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A man for all reasons
David Brudnoy was a real compassionate conservative

DAVID BRUDNOY’S untimely death, on December 9, spurred a massive number of public reminiscences by friends, acquaintances, listeners, and just about everyone who ever crossed his path. The talk-show host, author, columnist, movie critic, teacher, and man about town was the perfect everything, each seemed to say. He did so many things well, in so many different spheres, and yet remained so human, with a special talent for humor and friendship. It was also often said that Brudnoy, "even though a conservative," was beloved and respected by the rich and poor, the well-educated and barely educated, the white-collar and blue-collar alike.

It’s true that Brudnoy’s anomalous political philosophy deviated considerably from both liberal and conservative dogma. His support of gay marriage and his opposition to obscenity laws separated him from many conservatives, while his criticisms of the "nanny state" conflicted with liberal doctrine. (He laughed appreciatively whenever I, a devoted liberal civil libertarian, reminded him of Barney Frank’s pungent observation that some conservatives believe that life begins at conception and ends at birth.) Indeed, a month before his death, he and I agreed to do a series of joint columns for the Boston Phoenix taking aim at the current-day idiocies that pollute both conservative and liberal political life. Yet the common view of Brudnoy is that liberals and conservatives managed to tolerate him despite his politics, by virtue of his magnetic and endearing personal qualities.

There is some truth to this, of course. But all too often overlooked is the true nature of his political philosophy and how this endeared him to people who bothered to know him beyond mere labels. Brudnoy was a courageous, principled, genuine humanitarian: he thought the best of people and wanted the best for them. Everyone who met or listened to him understood this intuitively.

BRUDS’S LOVE of people took shape the hard way, through a series of life experiences that revealed the human and personal consequences of failing to treat decent people with decency, and beloved people with care. In his 1996 memoir, Life Is Not a Rehearsal (Doubleday), he admits to considerable arrogance and even a dose of cruelty and dismissiveness as a young man, likely the result of his being an only male child of devoted middle-class Jewish parents. Tellingly, the first chapter is titled "The Best Little Boy in the World." But his capacity for friendship also grew as his politics changed.

Brudnoy began his adult life as a political liberal, topping off a period of civil-rights agitation at Yale and then Cambridge with a two-year stint as a professor at Texas Southern University, an all-black institution in Houston. There, he recounts in his memoir, he encountered students eager to learn, and he engaged them intellectually with the same vigor and respect that his talk-show audiences would come to know and appreciate. Yet it was at TSU that he began a serious shift from liberal politics to a more conservative viewpoint, tempered by a heavy dose of libertarianism, and eventually turned away from certain liberal articles of faith. He began to view affirmative action, for example, as based more on condescension than on fairness. While Brudnoy attributes much of this conversion to discovering the writings of libertarian guru Ayn Rand, his daily interactions with black students, whom he described in his memoir as eager "to learn and to make their futures bright and productive," made him suddenly self-conscious about the "patronization" that sometimes emanated from "liberal assumptions." Brudnoy believed in human liberty, equality, and dignity, and he was bound to adopt whatever political philosophy seemed to produce such results at a given time in history.

In other words, Brudnoy’s move toward libertarian conservatism was a natural outgrowth of his compassion, not a betrayal of it (he was, in this sense, the true "compassionate conservative," a term much bastardized in Washington these days). Brudnoy garnered the respect and admiration of people from all walks of life and across the political spectrum not despite his political views, but rather, in some measure, because of them.

And what were these views? Brudnoy believed that every person deserved an opportunity to live a decent life. He believed that government could contribute certain conditions necessary for the thriving of such a life, but he was adamantly opposed to allowing government power to make such an achievement less likely. He was especially exercised over the failures of public elementary and secondary education, where he found particular fault with administrators and teachers’ unions. Paying lip service to the needs of underprivileged children, the system was in fact constructed, he believed, for the primary benefit — one could say welfare — of its employees. His criticism of such institutions surely fit well with conservative-libertarian philosophy, but even a brief discussion of the subject with him could convince even the most skeptical listener that this former Texas Southern University teacher was, in fact, angered by the emotional and intellectual abuse of children that failing public-educational systems inflict. He believed certain services could better be rendered by private organizations and fellow citizens. He understood that, in certain areas of life, government largesse came at a huge price, paid in the coin of humiliation, second-class citizenship, shredded liberty, and excessive dependence on the exercise of faceless official power. He believed that conservatism of a commonsense variety — strongly tinged with libertarian principles and paired with a vibrant civil society united by a shared sense of citizenship — offered the best formula for a decent society. That’s why Brudnoy could be as critical of cultural conservatives, and of the current administration in Washington, as he was of the preceding administration.

This helps explain his almost uniform courteousness to his guests and, importantly, to his callers. Brudnoy really believed the best thing about this country was that everyone could have a point of view and not be afraid to express it — in freedom.

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Issue Date: December 17 - 23, 2004
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