Fun Lessons in Serious Conservatism • The American Spectator

Heather R. Higgins

Adapted from a speech delivered at The American Spectator’s Robert L. Bartley Gala last week in Washington.

When Bob Tyrrell called to ask if I’d accept the first “John Von Kannon Lifetime Service to the Movement” Award, my first thought that I was was deeply honored. 

My second thought was — am I old enough for one of those? 

But then again I think I look pretty good for a 98-year-old woman. 

This award was named after the late John Von Kannon. John was what we used to call a rainmaker, although we don’t use that term anymore because it sounds like it might have something to do with climate change.

But John was more than that — John was truly loved by everyone who knew him — a wonderful human being. Indeed last year, even though he was sick, he had many conversations, filled with advice, encouragement, and great jokes, with our mutual friend, Joanne Beyer, who also had been diagnosed with lung cancer. 

John had those conversations until he just couldn’t any more. But Joanne is here with us tonight, and as John loved wonderful news, it seems only fitting to tell you that John’s jokes worked, and Joanne just found out that she is cancer-free.

John was known for his great wit. For the Sign of Peace during Mass John would turn to the person next to him and instead of saying, “Peace be with you” he would say, “Peace through strength.” 

John voted for Marion Barry, saying, “If you can’t have good government, at least have entertaining government.” Gee, I wonder which Republican candidate John would have been supporting this year?

I was going to devote the remainder of my remarks to gender-based pay inequality, but then I remembered that there’s no such thing. 

Instead, I’d like to share with you four principles which have informed and guided my work for the conservative cause, and tell you about them as John might have.

So let me tell you our first story:

Guy calls a company and orders their 5-day, 10-pound weight loss program. The next day, there’s a knock on the door and there stands before him a voluptuous, athletic, 19-year-old babe dressed in nothing but a pair of Nike running shoes and a sign around her neck.

She introduces herself as a representative of the weight loss company. The sign reads, “If you can catch me, you can have me.”

Without a second thought, he takes off after her. A few miles later huffing and puffing, he finally gives up.

The same girl shows up for the next four days and the same thing happens. On the fifth day, he weighs himself and is delighted to find he has lost 10 pounds as promised.

He calls the company and orders their 5-day/20-pound program.

The next day there’s a knock at the door and there stands the most stunning, beautiful, sexy woman he has ever seen in his life. She is wearing nothing but Reebok running shoes and a sign around her neck that reads, “If you catch me you can have me.”

Well, he’s out the door after her like a shot. This girl is in excellent shape and he does his best, but no such Luck. So for the next four days, the same routine happens with him gradually getting in better and better shape.

Much to his delight on the fifth day when he weighs himself, he discovers that he has lost another 20 pounds. As promised. He decides to go for broke and calls the company to order the 7-day/50 pound program.

“Are you sure?” asks the representative on the phone. “This is our most rigorous program.”

“Absolutely,” he replies, “I haven’t felt this good in years.”

The next day there’s a knock at the door; and when he opens it he finds a huge muscular guy standing there wearing nothing but pink running shoes and a sign around his neck that reads, “If I catch you, your ass is mine.”

He lost 63 pounds that week.

Our dieter learned our Lesson #1 the hard way: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

This is especially true of the last several years of fights over strategy, over being pure versus actually accomplishing small but real and directionally right wins.

And it’s true now too when you read opeds claiming that Rubio actually has an individual mandate in this health care plan: a claim that requires you to also believe that all tax credits — child, education, mortgage home deduction, savings — are government coercion and the same as a mandate.

The point is to keep your eye on the larger long-term fight, and win where and when we can, and then do it again.

As Ronald Reagan once said, “The person who agrees with you 80% of the time is a friend and an ally, not a 20% traitor.” This concludes the math portion of tonight’s presentation.

Now for our second story:

A toothpaste factory had a problem: they sometimes shipped empty boxes, without the tube inside.

Small variations in the environment mean you must have quality assurance checks smartly distributed across the line so that customers all the way down to the supermarket don’t get annoyed and buy another product instead.

Understanding how important that was, the CEO of the toothpaste factory decided to start a new project to solve their empty boxes problem.

They spent a lot of money on consultants and engineers, and finally solved the problem by using high-tech precision scales that would sound a bell and flash lights whenever a toothpaste box would weigh less than it should. The line would stop, and someone had to walk over and yank the defective box out of it, pressing another button when done to re-start the line.

A while later, the CEO decides to have a look at the ROI of the project: amazing results! No empty boxes ever shipped out of the factory after the scales were put in place. Very few customer complaints, and they were gaining market share. “That’s some money well spent!” — he says, before looking closely at the other statistics in the report.

 It turns out, the number of defects picked up by the scales was 0 after three weeks of production use. It should’ve been picking up at least a dozen a day, so maybe there was something wrong with the report, or the scales — but both checked out.

Puzzled, the CEO travels down to the factory, and walked up to the place where the precision scales were installed.

A few feet before the scale, there was a $20 desk fan, blowing the empty boxes off the belt and into a bin. The CEO asks where the fan came from.

“Oh, that,” says one of the workers, “one of the guys put it there ’cause he was tired of walking over every time the bell rang.”

So here we have what I think of as the lesson of the book The Ugly American.

The point of The Ugly American, if you haven’t read it, is ourLesson #2 — that if you’re trying to change the world for the better, focus on modest, discrete, realistic projects that stand a good chance of having a real impact. The truth is, grand, expensive, overly-ambitious projects designed to fix everything and make everybody happy forever… hardly ever work. But enough about Obamacare. 

Which brings us to our third story:

Mildred, the church gossip, and self-appointed monitor of the church’s morals, kept sticking her nose into other people’s business. Several members did not approve of her behavior, but feared her enough to maintain their silence. She made a mistake, however, when she accused George, a new member, of being an alcoholic after she saw his old pickup parked in front of the town’s only bar one afternoon. She emphatically told George and several others that everyone seeing it there would know what he was doing. George, a man of few words, stared at her for a moment and just turned and walked away. He didn’t explain, defend, or deny. He said nothing.

Later that evening, though, George quietly parked his pickup in front of Mildred’s house… walked home… and left it there all night.

George was a practitioner of the third lesson: Find the thing that isn’t being done, that’s hard to do, that needs to be done, think outside the box, and fix it.

People doing that is how we got conservative talk radio. And Fox News. And Uber. And, with apologies to Al Gore, the Internet. And sprinkles on our ice cream. Presenting fresh ideas in innovative ways should be the essence of what we do. 

People should look at our ideas the way they look at their new Smartphones and say, “How did we ever get along without this?”

One final story:

An old man lived alone in the country. He wanted to dig his tomato garden, but it was very hard work as the ground was hard. His only son, who used to help him, was in prison. The old man wrote a letter to his son and described his predicament.

Dear Vincenzo,

I am feeling pretty bad because it looks like I won’t be able to plant my tomato garden this year. I’m just getting too old to be digging up a garden plot. If you were here my troubles would be over. I know you would dig the plot for me.

Love, Pop

A few days later he received a letter from his son.

Dear Pop,

Not for nothing, but don’t dig up that garden. That’s where I buried the BODIES

Love, Vinnie

At 4 a.m. the next morning, FBI agents and local police arrived and dug up the entire area without finding any bodies. They apologized to the old man and left. That same day the old man received another letter from his son.

Dear Pop,

Go ahead and plant the tomatoes now. That’s the best I could do under the circumstances.

Love, Vinnie

So Lesson #4, to quote Reagan again, is that there’s almost nothing you can’t accomplish so long as you don’t care who gets credit for it. 

I’d go even further — and this is kind of ironic, considering where I’m standing right now and why — if your goal is impact, there is much to be said for being an anonymous part of a cause that’s greater than any one of us. 

A visit to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier would not be nearly as moving if it was known as The Tomb of Freddie Wilson from Cleveland. It’s lovely to be recognized for a job well done — believe me — but unlike our friends in Hollywood that’s not why we’re here. At the end of the day none of us is indispensable, and by the grace of God this wonderful cause we’ve devoted our lives to will outlive every one of us.

Thank you so much for this great honor, and I wish you a wonderful evening.

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