There is little "culture war" rhetoric in the current Republican presidential campaign, so as not to scare off moderate voters. But the cultural stakes in this election are high, and the culture warriors are moving to occupy key strategic grounds. One of the most notable conservative thinkers and cultural activists is none other than Lynne Cheney, the wife of the GOP vice-presidential nominee.
Since the days of Ronald Reagan, Mrs. Cheney has been the scourge of political correctness, multiculturalism, and postmodern relativism. She has battled the left-wing academic establishment in America's universities, both in her writings and in concrete actions, and has been an eloquent voice for the preservation of America's Western, Judeo-Christian heritage.
With her Ph.D. in English literature from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Mrs. Cheney served as the chair of the National Endowment for the Humanities under Presidents Reagan and Bush. Before and since her regime, the NEH has often been described as a welfare program for college professors, funding esoteric research projects and left-wing seminars that often had little to do with-or actually undermined-America's cultural heritage.
Under Mrs. Cheney, the NEH defunded The Africans on the grounds that the PBS series was, in her words, "an anti-Western diatribe." Instead, she funded Ken Burns's documentary The Civil War. At a time when American universities were becoming more and more politicized and obscurantist, Mrs. Cheney funded efforts to improve college teaching. At a time when colleges were dumbing down their graduation requirements, she was responsible for the document 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, a model set of requirements that would give students a solid grounding in the basics of Western civilization.
After leaving the NEH upon President Clinton's election, she wrote Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Country Have Stopped Making Sense (Touchstone, 1995), an indictment of postmodernism, the notion that truth is nothing more than a social or personal construction.
She has been a devastating critic of multiculturalism, both for minimizing the distinctive contributions of American culture and for setting groups against each other on ethnic or racial grounds. "Many countries define themselves ethnically," she said in one speech, "but we have historically defined ourselves by a set of common ideas and ideals."
Today's academic establishment derides those ideas and ideals, making ethnic identity-or gender or sexual orientation-the be-all and end-all. As a result, college courses become exercises in political propaganda, academic standards fall, and the nation forgets its reason for being, falling instead into divisive rhetoric and groupthink.
Mrs. Cheney has not only taken on the intellectual elite with words; she has taken specific action that makes them squirm. Soon after leaving the NEH, she founded the American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA). This group brings alumni pressure to bear on colleges that sell out to political correctness and dumbed-down curriculum. Before ACTA, alumni exerted their influence mainly in getting rid of losing football coaches. Thanks to Mrs. Cheney, college presidents are now hearing from graduates, board members, and donors whenever their institutions try to eliminate Western civilization requirements or to silence campus conservatives.
Today she is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, and has been a co-host of CNN's Crossfire, representing "the right."
George W. Bush's selection of Dick Cheney as his vice-presidential running mate has somehow managed to please both conservatives, who appreciate his stance on the issues, and moderates, who respect his personal qualities. That one of their daughters is, sadly, homosexual has been lifted up as evidence of the party's new policy of "tolerance" and "inclusion." But bringing Mrs. Cheney into national prominence and possibly new influence is a good sign for conservative cultural critics-and a red flag for the liberals in academia.
As her Crossfire debating foe-from-the-left Bill Press said, "She is much more Hillary Clinton than Laura Bush. She will not be able to sit still. She will speak out, and that cuts both ways." As quoted by Laura Parker in USA Today, Mr. Press said, "If the idea is to lock in the conservative base, Lynne will be a tremendous asset. On the other hand, if the idea is to reach out to moderates, Lynne could prove a real liability because she gives no ground and takes no prisoners." But those are qualities of an effective warrior, cultural or otherwise.