sixties—and loses.

May 1995By Comments

In Vietnam Pauken (right) served as an intelligence officer.

When Ann Richards was governor, Texas Republican party chairman Fred Meyers barraged her administration with criticism and prepared the way for George W. Bush to defeat her last November. Now that Bush is governor, he too is the target of barbs from an angry state party chairman. Only this time it’s not the opposition party that’s sniping at him—it’s his own. The new leader of the state GOP, a four-time loser for public office named Tom Pauken who forced Meyer out of the job last June, has criticized Bush for appointing conservative Democrats to high-profile positions in his administration. A Pauken ally with the State Republican Executive Committee even proposed a resolution critical of Bush.

The split between Bush and Pauken—it is more than a disagreement but less than a feud—is emblematic of the main problem facing Texas Republicans as they verge on taking over the state. They still haven’t decided who the real enemy is: the opposition party or the opposition faction within their own party. The old division of the early sixties between Nelson Rockefeller and Barry Goldwater continues to cleave the GOP into two wings. Call them traditionalist conservative and ultra-conservative, establishment and populist, or even natural fiber and polyester: However you define it, the Bush-Pauken squabble threatens the unity that made the GOP such an effective force in unseating Ann Richards. Of course, it was Republican disunity that helped elect Richards four years earlier.

The biggest difference between the two factions is that one of them wants to use the government and the other has no use for government. Bush is a traditional conservative. He has an ambitious legislative program, and he knows he can’t pass it unless he wins the confidence of Democrats, who control the Legislature. By tapping Democratic East Texas legislator Elton Bomer as insurance commissioner, Bush sends the signal that he’s serious about being bipartisan. One would think that the Republican party chairman would be pleased that the GOP won Bomer’s seat in a special election and edged closer to controlling the state House of Representatives. But to ultra-conservatives like Pauken, the episode revealed Bush as a pragmatist—a buzzword in ultra-conservative circles that refers to someone whose ideological purity is suspect.

Although the Bush-Pauken split has taken place behind the scenes, Pauken’s views about Republican politics are public. It so happens that he has recently written his memoirs, The Thirty Years War: The Politics of the Sixties Generation. Ostensibly the title refers to Pauken’s long battle in the conservative trenches against “New Left activists who remain committed to their objective of a radical transformation of American society.” But while Pauken’s intended target is the left, his aim—and, even more telling, his contempt—is frequently directed at the Republican center: Ann Richards is a “committed leftist,” but Richard Nixon had a “corporate liberal” mind-set.

As a window into the mind of an ideologue, The Thirty Years War reveals the fate that has befallen the American political center. Pauken intimates that throughout his career, from military service in Vietnam to tours of duty in the Nixon and Reagan administrations, it is not the New Left that has most consistently stood in his way. It is the moderates on his own side, who, in his own view, have kept the war from being won, whether it is being fought in Southeast Asia or Washington, D.C. “It is truly a time for choosing sides,” he writes. Anyone who doesn’t approach politics with a total-war philosophy is giving aid and comfort to the enemy.

George W. Bush falls into that category—and so does George Bush the elder. When I told the governor that Pauken had written a book, he immediately asked, “What did he say about Dad?” The answer is, nothing good. Writing of his 1984 clash with Jim Baker, President bush’s longtime friend and Ronald Reagan’s chief of staff, over Pauken’s controversy-filled tenure with a federal poverty program in South Texas, Pauken says “My break with the George Bush-Jim Baker wing of the party had become irreversible.” He goes on to say, “What George Bush and his closest advisers didn’t seem to understand is that America at the end of the twentieth century is in the midst of a cultural war, and whoever sits in the office of the presidency has the ability to influence the outcome of this conflict.” Substitute “governor” for “presidency” and you have the basis for the division that plagues the Texas GOP today.

Pauken became a political activist as a student at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., in the early sixties. The origin of his involvement was religious rather than secular, which no doubt explains the zeal he has maintained ever since. A Jesuit institution whose faculty was deeply divided over whether to follow conservative or liberal theology, Georgetown was a place where a student might study the works of Thomas Aquinas in one class and the works of dissident theologian Hans Kung in the next. It was truly a time, as Pauken writes, for choosing sides, and he chose to join a small but dedicated group of traditionalists. His heroes were William F. Buckley, Jr., whom the liberal priests wouldn’t allow to speak on campus, and Barry Goldwater, and both would influence his approach to politics. Pauken heard Buckley denounce the “Liberal Establishment”—the center of American politics—and made it his lifelong enemy; he heard Goldwater polarize political dialogue and made it his lifelong style: “Goldwater did what so few politicians are willing to do—he talked about issues in terms of black and white, rather than the grays people were accustomed to hearing,” Pauken writes.

Pauken’s view of politics is that consistency and principles are virtues, which is true, and pragmatism and compromise are vices, which is false. Politics must have all of these. “The time for the final showdown between the conservatives and the New Left is drawing near,” he writes toward the end of his book. But if history teaches us anything about politics, it is that there can never be a final showdown. The basic disagreements of politics persevere. We simultaneously yearn for liberty and equality, although one cannot always be achieved without sacrificing the other; we simultaneously demand to be left alone by the government and to be protected by the government. Politics is situational. Where you stand, as the old saying goes, is where you sit. The purpose of politics is not to solve problems, because fundamental issues such as the proper balance between liberty and equality can never be solved. Rather, the purpose is to respond to problems, to redress the mistakes of the past with full awareness that today’s corrections will become tomorrow’s crises.

But Pauken insists on treating politics as war—and the results of war can be final. Troy and Carthage are dust; the South shall not rise again. The sources of this outlook is his experience in Vietnam, where he served as an intelligence officer after he enlisted in the Army. Pauken’s continuing obsession with that war is evident from the first sentence of his book (“Vietnam was the defining political issue of the sixties generation”) to the last (“With [Vietnam veterans] as part of our coalition, we can forge a new majority and reclaim our country from the Left”). But for all his absorption with the war, for all his observations about the shortcomings of the U.S. military operation and factionalism and corruption in South Vietnam, he ends up drawing the wrong lessons. In the end, he blames America’s defeat on media bias, New Left opposition, and the no-win strategy of liberal establishmentarians like foreign affairs expert George Kennan and Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara.

“Nothing less than a communist defeat was morally acceptable,” Pauken writes. Here is the core of Pauken’s politics—the easy answer, cast in moral terms, to a practical problem. That problems was not whether to win the war, but how. Nuke the North? Invade Hanoi? And then what? Set up our own puppet regime to replace Ho Chi Minh? And what about the Viet Cong? They were villagers by day and guerillas by night. We didn’t even know who was on our own side and who was against us.

Tom Pauken is writing with the benefit of hindsight, but he chooses not to see. From our vantage point in 1995, it is obvious that (1) the Vietnam War was not winnable in any conventional military sense, and (2) winning didn’t matter anyway. Military intervention was not necessary to defeat communism.

Both Ronald Reagan and George Bush understood the military lessons of Vietnam: American troops should be used only when there is a clear national interest, a finite objective, and a limited time span within which the objective can be achieved. But Pauken is still fighting the last war. The problem with his view of politics is that he never lets practicality intrude on morality.

Pauken’s uncompromising attitude toward politics has gotten him in trouble throughout his career—with his own side. Twice his critical views found their way into U.S. News and World Report. As a soldier, he aired his doubts (unattributed but traceable) about the war effort; as a junior White House staffer, he published a journal of an official trip to the Soviet Union that was at odds with the Nixon administration’s policy of détente. Pauken is no dummy, and his observations about the way things work, form the military to the old-boy network of the Eastern establishment, are often trenchant. But politics is like a war in one sense: It requires good soldiers. Every officer can’t be a general; ever low-level staffer can’t be Secretary of State. Pauken is too much a public critic and not enough of a loyalist ever to succeed at politics.

Even when conservatives finally won, with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, Pauken wasn’t satisfied. In what he describes as a “bloodless coup,” some of the positions in the new administration were filled by “centrist, pragmatic Republicans.” It was not surprising, he writes, “that many of Reagan’s policy initiatives were scuttled or altered beyond recognition.”

One victim of the bloodless coup was Tom Pauken. In 1981 Reagan named him director of ACTION, a federal agency that oversaw volunteer programs like VISTA. In what most of Washington saw as an obscure agency, Pauken saw as the front lines of the great cultural struggle. During the Carter administration, Pauken writes, the agency had “used federal dollars earmarked for VISTA to fund what seemed like virtually every remnant of the New Left apparatus remaining from the turbulent sixties.” As ACTION’s director, he shifted funds away from community groups and into promotional campaigns for drug education and a better public image for Vietnam veterans. All that Pauken lacked was a Sarajevo to provide the spark for cultural war.

It happened in 1984. A killing freeze hit the Rio Grande Valley that year, and farm workers were unable to earn enough money to migrate to the Midwest for the fall harvests. Local leaders were calling for a federally funded jobs program. Unfortunately, the proposal had been put together by Valley Interfaith—“a classic example,” writes Pauken, “of a New Left organization all dressed up for the eighties.” To make matters worse, Valley Interfaith had the backing of the Catholic Church. Pauken was convinced that he was fighting a doctrine known as liberation theology, which amounted to “an attempt to blend the principles of Christianity and Marxism.” To him the issue was not helping the farm workers but preventing the Valley Interfaith from building a political machine out of theological heresy. The subsequent confrontation, to which Pauken devotes an entire chapter of his book, got so much unfavorable media attention that Jim Baker dispatched an aide to chew out Pauken for polarizing the Valley. That fall, Ronald Reagan carried Cameron County, causing Pauken to write, “The November election results confirmed who had won the political battle in the Rio Grande Valley.” But no gratitude was forthcoming. When Pauken was considered for another federal post, Baker, the ultimate centrist and pragmatist, vetoed him. Pauken’s career in Washington was over.

Eleven years have passed, but Pauken has not changed. As March turned into April and George W. Bush tried to persuade Democrats to back his education reforms, Pauken announced that the Republican party would make an all-out effort to capture the Texas House of Representatives in the 1996 elections. Among the Democrats specifically targeted by Pauken were two whose support is most crucial to Bush: Speaker Pete Laney and Public Education Committee chairman Paul Sadler. Asked about Pauken’s statements, Bush spokeswoman Karen Hughes said, “Governor Bush thinks that now is not the time for partisan politics. Local control of schools is not a Republican or a Democratic issue. It’s a Texas issue.” Bush’s political director, Karl Rove, was more emphatic: “It’s unfortunate and ill advised,” he says. “Even if you’re going to do it, why announce it?”

The Republican state chairman has made the Republican governor’s job far more difficult. But it is unlikely that Tom Pauken cares. A battle that requires having Democrats on your side is not worth winning. That’s not the way wars are fought.

Related Content