Christine Whitman: new progressivism

July 14, 1996|By Maggie Gallagher | Maggie Gallagher,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"Growing Up Republican: Christie Whitman, the Politics of Character," by Patricia Beard. HarperCollins. 256 pages.

Christine Todd Whitman, supply-side heroine, scourge of the pro-lifers, is the Princess Di of American politics: lithe, blond, aristocratic with genuine star quality. But unlike the degenerating offshoots of the House of Windsor, this scion of GOP royalty has the old-line WASP virtues in abundance: frugality (she still buys $1.69 pantyhose by the dozen); integrity; common sense, and an apparently genuine devotion to public service.

Or so says the author of this unlikely but fascinating new biography, a Town and Country reporter and a self-professed Democrat, who rather breathlessly sets out to describe not just Whitman's life but the political culture that produced her: the genteel Republicanism of New Jersey's hunt country.

In many ways, this book suggests, Christine Whitman is the Anti-Clinton. If President Clinton represents the politics of pandering - white trash-made-good who relentlessly re-creates himself in order to win approval from his current audience, Christine Whitman represents an older patrician tradition in politics. Part of what voters respond to is the sense she doesn't need to be elected to be somebody.

Christie, as she is known in New Jersey, came by her interest in politics naturally. Her grandparents were invited to stay over in .. the White House by Warren Harding. Her parents knew not only General Eisenhower, but also Adlai Stevenson, intimately. (Her father and he were boarding-school chums).

The hunt country of New Jersey has proved fertile ground not only for foxes but for politicians - Whitman, of course, but also former Gov. Tom Kean and former GOP presidential candidate Steve Forbes (with whom Christie made her first political appearance in 1952 - they presented visiting Pat Nixon with dolls for the vice president's daughters). Together, they represent a new development in GOP politics: noted supply-siders, as well as social moderates.

If Patrick Buchanan's memoir "Growing Up Catholic" captures one wing of the modern GOP, "Growing up Republican" represents the old bird it joined, offering an intimate social history of Eastern Establishment Republicanism, of a kind that first Goldwater and then Reagan appeared to repudiate. It is thus (unbeknownst to its author) the previously untold story of how the next generation of Eastern Establishment Republicans were (and were not) converted by Ronald Reagan to a new conservative brand of politics.

The Goldwater convention of 1964 is usually considered the fountainhead of the modern conservative movement, and a teen-age Christie Todd Whitman was there, rooting for Rockefeller.

Thirty years later, her opinion of the New Right hasn't changed much: "The people who came to the cause [of Goldwater] were intolerant; it's a bit like that with the religious right now," she told author Patricia Beard. "Many are involved in the religious right simply because they care about families and values, but unfortunately, those who are the most vocal within this group are often mean-spirited."

It's a revealing quote. The new breed of supply-siders are less conservative than progressive, less interested in rolling back government than reinventing government so that it works. They favor tax cuts in large measure because tax cuts make sense: energizing the economy and bringing in more revenue for sensible politicians to use for the common good.

In other words, the reason Christie Whitman is a conservative is simple: in our times, liberalism got so stupid that even Rockefeller Republicans were left high and dry on the right side.

That a biography could reveal so much the author didn't even notice is an odd kind of tribute to her journalistic skills. The celebrity-obsessed will enjoy this book as a revealing peek in the lifestyles of the modestly rich and sort-of-famous. The politically savvy will be rewarded with intriguing insights into the recent history of the GOP as it transformed itself into the new majority party.

Maggie Gallagher writes a syndicated column for Universal Press. Her latest book, "The Abolition of Marriage: How We Lost the Right to a Lasting Love," was published this spring by Regnery Press.

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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