Karl Hess and the Death of Politics
[This article is transcribed from the Libertarian Tradition podcast episode "Karl Hess and the Death of Politics."]
Karl Hess was born Carl Hess III in Washington DC, 87 years ago this month — on May 25, 1923, to be exact (and here on the Libertarian Tradition, we are nothing if not exact). Hess was the son of Carl Hess Jr., a wealthy Filipino tennis champion of mixed Spanish and German ancestry who had come through Washington DC on a tour and stopped in at a local photographer's shop to have his portrait made. At the shop he met a beautiful young woman named Thelma, the 22-year-old photographer's assistant. He asked her out to dinner that very evening. The following day, he asked her to marry him. She agreed to his proposal, they set up housekeeping there in Washington, and a year later, in 1923, their son, Carl III, was born.
Carl Jr., the young father, decided at this point to take his wife and newborn son back to his parents' palatial home in Manila. Unfortunately, once there, he fell back into his old habits and ways. He was, apparently, a compulsive philanderer. He couldn't help falling into bed with every attractive female who crossed his path. He would eventually acknowledge 16 out-of-wedlock children — there may have been others, as well — and he died during World War II, before ever celebrating his 50th birthday, when his American son was only 21 years old.
That American son, Carl III, had grown up back in Washington, effectively fatherless. "For all practical purposes," he wrote in 1975, "I had only a mother." After a bit more than three years in the Philippines, Thelma Hess had left her wealthy husband and taken their son with her back to DC, where she moved in with her brother and found a job running the switchboard in an expensive high-rise apartment building.
So Carl III grew up in the nation's capital in the '30s, just as Gore Vidal did. But while Vidal was getting his education in expensive private schools, Carl III was getting his mostly in public libraries. His mother, Thelma, was a high-school dropout herself — not an uncommon thing for someone born around 1900 — but her experience with schools had not been much to her liking, and she wasn't necessarily determined that her son would graduate from high school either. That was up to him, she thought. But she was determined that he would have a decent education, however he obtained it.
She taught him to read, and then, as he got older, she started refusing to answer his questions whenever they were questions she believed he could find out the answers to for himself. She took him to the public library, taught him how to use it. She took him to the city and county and state and federal offices where public records were stored and showed him how to access those records. She taught him how to use dictionaries and other reference books. She offered to write him a note excusing his absence from school any days he wanted to skip school, as long as he'd spend those days at home or in the public library reading and then discuss what he'd read with her afterwards.
By the time Carl III was 15, in 1938, he figured he'd had enough of school. He walked away from it and went out looking for a job. He was tall and well spoken; his voice had changed early. He could pass for older than he really was. But as it turned out, he didn't have to look very far to find employment. Walter Compton, a fast-rising news anchor and commentator on the Mutual Broadcasting System, who was "stationed," so to speak, at Mutual's Washington affiliate, WOL radio, was a tenant in the building where Thelma ran the switchboard. He had taken a liking to young Carl III and had offered him a job.
At first Carl III was just a gopher at WOL. Then he was assigned to research quiz-show questions. Then he was assigned to write newscasts. His rise was rapid. And there was no TV in 1938, remember, at least outside of laboratories, so radio was the main mass medium of the day. The job at WOL and Mutual led to a job at the Washington Star, which led to a job at the Alexandria Gazette across the river in Virginia. That led to a job at the Washington Times-Herald, which led to a job at the Washington News.
By the time Carl III turned 22, in 1945, he was well established in Washington journalism. He had also changed his name — if only slightly. His father, Carl Hess Jr., whom he could barely remember and hadn't seen in years, had spelled his name, "Carl," with a "C." But now Carl III found that, as he put it more than fifty years later in his autobiography, Mostly on the Edge, "C as in Carl seemed too soft and curled up. K as in Karl seemed, because of those uncompromised straight lines, much stronger and more in keeping with my own self-image of independence and freethinking." So he changed the spelling of his first name from C-a-r-l to K-a-r-l and dropped the III and became just plain Karl Hess.
Meanwhile, he was a freelancing as a ghostwriter, writing speeches for politicians and writing books for a roster of clients that included politicians and mobsters — or do I repeat myself? — as well as clergymen and even fellow journalists. Within a couple of years, the speeches he wrote for Republican politicians brought him to the attention of the Republican National Committee. As Hess told the story in his autobiography, "By the time of Gov. Thomas E. Dewey's second run for the presidency … I was asked by Jim Selvage, of [the] then-famed Selvage and Lee public relations agency, to write some speech material for the candidate. I accepted the offer, went to work … the agency and the Republican National Committee liked what I wrote and asked for more."
New York Governor Thomas E. Dewey's second run for the presidency took place — he was running against Democrat Harry Truman — in 1948, when Karl Hess was 25 years old. After the campaign, Hess stayed on for a couple of years, writing speeches, articles, whatever might be needed, for the Republican National Committee. Then he learned that, as he put it in his autobiography, "one official of the Republican National Committee, Robert Humphreys, had close friendships with people at Newsweek magazine, where he had been national affairs editor. And Newsweek needed a new press editor. It took just one phone call to get me an appointment with the features … editor, Frank Callen Norris. It took about a fifteen-minute interview and, lo, I was hired."
Hess stayed at Newsweek for the next four years. Then he worked briefly with William F. Buckley Jr. in the mid-1950s, getting a new conservative magazine called National Review off the drawing board and ready for launch. He spent a few years freelancing for magazines and for United Features Syndicate, which provided columns and articles to hundreds of newspapers coast to coast. He moved to Ohio, where, for a year, he edited a fishing magazine. For a couple of years, still in the Midwest, he was Vice President of Public Relations at Champion Paper Company. And all along, during the 1950s, whether he was in New York or Washington or out on one of the Great Lakes, he was moonlighting, you might say, as a ghostwriter for politicians — mostly speeches, but also articles in local and national publications.
It was no surprise, really, when the Republican National Committee contacted him and asked him to serve as chief writer for the 1960 GOP presidential campaign platform. He did, moving his family back to Washington in the process. After that, he found a gig as executive editor of a short-lived weekly tabloid called the Washington World. From there he jumped to a two-year stint as Director of Special Projects at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, where he continued his ghostwriting on an even grander scale and began working with a US Senator from Arizona named Barry Goldwater.
At this point, it would be wise to pause in our narrative and ask ourselves: why was Karl Hess working for the Republican National Committee? Why was he writing speeches for conservative politicians and drawing paychecks from the biggest and most influential (at that time) of the conservative think tanks?
Part of the answer seems to have been that his mother, Thelma, was a lifelong Republican, and Hess tended, especially in his younger years, to assume that this meant the GOP stood for the values he knew his mother espoused: values like individualism, self-reliance, personal responsibility. In 1970, Hess told James Boyd of the New York Times that the Depression-era "Republican party presented itself as the party that was against centralized power, against militarism and foreign meddling, against Communism; it was for local control, individual liberty and the pioneer spirit. That was my ticket."
In his 1975 book, Dear America, looking back on a quarter-century of writing in support of Republican candidates and issues, Hess recalled that it had seemed to him at the time, back in the Depression years when he had first become involved in GOP politics, that "Republican policy opposed the extension of government power." Nearly 20 years later, in his autobiography, Hess looked back on the same period in his life and recalled that "the Republicans were radical then." They
represented the only strong anti-imperialist political position. Anti-imperialist? Republicans? Uh-huh. But Republicans were not smart enough to call it that. They let it be labeled isolationism, as though they wanted the United States to sneak off the world stage, slam the doors, and bolt the windows. The underlying Republican argument, that we should trade with everyone but not interfere with or intervene in their internal politics, was lost behind that unattractive label.
In effect, then, Hess was deceived by the libertarian rhetoric the GOP and its conservative sympathizers began using in the early 1930s, in a frantic attempt to distinguish themselves from the New Deal Democrats who were pursuing policies long associated with the Republican Party and calling them "liberal." It is doubtful, of course, that any Republican politician other than Ron Paul has ever taken that libertarian rhetoric seriously. And damn few conservative intellectuals have ever taken it seriously enough to defend it consistently, especially when it's politically inconvenient to do so.
The Republican Party's libertarian rhetoric has never been more than window dressing designed to conceal the actual nature of Republican policies and pass them off as something they are not. Some may wonder why it took Hess 20 years to notice all this, why it took a man this obviously intelligent so long to grasp that the Republicans were pretty much the same as the New Deal Democrats he opposed, but with window dressing.
My counsel is that we should practice extreme tolerance with regard to questions like this one. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. Each of us has an individual way of learning. All of us grasp some truths very quickly. Other truths may take longer to, as they say, "sink in." What one person learns quickly, another person, equally intelligent, may take much longer — and many more repetitions — to learn. What is more important is what an individual does with what he has learned, once she has learned it. What matters is not how fast the awakening, the epiphany, comes but what happens once it comes.
For Karl Hess, the awakening began in the early 1960s, when he was 40 years old, early in his 2-year assignment at the American Enterprise Institute, for it was then that he began reading Ayn Rand. Before long, he was taking courses at NBI, the Nathaniel Branden Institute, in New York. Before much longer, the Randian influence was showing up unmistakably in the 1964 presidential campaign platform of the GOP, written by Hess, and the speeches delivered by the party's presidential nominee for that year, US Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona, for whose campaign Hess served as chief speechwriter.
Meanwhile, he had met Murray Rothbard, and it wasn't long before he had put Objectivist minarchism behind him and moved on to Rothbardian anarchism. Under Rothbard's influence he began reading classic anarchist writers. "When I read Emma Goldman," he told the interviewer for the 1983 documentary Anarchism in America,
it was as though everything I had hoped that the Republican Party would stand for suddenly came out crystallized in this magnificently clear statement. And another interesting thing about reading Emma Goldman is that you immediately see that, consciously or not, she's the source of the best in Ayn Rand. She has the essential points that the Ayn Rand philosophy makes, but without any of this sort of crazy solipsism that Rand is so fond of — the notion that people accomplish everything all in isolation. Emma Goldman understands that there's a social element to even science. But she also writes that all history is the struggle of the individual against the institutions, which, of course, is what I'd always thought Republicans were saying.
After the Goldwater campaign, Karl Hess quit the Republican Party. He continued to ghostwrite a nationally syndicated newspaper column for Barry Goldwater for a while, and he wrote a book about the campaign, published in 1967 under the title In a Cause That Will Triumph. He even did a little speechwriting for the senator during his 1968 campaign to regain the senate seat he had given up four years earlier in order to run for president. Under Rothbard's influence, Hess wrote an essay on libertarianism called "The Death of Politics," which appeared in Playboy in March 1969 and is now widely regarded, and quite properly, as one of the founding documents of the contemporary libertarian movement.
Under Rothbard's influence, Hess attended the 1969 national convention of the conservative youth group Young Americans for Freedom — YAF — in St. Louis, where he helped Rothbard try to steer the libertarian students who walked out of the convention en masse into their left-leaning, anarchist-friendly Radical Libertarian Alliance instead of the more Randian and minarchist Society for Individual Liberty. Hess served as Washington Editor of Rothbard's newsletter, the Libertarian Forum, from 1969 to 1971. He spoke at Radical Libertarian Alliance conferences in both New York and Los Angeles. But before long — before 1972 had dawned — his steady drift leftward had brought him to the parting of the ways with Rothbard.
The Karl Hess of the early 1970s was most often found attired in fatigues, a field jacket, and combat boots. He rode a motorcycle. He gave up his affiliation with the right-wing American Enterprise Institute for an affiliation with the leftwing Institute for Policy Studies. He joined Students for a Democratic Society. He learned welding, worked professionally as a welder, and joined the Wobblies — the IWW, the Industrial Workers of the World. He hung out with the Black Panthers. He started talking about "community" and about the concerns of "workers" and about the ways in which giant corporations, and the corporate lifestyle and the corporate mindset, menace and victimize ordinary, hardworking Americans.
His 1975 book, Dear America, is full of this sort of vaguely New Leftish stuff, intermixed with passages of pure Rothbardian libertarianism. Hess's decade or so on the left had a profound influence on the remainder of his life — how he lived, how he thought. But in the end, as it turned out, the left was just one more way station on his road back to the ideological home he had found in the '60s and then had drifted away from, for what had seemed like good reasons at the time, but had turned out to be illusory, insubstantial.
By the mid '80s, he was, as Lennon and McCartney might say, back to where he once belonged. Hess began contributing to movement magazines like Bill Bradford's Liberty. He joined the Libertarian Party and spent three years as editor of the party's newspaper, the LP News. When he started writing his autobiography in the late '80s and early '90s, he chose to portray himself in pretty much the way I have done in this essay — as a lifelong libertarian who had, somewhat ironically, spent most of his life wandering around searching for his true political identity and his true ideological home. It's good to know that, before his premature death from heart failure in 1994, he finally found both of them.