Politics is all about polarities. Republican vs. Democrat, conservative vs. liberal, right vs. left, hard thinking vs. soft thinking. The labels are pervasive, but the ground frequently shifts, requiring a new prefix to freshen up the label.
The word neocon, for example (short for neoconservative), was born of such a shifting of the ground. Coined in the 1970s, the label stuck to Democrats who had watched the Scoop Jackson anti-Communist wing of the Democratic party evaporate before their very eyes. They saw the War on Poverty become a losing battle. On the domestic front, they observed the death of morality as it had been defined for thousands of years in the Judeo-Christian tradition. These Democrats finally concluded that liberalism, as they had known it, was dead.
Irving Kristol, father of the neocons, defined his band of brothers and sisters as "liberals mugged by reality." That reality was the "evil empire" as defined by Ronald Reagan, the leader they championed. The reality extended to a concern for crime and education and what came to be called "family values." A subdivision of the neocons, the "cultural conservatives," were wryly defined as liberals with daughters in junior high.
Jews were prominently identified with the neocons, largely because Norman Podhoretz, editor of Commentary magazine, made the magazine a sounding board for neocon criticism. But Jeanne Kirkpatrick, a Baptist, and William Bennett, a Roman Catholic, were prominent neocon voices from the beginning. So were other Christians. "What are we," they might ask, "chopped liver?"
The Jewish neocons understood what the majority of Jews who vote Democratic didn't - that Jews and Evangelical Christians held many things in common, among them an admiration and affection for Israel.
Such definitions and ideological attitudes are amply documented in the political history of the second half of the 20th century, but the neocon label resurfaces today as many journalists and pundits identify the neocons as a new generation driving the foreign policy of George W. Bush.
It's a label that doesn't quite fit, since those credited with influence are hardly "neo" anything. For the most part, the label is attributed to second-generation conservatives. Some are sons of the Scoop Jackson Democrats whose fathers have the last name of Podhoretz and Kristol, but the label as accurately understood has a much more inclusive intellectual base, including, for example, Vice President Dick Cheney; his wife, Lynne; Condoleezza Rice; Don Rumsfeld; and Paul Wolfowitz, the hugely influential deputy defense secretary.
The term, however, is disingenuously bandied about at dinner tables and policy meetings in London and Paris and elsewhere, where it is colorfully coded to suggest a Jewish conspiracy working on the White House.
A member of the French parliament, quoting Dominique de Villepin, the French defense minister, scoffed that "the hawks in the U.S. administration (are) in the hands of ([Ariel) Sharon." This is a not-so-sly reference to the conservative Jews who are credited with converting the president to a sympathetic regard for Israel. Of course, those who cite a conspiracy or cabal continue to see the president as a dunce, whose tabula rasa is filled in by manipulative Jewish advisers.
Closer to home, the New York Observer, in a front page story under the headline "Neo-York, Neo-York," says the "neoconservative network is riding high." This requires stretching the definition beyond recognition, citing Rupert Murdoch, the publisher of the New York Post, the Weekly Standard and the Fox News Network.
"I have been amazed by the label of conspiracy-mongering around neocons," David Brooks, an editor at the Weekly Standard tells the Observer. "I get it every day - the 'evil Jewish conspiracy.' The only distinction between 'neoconservative' and 'conservative' this way is circumcision. We actually started to call it the Axis of Circumcision."
Jay Nordlinger, an editor of the National Review, says the misuse of the term "neoconservative" as applied to him comes from reporters who are liberal, apolitical or stupidly political, "who know nothing about conservatism." He prefers the term "Reaganite."
Like Ronald Reagan, those who are called neocons today see the United States as a force for good against evil and they're not afraid to speak in such terms. George W. Bush began to express that kind of thinking after Sept. 11, when everything changed.
"Evil still stalks the planet," Ronald Reagan told the Oxford Union Society in 1992. "Its ideology may be nothing more than bloodlust; no program more complex than economic plunder or military aggrandizement. But it is evil all the same. And wherever there are forces that would destroy the human spirit and diminish human potential, they must be recognized and they must be countered."
That sounds a lot like a lot of conservatives, neo- or not.