History is often measured and analyzed by weighing the views of the most famous players, be they good or evil. But what happens to those who made great contributions to the order of things, yet are rarely mentioned or even worse, wholly forgotten? In his book, M. Stanton Evans: Conservative Wit, Apostle of Freedom, scholar and author Steven F. Hayward offers a deep look into one of foundational figures in the modern American conservative movement, Stan Evans. Hayward’s portrait reveals a deep thinker, an excellent journalist, a funny man, and most of all, a good man in every aspect of his life, who never took an easy way out. Instead, he knew the importance of real and difficult work of defending and protecting the culture of life.
Born on July 20, 1934 in Kingsville, Texas, Evans grew up surrounded by books and the life of the mind. His father, Medford, held a doctorate in literature from Yale, and had joined the masthead of William F. Buckley, Jr.’s National Review. It was not a surprise that Stan chose a similar path as his father, whom he respected. Evans also went to Yale and drew similar conclusions about the state of higher education as Buckley, who explored those in his 1951 book, God and Man at Yale. As Hayward writes, “Stan followed in Buckley’s footsteps and built out a self-conscious conservative presence on campus. Buckley was a frequent visitor to the Yale campus in the aftermath of his book and met frequently with Evans and the handful of other conservative Yale students.”
But Evans was also quite different from Buckley. His writing style was more straightforward and “workmanlike” and it rarely “included a hint of his sardonic wit.” He didn’t mind Bach but he loved Elvis Presley. He pronounced Chablis as “sha-bliss” and the “t” in gourmet was never silent when Evans said it. He liked a good steak and red Jell-O. Evans definitely inhabited a different world than Buckley, who was known for his skiing trips to Gstaad and frequent hobnobbing with celebrities. This is not to take away from Buckley’s love of high culture, with all its charms and elegance. Nor does this mean that Evans was a snob in reverse. Such aspects of personalities and interests, ultimately, were merely a matter of aesthetics for both men. What actually mattered in the end and made them tick was both Buckley’s and Evans’ insistence on defending the order of things and principles of conservatism.
“I think my philosophy is pretty close to the farmer in Seymour, Indiana,” Evans said in an interview for Time magazine. “He believes in God. He believes in the U.S. He believes in himself. The intuitive position is much closer to wisdom than the tortured theorems of some of our Harvard dons.” Evans and Buckley may have had different views of aesthetics, but this statement certainly aligns closely to Buckley’s own anti-elitist view.
Evans had “wit and personal warmth,” Hayward writes, but this is not at the center of what makes him an important and fascinating figure. According to Hayward, Evans “was the perfect conservative.” Hayward acknowledges that’s a “bold” statement, but explains “the fact that [Evans] combined four distinct aspects of professional life in a way seldom found in any other modern conservative thinker.” Evans wasn’t just a writer. For him, the fight for America was radical in nature, perhaps even in some ways, progressive.
Evans’ combination of excellent journalism, political activism, superb intellectual thought, and prescient awareness of the “extraconstitutional nature of the administrative state” is what made him “perfect.” Evans inextricably connected almost every aspect of his life, and the public sphere for him had many layers. He was not only a man of thought, but also a man of action. This is usually a rare combination for a conservative since conservatism in general is geared more towards vita contemplativa. Progress and action are more familiar aspects of the Left, which is why conservatives’ fights tend to be more reaction rather than action based. But Evans appears to have changed that, or at the very least, challenged the very notion that conservatives are not action-oriented people.
He was first and foremost an American, and deeply concerned himself with regional problems. He didn’t like “the increasing liberal fixation with distant problems whose dimensions always require the expansion of government power now.” For the most part, the leftist establishment doesn’t really care about what ails people overseas. It’s a pretense because nobody wants to deal with the problems in their own neck of the woods. Because of this, Evans knew that relativism must be rejected, and that freedom in America must be protected. Along with Buckley, he was one of the founders of the Young Americans for Freedom, and crafted the famous “Sharon Statement” that expressed “12 principles” of what it means to be a conservative.
When many conservatives were accepting the “facts” of the Soviet Union’s nuclear and war powers, Evans was skeptical. He thought, at times, that too much power was attributed to the USSR and gently criticized conservatives for not exhibiting any skepticism about the Soviet Union, and for accepting everything reported about them at face value. This is not to say that Evans minimized the totalitarian reality of communism. On the contrary, he offered a reasonable and logical approach to dismantling the enemy. What he rejected was the paralysis born of fear.
One of the important aspects that Hayward emphasizes in his book is Evans’ journalistic integrity. He was an authentic thinker, and found the profession of journalism to be filled with frauds. He accepted the fact that there will always be a bias, be it conservative or liberal, but what bothered him more than that was journalists covering issues who never actually tried to understand the subjects they were writing about. He particularly criticized Geraldo Rivera for this kind of “celebrity journalism,” which Evans called “ventriloquist journalism.” Hayward notes that “this phrase describes the supposedly objective reporters who call up sources looking for a comment that fits the narrative story line or conclusion the reporter has already decided upon.” Clearly, nothing has changed.
Hayward’s impressive and wonderful treatment of Evans’ life is not merely a much-needed recognition of Evans’ role in the conservative movement. It is also a reminder of what path we may take now as events around us unravel at an increasing speed. It’s not only Evans’ personality that comes to life through Hayward’s interesting and enjoyable prose, but also the meaning of conservatism and its place in the American story.
Hayward points to an unusual and beautiful aspect of Evans’ life, namely his joy. “Beneath his legendary humor, impressive erudition, and controlled prose,” writes Hayward, “there was an intensity behind his grasp of the crisis of our age . . . Evans never exhibited a countenance of pessimism, despair, or sadness, even though he often thought the nation’s leadership was taking us to the brink of ruin. He was a happy warrior par excellence.”
How wonderful it is to read such words in a time when almost everyone appears to be paralyzed by fear and anxiety. Hayward fundamentally understands Evans’ metaphysical makeup. The fight for the order of things will not go far unless we accept both our finitude and develop a propensity for joy. It’s what makes us human, and Stan Evans clearly understood this.