Reinventing Conservatism: 2 unheralded heroes deserve recognition

When Western communist sympathizer Lincoln Steffens returned from the Soviet Union in 1921, he infamously proclaimed, “I have seen the future – and it works.”

History has shown repeatedly how wrong he was, then and now. A life of compulsion and enslavement was not the future for mankind, and whether one arrives at this truth that freedom is man’s eventual destiny via faith, reason or innately, the lesson must be repeatedly commemorated so as never to be forgotten by future generations.

Each spring in Washington, two important events now take place, both of which celebrate the freedom of all peoples and the sacrifices made in the name of human freedom. These events have become the Alpha and Omega of world history, as one is manifested in the annual dedication and rededication of the Victims of Communism Memorial, while the other is an annual celebration of freedom, as demonstrated in the Memorial Day Parade, and the heroism of successive generations of Americans.

One hails the end of the human bondage of the Evil Empire, while the other champions the birth and rebirth of human liberty, as achieved by the men and women of our armed forces.

Jim Roberts and Lee Edwards are not commonly known outside the conservative movement. They should be. They are the authors, the inspiration and the reason both events take place each spring. And for all their years of toil and sweat and pushing and cajoling and organizing and fighting the headwinds of bureaucracies and indifference, neither man has ever taken a dime for his great work.

Mr. Edwards is, in many ways, the official chronicler of the rise of conservatism in America, having written a number of well-received books about Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan, as well as his newly released “William F. Buckley Jr.: The Making of a Movement.” For years, Mr. Edwards has been a popular professor and lecturer at Catholic University of America, inspiring young Americans to reject the dogmas of the liberal academies and to seek the truth on their own.

Some years ago and just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Mr. Edwards was having breakfast with his wife, Anne, when he lamented that the earth-shattering significance of this event and the larger meaning it represented should not be forgotten. Anne told him, “What we need is a memorial to the victims of communism.” Mr. Edwards promptly wrote her idea on a napkin – many of the great ideas of conservatism started on a paper napkin – and by the next day, set about to do just that.

It wasn’t easy. In fact, it took 17 years, from the day of Mrs. Edwards’ inspiration, until the day in 2007, when President George W. Bush, along with hundreds of dignitaries and former victims of communism, gathered at an understated, yet inspiring statue on Capitol Hill to commemorate the death of Soviet communism and the victory of the West – especially America – over Moscow. It took the help of President Clinton and the then-Democratic leaders of the Congress, House Speaker Tom Foley and Sen. Robert C. Byrd, to help Mr. Edwards begin the process of getting official government recognition. The annual award, named after Presidents Truman and Reagan, has been presented in a bipartisan way to anti-communists of both political parties.

The efforts of Mr. Roberts were no less intensive or frustrating. A Navy vet, he formed years ago Radio America, taping conservative shows and interviews and shipping them out to interested stations, long before the advent of “talk radio” as a widespread medium for right-of-center opinions. A Reagan man from the early days, Mr. Roberts also wrote books, but most of his work for the movement manifested itself in action, as an official with the American Conservative Union training activists, in Mr. Reagan’s campaigns and in the Gipper’s administration.

Nearly 20 years ago, Mr. Roberts began taping and producing shows, in conjunction with the National Archives, commemorating the heroism of U.S. veterans of the Second World War. This evolved over time to include essay contests, scholarships and oral histories, and then, in 2004, in conjunction with the unveiling of the World War II Memorial, Mr. Roberts produced a small parade to salute the GIs of that conflict. Then-Mayor Anthony A. Williams – whose father was a WWII vet – was so impressed, he told Mr. Roberts he should expand it and organize an annual Memorial Day Parade, only for all vets of all American wars.

Mr. Roberts did some research and discovered that Washington once had such an annual event, but was ironically canceled beginning in 1942 and was never restarted after the fall of Germany and Japan.

The first year, an estimated 5,000 people came out to see the parade. The next year, 50,000 came. In 2006, the venue was moved from Independence Avenue to Constitution Avenue, and 250,000 lined the streets. This past Memorial Day, Mr. Roberts estimated the crowd at more than 300,000 people. Actor Gary Sinise has become the event’s annual grand marshal, along with fellow actor Joe Mantegna. Over the years, celebrities including Miss America, Ernest Borgnine, Bob Feller and Pat Boone, along with high school bands from across the nation and impressive floats have all taken part in the proceedings. Jim Roberts built it. And now they come.

The Roberts-Edwards contributions have helped redress history and with this, joy, pride, happiness and honor for many, in each of their good works. It is significant that both men in their biographies mention their faiths and their spouses, Anne Edwards and Patti Roberts.

Volunteerism means giving time for charity, education or anything else worthwhile. Winston Churchill said that mankind cannot simply be measured by material computations. With nothing going into their pockets and with too little credit for themselves, these two conservatives – Lee Edwards and Jim Roberts – embody the best of both definitions.

* Craig Shirley authored two books on Ronald Reagan.

LOAD-DATE: June 15, 2010



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