Right and Writer

REVIEW: 'M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom'

'M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom' by Steven F. Hayward / Encounter Books
May 1, 2022

Steven F. Hayward has published a biography of M. Stanton Evans, a major figure in American conservatism. He was a thinker, a writer, an educator, an activist, and, not least, a journalist. In an age of liberal dominance, he was a media critic who did not lack for targets. Today, with the passage of generations, he is not very well known. With M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom, Hayward hopes to change that. It is an excellent book, full of information and compelling analysis, well written, too.

Born in 1934 in Kingsville, Texas, Evans was named for his father, Medford Bryan Evans, a Texan, and his mother, Josephine Stanton, who was from Mississippi. Medford taught English literature at the Texas College of Arts and Industry (now Texas A&M), and Josephine taught the classics in public schools where opportunities to do so availed. It would be an understatement to say Stan had an academically strong set of parents.

Soon after Stan was born, Medford took a job teaching English at the University of Tennessee, his alma mater. He taught for eight years there and then two more at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. Medford made a career change, taking a position in atomic energy—an eventual interest of Stan's—and relocating to the Washington area. Stan spent his middle and high school years in suburban Maryland.

Recalling those days in a New York Times interview shortly before his passing in 2015, Evans said he first became a conservative when he read, as a high school student in 1949, George Orwell's 1984. "It was about communism," said Evans. "Well, I'm against communism. What am I for?"

Yale University was next for Stan, who enrolled in the fall of 1951. The school proved a keen disappointment, just as it had for William F. Buckley Jr., who preceded him at Yale and in 1952 published his best-selling God and Man at Yale, which argued that the university wasn't living up to its reputation for true openness to all points of view. Stan thought the book expressed precisely what he was thinking about Yale—that not many professors seemed to believe in God but that plenty of professors seemed attracted to socialism (hence the book's title).

This—the Yale of the early 1950s—was a world, Evans wrote some years later, "in which a student of conservative inclination found himself badly in need of help, counsel, and information." Evans "followed in Buckley's footsteps and built out a self-conscious conservative presence on campus," writes Hayward. He became the "movement organizer," and his work carried him beyond Yale to other schools.

At Yale, Evans came across a periodical edited by Frank Chodorov, a graduate of Columbia University. The Freeman was its name, and staffers included conservatives. Evans was 22 when Chodorov hired him as an assistant editor. Stan moved to New York, where The Freeman was edited.

Chodorov proved a strong influence. "He was so generous to me," Stan later recalled. "He was a great editor. I was just out of college, and like most graduates thought I was a pretty good writer." Chodorov provided "tough tutorials"—teaching, for example, the difference between a senior thesis for a college class and a reported news story for a newspaper. Stan wrote three non-bylined articles for The Freeman before his name first appeared on a story. In those early years as a journalist, he also contributed pieces to National Review and then Human Events. In 1961, he was hired by the Indianapolis News as its editor, a position responsible for the paper's news and editorial pages both, a big job.

Eugene C. Pulliam, owner of the News, the largest paper in the state and one of the biggest of the few conservative papers in the country, had been looking to fill the position since 1948, when he bought the paper. Evans spent 16 years in the job, from 1961 to 1977. There, in addition to running the News, he took on other jobs, writing a column for the Los Angeles Times Syndicate and providing commentary for CBS Television, National Public Radio, Spectrum ( the CBS network radio show), and Voice of America.

Evans's many years in journalism sharpened his understanding and practice of it. And for him, the distinction between bias and objectivity was critical. Thus, for Evans, having "a point of view is fine so long as the reporting is based on an objective and honest account of the facts." This distinction needs to be borne in mind especially by opinion journalists, which Evans counted himself as. "You can tell how good a reporter any columnist is when you read the column not so much to get the columnist’s opinion, but because you know you'll learn something you did not know."

"From Journalist to Activist" is a chapter in the book that introduces a new direction for Evans. "By degrees," Hayward explains, "Evans was branching out beyond journalism." He started giving speeches on campus to conservative groups. A theme took shape in his mind that led to his first book, Revolt on the Campus, says Hayward. Published in 1961, the book predicted that the then-rising generation of students would move to the right in the coming years. That seemed unlikely at the time, as it was the left on campus that seemed on the rise. Evans further developed his thinking on this matter in his 1995 book, The Theme is Freedom. On this Hayward observes, "The populist movement behind Barry Goldwater's ascent in the late 1950s that culminated in his nomination in 1964 was primarily a youth movement anchored in campus activism."

In September 1960, Evans was among the 90 conservative activists who assembled at Bill Buckley's estate at Great Elm in Sharon, Connecticut, to create a permanent organization of conservative students. Evans wrote the founding document for the Young Americans for Freedom. It was known as the Sharon Statement, and it was "an important turn in the conservative movement," Hayward writes, "from ideas to political action." Evans had gone, in other words, "From Journalist to Activist."

So it was that during the 1960s and '70s, and continuing into the 1980s, Evans worked one side or other, or both sides, of the dichotomy. Evans served as chairman of the Education and Research Institute and of the American Conservative Union, where he was also on the board of directors. He served as a member of the Young Americans for Freedom National Advisory Board and on the Council for National Policy. He was a president of the Philadelphia Society and a trustee of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. And Evans founded the National Journalism Center (in 1977), whose mission remains still today: teaching journalism to college students. Also, in 1980, he began a run of three decades teaching in a new journalism school at Troy University in Alabama. He was also a publisher of Consumers' Research magazine, where he introduced a disposition favorable to free enterprise and skeptical of government regulation. (Robert Bork would have been proud.)

Amid all of this he wrote eight books, including two in which he defended Senator Joseph McCarthy who charged that Soviet spies and communist sympathizers had infiltrated the government, universities, and Hollywood. Evans proved unable to turn public opinion against McCarthy and his enemies. His other books include The Future of Conservatism.

You'll notice that the subtitle of M. Stanton Evans is "Conservative Wit, Apostle of Liberty." The two descriptors are well chosen. The Oxford American Dictionary's first definition of wit is "the ability to combine words or ideas etc. ingeniously so as to produce a kind of clever humor that appeals to the intellect." Evans had that ability, and it produced the combinations of words and ideas sufficient for conservative wit. Hayward usefully includes throughout the biography instances of his wit. Like this:

"The problem with pragmatism is that it doesn't work."

As for "Apostle of Liberty," Evans strongly believed that liberty was at the heart of the American experiment. Pursuing it is what apostles (in the secular context of politics) do. Steven Hayward's new book is a reminder of how much work there is to be done.

M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom
By Steven F. Hayward
Encounter Books, 400 pp., $33.99

Terry Eastland was publisher of the Weekly Standard and author of Ending Affirmative Action: The Case for Colorblind Justice.