Death at the Gazebo:
Conservatism In Extremis at Hillsdale Collegeby E. Michael Jones
This article was published in the January, 2000 issue of Culture Wars magazine. Want a copy? Order here.
Downstairs again we somehow fell into a discussion of our religious antecedents, and Ayn mentioned that she was Jewish by birth and that Frank was Catholic, although they were both atheists and felt no tie to religion of any kind. “What matters,” Ayn remarked, “is what you accept by choice, not what you are connected with through the accident of your ancestry.”
Judgment Day: My Years with Ayn Rand
here’s nothing like suicide to make a point. Lissa Roche could have shot herself in the head in the living room of her house, which is where she got the gun which eventually killed her. Instead, she left the house by the back door and, crossing its back yard, entered the arboretum which the Hillsdale College students had created, according to the PR material which Lissa herself supervised, for the college’s alumni as a place of peace and meditation. It was there at the gazebo with the scriptural passage from Paul warning about drunkenness and fornication that she killed herself, making in the process a statement about the college which the world could not ignore. The location was significant. “I have performed many marriages there,” said one Hillsdale professor who is also a minister. He then added with a smirk, “Students who want to screw go there too.”
Lissa chose the location and the act of suicide as an attack on George Roche III and the institution which was, as Emerson would have said, his “lengthened shadow.” It was also an attack on the conservative movement which had provided the financial basis for Hillsdale’s success and which, by enabling that success, had become the instrument of its undoing. There is historical precedent for this sort of thing. When Harriet Shelley realized that she had lost her husband irrevocably to the baleful intellectual influence of the Godwin family and to Mary Godwin in particular, she killed herself as well, making sure that her husband got the message. Mary Godwin got the message too, and immortalized it in Frankenstein, whose monster tells his guilt-ridden creator, “I will be with you on your wedding night.” Henceforth, all sexual pleasure will be polluted with guilt, the guilt Percy and Mary Shelley felt over the adultery which caused the death of Shelley’s first wife.
“I will be with you on your wedding night” might have been Lissa’s message to Hillsdale College President George Roche III as well. In August of 1998, Roche filed for divorce from June Bernard Roche, his wife of 44 years and the mother of George IV, to whom Lissa was married. On April 30, 1999 the divorce became finalized and once it did, George III asked both Lissa and George IV to move into Broadlawn, the mansion which Hillsdale College provided its president, ostensibly to care for Roche’s aged mother. At this point George IV had no idea that there was something unseemly about the relationship between his wife and his father. Then in September, George III announced out of the blue that he intended to marry Mary Hagan, 56, of Louisville, Kentucky, and a wedding was hastily arranged for September 13. Shortly after George III announced his impending wedding, George IV and Lissa were asked to move out of Broadlawn and at this point the cords holding back the heavy weight of deceit which George III and Lissa had been carrying for almost two decades began to snap under the strain and the whole sordid affair began its inexorable slide into disaster.
Five days before the wedding, on September 8, Lissa wrote a letter in which she announced that she was quitting her job at Hillsdale and planning to divorce her husband. “It grieves me to tell you that I am unable to continue as managing editor of Imprimis and the Hillsdale college press, “ Lissa Roche wrote in a memo found by police on a laptop computer in her home. “I am seeking a divorce from George IV for reasons I can’t go into, and it seems best to get out of town immediately,” she wrote. “I’m sorry to leave you on a lurch like this. I know that there will be a lot of talk about my sudden departure; please tell people that, although it seems strange that I left in such a secretive manner, it was simply to avoid a big fuss. You know me; I hate to be the object of attention.”
People who knew Lissa described her as an aggressive promoter of Hillsdale’s interests and not at all reluctant to be the object of attention. It was Lissa who squired the prominent conservative speakers around campus when they came there to talk. The author of this article was given the tour of campus by Lissa in the Spring of 1990 when he was invited to Hillsdale to speak on the fall of the Berlin wall. “I’m the daughter-in-law of George III, the wife of George IV, and the mother of George V,” Lissa said by way of introduction, and one got the impression that she was pleased to be part of what she perceived as the American equivalent of a political dynasty in the Anglophile mold. “Charlton Heston spoke here last week,” she announced over dinner, “and he gave us a $10,000 contribution.” “I hope you don’t expect that from all your speakers,” I said in response. “I have been such an object in the college community for many years now,” she wrote in her September 8 resignation letter. “I just want this to be as private as possible, and most of all, I don’t want to have to answer any questions.”
After writing her letter of resignation, Lissa flew to California to be with her twin sister and presumably to discuss the impending wedding. Her sister must have counseled reconciliation because Lissa was back in Hillsdale a short time later and, in fact, attended her father-in-law’s wedding. But whatever it was that prompted the first outburst wouldn’t let go of Lissa’s increasingly fragile psyche. She got drunk at the wedding and during the course of the reception made cryptic remarks about her relationship with the groom.
The marriage which got off to such an inauspicious start seemed to be over before it really began. On October 15, George III showed up at Lissa and George IV’s home and announced that he was planning to separate from his wife of little over a month and asked Lissa if she would move back into Broadlawn with George IV. Lissa eagerly agreed and bounced back from her depression almost immediately. Then, one day later, George IV got a call from his father’s new wife informing him that his father had gone into a diabetic related shock and had to be taken to the hospital. Returning from the hospital at around 3:00 a.m. on the morning of October 17, George IV announced that it looked as if his father had reconciled with his new wife. The announcement that they were not going to separate plunged Lissa back into the emotional turmoil she had so recently escaped. Enraged by the announcement, Lissa drove to the hospital and was asked by Roche’s new wife to leave. Undeterred she returned to the hospital at 11 a.m. with her husband, who recounted later that she threatened suicide during the short drive. When the couple reached George III’s hospital room a confrontation ensued, during which Lissa announced to her husband that she had been having an affair with his father for the past 19 years. When George IV turned to his father for a denial, none was forthcoming.
When Lissa and George IV returned home, Lissa gave her husband an ultimatum. “You need to go back and see your dad and tell him we all need to leave Hillsdale and go somewhere else and start over.” When George III rejected the idea, Lissa decided that she had had enough. Weakened by years of vice and deception, Lissa’s soul no longer had the elasticity it needed to make the transition from the center of the premier conservative college to a life on the periphery of a movement she had helped promote. Rather than beginning a new life with an act of repentance, Lissa decided to end the old life with an act of vengeance on the man and the institution which had scorned her. Sending George IV down the street to check on his grandmother, she took a .38 special out of the locked gun cabinet and headed for the gazebo which symbolized things venereal on campus. Now, when Hillsdale students contemplating marriage think of a place to hold their wedding, they will think of the gazebo and think of Lissa’s death and then, with a shudder, think of someplace else to hold the ceremony.
The Boat PeopleLissa Jackson arrived on the Hillsdale College campus as a freshman in the fall of 1975, four years after George III had taken over as president, primed by her education for sexual adventure. At around the same time that George Roche became president of Hillsdale, Lissa Jackson began her high school education by flying to the Caribbean and becoming a passenger on a large sailing ship that housed what was then known as the Flint School, also known as the Boats, a floating academy whose purpose was to instill into young minds the philosophy of Ayn Rand.
“Ayn Rand was big on campus,” said Ann, who graduated from Hillsdale in 1978 and knew Lissa and other Flint School alumni while a student there. She referred to them as “the boat people,” conjuring images of helpless refugees adrift in the aftermath of large ideological conflicts. “I felt sorry for them,” she continued, “It’s one of those situations where you know if they follow that line of thinking, they’re gonna go down the drain.” Ann, who is one of 14 children, remembers one of the boat people she befriended and invited home for Thanksgiving dinner, a girl by the name of Kate, who was from Panama, had been raised a Catholic, but now had lost contact with just about anything one associated with roots and family. Conservatism, in this instance the writings of Ayn Rand, filled the vacuum that was once occupied by family, ethnicity, and religion. In his memoir of his years with Ayn Rand, Nathaniel Branden described his own sense of deracination as crucial to his involvement with Objectivism."Living in the predominantly Anglo-Saxon city of Toronto, my parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had never really assimilated themselves into Canadian culture. A sense of rootlessness and disorientation was present in our home from the beginning. I had no sense of belonging, in Toronto or anywhere else, nor was I even aware of what a sense of belonging would mean. To me the void seemed normal."It was only after Branden had read The Fountainhead and met Ayn Rand in person at her Richard Neutra home in California that the feeling started to abate. Objectivism had become a replacement for ethnicity, family and religion. “At such moments as these,” Branden wrote describing his visits to his mentor, “my feeling of family was at its strongest. I felt: here is my home; here is my space; here are my roots. I was conscious of my longing for a sense of roots and welcomed it.” It was a situation that typified the Objectivist movement, whose inner circle was composed of assimilation-hungry children of Russian Jewish immigrants who idolized an America they saw as ruthless, WASPish and powerful, an America that was symbolized by the dollar bill sign which Ayn Rand wore on her black cape, a six-foot high version of which stood beside her coffin as she lay in state.
By the time Lissa arrived at Hillsdale, Objectivism was in a sorry state of disarray following the at the time still unexplained break between Ayn Rand and her protégé Nathaniel Branden. What Lissa probably didn’t know as she pored over the Rand’s oeuvre while sailing around the Caribbean, is that the break found its cause in Rand’s sexual jealousy. Rand had initiated a sexual affair with Branden beginning in January 1955 when he was 25 and she was 50 years old. Rand had insisted that their respective spouses give their approval even though it aggravated her husband’s alcoholism and his wife’s succumbing to increasing disturbing anxiety attacks. “We’ll have our year or two together,” Rand explained to her prospective lover, “and there will be no victims, no tragedy.”
The actual chain of events turned out differently than Ayn Rand predicted. The same lady who felt that she could account for every emotion she had ever had dissolved into a jealous rage when she discovered Branden was having an affair with a younger woman and no longer interested in having sex with his 63-year-old mentor.
“You have dared to reject me?” roared the lady Branden used to refer to as “Mrs. Logic” when she found out about the affair in 1968. “If anything goes permanently wrong between us,” said the goddess of reason who saw her mission in life as the promotion of the rugged individualism, “I’m finished; everything is finished; you’re my lifeline to the world and to any chance at happiness I’m ever going to have.” Rand’s lust for a younger man had reduced her to a groveling parody of the characters in her novel. She was now the female equivalent of Peter Keating, the “second hander” she held in contempt in The Fountainhead.
Ayn Rand, it turns out, needed someone after all and needed to possess that person completely. Her image of herself as desirable was bound up with the adulterous affair she had initiated with her student and admirer. “The man to whom I dedicated Atlas Shrugged,” she screamed at Branden, “would never want anything less than me! I don’t care if I’m ninety years old and in a wheelchair!” The lady whom Branden was still calling “a goddess of reason” found herself torn to pieces by the idea that she was no longer sexually attractive to a man 25 years her junior. The lady who dedicated her life to promoting what she called “the virtue of selfishness,” now demanded the complete and utter devotion of her most important follower. “You have no right to casual friendships,” she told Branden, “no right to vacations, no right to sex with some inferior woman! Did you imagine that I would consent to be left on the scrap heap? Is that what you imagined? Is it?”
Although many were surprised by George Roche’s relationship with his daughter-in-law, no one associated with Hillsdale seemed unaware of his reputation as a notorious womanizer. But there was evidence enough for the affair with Lissa as well. One faculty member who asked not to be identified recounted the story of Lissa and George III returning to campus from a business trip and engaging in a long passionate kiss, something that was definitely “not a peck on the cheek.”
“There were signs of impropriety all over the place,” recalls Thomas Payne, a former member of the political science department at Hillsdale. Payne recounted what he refers to as “the swimming pool incident,” something which occurred at some point between 1983 and 87.“George and his entourage were at this indoor swimming pool. Lissa was entering the pool and dropped the top of her bathing suit in what seemed like an obviously contrived manner. She was standing there with her bare breasts, and George was helping her put her top back on. He was helping her, but he was not helping her. His entourage was ogling and giggling. Those guys made the most of it.”The scene is reminiscent of a Porky’s movie, and perhaps not without reason. Bob Clarke, the writer and director of the Porky’s movies, is a Hillsdale alumnus, and Payne thinks those movies are the Rosetta stone which gives the true picture of what campus life was like.
“Hillsdale is like the Porky’s movies,” said Payne, “The attitude toward learning is that it will make you a nerd. The suburban kids go to the old Florida whorehouse to have sex. The High school teachers are either sexually repressed or then want to join in having sex too. The mentality of the board of trustees is that college is valuable because of the social experience it provides. That leads to connections which are helpful in business. Education is not valuable. Education makes you a nerd.”
In retrospect it’s hard not to notice similarities between George Roche’s affair with his daughter-in-law and Ayn Rand’s affair with her intellectual heir apparent. Both involved powerful older figures who wanted worshipping younger loves. Both affairs were initiated when their dominant partners were at the pinnacle of their success, and both led to crushing disaster for the people involved and the movements they represented. Both involved an element of idolatry as well.
“Roche’s affairs,” according to Payne, “were not a matter of carnal lust. Roche wanted to be treated like a god. The women he had sex with were not good looking. Lissa was not attractive. She was overweight and dumpy. But they worshipped him. Roche’s daughter-in-law worshipped him.” Nathaniel Branden bears out Payne’s interpretation of the motivation behind their respective affairs. “If ever a decision had multiple motivations,” he wrote in his memoir of his years with Ayn Rand, “it was the decision to become romantically involved with Ayn. I loved her, but there was also the matter of ego. The challenge was exhilarating. She was a stupendous mind and an electrifying personality— and when I looked into her eyes the image I saw reflected was that of a god.”
Eventually Branden found the prospect of sex with his, by then, 63-year-old mentor so repugnant that he broke off the relationship by admitting that he was having an affair with a younger woman, not his wife. The revelation so wounded Rand’s by then monstrous ego, that Rand vowed to destroy Branden. She oversaw the demolition of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, a school which had been established to promote her thought, and she attempted to have the publication of his books blocked. In addition to destroying the Objectivist movement, Rand’s rage over being the scorned women pointed out the contradictions in her philosophy of selfishness. Branden was supposed to sacrifice himself to her lust while at the same time promoting the virtue of selfishness. Rand, who promoted people who lived only for themselves, found that she could not live without her worshipping protégé.
It is unlikely that Lissa Jackson knew any of this while she was studying Rand’s philosophy at the Flint School. The full story didn’t come out until 1987 when Barbara Branden’s memoir appeared, 19 years after the break between Rand and her husband and five years after Rand’s death. What Lissa most probably did pick up on the boats was an attitude toward sexuality and morals that would prove as destructive toward her own life as it had in the life of her mentors.
A young woman studying Ayn Rand has essentially two fictional role models to follow—Dominique Francon in The Fountainhead and Dagny Taggart in Atlas Shrugged. Both women are, to use the phrase Thomas Payne coined after seeing the effect of those novels first hand in the life of Lissa Jackson Roche, “adoring fornicators who couple with superior beings.” “Femininity,” Ayn Rand told Barbara Branden, “is hero worship.” “Man,” she said at another point, “is defined by his relationship to reality, woman by her relationship to man.” “Like Nietzsche,” Branden wrote, “Ayn worshipped ‘the superior man’—by which she meant ‘the man of the mind,’ the rational, purposeful, independent, courageous hero who lives by his own effort and for his own happiness.”
If she didn’t know it before she arrived on campus, Lissa would learn very quickly that there was only one hero at Hillsdale College and that man was George Roche. Some of those familiar with the story said that Lissa fell in love with George III when she was an undergraduate and eventually married his son to be close to him. Whatever the truth to that may be, Lissa was a hero-worshipper by education and George Roche III was a man disposed to be worshipped by adoring females of the kind which populated Ayn Rand’s novels. Lissa and George were Dagny Taggart and John Galt, just as Nathaniel Branden and Ayn Rand were the same couple with the sexes reversed; one was the hero-worshipper and the other was the immaculate hero, engaged in an act of idolatry which conferred god-like qualities on both.
In his more sober moments, Nathaniel Branden would portray what he wanted out of the relationship in more measured tones. He saw in Ayn most probably what Lissa saw in George, namely, “someone who would give me what my own father never had. I had wanted an older person who would teach me things, help make life and the world understandable, be a point of security and stability while I was forming my own identity. I had wanted a hero to admire.” (p. 415). George and Lissa Roche’s last collaboration was their officially co-written work, The Book of Heroes.
In order to make this sort of god-like but immoral relationship palatable to the conscience a certain amount of moral engineering—otherwise known as rationalization—is necessary. It was this thirst for what John Galt would call “moral sanction,” among a deracinated readership, which would make Ayn Rand a best-selling novelist and cult figure. “Sex,” Rand wrote in Atlas Shrugged, evidently drawing on her own experience, “is the most profoundly selfish of all acts, an act which he cannot perform for any motive but his own enjoyment—just try to think of performing it in a spirit of selfless charity” (p. 490).
The heart of Rand’s philosophy can be found in the 62-page rant which John Galt makes at the end of Atlas Shrugged, a piece of writing Rand did while enmeshed in her affair with Branden. John Galt commandeers all of the world’s radios to launch into a diatribe that has the man of average sensibilities longing for a commercial break after the first five pages. “A moral commandment,” Galt informs what he presumes is an eagerly awaiting world, “is a contradiction. The moral is the chosen, not the forced; the understood not the obeyed. The moral is the rational, and reason accepts no commandments.” After displaying her abysmal ignorance of the metaphysical foundation of morals, Rand goes on to give her parody of rational psychology. “Your body is a machine,” she tells readers who had no idea of what the patrimony of the west had to say about the soul but were just becoming accustomed to the newly approved interstate highway system, “but your mind is its driver, and you must drive as far as your mind will take you, with achievement as the goal of you mind.”
With an education like this, it is not surprising that Lissa Roche’s life ended in a head-on collision with the moral reality she never learned about while sailing the Caribbean. “It is your morality that you have to reject,” Galt rants at the end of his speech. And this is the one lesson both George and Lissa seemed to have taken to heart. Another was that free trade and free love go hand in hand, that the people who hate tariffs tend to hate pontiffs as well, as the young John Maynard Keynes once noted, and that all of the talk about freedom leads to a kind of antinomianism no matter how much one pays lips service to Christianity.
In describing the spread of Howard Roark’s fame as an architect in The Fountainhead, Rand wrote that “it was as if an underground spring flowed through the country and broke out in sudden springs that shot to the surface at random, in unpredictable places.” Rand later realized that she was predicting the spread of her own writing as well. Objectivism, as a formal movement with its own institutional structure, died when the break between Rand and Branden became public in 1968, but the trend toward selfishness, especially in sexual and economic relations, for which Rand had provided compelling rationalization and exculpation, continued unabated over the course of the next generation and often shot to the surface at what seemed at first glance like random and unpredictable places.
Hillsdale College was one of those places, and the conservative movement, which had internalized much of what Rand wanted to say in things like the failed Goldwater campaign and the successful Reagan campaign, was another. What the conservative movement was not saying was how the various pieces of this ad hoc political ideology fit together, and they weren’t saying this because they didn’t know themselves.
When George Roche became president of Hillsdale College, he took over an institution which had an extremely modest financial endowment and a spiritual endowment which had ceased to exist altogether. Hillsdale was founded in 1844 as a Freewill Baptist college. Its prime intellectual coordinates were prohibition, abolition and the equality of the sexes, ideas which were cutting edge for the mid-nineteenth century but had little relevance by the second half of the twentieth when the revolutionary agenda of the liberals had either superseded them or adopted them as its own. George III filled that intellectual vacuum by making Hillsdale a conservative college, but, then as now, no one knew exactly what the term meant. No one recognized—or wanted to recognize—that it was made up of two mutually incompatible intellectual currents which would eventually tear it apart—Christianity and libertarianism. In classical terms, the conflict could be described as Principle vs. Appetite.
Principle vs. AppetiteAs one of his first acts as president, Roche brought in conservative author and icon Russell Kirk to teach at Hillsdale, but more importantly to give the world notice that Hillsdale was serious about being conservative. If Roche had been as serious about thinking as he was about fund-raising and public relations, he might have noticed that Kirk’s book The Conservative Mind, specifically the chapters on Edmund Burke and John Adams, had some significant things to say about the relationship between reason and appetite, lessons that would have increasing relevance to Hillsdale College under George III’s increasingly autocratic leadership. That meant that Kirk also had something to say about the two strains within conservatism—the libertarian and the traditional—which appetite and reason represented.
“Men’s appetites,” Kirk wrote describing Burke’s point of view, “are voracious and sanguinary ...reason alone can never chain them to duty.” Neither Kirk nor John Adams, whom he admired, could be numbered among the “Americans among whom the acquisitive instinct is confounded with the conservative tendency,” but they were, in this regard, exceptions to the American rule, and not in the mold of George Roche, for whom the confounding was all but complete. As a result, both Kirk and Adams remained for their respective generations, voices crying in the wilderness, as their contemporaries plunged toward the gratification of passions which would ultimately destroy them. Burke’s warning about unaided reason pointed to the need for something beyond it to curb, at the very least, the human mind’s penchant for rationalization. Both Burke and Adams were referring to religion, but it is the recurrent tragedy of the Anglo-American philosophical school that its traditionalist thinkers could all agree on the necessity of religion but could never get down to specifying which religion was necessary, so suffused were they with the baleful effects of the Reformation.
Burke, according to Kirk, was dedicated to private property and tradition, but both pillars were to prove fragile mixtures of iron and clay. When Mary Wollstonecraft, the feminist Jacobin, asked the tradition-loving Burke if he believed strongly enough in tradition to want to go back to the days when Englishmen worshipped bread, there was no answer forthcoming. When Burke said he followed tradition, he meant going back to the political arrangements of 1688 and no further. When Burke defended private property, he did not inquire too closely into the question of where the richest English families got their property, because if he had, he would have had to admit that they got it by looting the Catholic monasteries of the Middle Ages. Once again tradition and property had distinct if dishonest boundaries.
Harry Vereyser, who used to teach Hillaire Belloc’s book The Servile State at Hillsdale, once did a paper on Burke’s economics, something which probably hastened his demise there. “Burke had a very developed sense of private property,” Vereyser said, “but he would never look into how all of the great English families got their wealth by plundering the Church. Burke knew that bringing up this subject would mean the end of his political career and so he never brought it up. Belloc did in The Servile State, which I used to teach. Most Episcopalians don’t want to hear this stuff.”
Both Roche and the conservatism he rode to wealth and power shared this ambivalence about religion. Russell Kirk, after spending most of his life as an Anglophile bohemian, finally converted to Catholicism when he married in his mid-50s. George Roche took the exact opposite trajectory. Raised a Catholic in Denver—Roche attended the Jesuit-run Regis Prep and Regis College—Roche abandoned the Catholic faith and became an Episcopalian as an adult. Roche not only abandoned the faith of his ancestors, he also would brag about how he had persuaded his wife to give up the Catholic faith.
When Burke defended private property, he did not inquire too closely into the question of where the richest English families got their property, because if he had, he would have had to admit that they got it by looting the Catholic monasteries of the Middle Ages.
John Lyon, who taught at Hillsdale in the early ‘90s and eventually went on to sue the college for unfair dismissal, remembers that Roche persuaded John Cerveni to abandon the Catholic faith and become an Episcopalian as well. Cerveni eventually married the daughter of someone on the board of trustees as part of his rise to power at Hillsdale. Together with now acting-President Blackstock, Cerveni, John Wilson, Dwayne Beauchamp and George Roche formed what Lyon called “the Episcopal Mafia” which ran the school.
The term may be misleading. When Roche and company decided that even the decidedly Erastian brand of Christianity that the Episcopal church has always been was too rigid for their liking, they promptly left the extant church and started their own Episcopalian Church. It was a move reminiscent of Henry VIII and completely consistent with someone who referred to himself as George III. George Roche was, to use the phrase of St. Augustine, someone who loved money and made use of God. He was not someone who loved God and made use of money.
Given this attitude toward ethnos, morality and religion, certain things were bound to happen. Conservatism bespoke an attitude toward tradition which was complex to the point of neurosis at times. It led to neurosis because it had internalized so many conflicting signals about tradition and was hopelessly unable to unravel its own contradictions. George Roche, to get to specifics, was a conservative precisely because he had abandoned the religion of his ethnos and family. He was a conservative precisely because he had abandoned tradition. In this he was no different than every other white Anglo-Saxon Protestant, all of whom had been Catholics at some point in their family history. Whig devotion to tradition, it seemed, had remarkably shallow roots. As soon as the Reagan administration swept people like this into office in Washington, power convinced many conservatives that they didn’t need a coherent rationale for their repudiation of the traditions they claimed to uphold.
The conservative pundit P. J. O’Rourke is a good case in point. In his collection of essays written during the Reagan era, Republican Party Reptile, O’Rourke mentions the fact that his grandfather “—as you can guess from his name—”was “born a Catholic and a Democrat.” He became a “conservative,” or a Republican, by repudiating both party and church for essentially sexual reasons. O’Rourke’s grandfather wanted an annulment. When the bishop refused to grant one, “Grandpa, according to the family story, joined the Lutheran Church, the Republican Party, and the Freemasons all in one day.”
Conservatives—the best of them, at least: people like Burke and Adams—understand that religion is essential to preserving morals, and that morals are essential to preserving public order, but by making religion a matter of choice, they created an inversion which would prove a fatal weakness to their whole political and philosophical edifice. The net result of this betrayal of tradition in the name of tradition is the triumph of appetite, or, in O’Rourke’s terms, the emergence of what he calls “the Republican Party Reptile”: “We look like Republicans and think like conservatives, but we drive a lot faster and keep vibrators and baby oil and a video camera behind the stack of sweaters on the bedroom closet shelf.”
O’Rourke’s description of the conservative was a remarkably prescient prediction of the scandal which would later consume Hillsdale College. “We,” he continues, elaborating on his profile of what a conservative believes, “are in favor of: guns, drugs, fast cars, free love (if our wives don’t find out), a sound dollar, cleaner environment” and the feeling that you get “when you’re half a bottle of Chivas in the bag with a gram of coke up your nose and a teenage lovely pulling off her tube top in the next seat over while you’re going a hundred miles an hour down a suburban side street.” The lattermost characteristic is taken from O’Rourke’s essay “How to Drive Fast on Drugs While Getting Your Wing-Wang Squeezed and Not Spill Your Drink” which appeared originally in National Lampoon.
“There are thousands of people in America,” O’Rourke concludes, “who feel this way, especially after three or four drinks.” What no one seems to have noticed is that the conservative mind seems to have done what O’Rourke would call a moonshiner’s turn during the history of this country’s experiment in liberty. Over the course of two centuries, liberty became license; John Adams became P.J. O’Rourke, and no one seemed to have noticed until Lissa Roche put a bullet through her head to get everyone’s attention. “The passions,” Adams warned, “are all unlimited. If the citizens of this republic “surrender the guidance for any course of time to any one passion, they may depend upon finding it, in the end, a usurping, domineering, cruel tyrant.” Anyone who indulges and continually gratifies passion will be driven mad by it. Man has a congenital weakness to confound liberty and license, which is why, according to Kirk, “Adams preferred the concept of virtue to the concept of freedom.”
Over the course of two centuries, liberty became license; John Adams became P.J. O’Rourke, and no one seemed to have noticed until Lissa Roche put a bullet through her head to get everyone’s attention.
This is also why Kirk shared the same preference as Adams and one of the reasons, according to some observers there, why he left Hillsdale in 1978. George Roche’s career at Hillsdale spanned the rise and fall of the modern conservative movement. What claimed to be devotion to tradition was really the subversion of tradition; what claimed to be based on support of religion turned out to be the relativization of religion as a guide to reason in life. As a result, appetite triumphed. Given the givens, no other options were possible.
DeracinationConservatism was also deracination in the name of roots. Its twin gods were money and appetite, and in America, assimilation was the religious practice in service of those gods. Conservatism demanded the same unremitting allegiance from Jews as it did from Catholics, if on slightly different terms. Both groups were expected to repudiate ethnos and family to get ahead. The rite of passage for the Jew was not becoming a Protestant, as it was for Catholics ambitious to assimilate; it involved, instead, changing his name. Ayn Rand was born Alice Rosenbaum and got the idea for her new American name from a machine, her typewriter, after first rejecting the name Ayn Remington.
Nathaniel Branden began his life as Nathan Blumenthal. “I had disliked my name for a long time,” he wrote in his memoir. “Nathan Blumenthal didn’t feel like me, and I wanted a name that did, especially because I was going to be a writer.” Among the people of Branden’s generation, writer was a code word for successful intellectual assimilation, and Branden knew that he could not be successful in America on the terms his Jewish family proposed to him. “Moreover,” Branden/Blumenthal continued, “I wanted a name that I had chosen myself—not one that had been decided for me by someone else. As in so many other issues, choice was supremely important to me” (p. 139).
Choice is important in the American imperial system of rule because it hides the fact that consent is so easy to manipulate and because hegemony is so often based on the covert manipulation of disordered passion. It was Nora Ephron who pointed out to Branden that he did not necessarily have hegemony over his own choices, not even his choice of name. Branden, she pointed out, contained the word “rand.” Taking the end of the word and placing it at its beginning, Ephron comes up with the real meaning of the name change. Branden is in reality, “ben rand,” which is to say “son of Rand,” which is the indication that Branden’s desire for autonomy was subverted by the very choices he made to implement it. The only way he could become a true Objectivist was by completely submerging his ego into that of his tyrannical mentor, who demanded complete subservience in the name of freedom. It was, in a way, the American story in a nutshell, and the conservative story in a nutshell as well. Assimilation meant abandonment of roots and principle, which meant that power and wealth, when they arrived as rewards, were really a form of bondage, a sophisticated version of the slavery of sin.
Like Ayn Rand, George Roche, as the prophet of freedom at Hillsdale College, demanded complete obedience from his subjects. Faculty who objected were unceremoniously removed—all in the name of freedom, of course. Nathaniel Branden learned the same lesson at the feet of a different but equally tyrannical mentor. At the height of his power as head of the Nathaniel Branden Institute, Branden surveyed his offices, which then occupied two floors of the Empire State Building in Manhattan, and concluded:This was life as it was meant to be lived, filled with danger and ecstasy and unimagined possibilities. I felt as if I had broken free of a whole network of constraints, had shattered the ordinary framework of existence, and that I, Nathaniel Branden, had taken Nathan Blumenthal by the hand and led him into a context uniquely his own, where he could be fully himself.“I was Nathaniel Brandon,” he concluded, “and I could do anything.” Simply by the way he phrased the issue, Branden made it clear that he could not do the things he wanted if he had remained Nathan Blumenthal. He had to take Nathan Blumenthal by the hand and turn him into a “conservative,” which is to say, a Whig, which is to say, a pseudo-WASP.
The rise of Ayn Rand and conservatism coincided with the rise of the American Imperium as well. Now in the new imperial order, Jews and Catholics could not make it in America by remaining Jews and Catholics in their respective communities. They had to convert to something more palatable to imperial designs. They had to repudiate their ethnic roots and become “conservatives.” Even if they did this paradoxically in the name of adopting tradition, it usually meant the adoption of an alien tradition like English Whiggery. Ayn Rand hated all things Russian as hopelessly “mystical and tragic.” She idolized first England, in the figure of Daisy Gerhardi, the English girl whom she watched play tennis in Odessa as a child, and then America as its more virulent surrogate. Ayn Rand got her idea of America from watching Hollywood movies. In her novel, she promoted the Russian Jew’s fantasy version of what it meant to be an American. It was, of course a caricature, but it was a caricature which spoke to the deepest aspirations of deracinated second-generation ethnics. The irony, of course, was that in her desire to assimilate, Ayn Rand proposed as the ideal American a caricature of the avaricious Jew.
Being an American did not mean espousing the ideals of John Adams. It meant, rather, worshipping money. “With the sign of the dollar as our symbol,” John Galt announces in his diatribe at the end of Atlas Shrugged, “—the sign of free trade and free minds—we will move to reclaim this country, once more from the impotent savages who never discovered its nature, its meaning, its splendor.” George Roche, the assimilated Catholic, couldn’t have put it better. In fact, it is entirely possible, given his relationship with Lissa, that he got his real philosophy of life from the pages of Any Rand’s fiction. The similarities between Roche’s actions as a fund-raiser (as opposed to his words ) and Galt’s views are too obvious to ignore. Roche’s diatribe against federal regulation in America by the Throat: The Stranglehold of Federal Bureaucracy sounds a lot like an even longer version of John Galt’s speech. America means freedom from regulation. America, in other words, means money. “To the glory of mankind,” Hank Rearden says in Atlas Shrugged, “there was, for the first and only time in history, a country of money—and I have no higher, more reverent tribute to pay to America, for this means: a country of reason, justice, freedom , production, achievement.” Virtue, in other words, is money. Money is virtue, or, as Hank Rearden puts it, “money is the root of all good.” Roche never put it this way, but when you’re a fund-raiser actions speak louder than words.
“George was not a hero,” said one faculty member, referring obliquely to his book A World Without Heroes. “He was a parvenu.” And it is in the parvenu that we find a country’s real character most readily and eagerly reduced to caricature. The parvenu can never say America is what I make it because I live here and am a citizen and know its traditions and have internalized them in a way that does no violence to my ethnos, faith, or family. No, the parvenu internalizes the caricature. Objectivism, it turns out, was a Russian Jew’s fantasy version of America based primarily on Hollywood movies. Asking Ayn Rand what an American is like is like asking a feminist what a man is like. The answer is invariably a caricature based on projection. Men are, well, all Nazi-storm troopers. “Every woman adores a fascist,” is how Sylvia Plath put it.
Similarly, the quintessential American male was Howard Roark, who was in turn based on Gary Cooper, who in turn, played Howard Roark in the movie version of The Fountainhead. Dagny Taggart, the quintessential American female, was based, according to Ayn Rand’s own admission, on her vision of Katherine Hepburn in the ‘30s. She was also based on the opposite of Ayn Rand, who remained short and dumpy and Russian. “She never liked her body or her appearance,” Barbara Branden claimed. “She hates the fact that she doesn’t resemble her heroines.” “Ayn was a genius,” Nathaniel Branden wrote, “a cosmic force so powerful that thoughts of physical beauty rarely entered my mind in regard to her. The only exception were those infrequent moments when I though how Russian-Jewish she looked; she could have been a family relative, a cousin, say, of my parents; but this was a thought I quickly dismissed because it did not fit my vision of her.” Family relatives, in other words, are not part of the vision. Achieving the vision, in other words, means repudiating family ties. “The boy’s entrance papers,” we read in The Fountainhead in an early description of Howard Roark, “showed no record of nearest relatives. When asked about it, Roark had said indifferently: “I don’t think I have any relatives. I may have. I don’t know.” Ayn Rand abandoned her family in Russia—her parents died in the Battle of Leningrad—and never acknowledged the crucial help her relatives in Chicago provided in bringing her to America. She, like the characters of her novels, pretended she did it all by herself, by dint of sheer ability.
We see in Ayn Rand’s heroes the quintessential American transaction: exchanging ethnos (which includes family ties and religion) for the dollar, for the family is the antithesis of the rule by the dollar. In the family, everything is free but not everything is permitted; in the American empire, everything is permitted, but nothing is free. Conservatism was the blunt instrument that could never dissect the differences. Conservative voices occasionally got raised in objection. “The Dollar Sign is not merely provocative,” Whittaker Chambers wrote in a review of Atlas Shrugged which appeared in National Review, “more importantly, it is meant to seal the fate that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats and their accessories in a new Order...It is a forthright philosophic materialism.” But in the end, voices like Whittaker Chambers’ got ignored. The reason George Roche became famous is because he raised $325 million. Period.
The Dollar Sign is not merely provocative,” Whittaker Chambers wrote in a review of Atlas Shrugged ... “more importantly, it is meant to seal the fate that mankind is ready to submit abjectly to an elite of technocrats and their accessories in a new Order...It is a forthright philosophic materialism.”
The reason George W. Bush is the front-running Republican candidate is because he raised a similarly astronomical sum of money for his campaign war chest. Money talked, and appetite triumphed and what came to power was Ayn Rand’s vision—not John Adams warning about the dangers of appetite, but the Republican Party Reptile getting his wing-wang squeezed while driving toward a head-on collision with moral reality at 100 miles per hour.
The Return of the RepressedThe repressed returned in 1978. By the late 1970s, the percentage of Hillsdale’s student body which were Catholic hovered at about 50 percent. Catholic students flocked to Hillsdale, mirroring the political shift of disaffected Catholics (known as Reagan Democrats) into the Republican Party following the Democratic Party’s adoption of abortion and the rest of the sexual revolution as the irrevocable core of its agenda. This demographic shift would prove troubling to Roche because it represented the return of the repressed. The Catholicism he had abandoned had returned to haunt him in a largely Catholic student body, whose spiritual needs were clamoring to be met. Catholic students had to walk to the other side of town to get to Mass on Sunday. Confessions were not then nor would they ever be offered on campus. Campus life was a lot like a Porky’s film.“Hillsdale was a party school,” said Thomas Appel, ‘79. “The drinking age at the time was 18. There was lots of premarital sex. We took over a dying frat house in my junior year because it was a better deal financially and the guys I was living with would have girls move in with them over the weekend. The guy I shared a suite with had his girlfriend, another Hillsdale student, move in with him. It called itself a nondenominational Christian college, but it did nothing to encourage the Christian life.Appel attributes the moral atmosphere on campus to the “heavy libertarian influence” there, in particular the writings of Ayn Rand. “There was an exaltation of freedom apart from the cross. It was not a moral place. Conservatism was a pseudo religion, and Catholics were perceived as a fifth column on campus.”
“I was having fun; then after the first year, I settled down. I enjoyed the seminars but I always felt there was a dichotomy between image and reality at Hillsdale. I was an English major. One of the guys teaching in the English department read us some of his poetry and it was really perverted stuff. Campus life was just drinking and partying. Nothing was done to encourage moral or Christian behavior.”
Thomas Payne would say that this was true of any religion which had what he called “a strong ecclesiology.” Roche, according to Payne, “also had problems with the Mormons because they, like the Catholics, had a strong ecclesiology as well as organizational resources and means. People with ties to things outside Hillsdale were a threat to Roche. I hired two Mormons, and we got along well on a religious level. Roche however was displeased at them being there. He didn’t care about Mormon doctrine; he was uncomfortable because of their connections to something off campus.”
Serious Evangelicals had problems at Hillsdale too. After Chuck Colson spoke at Hillsdale, he agreed to let his speech be published in their newsletter Imprimis. When he got the proofs of the article, all mention of Jesus Christ had been removed. When he called Lissa to complain, she told him that it was not Hillsdale’s policy to mention the name of Jesus in any of the college’s publications. The faculty member who related the incident concluded that George’s collapse came about because “he tried to pump virtue without belief in God.” Hillsdale, he concluded, was highly secularized, just like dominant culture. It was “conservative.” Religion, in other words, posed a threat to conservatism as the source of ideological hegemony and unity on campus. The more willing the religion was to contest ideological currents in the dominant culture, the greater the threat. In being pressured to deal with his Catholic students, Roche was also being pressured into dealing with their Catholicism at what had always been a traditionally liberal Baptist college.
“Hillsdale’s regnant ideology,” according to Payne, “was Know-Nothingism. America, according to this view, would be a Utopia were it not for some alien presence. Who it was at the time changed with the times. At first it was Catholics. Then it was immigrants. Then it was collectivists, the people responsible for big government. If it weren’t for Left wing intellectuals, American would be a middle class utopia. This view—America would be a Utopia if those people weren’t around—was the way they viewed themselves.
After Chuck Colson spoke at Hillsdale, he agreed to let his speech be published in their newsletter Imprimis. When he got the proofs of the article, all mention of Jesus Christ had been removed.
“Hillsdale came from a Congregationalist background, which, in New England, was the heart of the Know-nothing movement. They believed that the fellowship of a small community was sufficient for salvation as long as they remained free from all outside scrutiny. This leads to antinomianism. The implicit ecclesiology of the place was Congregationalist. The fellowship of kindred souls was sufficient for salvation as long as they maintained their independence from bureaucratic control. Of course a place which was independent of all norms lent itself naturally to rule by a tyrant like Roche.”
If American conservatism has an ethnic and religious heritage, it is, as Russell Kirk, makes clear, Whiggery as adopted by the Congregationalists of New England. As such, it was implacably incompatible with Catholicism. This situation remained stable as long as the Catholics maintained their own school system and the mainline Protestant denominations retained a hold, however tenuous, on moral principle in sexual matters. However, when the Anglican Church broke with the Christian consensus on the evil of contraception in 1930, the stage was set for dramatic change and conflict. As Catholics became disenchanted with the subversion of Catholic education which took place at places like Notre Dame after Vatican II, they began to look around for alternatives. By this point successive generations of contraceptive use among Protestants had taken their toll, and places like Hillsdale could no longer fill their colleges with members of their own ethnic groups. The Catholics were looked on with ambivalence as a result. The college needed their warm bodies and their parents’ money, but they didn’t want their religious beliefs dominating the discussion on campus.
Conservatism, as a result, became a way of stripping financial support of religious influence. George Roche could be his own pope when it came to conservatism, but he couldn’t compete with the other pope when it came to ideological control. Catholicism was perceived, therefore, as a threat to his power at Hillsdale. Catholic ethnicity, however, could be neutered by transmuting it into conservatism, an ideology which was more concerned with government funding than it was with sexual morals. Catholicism was also clearly something that George Roche would consider a personal threat. It was what he had abandoned to become a “conservative,” and it was the only Christian denomination in American of any significance which had retained the principles of sexual morality with any integrity. As a result, every time George Roche thought of sexual morality—which must have been often given the state of his conscience—he thought of the Catholic Church which he had abandoned as the necessary condition for his rise to prominence as an American conservative.
Roche eventually decided to deal with the Catholic Problem by creating a Christian Studies program. He delegated the job to Harry Vereyser, his assistant at the time. Vereyser, who was a Catholic, took the job seriously. Too seriously, it turned out. Roche was, in Vereyser’s words, “a Dr. Jekyll and a Mr. Hyde.” He would tell Vereyser to do one thing and then undermine what he told him to do behind his back. “George led a double life,” Vereyser said. “I knew the way he was on the road. On Christian Studies, he would tell me to go out and do this and then do everything to sabotage it. The real story is that he’s a snake oil salesman. Morality sells. He never lived it. Parents were looking for a place to send their children. George gave them an ideal to believe in.
A Battleground“Hillsdale was a battleground because George Roche was a battleground. There was a strong Libertarian streak in Roche. Roche led a double life. He opened his own Episcopal Church. Like Henry VIII, George got the congregation to break away from the regular church by providing the money for a new church. His mind was rigorously schooled in Catholic philosophy, but trying to reason with him was like talking a deaf person. He would ride whichever horse that brings the money in.”
After failing to interest a number of Protestant ministers in his Christian Studies program, Vereyser succeeded in getting a Catholic priest by the name of Eugene Sweeney involved — with dramatic effects. Sweeney was a West Point grad who served as a combat officer in Italy during World War II. After the war, Sweeney remained in Italy to attend a seminary there and was eventually ordained a priest. What he brought to the job at Hillsdale was the single-mindedness of a military operation. Sweeney started teaching Catholic students the catechism, and since most of the Catholics had been prevented from learning anything about their religion because of the reforms following Vatican II, they soaked up what he said like a sponge. What is worse, they started acting on what they learned as well. Catholic students started to object to the sexual mores on campus— there was a tradition of renting hotel rooms after the formal dance and spending the night with your date—and when that happened the conflict was out in the open. The subtext of the academic debate over the status of the Christian Studies Program at Hillsdale was clear: The sexual message of Catholicism was perceived as unwelcome. Catholicism was one of those “strong ecclesiologies” which the Republican Party Reptiles found uncongenial. It was also a direct threat to Roche as the arbiter of conservative dogma. It was also an uncomfortable reminder of the double life Roche was leading at the time.
The subtext of the academic debate over the status of the Christian Studies Program at Hillsdale was clear: The sexual message of Catholicism was perceived as unwelcome. Catholicism was one of those “strong ecclesiologies” which the Republican Party Reptiles found uncongenial.
The crisis came to a head at a faculty meeting Roche called in October of 1978. Roche, according to Sweeney, began the meeting by saying that the Christian Studies program needed to become “more ecumenical.” When Sweeney asked what that meant, it became clear from subsequent comments that that meant less Catholic and less involved in morals. One faculty member joined in by saying that there was too much emphasis on character formation. Then a department chairman added that character formation was neither intended nor desired at a place like Hillsdale College, an assertion that would prove to be prophetic in light of subsequent events. That chairman went on to say that character formation should be confined to military academies and seminaries, an obvious attack on Sweeney, since he had attended both and was involved in character formation at Hillsdale as well. Once the dam was breached, all of the residual anti-Catholicism began to pour out, with Sweeney as its focus. “The trouble with you Catholics,” one faculty member said to Sweeney, “is that you worship dogma.” “The faculty,” Sweeney said later, “were adamant. They felt there was too much emphasis on character formation in the Christian Studies Program. They felt that if it happened, it should be accidental and incidental.” “With an attitude like that,” said Sweeney, “I didn’t want to mislead parents. So I resigned.”
When it became apparent that Roche wasn’t going to support him, Vereyser resigned as well. Russell Kirk resigned at the same time. Once Vereyser, Kirk, and Sweeney had gone, there was no longer any organized opposition to the libertarian idea of freedom as freedom from moral restraint. As Thomas Payne predicted, congregationalism had led to antinomianism once again. Payne remembers the battle over the Christian Studies program with mixed emotions. He feels that Sweeney was a decent man but not the man for the job at Hillsdale because he had never been at a university and didn’t know how they functioned, and also because he had a military man’s sense of command structure, which is not how the university worked.
“When Vereyser tried to start the Christian studies program,” Payne said, “he made some good moves and some bad moves. The creation of the CSP was to prevent then dean John Muller from controlling all the appointments. Muller was the product of conventional education at a state university. He went to Purdue, a place where education meant technical competence. He was extremely uncomfortable when it came to values and, as a result, deliberately avoided theological issues. When asked about the de facto secularization that invariably produced, the faculty members in question would invariably say, ‘But I’m a Freewill Baptist,’ in an inevitable and unknowing way. They regarded religion as not an issue of the understanding but as rather the intensity of personal faith. Anything else was perceived as alien and wicked.”
Although Payne feels that Sweeney was ultimately unqualified for the job, the real issue was control. “If you had a Catholic priest there,” he said, “what he was teaching was not part of Hillsdale’s doctrine.” Like so many educators and innovators in this century, Roche’s interest in control varied in inverse proportion to his own self-control. People like Sweeney were a threat to his conscience and to his ideological hegemony over the students and faculty.
“They were fiscal conservatives,” Sweeney concluded about the people who ousted him. “All they were concerned about was making money. They didn’t give a damn about things like abortion and dope. They were just like the rest of the nation, which thinks that Clinton is great because the stock market goes up. Anyone who opposed Roche found that his job was at risk.” Thomas Appel worked with Harry Vereyser during his last years at Hillsdale and watched the battle over the Christian Studies program from a front-row seat. What he saw left him convinced that conservatism lost by winning.
“It’s not enough to be politically conservative apart from the Church,” Appel concluded later. “It doesn’t work. At Hillsdale they made a conscious decision to keep conservatism apart from religion when they defeated the Christian studies program. After Harry left we were told that they were going to bring in some anemic guy from the Anglican Church who was going to teach us how to be a nice guy. That happened my senior year.”
Appel graduated in 1979.
By the beginning of 1979, the Christian Studies battle was over, and the Catholics had been defeated. What happened at Hillsdale was a microcosm of what happened in America during the cultural revolution of the ‘60s. With the Catholics defeated, there was no group with enough intellectual coherence and political significance to defend the moral order in its entirety, and with no one to defend morals, behavior took a nose-dive from which it has yet to recover. The defeat of the Catholics at Hillsdale also preceded by a matter of months the era of major conservative victories. In 1979, Margaret Thatcher was elected Prime Minister of England, and in 1980, one year later, Ronald Reagan was elected president of the United States. Both Thatcher and Reagan had spoken at Hillsdale and Hillsdale, and in particular its president, was swept into power when the people they promoted were.
Roche was called to Washington to head the National Council on Education Research. His time had finally arrived. Yet when the power arrived there was nothing left at Hillsdale to guide it. The Catholics had been expelled, and they were the only ones in a position to say that freedom wasn’t an end in itself. Now the only speech which met with official approval was the speech extolling personal freedom of the Ayn Rand variety, and as it had with its progenitor, it got the people who extolled that philosophy in trouble in a very short matter of time. Roche had already earned the reputation as a womanizer. Now, it seemed, he was determined to take it to the next level. Like Nathaniel Branden when he looked into the eyes of Ayn Rand, Roche wanted to be a god. And the shortest way to gain god-like power over nature, Nietzsche had said in The Birth of Tragedy, was some act that would violate nature, an act like incest. Roche began his affair with his daughter-in-law in 1980. The same year that the conservative movement reached the portals of power was the same year that Roche embarked upon the course of action which would bring about his undoing.
If this is a story full of literary allusions—from Ayn Rand to Porky’s—Sophocles has to figure in the equation as well. George’s aspiration to be worshipped by his daughter-in-law was an example of hubris which invariably led to the arrival of nemesis, which is the re-establishment of moral equilibrium.
With the opposition gone at Hillsdale there was no one left to remind George that he wasn’t a god. “Roche,” said one faculty member, “started off as a libertarian and became a pseudo-Messiah.” In this, his trajectory was virtually identical to Ayn Rand’s. “When mortal men try to live without God,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “they infallibly succumb to megalomania or erotomania or both. The raised fist or the raised phallus; Nietzsche or D. H. Lawrence.” George Roche manifested both evils during his tenure at Hillsdale College. What is even more remarkable is that the Muggeridge quote appeared in Roche’s own book, A World Without Heroes. Roche was either incapable of reading his own text or living it. Nothing in the ideology of freedom was firm enough to make his behavior stick to his ideals, and in a world like this, more success and more money means only more occasion for moral disaster. Like the conservatism he proclaimed, George Roche was ruined by his success.
“When mortal men try to live without God,” wrote Malcolm Muggeridge, “they infallibly succumb to megalomania or erotomania or both. The raised fist or the raised phallus; Nietzsche or D. H. Lawrence.”
In Praise of Control“The George Roche administration makes the Clinton Administration look good by comparison,” said Thomas Payne. “Everything about George was based on projecting his image. How he would use this to give him publicity. He viewed the college as a way of projecting himself onto the stage as a national leader. The closest he came to articulating this personal ideology was the series of keynote and closing speeches he would give at the Shavano Institute. For the keynote, he would begin by saying that ideas have consequences. Who ever controls ideas controls the world. This was not praise of the intellectual life in any traditional senses. It was praise of control.
“Then he would go on to say that we used to have good ideas like individual liberty, then the Deweyites or collectivists got control, and now we have bad ideas. Now we have reached a crisis in civilization as great as at the time of the fall of the Roman empire. But resistance has risen. All sorts of critics are criticizing what is wrong. We brought them here for you to hear their new and important ideas. In other words, all of the other speakers were prophets who preceded and proclaimed the Messiah, who was George Roche.
“On the last day, in his closing address, Roche would appear in a white sports coat; the lights would dim, and he would deliver a sermon. Before that happened he would be introduced by John Andrews, who would deliver a parody of the devotional meditation, by telling the story of Chief Shavano. Chief Shavano was a champion of freedom. All of the speakers here were champions of freedom. George Roche is a champion of freedom. Now let’s break into small groups and decide how we can all become champions of freedom in out own lives. Roche would then be introduced as the greatest champion of freedom of them all.
“He would say things are really bad. Society is falling apart, but there is hope because all of the people you just heard are champions of freedom. It was like that at the end of the Roman Empire, that light was Christianity. The Christian Church preserved moral substance, continued civilization. The Christian Church preserved material basis of the Roman Empire. The essence of Christianity is self-transcendence. How do you transcend yourself? Don’t spend all your money. Save some of it and send your kids to college. In other words elevate ordinary human virtues; the cult aspect was raising these things to the level of religion. Roche is the Messiah. Hillsdale was a crypto-religion. Anyone with a real religion would be uncomfortable there. The Protestants couldn’t spot it until I pointed it out to them.”
Having sex with a god is always risky business, and by the late ‘80s, the strain of the relationship was beginning to show in Lissa as well. Thomas Fleming, editor of the paleoconservative journal Chronicles remembers spending time with Lissa during the late ‘80s when Hillsdale and conservatism were at the pinnacle of their power. The Berlin Wall was about to come down, and when it did, the rationale for conservatism’s existence would fall as well, but no one knew it at the time. Just as Burke had created conservatism in reaction to the French Revolution, the specter of revolution was the only thing which kept conservatism viable by blinding its adherents to its internal contradictions.
Lissa and Tom would sometimes go dancing together and, during those evenings, during which Fleming felt she was flirting with him, Lissa would talk about George and his drinking problem.“Lissa seemed desperately lonely and unhappy. She told me that George was a diabetic and unless he stops drinking he will have to retire at the end of the year. He was a secret juicer. She was worried about him. She and George IV were married for 21 years, and she was having the affair for just about the whole time. It was incest. A real violation of social bonds. Morally, he was her father. The letter of resignation mentions nothing of this. Instead of an apology, George issued another upbeat fundraising appeal.”“Hillsdale was anti-Catholic and anti-Southern and an essentially Reaganite, Wall Street Journal, anti-Communist operation that believed in freedom to choose. At some point these people realized that they couldn’t build an empire on people who believed in something. Conservatism hates anyone who stakes a claim to the truth. The Catholic tradition claims a monopoly on truth. The troubled American conscience can’t tolerate any claim to know the truth.”
According to Fleming, Roche’s lasting legacy may be a cautionary tale about the profile of a leader this culture has chosen for itself— man as wolf to man, specifically, in the parlance of the day, the alpha male. “The hero is a demigod; his qualities include large sexual appetite, pursuit of excellence. A tyrant is the same thing negatively expressed. Unbridled lust is characteristic of America’s leadership class. These heroes are oftentimes illegitimate children, raised without socialization, people like Bill Clinton. The ruling class recognized in George one of their own.”
Like Lissa Roche, conservatism is dead. Its component parts— Christianity and Libertarianism— continue to exist, but now there is no charismatic leader like Ronald Reagan to hold them together by making people forget their mutually self-contradictory nature.
Like Lissa Roche, conservatism is dead. Its component parts—Christianity and Libertarianism—continue to exist, but now there is no charismatic leader like Ronald Reagan to hold them together by making people forget their mutually self-contradictory nature. If anything is to take its place, it will have be a political philosophy that swears unabashed allegiance to either appetite or principle, not an exercise in self-delusion that pretends there is no difference between the two.
The real lesson to be learned here may have to do with the relationship between liberty and power. According to Russell Kirk’s reading of John Adams, “Absolute liberty and absolute power in a central government seemed quite compatible” to the Jacobins. The irony is that the same situation prevailed at Hillsdale in the name of anti-Jacobinism. In the absence of clearly articulated principle, backed by religious sanction, liberty became the instrument of everyone’s enslavement at Hillsdale. The faculty couldn’t object because liberty had taken unchallenged hegemony over the moral law. “The Roche Regime,” said one professor, “was based on repression within and deception without.” “I don’t have to tell anyone,” George wrote with unintentional irony in his book A World Without Heroes, “we are awash in sex.”
Ultimately, the same unfettered license in the name of freedom destroyed the man who promoted it as well. “Liberty without law,” John Adams wrote, “endures as long as a lamb among wolves.” It turns out that Adams was prescient for both the country and the conservative movement which saw him as it forebear. Absolute liberty led to absolute tyranny at Hillsdale College. In the end, George Roche had one devoted follower, and she killed herself to make the point that he was wrong.E. Michael Jones, Ph.D. is the Editor of Culture Wars magazine, as well as author of the new book Libido Dominandi: Sexual Liberation and Political Control (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 1999, available from Fidelity Press.)
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