Meet the Conservative Intellectual Elite: Kathleen Parker, David Frum, Christopher Hitchens?

June 17th, 2010 11:19 PM

There's one big problem with the presentation of “The Party, In Exile," Pamela Paul's snobby but interesting front-page Sunday New York Times Styles section piece on a D.C. garden party featuring so-called conservatism in exile. As KarolNYC noted on her Twitter feed  -- it doesn't feature many actual conservatives.

The caption under John Cuneo's illustration made the disparity clear: “Insiders On The Outside: Members of the conservative intellectual elite at a party include, clockwise from left, David Frum, Michael Oren, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Christopher Hitchens, Laura Ingraham and Kathleen Parker.”

Of those six names, only one (Laura Ingraham) would be unanimously waved in to a garden party strictly for “conservatives.” The prolific, peripatetic, atheist writer Christopher Hitchens, is a long-time socialist who allied with conservatives on the Iraq War and some other issues (Paul noted he is a member “of the disenchanted left”).

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum's main interest of late is lamenting the popularity of Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker is an inconsistent conservative ally at best. Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- in whose name the party was held -- may qualify as conservative in some respects. Yet the brave feminist apostate from Islam, who currently works with the American Enterprise Institute, has only been in America for four years after being forced to flee Holland. Michael Oren is Israel's ambassador to the U.S.

Otherwise, the ambience at this intimate cocktail and buffet in honor of the Somalian-born activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali -- a woman who faced death threats even before she wrote a film that led to the murder of its director, Theo van Gogh -- was one of ease. Wearing a Michelle Obama-esque sleeveless emerald dress and sipping wine, Ms. Hirsi Ali, who has spent recent weeks traveling to Britain, Denmark and her former country of refuge, the Netherlands, while on tour for her new book “Nomad,” warmly met guests as they circled in admiration.

“Nice to see you,” total strangers said upon introduction, as if fearing the failure to recognize someone possibly met on a previous occasion. Or perhaps in certain Washington circles people assume they already know everyone else. Either way, here at the stately Wesley Heights home of the former Bush speechwriter, David (“axis of evil”) Frum, and his wife, the writer Ms. Frum, nearly everyone did. Far from the typical New York book party, this was more a bunkering of the conservative intellectual elite, a group that domineered its way through the Bush years but is now sidelined, a somewhat baffled shadow of its former blustery self.

Whither the conservative establishment in today’s bilious political landscape? Certainly the typical Tea Party denizen, with his “I Wanna Party Like It’s 1773” T-shirt and “You Lie!” trucker hat, would seem out of place on the Frums’ well-tended grounds, nibbling chicken skewers and mini-B.L.T.’s. In the presence of Ms. Hirsi Ali, at least, there was a sense of shared purpose.

Paul addressed the controversies surrounding Frum, who "lost his salaried post at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, in March, after calling the passage of health care legislation the Republican party’s 'Waterloo.'"

Also present was The Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker, prom-girl pretty and winner of a Pulitzer this spring for “gracefully sharing the experiences and values that lead her to unpredictable conclusions,” including a rebuke of Sarah Palin. “Like all the best conservatives, I started off as a liberal,” she trilled. In a similar display of the intellectual right’s discomfort with Wasilla-brand populism, Ms. Frum mocked a speech by Ms. Palin in April on The Huffington Post. (“There was not a single memorable line, not a single new political idea, not a single proffered solution beyond the cliché.”) And lending a poignant immediacy to the rejiggered state of affairs was the Republican Senator Robert Bennett, ousted last month in the Utah primary for his votes on health care and Wall Street reform. A certain kind of nomad, all.

If you can get past the knee-jerk “ick, Palin!” snobbery and mockery of the Tea Party movement, the latter half of Paul's party piece contained some interesting anecdotes about Ayaan Hirsi Ali, the Somali-born Islamist turned crusader for women and her shunning by her supposed liberal allies. Paul, to her credit, illuminated an issue Times Watch has discussed -- the prickly response from the liberal media to Hirsi Ali's crusade for women's rights and against Islam:

Not surprisingly, though she favors both gay and abortion rights, Ms. Hirsi Ali has alienated what might otherwise be fellow liberal travelers in her crusade against religious oppression. In The New Yorker, Pankaj Mishra dismissed Ms. Hirsi Ali’s “simple oppositions” and “growing familiarity with right-wing touchstones.” The Los Angeles Times called “Nomad,” which is dedicated to the former president of A.E.I., an “anti-Islamic screed” and “a tough jeremiad to read.” The historian Timothy Garton Ash and the Dutch-born academic Ian Buruma have both written dismissively of Ms. Hirsi Ali to the point that the N.Y.U. professor Paul Berman devoted much of his new book, “The Flight of the Intellectuals,” to mounting a defense.

The Times review of Berman's tome is here.