The Breakthrough of Alan Keyes

In early May, with the presidential primaries all but for- gotten, The Tonight Show with Jay Leno featured a surprising guest, considering the faded interest in political candidates outside of the destined nominees. Republican presidential candidate Alan Keyes traded jokes with Leno before spending most of his appearance performing a song he had written with the Tonight Show Band. The Los Angeles Times correctly asked shortly thereafter: Why? Why does he keep running for president? Why do throngs of people continue to cheer wildly everywhere he speaks? Why do people continue to support his message?

Answer: Like a ticking package that nobody wants to open, Keyes is explosive. As one reporter put it, “Quite simply, there is nobody like Alan Keyes. Keyes’ presence in the Republican debates this winter was electrifying…. As a result, the former Reagan administration official and Harvard Ph.D. has become the country’s best-known black, Catholic conservative.”

Named After Robert E. Lee

Keyes did not come from a stereotypical black background. His father, a career Army officer, gave him the middle name Lee, after Robert E. Lee. Keyes explains that his father believed General Lee to be “a good general and a good man,” despite the fatal weakness of the South for which he fought. Elected his junior year as the first black president of Boys Nation of the American Legion, Keyes went on to win the Legion’s national speaking competition. At Cornell, Keyes received death threats for speaking out against protesters who he believed were un-American, prompting him to leave.

Keyes then transferred to Harvard, where his dissertation adviser, Dr. Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., a legendary conservative Straussian himself, observed that he “thought he had a little bit of Hamilton’s remark in the Federalist Papers in him, that ‘a love of fame is the ruling passion of the noblest minds.'” Keyes, too, studied in the tradition of Strauss, bringing to bear classical texts by authors such as Plato, Machiavelli, and Hobbes on the questions of the American founding, and in that context, on the political issues of our day.

Keyes will not be elected president, neither was he selected as a running mate for either of the two major parties. But the recent breakthrough of his campaign may serve as a useful tool to assess the current state of America’s social conservatives. To be sure, Keyes has demonstrated that a logical and spirited articulation of the foundational principles of American democracy can and will generate interest.

In Iowa, just days before the caucus votes were cast, Keyes was drawing larger crowds than any of his opponents. While in Utah, a relatively late primary, he finished second with more than 20 percent of the vote. George magazine, contemporary America’s GQ of political commentary, noted, “Sort of makes you wonder just how far Keyes’s message might go if it were backed by the kind of millions blown by Steve Forbes, who spent 26 times as much as Keyes through the end of 1999, or even the money behind Gary Bauer, who outspent Keyes by more than six to one.” Nevertheless, Keyes has undoubtedly made his mark, laying claim to the conservative banner almost single-handedly with his blazing oratory about moral decay and consistent, principled thinking and speaking on the issues that matter most to social conservatives.

Understanding Liberty

No other issue for Keyes represents so explicitly the rejection of the founding principles than abortion. For Keyes, abortion is not a dividing but a unifying issue that represents the very substance of our claim to freedom as a moral people. Bringing the Declaration of Independence to bear on the question of abortion is not new, but Keyes has effectively tied the principle of life to the question of whether liberty improperly understood can sustain itself. In doing so, Keyes has made the defense of life the indispensable step in restoring moral integrity to our people and our institutions. Keyes explains that if we believe we are “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights,” as the Declaration insists, those rights must be exercised with respect for that Creator. The caveat, of course, is that if we ignore the source of our rights, we have effectively abandoned our claim to liberty, welcoming the forces of tyranny the founders so desperately fought against.

The dilemma, as Keyes pronounces, is that we “either believe in the principles of the Declaration, and reason consistently from them, or we will not survive as a free people. It is the Declaration of Independence that burdens this country with the abortion issue—the Declaration is our burden to carry—and we will carry it to glory, or to perdition, but we cannot lay it down?’ In this light, the abortion issue cannot be understood as another question along with taxes, Social Security, and education reform but only as the very question of our legitimate claim to liberty as a people. The rejection of this distinction signals a rather ominous future for America, requiring capable leaders, like Keyes, to come forth with the courage and ability to resist its inescapable consequences. Congressman Henry Hyde recently noted in this regard, “With the passing of Cardinal John O’Connor, Alan Keyes is now the most effective and consecrated defender of our children waiting to be born. He brings a high level of intelligence combined with a burning passion to this arena. We can only hope his recent political foray is not his last.”

By effectively articulating the significance of this moral crisis, Keyes has answered the uncertainties among many conservatives about how to convince the popular culture of the truth of their message: “Don’t tell us that America’s heart needs to change—look Americans in the eye and engage in the process of changing hearts!” With Keyes appearing on almost every major pundit program both on cable and network television, major media sources found value, at least for entertainment sake, in what he was saying.

Entertainment Value

Yet hidden within the “entertainment value” of his appearances laid the curious notion that he somehow was correct about what he was claiming. Political commentary appearances on cable television shows such as MSNBC’s Hardball and CNN’s Crossfire created opportunities for Keyes to intelligently expose the hypocrisy of today’s respected pundits, sometimes even embarrassing them, while providing excellent ratings and highlighting their obvious disagreements.

In addition to the customary political analysis venues, Keyes also was invited as a guest on Saturday Night Live (which he rejected), Politically Incorrect, and The Tonight Show, suggesting at least a small degree of popularity among major entertainment programs, a place unfamiliar to most social conservative leaders. Thus, it might be said that Keyes has managed to hold off the customary “right-wing extremist” label attached to most champions of the pro-life banner. “There is no orator who talks as he does about the virtues of the Declaration of Independence and manages to be both serious and funny,” remarked one columnist, who also said Keyes is “a one-man, right-wing home entertainment center?’ Entertaining, he certainly is, perhaps because, although many hesitate to admit it, he is so clearly right.

For many, Keyes’s performances in the debates gave rise to some serious thinking about the qualities we deem necessary for effective leadership. While most weren’t even debates, but “forums,” Keyes believed they represented a unique opportunity in America. In an age of apathy, it is not often that hundreds of thousands gather to ponder the question of the political future of the country. Candidates and leaders shying away from the difficult moral questions of the day, Keyes argues, are those who “simply have no authentic ambition to lead…. They neglect the role of truth in politics, because they think that the presidency is all about manipulation and power.” Positioning himself in opposition, Keyes has responded: “I would rather stand where God wants me to stand, and say what God wants me to say, and lose every single vote in this nation than to lose the vote of the Master of my life and heart.”

Such courage might have startled some, though likely impressed more, including many in the media who disagree with many of the positions he defends. A New York Post commentary appearing in early March commented, “Like him or not, Keyes shoots from the hip and is rarely off message or target. That’s the advantage of having beliefs that are not shaped by pundits or handlers who tell you what the people want to hear, rather than what they need to hear.” In this sense, he has earned the respect of those who still understand that leadership cannot be made but earned.

Keyes’s place in the Republican Party, though, is a complicated one, considering that most Republicans respect him, despite his deep criticism of some of its own standard-bearers. Ken Masugi, director of the Center for Local Government with the Claremont Institute, explains, “Keyes may instill in us the vice of making us desire goods we could never safely attain. But I am willing to risk such a vice, if only in the hope Republicans…can reassess their party and what they ought to expect from themselves and their leadership.”

Keyes’s performance left many wondering why the most articulate, intelligent, best-educated candidate was not receiving the support he deserved in the polls. Enter the electability question. Having spent more than the last ten years of his life in pursuit of political office, Keyes has yet to notch a victory. Two Senate runs in Maryland combined with his relatively ineffective 1996 presidential run have contributed somewhat to his skeptics’ biggest fear. Mark Rozell, professor of politics at the Catholic University of America in Washington, commented, “He has not shown any vote-getting potential. He was never elected to any office. It just does not add up to a serious presidential candidate.”

While the primary results are difficult to argue with, Keyes has chided the media for their lack of serious coverage, particularly on network television, where a majority of black Americans get their political news. Perhaps more significant, however, is Keyes’s indictment of establishment Republicans who anointed George W. Bush before any serious debate among the candidates occurred. Equally responsible for Keyes’s failure were voters who bought the media-driven, pragmatic approach that suggested winning at any cost to be the ultimate goal. In contrast, Keyes urged Americans to insist on a leader who can stand before them with a sincere and authentic ambition to lead and “persuasively encourage Americans to recover their moral self-confidence.” Critical to this leadership is the ability to articulate “the great moral principles upon which this nation was founded,” which no one does better than Keyes.

More Admired

Among conservatives, a general consensus has emerged that seems to admire Keyes yet is unwilling to vote for him. In fact, many voters who name Keyes as their “favorite” hesitate to lend him their full support. Afraid of “wasting” their votes, they reluctantly support “a candidate who can win.” Instead of voting for the candidate they most agree with, they prefer to vote against Al Gore. Sadly, this has changed the casting of a vote in electing a president from an informed, democratic process into a gambling one. As Keyes himself has put it, the election is not supposed to be a horse race where voters pick who they think will win. Voters are supposed to determine the winner. Keyes’s advice to voters: “People need to stop calculating, stop reading the papers and looking at the polls, and go to those places in our hearts and in our lives where we stand before our God” to determine what we should do. “We need to make a reasonable leap of faith…and when we are stripped bare of everything the

 A Catholic Candidate

The findings of Crisis magazine’s June 1999 “Heart of the Catholic Voter” report lend further credibility to Keyes’s breakthrough for Catholics. In short, a staunch, orthodox Catholic like Keyes finds himself in good company with the trends identified in the survey. For instance, “Lines of reasoning based on these data suggest that candidates espousing a conservative agenda have a great well of support among Catholic voters.” Among the religiously active Catholics, those who attend weekly Mass, statistics indicated that 71 percent identified with the “social-renewal agenda.” Crusts summarized this group as those “concerned about the nation’s moral direction; they believe that the federal government, public education, and popular culture are making things worse; and they hope that this moral deterioration can be stopped.” Even more telling is the statistic that 75 percent versus 20 percent of Catholics believe America is “in the throes of a crisis of declining individual morality.” However, the survey also indicated that a majority of Catholic voters do not have a particular preference for Catholic candidates, all things being equal. In fact, Keyes’s greatest success came in states where the Catholic vote is not considered decisive (Utah, Iowa, and Idaho).

Nevertheless, moral traditionalists or social conservatives of all classes and religions, breaking with the historical trends of groupings based on ethnicity and culture, have come together in support of the issues deemed most essential to the renewal of our culture. Keyes’s importance as a Catholic for Catholic voters, then, will depend to a large extent on his defense of the moral priorities of the country rather than his affirmed status within the Church.

With the passing of another presidential primary season, the political grouping of conveniently labeled “social conservatives” may find themselves once again confronted with the nagging questions of achievement. For some, knowing that the present occupant of the White House will soon be replaced is comfort enough, while many have already turned to George W. Bush to place their hopes of political renewal. Yet the unfolding of another season, a period interestingly described as the year of the “Catholic voter,” bears additional significance for those who believe that we are fast approaching a crossroads in which we are faced with questions that may change the very essence of our national life. Considering the dismantling of the Christian Coalition that has occurred, as well as the “moral majority” having found its place in history, conservatives rightly must ask with whom and around what will they converge in addressing the cultural chaos of contemporary America. Presidential elections aside, Keyes cannot be overlooked.


  • Brian Burch

    At the time this article was published, Brian Burch was Illinois state coordinator for Keyes 2000.

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