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Turning right

Interview | Michael Medved on how a liberal can become a conservative, how a conservative can think Hillary Clinton is nice, and how a Jew can hope for Christian revival

Issue: "Bob Geldof: Whose jubilee?," June 25, 2005

Michael Medved's Salem Radio three-hour daily talk show, a favorite among many evangelical listeners, reaches more than 2 million people in 181 markets across the country. His 10th book, Right Turns (Crown Forum, 2004), engagingly tells how he turned from the leftist life of the '60s and '70s to Orthodox Judaism and conservative politics.

WORLD: What was the political atmosphere at Yale during the mid- and late-1960s, and how did that help to push you further to the left?

MEDVED: The most striking aspect of that political atmosphere involved dramatic change-from a student body overwhelmingly supportive of the War in Vietnam (as late as 1966) to a campus seething with near-unanimous opposition to U.S. foreign policy.

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As I explain in my book, the key element provoking that change involved an alteration in draft policy. At the beginning of my undergraduate years, you easily could avoid military service by staying in college and then enrolling in grad school of any kind. By 1967, Selective Service only exempted those who studied medicine or divinity-one of the reasons, by the way, that clergy shifted so radically to the left as "draft dodgers" suddenly flooded seminaries and divinity schools of every denomination.

In any event, President Nixon ultimately exposed the selfish motivations of those of us who saw ourselves as anti-war idealists: When he stopped the draft and initiated the all-volunteer Army at the end of 1971, the so-called Peace Movement instantaneously shriveled and died on university campuses.

WORLD: Why, as you write, is "sex-not money-the ultimate fuel of politics"?

MEDVED: Politics is a lousy way to make money-salaries for top office holders can't compete with the remuneration in corporate life, the practice of law, the entertainment industry, and many other careers.

Politics, however, remains a uniquely effective way of winning love-of both the innocent and not-so-innocent variety. Mature human beings who feel comfortable in their own skins (Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush leap immediately to mind) relish the gratitude and affection of their fellow citizens, without resort to sweaty sheets in hotel rooms.

Many other politicians, of both parties, take advantage of the adoring and disproportionately youthful followers who treat these insecure hacks like rock stars. Conservatives face a natural disadvantage in contemporary politics because of the importance we place on family stability. The constant travel and destruction of privacy required for nearly all successful politicians means that most of them place advancement in their public lives above the nourishment of their private lives and intimate relationships. These pressures make Bill Clinton's sad pattern of intimate behavior far more common than political pros like to acknowledge.

WORLD: You write about your grandparents' providential experience in coming to America. How much did knowledge of that affect you during your leftist years and perhaps help you to escape from the liberal tendency toward America-bashing?

MEDVED: My knowledge of my family history made all the difference to me in escaping the prevailing madness of the 1960s.

My grandmother watched five young daughters die in the old country during World War I, the Soviet Revolution, and the Russian Civil War-after she arrived in the United States in 1924, she always understood this nation as a gift from God, a land of new life.

As long as liberals flew American flags, sang patriotic songs, and professed love of country while criticizing our foreign policy, I could feel comfortable in their company. After I moved to Berkeley in 1971 and saw a different style of leftism-full of groundless, mindless hostility to this great and generous nation-I became increasingly uneasy with my association with liberal politicians like George McGovern and the corrupt, Stalinist Congressman Ron Dellums.

WORLD: When you think back to your youthful political activities, do you have a desire to make restitution for them in some way-and if so, how do you do that?

MEDVED: Of course. In a sense, I feel that this book, Right Turns, represents an act of atonement for my youthful mistakes and indiscretions. I try to delineate all the ways I went wrong during my years as a Democratic Party speechwriter and campaign consultant, and to retrace my own route out of the wilderness. As one of my Yale classmates, George W. Bush, likes to say: "When I was young and stupid, I was young and stupid." The difference is that the president refuses to talk about his young and stupid years. I just wrote a 400-page book exploring that immature inanity in all its embarrassing excess.

WORLD: You write that "for the most part, conservatives are both nicer and happier than liberals," but you surprisingly write that one liberal disliked by many conservatives, Hillary Rodham Clinton, was very nice when you knew her in law school. Did she grow out of that, or do you still see her that way?

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