After I wrote and published my blog post about the late Phyllis Schlafly a few days ago, I recalled two other interactions that I had about her. These interactions converged around a particular issue: the U.S. Patriot Act.
It was my third year at Harvard Divinity School. The school year started with the horrible events of September 11, 2001. The Patriot Act was signed into law by President George W. Bush on October 26, 2001. And I learned that Phyllis Schlafly and the American Civil Liberties Union—-two organizations that rarely agreed on anything—-were united in their opposition to the Patriot Act, fearing that it would threaten the civil liberties of American citizens.
That made sense to me, as a conservative, since such a position was consistent with conservatism’s suspicion of government. Shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, during the Presidency of Bill Clinton, a number of conservatives were concerned about the anti-terrorism legislation that was being proposed, fearing that it would be a pretext for the government to threaten people’s civil liberties. Would not such a position coincide with opposition to the Patriot Act? And yet, there were many conservatives who supported the Patriot Act, since they believed that 9/11 changed everything, and they thought that the Patriot Act was necessary for national security.
I was eating dinner at a restaurant in Cambridge, and I was talking with an elderly lady. Somehow, we got on the topic of politics. I told her that I was a conservative Republican. When I told her that I had problems with the Patriot Act, she said, “You’re not really a conservative.” Then I told her that Phyllis Schlafly was against the Patriot Act, too. The elderly lady had a look of disgust on her face, which was not surprising, considering that Cambridge was a liberal Democratic area, and most of the people there who knew who Phyllis Schlafly was probably had a negative opinion of her. Still, the lady seemed pleasantly surprised that Phyllis Schlafly was against the Patriot Act: it’s as if the lady was thinking that even a broken clock can be right twice a day!
As the years went by, I came to embrace the Patriot Act. I figured that it would protect the United States, and I considered it to be a success on the part of President George W. Bush, in terms of keeping the country safe. President George W. Bush was a polarizing figure at the time, and I wanted to side with him rather than his liberal critics. I tended to swallow his agenda whole, as a result.
What was ironic was that, one night during Bush’s second term, I was watching Phyllis Schlafly on C-Span, when the telephone rang. It was someone from the left-wing Move-On.org! He was asking me to oppose George W. Bush’s wiretapping program, and I was telling him off. I was saying that we need to keep the country safe. He was responding that the best way to oppose terrorism was to stand by the U.S. Constitution. The conversation became friendlier near the end. I told him that I was a lost cause, that I was right-wing, and that I was watching Phyllis Schlafly when he called. He obviously did not approve of her, but we ended the conversation cordially. After I hung up the phone, it dawned on me: on the particular issue that we were debating, Phyllis Schlafly would probably agree with the Move-On.org person rather than me!
I decided to Google “Phyllis Schlafly Patriot Act” tonight, just to see if there was evidence that she opposed the Patriot Act.
In this September 18, 2002 column, she stated: “The Administration demanded and Congress passed without reading, the USA PATRIOT Act. Its principal operative section expands the power of the federal government for surveillance of Americans without proper search warrants, as required by the Fourth Amendment.” Progressives will undoubtedly be appalled by other things that she says in that column, but they can find common ground with her on that statement.
In this June 14, 2005 Washington Times article, we read that Phyllis Schlafly opposed renewal of the Patriot Act. This was 2005, which was well into George W. Bush’s Presidency. Even after a polarizing 2004 election that pitted left against right, Phyllis Schlafly criticized a salient aspect of President George W. Bush’s agenda.
Whether the Patriot Act was a good idea or not, I do not know. There is a part of me that believes that wiretapping may be necessary for national security, and that those who are innocent need not fear their phone calls being overheard. (Michael Moore would disagree!) Still, I have to respect conservatives who go against other conservatives by questioning the national security state. They follow their heart and stand for what they think is right, rather than being caught up in fear and hysteria. On the Patriot Act, at least, Phyllis Schlafly was such a conservative.
UPDATE: In this April 8, 2003 interview, Phyllis Schlafly said the following about the Patriot Act: “I think there are problems with it, but nobody really knows how it’s playing out. I do think the government should go after these potential terrorists. There are 70,000 people–aliens who have been ordered deported who the government can’t find–I think they ought to go out and find them. But again, the real problem is at the border. Unless the government takes steps to keep out people who hate us, we’re in real trouble. Under the Ted Kennedy visa lottery, 50,000 people from nonwestern countries are let into this country every year. This includes all the countries that sponsor terrorism.”